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.