Pretender to the Throne!

Optimus Prime returns from the dead as a video game character, just in time to witness the launch of a new breed of Transformer – the Pretenders…

The cover of Transformers US #40 featuring the new Pretenders

April 1988 saw Marvel UK going potty for the Pretenders. No, not the eighties rock band fronted by Chrissie Hynde, the Autobot and Decepticon Pretenders were Transformers hiding inside giant humanoid or monster-alien shells.

They were the latest bright idea from Hasbro as part of their perpetual quest to push new products and if it all sounds a bit far-out and wacky, well it was. We’d previously had concepts that pushed the envelope a bit like transforming heads and weapons here but the Headmasters and Targetmasters were at least recognisably Transformers. Pretenders were not, although I suppose that was the point.

The shells, though a chunk of plastic, were the main attraction and the robot inside – skinny and unimpressive with a poor transformation – seemed like an afterthought. I’d still take them over the Action Masters which came later, but that’s not saying much.

It wasn’t only the toys – the Pretenders were flawed as a concept too. I mean, a 30-foot human is not the most inconspicuous disguise, and if a gigantic monster came at you with a sword or gun, you’d probably open fire anyway regardless of whether you realised it was a Decepticon.

Despite these being one Hasbro idea that should never have got off the drawing board, the Transformers comic dutifully does its best to talk up the latest big event. By the time of issue 162’s release, we’d had a couple of weeks of build-up, and the hype was in full flow.

Jeff Anderson’s cover depicts Cloudburst, one of the new Autobots, and the character also adorns on a sticker badge ‘free gift’ that readers are encouraged to detach and “wear with pride.” This would be followed by a competition to win 50 of the new toys.

As you can tell, I was somewhat unimpressed by the Pretenders so you would imagine I refused to buy any of them, right? Err, well not exactly. I hate to admit it but being a Transformers superfan I shelled out for all the new releases, and in this case invested in Skullgrin who seemed the best of the bunch. The Decepticon Pretenders were visually much more interesting that the rather bland Autobots.

I think over time the Pretender toys got better, such as the Beasts and the Classics (I also owned a Pretender Bumblebee and Snarler) but this first wave was underwhelming. In the UK only six of the original twelve were released, and for once I was not envious of our American cousins.

So, what of the story Pretender to the Throne? The first thing to note is that there is no would-be king seeking a throne as the name suggests. The title has been chosen for no other reason than it’s a well-known phrase containing the word ‘Pretender’, so a bit more product emphasis (as I said Marvel was trying hard). Ironically, although this is their debut story, the Pretenders are pretty much incidental to the plot, which is about Optimus Prime returning from the dead as a computer game character. This is actually a saving grace for the story as it’s far more interesting.

It begins in a “reality different from our own” where Optimus is at his heroic best, leading a group of Mechabots into battle against the evil Bombasticons. With the inspiring leader of the Autobots at their side the battle is quickly won, and Prime stands victorious as ‘GAME OVER’ flashes across programmer Ethan Zachary’s screen. Long-term readers will remember Ethan as the guy who allowed Prime and Megatron to fight in his Multi-world simulation with tragic real-world consequences for the Autobot leader. At the conclusion of that 1987 story Afterdeath! we saw Ethan with a disc labelled ‘Optimus Prime’ which suggested he’d made a back-up of some sort and perhaps Prime’s death may be reversible.

Ethan is now a bigshot owner of his own games corporation and has even created an early precursor to the webcam – a camera peripheral that allows Optimus to see the real world outside cyberspace. He show’s Optimus the day’s paper and a photograph of Scorponok’s Decepticons seizing a genetics lab. Prime doesn’t recognise them, and questions Ethan on whether they are opponents in the next game.

There’s a fun scene where Ethan recovers an image of Buster Witwicky from Prime’s memories, then tracks down a number for Sparkplug only for Buster’s dad to slam the phone down (so angry is he with the Autobots for endangering his family) with Optimus remarking that some players are “sore losers,” which is hilarious and also incredibly apt for his current level of self-awareness.

On board the Autobot spacecraft ‘Steelhaven’, orbiting the Earth, we see that Goldbug has been gifted a new body, which is surely a relief for his many fans among the readership, after he was transplanted into a toy car and crushed by Ratbat. The Autobots are aware of the call from Ethan thanks to a listening device that Spike left at his father’s apartment previously (sneaky) and so it’s a good opportunity for Goldbug to hop on a shuttle to Earth and try out his new form while investigating.

He finds Ethan and asks if he is psychic, seeing as he “claims he can talk to the dead!” Moments later Goldbug is stunned to see Optimus Prime alive and well inside the computer intranet. If Prime could command the Autobots in battle again, Goldbug thinks it might snap him back to full consciousness. Instead, Ethan sends Prime through the grid to invade the Decepticon-ensnared genetics lab and spy on their enemies where, by coincidence, they are poised to initiate Scorponok’s latest mad-science experiment.

Positioned in front of Lord Zark and Vorath (heads of Scorponok and Mindwipe respectively) are six Decepticon volunteers stood within ‘synthoplasmic chambers’, which crackle into life and coat the warriors in synthetic flesh and tissue. The Decepticon Pretenders – Iguanus, Sub Marauder, Skull Grin, Bugly and Finback – are born, with virtual Optimus getting a ringside seat.

Prime is detected by Vorath (who refers to their ‘file wall’ being breached, most likely he means firewall, let’s not forget that in the late 80s this would not be a widespread term) and repelled with a data surge. Scorponok orders the intruder to be tracked down and eliminated, and Prime formulates an appropriate response to the threat – which is that the Autobots must create six characters of their own (how convenient).

Thus, ends the first instalment, which at 12 pages of story is one more than usual (all part of the Pretender giveaway fest we’re assured) and part two opens with Brainstorm having hastily reproduced Scorponok’s experiment and found six willing volunteers of their own – Landmine, Cloudburst, Waverider, and three that were not released as toys in the UK, Groundbreaker, Sky High and Splashdown. Readers are asked to believe that these six were always part of the Steelhaven crew, though we’ve never seen or heard from them before.

With a trap set for the Decepticons, Prime decides to he must bait it by travelling back into the Decepticon computer and luring them to Ethan’s lab. Goldbug is fearful that Prime could be terminated by a protection program but he is showing more courage and leadership than he has up to now, so they’ve got to see the plan through.

It’s fun to see Prime as a game character moving across cyberspace and an original idea with quite a lot of potential. The gaps in his memories also strengthens the idea that not all his original mind was able to be retained on the disk, which makes sense given that floppy disks in 1988 could store about 1MB of data and not even scrape the surface of a robot with millions of years of existence. That’s a hell of a Winzip.

Scorponok suspects that something strange is afoot and orders Vorath to input him into cyberspace, setting up the mouth-watering prospect of Prime versus the Decepticon Headmaster leader. It’s also nice to see RAAT forces surrounding the lab in a nice throwback to past stories, and even better to see them getting routed by the Decepticon Pretenders (at least RAAT were fooled that they weren’t robots).

The Decepticon Pretenders fly to Ethan’s lab where they spy six giant humans standing guard. This ought to set alarm bells ringing, considering that they are about five or six times the size of your average human, but Scorponok assures them (ridiculously) that it simply means their cowardice is greater! This gives the Autobot Pretenders the opportunity to ‘reveal and roll out’, separating from their shells and mentally controlling the shells to double their fighting force.

Optimus is able to watch the battle via a video link with Goldbug, which glitches for a short time leaving the Autobot Pretenders in disarray, but Prime saves the day by subjecting Scorponok to a data surge and defeating him and then commanding the Autobots to victory of the Decepticon Pretenders who retreat.

Ethan and Goldbug are delighted, and Optimus Prime believes he has discovered a renewed purpose as a warrior and a leader before asking, “when is the next game?” Oh dear.

This is to be Ethan’s final appearance in the comic, so we can assume that he hands over the disk of Optimus Prime to Goldbug. In closing, we get zero development from any of the new Pretender characters, but you imagine that Bob Budiansky has done just enough to get the suited Hasbro executive off his back for now. Unlike the Headmasters who seem to have made the comic their own, the Pretenders are quickly forgotten about, though unfortunately the concept is here to stay.

Next issue, from monsters to the undead, it’s one of my favourite 1988 stories and one that was made for Dan Reed’s art – the City of Fear.

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Desert Island of Space

Spike’s first mission as Fortress Maximus and Autobot leader may be his last as he gives way to emotion in a desperate bid to rescue his brother from Decepticon clutches…

Our second Transformers story of 1988 from the Marvel US team of Bob Budiansky, Jose Delbo and co and its one of my favourites.

After the hugely enjoyable Headmasters mini-series, which spanned 16 weeks of the Marvel UK comic in the back-up strip spot, readers were left thirsting for more of the adventures of this great new cast of Autobots, Decepticons and their Nebulan companions. In Trial by Fire the Headmasters returned, this time in the main story, and sadly it was to prove the final curtain for Galen Kord, a central figure in the Headmasters saga, but who died passing the helmet of Fortress Maximus to Spike Witwicky. As mentioned in the last review this was inevitable if the comic was to keep in step with the Hasbro toy line which has Spike as Fort Max’s partner.

No sooner had Galen succumbed to his injuries, and a volcano’s blast, Spike was anointed by the other Autobots as his successor. Essentially, we’ve got a young man who’s straight out of college, who’s an alien to the Nebulans and Autobots, and has no military experience or credentials other than he made a promise to Galen and enjoyed one successful rout of Scorponok’s Decepticons. To say he’s a risky choice is probably an understatement.

Added to this, Spike’s judgement – and by extension Fort Max’s – is clouded by the emotional pressure he’s under to try to rescue his brother Buster from Decepticon captivity. It’s a perfect storm which comes to a head in Desert of Island of Space, where the Targetmasters take their turn in the spotlight and Kup provides the mouthpiece for all those pent-up doubts about their new ‘leader’.

It’s also a pivotal story in that it removes the Earthbound Decepticons from the stage (temporarily) to clear the way for Scorponok’s group to fill the gap, and the unlikely ascendancy of Ratbat – a subplot for several US stories now – comes to fruition as he successfully sees off Shockwave for the Decepticon leadership.

Dan Reed provides the cover for issue 158, which depicts ‘The Hostage’ aka Buster Witwicky on Shockwave’s palm as seen through the binoculars of the US Navy. The Transformation page also trumpets a four-page mini comic about The Visionaries, who are due to get their own Marvel UK monthly comic and talks up the ‘bizarre and exciting’ new Transformers that are on their way… the Pretenders.

The action begins with Buster coming-to on the shore of an island off the Florida Keys, which we know to be masking the current Decepticon undersea base. For someone who was once pursued, terrified to near death by Shockwave, the site of the cold and imposing Decepticon leader, plus Ratbat, doesn’t seem to faze him. Quite chipper, Buster asks whether he might be provided with breakfast – at which Ratbat catches a raw fish (what a skinflint) and Shockwave proves the more generous by firing a nifty laser beam from his eye to fry several fish. True to form, Ratbat complains of the waste of energy resources! LOL

Why are they keeping Buster alive? The answer is the naval armada that has gathered on the horizon, thanks to Triple I tracking the recent Decepticon raids back to their source. Head of the organisation Forest Forsythe is aboard the flagship and welcomes back Walter Barnett, who by rights should be in the firing line for stealing the Throttlebots’ brain modules prior to their execution (see the story Toy Soldiers). Lucky for him, Forsythe had a close run-in with Ratbat and the Predacons that persuaded him that there might indeed be two warring factions of Transformers.

Walter has brought along five Throttlebot brains inside toy cars (minus Goldbug of course, who has since been crushed by Ratbat and recovered by the Autobot Headmasters) and spots Buster through binoculars. This complicates things as it means the navy can’t attack while there’s a human hostage.

Bob seems to be having a moment and forgets how many Throttlebots there are. Seven are mentioned and then later in the issue Hot Rod’s Nebulan companion is mis-labelled as Sparks rather than his actual name Firebolt. This requires a bit of editing for the UK edition, some Tippex and overlay text.

Slightly silly is Sparkplug not noticing that Spike has majorly bulked up in the couple of days he was away. In fact he’s wearing a suit of Autobot armour under a baggy overcoat which ought to have raised a question mark with his dad. Perhaps it was because Spike is visiting his dad’s motel room at 5.36am and Sparkplug is a bit sleepy? Barnett calls to say that Buster has been located but he’s not at liberty to divulge the location. Spike holds the wire and ‘traces the call’, one of his many new abilities since binary bonding to Fortress Maximus.

This rather gives the game away so Spike leads his dad outside and introduces him to Fortress Maximus and Cerebros, demonstrating that he can now transform and combine with the pair of them (you can only imagine how Sparkplug must be feeling about this, having sought to keep his other son away from the Transformers war, now here’s his eldest becoming intimately involved). Spike reassures that this is the best way of rescuing Buster and goes on to introduce the six Targetmasters emerging from the bushes, and their Nebulan partners.

As mentioned, the Autobots had taken quite a chance on bonding the inexperienced, alien Spike with their leader, and it would be quite understandable for this to have thrown up some concerns in the camp. These misgivings are voiced by Kup, in private to his Targetmaster colleagues, that Spike is ‘too emotional’ and will lead them to the junkyard if they let him! He’s at least consistent, as he’ll be on the verge of leading a mutiny against Optimus Prime in the run up to the Unicron war.

I very much enjoy the humorous moment where Forsythe, on being prevented from blasting the approaching Autobot shuttle by Rollbar who protests that it’s their comrades coming to help, complains that he cannot believe that he is expected to take orders from a “*$@# toy”! (he he).

Issue 159’s cover, dated 2nd April 1988, depicts Fortress Maximus harpooned in space and Shockwave closing in. For reasons I could never fathom his robot mode remains uncoloured. An oversight? The story opens with the Targetmasters storming the beach WW2 style, as Kup restrains the eager Fortress Maximus to hang back and provide covering fire in his battle station mode, lest his feelings get in the way.

Spike at this point feels too much like the new boy to argue, but it’s a mistake as the Targetmasters quickly come under heavy attack by an array of automated weaponry that emerges from below ground. They are repelled just as glass encases the island and the bases transforms into a rocket which starts blasting off.

Fortress Maximus, motivated by Spike’s strong desire to rescue Buster, launches himself at the rocket and clings on as it blasts into Earth orbit. Kup’s concerns appear to have come to pass, but was this foolishness or guts?

Inside the craft Ratbat continues to goad the rather patient Shockwave in the manner of a nagging spouse, pointing out that Max had tagged along and risks dragging them down (surely, he’s not that heavy in context of a huge rocket?). Shockwave clearly feels he has something to prove to Ratbat, this representative of the Cybertron Decepticon leadership, and activates the ship’s external defences – a huge pitch fork WTAF? It’s followed by a harpoon fired from a palm tree in the island section that spears the Autobot leader through the chest. Fortress Maximus’ new and improved body is incapacitated but he can still transform to Cerebros and continue his advance.

So, Shockwave ‘takes matters into his own hands’ heading outside in space gun mode to put Cerebros out of commission. Spike ejects and transforms, again demonstrating solid tactics or perhaps a lucky streak by commanding Fortress Maximus’ guns to blast Shockwave, sending him into Earth’s gravitational pull and sending him into sky fall, with Ratbat smugly welcoming the leader’s demise and seeing this as his chance to seize his chance to take command of the Decepticons.

Spike and Buster come face to face on opposite sides of the island dome. The big brother vows to find a way of freeing his sibling, just as Decepticon craft accelerates away. Spike is stranded in space but not for long as the Autobot shuttle shortly arrives and collects him. On board he’s gutted about the loss of Buster and shamed by the damaged to Fortress Maximus. However, Kup now sees things differently. He realises that he should have had more faith in Spike who has shown himself to be a true hero and worthy of the Autobot name.

In closing, the harpoon and pitchfork are a bit camp and gimmicky, typical Bob Budiansky lighter moments, but it all helps to make the story enjoyable and Spike’s heroism and the loss of his brother at the end are genuinely touching.

Clearly, Shockwave is meant to be written of the US storyline at this point and he’ll be gone for two years or so before turning up off the coast of Blackpool falling his planet fall. However, Simon Furman is not done with the character and intends to use him going forwards, starting in the very next issue. For this reason, Shockwave’s commentary in UK version of the story has been changed to ‘logical that I fall to Earth’ rather than burning up. Of course, this means his later appearance at Blackpool will be somewhat awkward and not satisfactorily explained.

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Trial by Fire!

Joy of joy, the Headmasters arrive on Earth but it’s a bittersweet moment as tragedy strikes… and Spike Witwicky makes his comic breakthrough.

In the 1980s, Transformers fans were mostly divided between those who celebrated the Sunbow cartoons and considered them canon, and that other more sophisticated bunch (at least we thought so) who worshipped at the altar of the comics. As much as I enjoyed the cartoon, I was firmly in the latter camp.

The cartoon had its classics – Heavy Metal War and War Dawn being two – but a lot of it was light entertainment. Whereas the comic seemed to set the bar consistently higher, with sublime stories like Target 2006 and The Smelting Pool (admittedly there was the odd dodgy number, like Car Wash of Doom).

The Marvel UK letters pages, hosted by Soundwave and then Grimlock, enjoyed taking a poke at the cartoons and insisting that the comic had the greater claim to being considered canon. It dismissed Spike Witwicky as a figment of the cartoon’s imagination, at best their version of our own Buster Witwicky.

So, as UK issue 156 rolls around in March 1988, the editorial team finds themselves eating humble pie, forced to acknowledge that Spike not only exists within the comic universe but that he’s about to play a major role from here onwards.

The game changer here is (as always) Hasbro, omnipresent owner of the Transformers brand. They’ve released a Fortress Maximus toy that has Spike as its Headmaster partner, so of course that means Spike must now appear in the comic.

The trouble is that, in the 3-4 years since we met the Witwickys, Spike has never been mentioned once. So what to do? Writer Bob Budiansky comes up with the explanation that Spike is Buster’s older brother and he has been at college these past four years. In that time nobody thought to tell him of the family’s close involvement in the Transformers war. That’s pretty lame but probably the best Bob could come up with on the spot. The Transformation page in #156 notes that if readers think Spike’s arrival at the same time as the Headmasters is purely coincidental, they ought to know better.

Trial by Fire opens with Fortress Maximus on the operating table, undergoing enhancing surgery to double his size, as the Headmasters’ ship ‘Steelhaven’ warps from Nebulos to Earth. Max seems to have gone from being this focal point and the conscience of the Autobot cause during the Headmasters mini-series, to now being a barely speaking tool of war whose Nebulan partner Galen does all the talking for him.

It’s unclear how much time has passed since the Autobots left Nebulos with Lord Zarak and the Decepticons in pursuit, but it’s time enough for Galen to have had a major personality reset. Gone is the compassionate, committed pacifist and in his place is a focused, single-minded warrior, intent on achieving victory in the Transformer war. Ironically, Galen is reminiscent of how Zarak was after bonding with Decepticon leader Scorponok. ‘If war is their fate, they must accept it and do all they can to win’ is the new mantra.

Galen can sense the awesome new power of Fortress Maximus, ‘power enough to destroy the Decepticons once they reach Earth’ and that’s as good a plug for the Fort Max toy as any (sadly, like so much else in the toy range, he wasn’t on sale in the UK). Galen’s lack of concern for the fact that Earth is teeming with innocent life jars with Autobot values – it’s the very opposite of Optimus Prime for example – and there’s a sense that momentary abandoning of responsibilities will come back to bite.

On Earth, Spike arrives at the scene of devastation that was his dad’s auto garage. When we last saw Sparkplug, he was at the mercy of Ratbat and the Predacons so you immediately fear the worst. Thankfully Bob doesn’t drag things out. He has Sparkplug reappear almost immediately, having been pulled from the rubble ‘off camera’ and thankfully unscathed. He’s able to quickly bring Spike up to speed about their connection with the Transformers and how Buster had gone to Mount St Hillary to find the Autobots.

Spike resolves to find his brother. Luckily, he knows the way, as we’re told he used to play in the Mount St Hillary caves as a kid, though this seems a stretch when you consider that it’s a two-hour drive away (a vacation perhaps?).

He’s at the cave and marvelling at the ginormous machinery left behind when the Ark departed, when the five Autobot Headmasters arrive. They discover the battered toy-car form of Goldbug and Chromedome patches himself in and projects images from Goldbug’s memory of Ratbat attacking and carrying off Buster. Fortress Maximus squashes suggestions of a rescue, as outside their mission parameters, and the first part ends with Spike emerging from his hiding place to protest.

Part two establishes Spike and Galen as the story’s key dynamic.

Spike feels that the Autobots, as ‘the good guys’, are obligated to help him find Buster. When Fortress Maximus refuses, he is accused (by Spike) of being a cold-hearted machine and Galen reveals himself as flesh and blood, the man in the machine. They may be alike physically, but they have very different priorities. Galen insists that the needs of the many outweigh those of an individual, and they all depart leaving Spike to camp down for the night, alone.

Next, the Decepticon craft emerges from hyperspace (if the vessel has a name, readers are not privy to it). As if to illustrate his all-around rottenness, Galen’s opposite number Lord Zarak sees no beauty in the Earth and dismisses their new home as ‘flyspeck mudball’. He’s impatient to get to the surface and track down the Autobots, who are most likely to be found near the source of Goldbug’s distress signal in the cave which formerly housed the Ark.

They make their way down (do they skydive from orbit like the Autobots? I’m surprised they don’t melt) and Mindwipe identifies the source of the interstellar signal that brought them to Earth. Spike can tell that these guys are bad news, and when they aren’t looking he hits a switch to reactivate Goldbug’s distress call, knowing that the Autobots will come back and he can warn them.

It does the trick but not before Spike is discovered and is shot at before being trapped and menaced by Scorponok. Luckily for Spike the Autobot Headmasters arrive in the nick of time and the two sides pick up where they left off on Nebulos – except this time Fortress Maximus is bigger and more powerful. Soon the battle is turning in the direction of the Autobots. Scorponok needs an advantage, and the sight of Spike’s blanket presents an opportunity.

Spike flees into the caverns, finding himself at the molten core of the volcano (!) as Scorponok closes in. Fortress Maximus spies Scorponok’s absence from the fight and pursues, but his enlarged form is too big to get through the caves and so he detaches as the regular sized Cerebros. The smaller Autobot attacks Scorponok and his head transforms into Galen who takes on Zarak. The pair fight on a rock bridge just metres above a molten lava river. Their titanic struggle has come to this moment, thousands of light years from their native Nebulos.

Zarak is pinned down but wily as ever. He radio-commands Scorponok to blast the rock above Spike. Galen heroically pushes Spike out of the way and takes the impact of the boulders himself. Mortally wounded, but at last restored to full nobility, Galen instructs Spike to take his helmet so that his death will not be in vain.

Then, in an incredible closing page which packs and amazing amount into 10 panels, Scorponok is topside and turning the tide of the battle when Fortress Maximus arrives very much alive and ready to fight. Spike wears Galen’s helmet and controls Max now – he unleashes the power of the Headmaster leader on the Decepticons, who beat a swift retreat.

Finally, as the Autobots get clear, there’s a spectacular explosion/eruption at Mount St Hillary, signifying a fitting tribute to their lost leader Galen and, Hardhead suggests, a suitable welcome to their new commander, Spike Witwicky! Wowzers!

In closing, it’s a fine story – brilliant to see the Headmaster cast on Earth but so frustrating and sad to see the end of Galen. He’s been effectively killed off and replaced by his omission from the toyline, which is a real shame as he had a lot more developing to do. How would Galen have settled on Earth, how would his feud with Zarak have played out, would he ever have returned to Nebulos to clear his name and reunite with his lost love, Llyra?

Sadly, this is the last we’ll see of Galen. A main character in the Headmasters mini-series but not destined to play a role in the saga now that the cast has arrived on Earth. However, the question of how Spike will cope with being thrust into the forefront of the war is also an intriguing prospect, and one we’ll get a chance to explore in the next instalment, the Desert Island of Space. At this point in its run, the Marvel Transformers comic is really going from strength to strength.

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