Deadly Games!

Evil gangster lizard Zabra is making a killing from Cybertron’s gladiatorial games and pits Ultra Magnus against a hideous four-armed brute named Hooligan…

Transformers #170 was the issue that I feared I might never get. It was June 1988 and I’d been religiously collecting the comic every week for three years. My routine was to get up early on a Friday and be at the newsagent for when it opened at 7am and then I’d read my weekly instalment of Transformers from cover to cover before school. This time though something had gone wrong, there was no comic on Friday, nor the weekend and not even Monday.

Cue a minor panic. Had the comic been cancelled? Surely not, it was Marvel UK’s flagship title. However, I still remembered the fate of ‘Scream!’, an early 80s horror comic which I’d collected and loved, vanished without warning. Interestingly our very own Simon Furman had cut his teeth as a comics writer on that title.

Finally, on Tuesday the comic showed up. What a relief! It was four days late and with a 3p price rise to rub it in, but at least normal service had resumed. The editorial (Transformations), to its credit, immediately acknowledged the rise rather than hoping kids wouldn’t notice, and blamed it on rising production costs, which Marvel had held off from passing on for as long as possible.

Later in the year we’d see the paper quality dive and after that the return of black and white pages, although it would be the reprints that were the final straw for me and when I switched from the UK comic over to the monthly US title. More than to come.

Back to TFUK#170 though, we’ve a a delightful cover from Jeff Anderson which I really admire, depicting the reptilian Zabra with a huge knife and catching the horrified reflections of Ultra Magnus and the Sparklers in the weapon’s reflection. It’s such a great idea and allows us to see the main villain and the reaction of the heroes in one striking image. In fact, Deadly Games was to be the swansong of Magnus and the Sparklers. They’d had a good run together since Salvage, but all good things come to an end.

There’s a mention of a new Marvel UK title Dragon’s Teeth, from Furman and Senior (more on that later) before readers and dropped straight into a Roman-style arena and fight to the death between a multi-armed gladiator called Hooligan, and an Autobot extra named Chameleon (no surprises about how that is going to end up).

Simon Furman provides the story and to Dan Reed’s art, tipping their hats to the 1986 Annual story State Games (which established that gladiatorial combat had been a thing in Cybertron’s history and Megatron had risen to prominence and celebrity through this route) and after centuries of closure the Jekka amphitheatre is now back in service as a place where Autobots and other unfortunates meet their brutal end for the entertainment of a motley array of alien spectators.

Hooligan ‘from the planet Mil-Wal’ (a reference to Millwall FC which had a poor rep for football hooliganism at the time) wields a powerful mace and is also pretty deft with his fists. Chameleon is hopelessly outmatched but what he does have is an ability to blend into his surroundings, effectively turning invisible. This works against the lumbering Hooligan, until finally he twigs that he needs to switch to infrared where his quarry is quickly located and dismembered.

As an aside, we learn that Transformers can still transform with a limb missing but it is painful process.

The following day, Magnus and the Sparkabots are poking around and conducting an unauthorised investigation. We learn that Chameleon had been looking into rumours of a deal between the Decepticons and an alien when he met his end. However, the Wreckers are preparing to travel to Earth to confront Galvatron just as soon a dimensional portal is in alignment, and the orders are to stay put. Instead, Magnus feels that Chameleon’s demise deserves some of their time and they sneak out.

They are about to head back when Sizzle suggests they check out the abandoned Jekka Amphitheatre. Among the pile of bodies and severed limbs they find Chameleon’s missing arm, but before they can report back, they are confronted by the Firecons Flamefeather, Sparkstalker and Cindersaur, who are keen for a rematch (see Enemy Action for details). Magnus tries to help but is rendered unconscious by an attack from the scorpion tail of Zabra, the alien controller of the games. Is Zabra is organic? If so it’s hard to believe he could take down the Autobots’ greatest warrior unless he’s a cyborg of some sort.

The first half ends with Zabra announcing that Magnus will be the star attraction at the next games… setting up the exciting prospect of a showdown with Hooligan. Hurrah!

In addition to the always fun Grim Grams letters page, Furman and Lee Sullivan have produced a tightly written one-page story with Magnus fighting-while-narrating and setting the scene for the Transformers UK storyline (civil war on Earth and Cybertron and in the future) and declaring, “Only a miracle can save us,” cue an inset picture of Powermaster Optimus Prime… our first glimpse of the new incarnation of the Autobots’ greatest leader. So far so amazing! Marvel must have felt that the return of Prime provided a ‘jumping on point’ for new readers and the ad will have been intended to be rolled out across Marvel’s various UK titles.

Issue #171 has cover art by Jerry Paris depicting a battered and bloodied (oiled) Magnus in the arena with a poster showing what he’s up against. I like it a lot.

The Transformation page majors on ‘Dragon’s Teeth’ a flagship title for Marvel UK’s American-format monthly titles. It was a dystopian sci-fi story set in 8162 where survivors from a violent team sport (The Game) are recruited to a law enforcement role. What’s interesting about this plug for the latest Furman-Senior spectacular is that the title was found to be already owned by an independent, so very soon after it was rebadged as ‘Dragon’s Claws’ which is arguably better. I never actually saw an issue of Dragon’s Teeth on sale, even though Transformation suggests here that issue #2 is in the shops.

Back to Transformers – the story opens with an array of weird and wonderful aliens flooding into the amphitheatre, including a slug alien with a Decepticon insignia (is he wearing it as a fan?) and gives Dan Reed an opportunity to let his imagination run wild. There’s a nice touch with the souvenir sellers doing a good line in offering up severed limbs and parts from the games’ losing contestants.

In the dungeons below the stadium, Magnus and the Sparkabots are visited by Zabra and his Firecon minders. A painful strike from the guard’s mace sets Magnus’ hands on fire and puts him in his place. Just in case he still refuses to fight, the bad guys threaten to execute his friends, so Magnus has little choice at this point.

On the way to the arena, he attempts an appeal to Zabra’s conscience and gets precisely nowhere. For this alien mercenary it’s all about the profits and pandering to base instincts of the audience is a price worth paying. Likewise, Magnus soon discovers, as he’s being roughed up by Hooligan, that this brute enjoys what he’s doing – he’s not the fellow victim of the games that Magnus first thought, which means Ultra Magnus doesn’t need to hold back.

Much of the issue flips between the arena battle and the Sparklers tricking their guard and affecting an escape. They face a choice about getting back to Autobase in time for the transport to Earth – to fill in for Magnus in the assault against Galvatron, which given their power compared to Ultra Magnus is pretty ludicrous – and in the end they stick around an come to their friends’ aid, by ambushing the Decepticon troops who were poised to open fire on Magnus.

Finally, with the Optimus-style soul searching and compassion parked, Magnus can show his potential as a warrior and give Hooligan a deserved pummelling. At one stage Magnus picks up his opponent’s mace, only to realise that to execute Hooligan would make him no better, so he casts it aside and gives a sermon to the crowds about the sanctity of life – before taking Zabra into custody. Nobody cares and as they walk away, a couple of the alien spectators are already talking about a great murder-pit to visit!

The story feels like a satirical comment on TV/movie violence and concerns that were regularly raised in the media at the time. ‘Where’s a policeman when you need one, to blame the colour TV?’ as a popular song from the era memorably said. Is it escapist fun or the root of societal ills? I think probably more the former than the latter as Transformers itself exemplifies. We love nothing more than a clash between great rivals but also identify with the good and evil archetypes.

In summary, it’s a reasonably enjoyable two-parter with nods to Transformers history and some nice creative art, rounding off a run of stories of Ultra Magnus and the Sparkabots and Magnus’ performance as a stand-in for Optimus Prime before the great leader returns.

Next story
Previous

Enemy Action

The Seacons make their UK debut in an underwater battle with Galvatron; while on land the Firecons and make things uncomfortably hot for the Sparkler Mini-bots!

One of Bob Budiansky’s major headaches as the writer of Marvel’s monthly Transformers comic in the US was the constant pressure to introduce new characters, to keep pace with Hasbro’s expanding toy range.

Bob came up with several inventive plot devices over the years, from the Creation Matrix to personality engrams in crystals used to create the new Autobots, before eventually settling on the Space Bridge as a handy device for introducing waves of new warriors from Cybertron.

As a fan I found it exciting when new Transformers appeared in the comics. It was fun to learn their bios, abilities, unique weaponry, and of course their mottos. So, Enemy Action, a UK story from February 1988, is a treat because it introduces no fewer than twelve new characters – that’s the six Seacons, three Firecons and three Sparkabots (for some reason the UK comic would refer to them as Sparkler mini-bots). In fact, it’s thirteen new characters if you include the Seacon combined form, Pirranacon.

This is time it is Simon Furman, not Budiansky, adding to the cast. Simon was not under a Hasbro mandate to do so, he did it for the sheer fun of it apparently and because he liked the idea of an underwater story. This was several months before these characters would appear in the American comic so once again Simon is stealing a march on the parent title as he had done by featuring the Transformers the Movie cast and the Predacons long before they appeared Stateside.

To ensure there’s no loss of momentum following the Legacy of Unicron epic, the comic is bringing back one of the most dangerous Decepticons (and most popular guest stars) the future leader, Galvatron.

We last saw Galvatron in Ladies’ Night, breaking free from his volcano tomb. Now he’s straight back to the forefront, striding along the seabed towards the present day Decepticons’ undersea base off the coast of Florida.

His approach has not gone unnoticed by Commander Shockwave who fears that Galvatron has come to take his crown (and with it everything he has worked so hard to accomplish). It’s easy to feel some sympathy for Shockwave at this point, after all it was only a few issues ago that we witnessed his brutal execution in the future at the hands of Death’s Head.

Shockwave is so jittery that he almost incinerates Soundwave for sneaking up on him, in a comical moment. Soundwave is the loyal deputy but also offers some wise advice: they could try speaking to Galvatron and perhaps coming to an agreement based on their mutual interests as Decepticons.

While Shockwave can see the logic of an alliance, his personal survival comes first. So he orders their untested new troops the Seacons – who were imported from Cybertron to work on the base’s fortifications rather than combat – to go toe to toe with Galvatron.

Soundwave’s disapproval is evident via a clenched fist and thought bubble “On your head be it”. Soundwave is no fan of Galvatron – he got buried alive by him in Target: 2006 for starters – and has led the Combaticons on the mission to finish off the future Decepticon when he was trapped in Mount Verona) but Soundwave has also made a career out of aligning himself with whoever rules. Galvatron would just be a continuation of that. Not so for Shockwave.

Lee Sullivan’s memorable ‘sea scrape’ cover provided the hint of the battle to come. Snaptrap, having received his orders, instructs the team to hit their opponent ‘hard and fast’ – no doubt this is the best way to compensate for the team’s lack of experience with their new Earth modes.

The five Seacons take turns to attack, giving readers a sense of each one, while Galvatron arrogantly dismisses them as nautical non-entities. His overconfidence is put into check briefly though by Seawing’s paralysing sting.

Readers with prior experience of Galvatron will not be surprised that the Seacons are, to pardon the pun, out of their depth against this opponent. Even in their combined form Pirranacon, they don’t fair much better.

A couple of nitpicks/observations. Overbite is named Jawbreaker in the story – it’s never made clear why the comic departed from the official toy name or whether this was done in error. Pirranacon’s name has two Rs, though the word piranha, which it is presumably derived from doesn’t. Also Jeff Anderson, the story’s artist, draws Pirrancon as pretty comparable in size to Galvatron. I think it would have been more dramatic for him to be much larger, similar to the Megatron versus Predaking contest in Budiansky’s 1987 classic Gone But Not Forgotten.

At this point Furman brings in the story’s other protagonists, starting with the Sparklers, Sizzle, Fizzle, and Guzzle. They were sent to Earth by the Wreckers leader Springer to keep tabs on Galvatron and have followed him to the beach. Since the trio have no undersea modes they are unable to follow any further.

It’s curious that Springer is preoccupied with Galvatron. You might think he has enough on his plate with trying to overthrow Decepticon rule on Cybertron without also picking a fight with the most powerful Decepticon on Earth. Then again, perhaps he knows of the Cybertron Decepticons’ plan to recruit Galvatron, or simply fears that Grimlock’s Earthbound Autobots have abdicated their responsibility.

As it turns out, the Sparklers are not destined to be mere bystanders after all… for they are suddenly confronted by the Firecons – Cindersaur, Sparkstalker, and Flamefeather! See below.

So, to part two and issue #153. The first thing you notice when picking up the issue is Snake Eyes and another Action Force guy (Flint?) bursting out of the cover as Sizzle, Fizzle and Guzzle look on in horror. I think the trio are meant to be recoiling from the sight of the Firecons but maybe the merger has got them spooked?

Transformations sells this as major win for fans of both comics – a two for the price of one. Soon enough AF it would settle into that traditional back-up strip role, but unlike previous back-ups its logo appears on the cover along side Transformers so this is a new development. Combat Colin has been annexed from the former AF comic, taking-up the regular cartoon spot vacated by Robo Capers and would go on to become a firm favourite of the readers.

Returning to the story, part two picks up with the Firecons, breathing fire in all directions like a pack of dragons post-feasting on hot chili peppers. We discover that they are here to secure Galvatron for their masters on Cybertron and any Autobots in their way are set to the feel the heat.

Fizzle is soon made to sizzle, courtesy of Cindersaur, and plunges into deep water to recover. Oddly, Fizzle is coloured red and Sizzle is blue, which is the opposite of their official toys. All three Sparkler mini-bots, while a likeable bunch, are rather homogenous and so maybe the production team had trouble telling them apart?

The unarmed Sparklers ‘remember’ that they can also discharge their own flame courtesy of their engines while in vehicle mode. Sizzle demonstrates this on Spark Stalker, which feels a bit contrived to show off the toy gimmick if I’m honest. While Guzzle sticks to the more convention tank mode gun barrel to take down Cindersaur.

Below depths, Galvatron finishes off Pirranacon with a well-placed blast, breaking him up into his component Seacons, before punching his way into the Decepticon base. With seawater flowing in behind him, he declares to Shockwave and the assembled warriors that he had come in peace seeking an alliance, but Shockwave’s hostile actions have made an enemy of him and when they next meet all Decepticons will pay. He then exits leaving Shockwave to fend off some very angry looks from his warriors.

So, clearly it was Galvatron’s plan all along to provoke Shockwave into attacking and creating an opportunity for Galvatron to drive a wedge between the Decepticon leader and his warriors. Pretty smart, but Galvatron is powerful enough to come in and take the leadership if he had wanted to. I think most Decepticons would have fallen into line out of fear or opportunism, I’m not sure the political machinations are that necessary.

On the other hand, surely Galvatron becoming leader in 1988 would have been a significant change to the timeline such that he might unravel the events that lead to his own creation by Unicron in 2006? If that’s on his mind he doesn’t voice it. This is unlike the Galvatron of Target: 2006 who clearly conscious of disrupting the timeline.

Enemy Action’s two plots neatly converge as Galvatron exits the ocean with the unconscious Fizzle in his clutches. Flamefeather rushes to his side and offers the alliance with the Decepticons of Cybertron “that we may crush their mutual enemies together” only for Galvatron to laugh and dismiss this. Having skilfully avoided one alliance he’s not about to fall into another. Sizzle offers token resistance and swiftly knocked aside by Galvatron like a troublesome bug.

In closing, Shockwave has been left in command and under no illusions that his days are numbered unless he does something radical. He needs an expendable agent with the raw power enough to take down Galvatron – his choice is an intriguing one… none other than Megatron, Galvatron’s past self. This thread plays out further in the upcoming story Salvage and then comes to a head in the 1988 Transformers Annual. Lots to look forward to then.

Next story
Previous