Under Fire!

On Cybertron, Ultra Magnus and the Wreckers prepare to execute Optimus Prime, believing him to be a Decepticon spy.

‘Any last requests prisoner?’ That’s the question asked of Optimus Prime on the cover of Transformers #99 by Ultra Magnus at the head of an Autobot firing squad! If you’d missed the previous issue, you’d be unaware that Megatron had put the word around of a Decepticon infiltrator designed to look and sound like the great Optimus and the Wreckers and Magnus had caught up with him and passed a death sentence without trial – all of which sounds distinctly un-Autobot behaviour but this is war I suppose. As the purpose of a cover is to make you buy the comic and find out what the hell is going on then Lee Sullivan’s efforts here are likely to hit the spot. And if that doesn’t do the job, there’s a free Ultra Magnus sticker badge too!

The issue’s Transformations page has two preoccupations: the first being its impending one hundredth issue (naturally) and the other is the launch of three new Marvel UK comics for March 1987 – Action Force, Zoids monthly, and Thundercats! Of the three I was most easily the most excited about Thundercats – it was undeniably one of the best kids’ cartoons on TV at the time and I collected the comic for a good couple of years. Reading the blurb though, I get the impression that Marvel is really pinning its hopes on Action Force becoming the next big thing. Like Transformers it is underpinned by a major toy line and has a lot of cool vehicles and figures. I was never wild about AF though. The Ancient Relics crossover with Transformers (in issue #125) was pretty good but it seemed a bit forced for the comic to pretend that AF were ‘Europe’s anti-terrorist force’ when it was blatantly the GI Joe comic rebranded and with stories predominately set in the US. In case you’re wondering the AF comic was cancelled in 1988 after fifty issues and then relaunched as a monthly which itself lasted for 15 issues before being cancelled.

Back to Transformers… As mentioned, Prime finds himself under arrest and put in front of a firing squad. If he’s worried about dying at this point, he’s not alone; Outback, who he saved from a Decepticon bully in the previous issue, is about to put himself between Optimus and the loaded guns. We get some insight into his situation – he’s a rule breaker and risk taker, his fellow Autobots resent him for it and consequently he’s not well thought of. So much so that Magnus is unwilling to listen to Outback’s claims that they are making a big mistake. He’d rather believe their spy sources who have never been wrong in the past. Outback foolishly provokes Magnus by suggesting that he is acting rashly in a bid to atone for his failure to save Impactor during Operation: Volcano. He’s hit a nerve as Magnus erupts and orders Outback to take a hike or else, he can share in the prisoner’s fate!

Outback places a small device on Prime’s chest which causes the shackles behind his back disappear or dissolve. He then lobs a gas particle bomb and creates a smokescreen allowing Prime and himself to escape. It’s interesting to see how reluctant Optimus is to flee – for some reason he thinks he can talk sense into Magnus and the Wreckers, even though he’s failed dismally so far.

Magnus tells Springer that he will take three Guardian units and hunt them down himself. All the while the Decepticon Ratbat observes from a safe distance, before returning to base to delivers the news of Prime’s escape to Lord Straxus. Megatron’s plan has failed, and Lord Straxus takes great pleasure in rubbing it in. Megatron reminds his host of his precarious position – it would be laughably simple to reach into Straxus’ life support bubble and crush what remains of him! Megatron orders a search party be sent after Prime, surely, he cannot evade the Decepticons and the Autobots! He then departs leaving Ratbat to question Straxus on just how long they must tolerate Megatron’s unstable presence. Straxus reveals that he has something up his sleeve. I must say I’m really enjoying the Megatron-Straxus antagonism, it’s great!

Meanwhile Magnus and a Guardian unit follow the trail of the escapees. Magnus reflects on Outback’s home truths from earlier and now wishes that he hadn’t divided his search party – Guardian units are loyal but tend to interpret orders too literally. Sure enough, there is an explosion nearby which suggests the Guardians have caught up with the fugitives. Outback blasts one, just as a second unit seizes Prime from behind and starts to crush his body. Outback tries to get a clear shot but the first Guardian recovers and tears through Outback’s side with his huge nails. Ouch!

The mini Autobot collapses and spurs Prime into action. He draws on his considerable strength and tears the head off the Guardian unit holding him. Though peace loving and abhorring of violence, it’s a timely reminder that Prime is one of the most powerful and formidable Autobot fighters.

Prime scoops up the fallen Outback. Once again, he (Optimus) has cheated death but perhaps at the cost of the life of a truly heroic Autobot. Magnus remains out of site as he watches Prime carry his friend into the distance. He does nothing to intervene which is a big clue that he’s starting to wonder whether this really is the real Optimus Prime. About time too!

On the letters page, Grimlock is asked by a fan whether the TF Movie adaptation will be reprinted when 2006 comes around. His reply that it would be ‘possible though daunting’ if the comic were still going! That might be the first acknowledgement from the creative team that the comic, though going gangbusters in 1987, has a finite lifespan and perhaps this is also why hitting the big 100 is such a cause for celebration. As we know the Marvel Transformers UK comic ran out of road in 1992, ending at issue #332. But the franchise has continued in one form or another ever since. At the time of writing Transformers is in its fourth decade (36 years old) and still going strong.

For now, let’s revisit that first big milestone – Transformers’ one hundredth issue!

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The Harder They Die!

Optimus Prime sets foot on Cybertron for the first time in four million years only to discover it reduced to a mechanical wasteland… while Megatron is also ‘home’ – an unwanted guest of the local Decepticons – and hatches a truly diabolical scheme!

The conclusion of the previous issue’s story ‘Prey!’ looked pretty cut and dried: Optimus Prime was at the mercy of the Predacons, who leapt towards him with teeth and claws barred, and the Autobots arrived shortly after to find their leader torn to shreds. However, there was the matter of the secret plot that Shockwave had hatched with Predacon team leader Razorclaw and the mysterious cargo in Prime’s trailer which suggested that perhaps everything was not as it seemed.

Sure enough, issue #98 begins with Optimus walking the desolate landscape of Cybertron – he is finally home after four million years! There are some great, vivid descriptions of the ravaged home-world: once towering cities have been levelled and the sky is polluted by the stench of a thousand battles. Up ahead Prime sees signs of life – a large Decepticon pummelling the mini-Autobot Outback. Prime’s huge figure looms over him – how would he like to take on someone larger?

What I love about the set-up of this issue is that it’s completely unexpected. Readers will have sussed that the robotic body that was destroyed last issue was not the real Prime but that he should suddenly turn up on Cybertron of all places is right out of leftfield. It’s an opportunity for Furman and Senior (the writer and artist) to deliver their own take to US writer Bob Budiansky’s masterpiece Return to Cybertron saga of the previous year and provide a sequel of sorts.

The Decepticon picking on Outback is not of the toy range, thus we can already guess at his fate, but looks the business with a head shaped like a paratrooper’s helmet and is wearing his insignia on his head module, Straxus-style (that shows a certain admirable commitment to the cause). He mocks Prime’s threat, in his experience, “the bigger they are”…. “THE HARDER THEY DIE” insists Prime!

He lifts the Decepticon off the ground by the throat, educating him on the number of comrades he’s seen fall in battle, while he has consistently cheated death due to some warped good fortune. The Decepticon seems unimpressed and unleashes a surprise eye-blast to the face… which looks pretty darn cool. Prime is temporarily blinded and throws his opponent as far as he can before falling in pain. The enemy has grown powerful in his long absence and expecting the Decepticon to finish him off at any moment, he thinks his luck has finally run out!!!

The expected onslaught never comes. It turns out that Prime’s throw had resulted in the Decepticon becoming impaled on a huge spike! The curse of the non-toy range robots strikes again! Outback is shocked to learn that this is none other than the great Optimus Prime, believing him to be long dead. Prime’s thoughts turn to the situation on Earth where he imagines his followers discovered the body parts of the facsimile construct ‘fake Prime’ which Wheeljack built so that Optimus could fake his death and now believe their leader to be dead. Prime had wanted to see how they coped without him and will now get the chance.

Prime bids Outback farewell, there are things he must do alone – but as he departs Outback transforms and follows (into a nifty Cybertronian hover car I might add). We now check in on Megatron, who is also on Cybertron, inside a Decepticon stronghold in Polyhex, which may or may not be Castle Darkmount. Megatron surveys the destruction which stretches as far as he can see and finds it be magnificent! Decepticon standards have not slackened in his absence, but an italicised voice off panel sounds less than happy with his presence. It notes that Megatron has brought with him trouble – the last thing the Cybertron Decepticons need is for the demoralised Autobot resistance to be galvanised by Optimus Prime.

Megatron erupts in a rage, recalling for the benefit of the reader how Rampage and Razorclaw had leapt clear of Optimus Prime and the Predacons had attacked Megatron himself, fleeing with his fusion canon! The situation smacked of a ‘Shockwave set-up’ he works out astutely: he’d been left to face Optimus Prime alone, though not unarmed it turns out, as Megatron carries a spare gun. He found ‘Prime’ propped up against his trailer and blew him to pieces… only to discover that it was a fake and he was rugby tackled from behind by the real Optimus. Megatron, being throttled, had summonsed the Space Bridge and Optimus hurled the two of them into it before it had fully materialised, hoping to carry Megatron to his death. Instead the pair had survived intact, but on the other side of the galaxy.

Now we see Megatron’s tormentor… it’s none other than the salvaged head of Polyhex’s ruler Lord Straxus, who eerily floats in green liquid. He has been confined to a life support bubble after the events of issue #69 and having made such a great first impression in the aforementioned Return to Cybertron saga, his return is a real treat for the readers. It’s another unexpected twist in a short 11-page story that is blessed with them. And Megatron has wasted no time in making himself at home. Having procured a new fusion canon, he’s passed word through to the Decepticon informers that a spy designed to resemble Optimus Prime will try and infiltrate the Autobot resistance. He feels sure that when the Autobots learn of this they will kill Optimus Prime for him! Despite being unhinged of late, Megatron shows he has lost none of his cunning.

Meanwhile, Prime stands high above Iacon, the once great capital of Cybertron – it too has been turned into a barren wasteland, can any Autobots still inhabit this place? Suddenly he is whacked in the face by the hammer arm belonging to Rack ‘n’ Ruin, one of the Wreckers. And a huge Guardian unit (a much stronger version than we have seen before) pummels Prime’s face into the ground. He blacks out and when he comes to, he finds himself a prisoner of the Wreckers and Ultra Magnus: without a trial he has been found guilty of impersonating the Autobots’ greatest leader… and the sentence is death!

In summary, what a cracking story! It’s class from beginning to end. The twist of Prime and Megatron’s return to Cybertron is not one I saw coming, and the encounter with the Deception – his cool eye blasts and the gruesome way Prime dispatches him – was hugely enjoyable. Outback was a recent edition to the Hasbro toy line up and it was nice to see him make a cameo here. The best bit for me though, is probably the clash of the two great egotists, Megatron and Straxus. The latter doesn’t appreciate his unwanted guest one little bit and Megatron makes no attempt to endear himself, but for now Straxus is not in much of a position to do anything about it. By the end it looks like Megatron’s ruse has worked a treat: Magnus and the Wreckers are ready to pass a death sentence on Optimus without even interrogating him to see what he has to say for himself.

It’s worth noting that while this is essentially a two-part story, the next instalment appears under a different title. This is unusual for the comic. It also comes with a Galvatron sticker badge on the cover.

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Target: 2006 (Part 9 & Epilogue)

Simon Furman’s Transformers masterpiece reaches its dramatic conclusion – will Galvatron return to the future defeated or as master of all he surveys? And tragedy strikes on Cybertron as Operation: Volcano begins without Magnus.

Simon Furman has written some great Transformers stories during his now 35-year association with the franchise, but I think Target: 2006 may still be his finest. Whether he would agree with that, or prefer more recognition to be afforded to his later works is something I’d like to ask him one day.

One thing that is apparent to me on re-reading issues #87 and #88 of Marvel UK Transformers, is that here we have a writer and a title that are at the top of their game and riding the crest of a wave. November 1986 was a fortnight before the release of that other classic Transformers: The Movie and so these were truly halcyon days for the TF fans in the UK. Issue #87’s Transformation page references the Movie, apologising for the delayed release but promising fans that it would be worth the extra two week wait: “We’ve seen the movie, so take it from us – it’s absolutely superb!” It sure was (and still is).

As warm-up acts for a film go, they don’t come much better or more epic than Target: 2006. So far we’ve seen the Autobots rendered leaderless and in disarray, the arrival from the future of Galvatron, his incredible origin, the Autobots’ crack commandos the Wreckers in action, Autobot Triple Changers, the zombification of Jazz, Magnus versus Galvatron, the return of Starscream and the debut of Kup, Hot Rod and Blurr! Phew! That’s really some list, and the action isn’t over yet.

The story picks up where the previous issue left off, with Galvatron having defeated Ultra Magnus, the last foe standing in his way. Little did he realise that while he was beating-up on poor Magnus, the three future Autobots were rigging up a little show for him back at his solar weapon.

The opening is narrated in film vernacular, with the set, the make-up, special effects, props and support cast. The make-up part is certainly interesting – we see Hot Rod spraying Skywarp in the colours of Starscream. The effects they deploy are evidently explosives, and the real Starscream (knocked out by Galvatron two issues previous) is dragged out of sight. Likewise, Cyclonus and Scourge and rendered unconscious by the fists of these Autobots. This, however, feels a little incongruent, as a few issues ago we saw Galvatron’s henchmen best a whole legion of Autobots and heard the boast that even 100 foes could not defeat them. Suddenly they are looking a bit ordinary. Perhaps the trio have been augmented for this mission by a higher power?!! See later, for who’s pulling their strings.

Galvatron returns, dragging a defeated and pathetic looking Magnus with him. Finding his deputies out cold and realising that Megatron and Soundwave are still unconscious, he figures it must be the work of Starscream. This of course is exactly what the future Autobots want him to think, but surely Galvatron should be asking himself how a lone Decepticon seeker could do this? After all he said 100 Autobots could not best Cyclonus and Scourge.

A quick recap of what’s at stake for Magnus (time is running out for him to get back to Cybertron) and he musters just enough energy to rugby tackle Galvatron. He is easily batted off, and Galvatron appears to contemplate destroying Magnus, regardless of any damaging effects to the timeline, when Jetfire, Brawn, Smokescreen and Tracks arrive for a last ditch attempt at stopping him. Earlier we’d seen Jetfire conceding that they (and he) are out of their depth against Galvatron. Poor Jetfire – he’s been a woeful stand-in commander. Though brave, his inexperience and hot headedness counted against him massively. He rushed into battle underprepared and was humiliated. It took their arch enemy Megatron to organise the ‘rabble’ so that they could capture Scourge, and then Jetfire was outsmarted by Galvatron at the prisoner exchange. Could it be though, that in realising he was wrong (in his approach and about Magnus) Jetfire is starting to learn the lessons and from defeat comes maturity?

Luckily for Jetfire and his three colleagues, Galvatron has no time to destroy them. Kup triggers the explosives and the solar weapon blows, burying all and sundry. Finally, when Galvatron emerges, mad as hell, he’s confronted by Starscream in all his arrogance. Galvatron lets rip, blowing Starscream to pieces! Now here’s the fascinating bit. He concludes that as Starscream is essential to his becoming Galvatron in 2006, by rights he should now cease to exist. The fact he is still there, suggests to Galvatron that he probably created (or ended up) in a parallel universe when he time travelled, and therefore he cannot affect change in the 2006 he originated from. So, Galvatron gathers up his lieutenants and leaves. I love the parting narration that ‘he knows he has all the time in the world’. Very apt.

A couple of things puzzle me though. Why would Galvatron expect to return to the dimension where he started, rather than arrive 20 years into the future of his current reality? And why assume Starscream was dead for good? Transformers can be blown to bits and repaired. In fact I think Skywarp even makes reappears in a later story. The disintegration ray Galvatron hit Starscream with in the Movie was of course far more conclusive! Again, in telling us that Screamer is destined to die at Galvatron’s hands, here’s Target: 2006 offering us a nugget from the Movie plot and whetting the appetites of the fans still further.

Any readers who are sorry to see the back of Galvatron can take ample consolation from the New Leaders fact file on their favourite villain on page 14 which describes him as ‘invulnerable to injury and even less subject to emotion or decency’ (not that he suffered from these things much as Megatron of course!). The Grim Grams page also has some decent hints as to upcoming stories, with the Predacons due to debut, the Swoop/Divebomb rivalry and a suggestion that we’ll get to see where Prime, Shockwave and the others were displaced to.

With Galvatron now having exited the stage, there is the question of whether final instalment of Target: 2006 will be something of a damp squib. As we’ll see however, Mr Furman is not done with twists and turns.

Issue #88 immediately wows with a fantastic cover by Geoff Senior featuring the exciting new Autobot Triple Changers – Broadside, Springer and Sandstorm – ready for action. ‘Volcano erupts without Magnus, but maybe it doesn’t matter’ reads the cover blurb. It certainly looks like we’re in for an epic conclusion.

And then the next surprise… our narrator for opening part of the issue is none other than Unicron himself! Now that is truly epic! I love how his speech bubbles have an uneven red border, making them feel echoing and menacing. Unicron surveys the wreckage of his “puppet’s” solar weapon and he is content. We cut to Galvatron in 2006 writhing in pain, being taught another lesson by his master. He had underestimated Galvatron, not realising until it was too late, that his creation had fled into the past to plot against him. But Unicron had enlisted Hot Rod, Kup and Blurr as his agents – exercising a subliminal control over their minds and sending them after Galvatron and co. to thwart their plan. Later, he is able to return the trio to their place of origin, removing all knowledge of what they’ve done. Thus, everyone is reintegrated into their proper place in the Transformers: The Movie storyline.

Much later of course, once Simon Furman had got hold of the reins of Marvel’s American Transformers comic (the parent continuity) he decided to part ways with the Movie timeline altogether and have Unicron attack in 1990. There’s no real explanation for the timeline divergence, but is it possible Unicron used his three Autobot agents to send a message to his 1986 counterpart, advising that Unicron of the location of Cybertron? This could explain how he arrived fifteen or sixteen years early. But most likely the explanation was that the Movie took place in one of many possible futures.

Anyway, going back to the story… after putting Starscream into cold storage (where he’ll stay for another year) the future Autobots also returned to 2006 and Unicron indulged himself by planting a thought in Smokescreen’s mind, that the site of Galvatron’s weapon would make an excellent location for the first Autobot City on Earth! One assumes that’s exactly what happens, circa 2003. The thing is, if Galvatron’s plan had worked, it’s difficult to see how he could have buried the weapon beneath the city without it being detected by the Autobots during the city’s construction. It’s a minor nit-pick and not to detract from what is overall a great storyline.

Just as Ultra Magnus has finally earned the trust and respect of the earth based Autobots, its time for him to return to Cybertron (via a portal) as Operation: Volcano is under way. Magnus’ parting wish, that he should one day fight side-by-side with Optimus Prime is a mouth-watering prospect, and happily one that will come to pass in issue #103.

On Cybertron, Emirate Xaaron stands before twenty-two Autobot resistance leaders, or rather facsimile constructs. Kickback watches from a vantage point and returns to base to report that they have an unprecedented opportunity to wipe out the Autobot high command. Soon enough, Dirge, Ramjet and Thrust, the Insecticons, Triple Changers and a never-before-seen nasty opportunist type called Macabre are on the march. The latter is particularly keen to slay Xaaron rather than follow the plan to capture him alive, as he sees Xaaron as his ticket to the big leagues. It’s almost something Starscream would do.

However, the plan rapidly falls apart when, on Earth, Laserbeak succeeds in freeing Megatron from the wreckage of Galvatron’s weapon, and the Decepticon leader issues a summons for the Insecticons and coneheads to reinforce him on Earth. None of them dare disobey and so they break off their ambush. That is, all apart from Macabre, who continues, determined to take out Xaaron.

And so, the final twist in the tale… as Impactor breaks the news to Xaaron that Volcano has failed to erupt, Macabre opens fire from the side lines using a huge blaster. Impactor throws Xaaron clear and takes the blast himself. He passes the mantle of the Wreckers’ leadership to Springer before dying a heroes’ death. The Autobots cut down Macabre with multiple blasts. Once again, characters who are not part of the toy line are doomed to die, such is the way of things in TF! Still, for a throwaway character, Impactor made a hell of an impression on the fans and would return (albeit as a zombie) a couple of years later, and then in his full glory in the 2010 IDW story ‘Last Stand of the Wreckers’.

At last, Optimus Prime is back (and we have missed him) but once again the Autobots are counting the cost of a Decepticon victory. Jazz, Grapple and Trailbreaker are the latest casualties, while the others bear the psychological scars. Having once again survived a brush with destruction, Prime is certain they can pull together and prevail.

Thus, ends Target: 2006, a Transformers epic that spanned two worlds and two eras, tying into the amazing Transformers: The Movie. Like the movie itself it has stood the test of time and rightly deserves to be called a classic.

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