A homesick Starscream is encouraged to learn the joy of giving at Christmas time!
It feels a bit odd to review a Transformers Christmas story in the middle of April. Then again today has been hailstones and a biting wind so perhaps its appropriately wintery after all. Roll on the spring please!
Stargazing is the third in what would become an annual tradition of Marvel UK’s festive Transformers stories. They are typically snow-sprinkled, somewhat smaltzy tales of an Autobot or Decepticon discovering the Christmas spirit or overcoming some personal drama thanks to the festive season. Previously we’ve seen Circuit Breaker sparing Jazz after hearing Christmas bells, and Jetfire recovering his lost confidence thanks to a pep talk from Buster Witwicky as he took a break from wrapping presents. So it seems a logical step to feature a Decepticon this year – in this case Starscream.
Somewhat unusually, Simon Furman provides the plot but its his old editor Ian Rimmer who wrote the script for Stargazing. Jeff Anderson provides the interior art and there’s an enjoyable ‘Christmas so what?’ cover featuring Screamer that’s been drawn by Barry Kitson (first time we’ve seen him in a long while) and Robin Boutell.
We last saw Starscream way back in issue #88 when (at the conclusion of Target 2006) he was placed in stasis by Hot Rod, Kup and Blurr, who were visiting from the future to carry out a mission for Unicron. According to the splash page that pod was just a few metres from a main road that’s obviously busy enough to warrant a street light, yet nobody seems to have noticed it in the previous 12 months!
With the pod now opened, Starscream awakens and the story begins with him staring at the night sky and suffering from a severe bout of homesickness. His previous all-consuming ambition to lead the Decepticons has left him – all that it had achieved was to get him put on ice. Now he just wants to see Cybertron again.
Starscream hears a voice…. and sees a human standing at his feet, who recognises him as a Transformer. We never find out his name but he looks like a long lost member of the Proclaimers. Perhaps it’s the ghost of Christmas present come to cheer up Starscream the Scrooge? Starscream tells him to get lost, and then my favourite line of the story, “It’s a sure sign of how bad things are when I can’t even stir up the enthusiasm to squash a fleshling”.
This is a youth with a death wish I think. He tests Starscream’s tolerance by suggesting he would cheer up if he knew what Christmas was about and challenges him to admit he doesn’t know about the occasion. The Decepticon’s internal data file gives a brief and mundane description of the calendar event, but the human tells Starscream he is missing the point. This fleshling wont live long enough to see Christmas Day the way he’s going – but when the youth asks to be released so he can go home Starscream admits to being envious that this human can do what he cannot.
So, in a rare moment of indulgence, he transforms into his jet mode invites the human to show him the spirit Christmas, thinking it might cure his depression. I particularly enjoy the panel with Starscream’s arm emerging from his jet mode to chuck the kid into the cockpit.
Proclaimer kid hopes they will see people giving presents, as they pass over a familiar looking police car. Helping the needy conflicts with the Decepticon ethos of course, the weak give and the strong take. These Autobot sentiments are not for him. They spot a bus caught in a snowdrift and the human thinks it the perfect opportunity for Starscream to show compassion. It would be simplicity itself for Starscream to free the vehicle but he fails to see what’s in it for him.
At that moment the police car from earlier – the Protectobot Streetwise arrives and attacks. Christmas or not, it wouldn’t be Transformers without some action. Starscream is taken by surprise but he’s sure he has the superior firepower than a small Protectobot. As they brawl the people in the bus are placed in greater peril and Starscream’s friend steps-in, telling Streetwise he should be ashamed seeing as Starscream was about to help these humans! The Autobot doesn’t believe it so Starscream smugly lifts the bus from the snowdrift and places it on the road. The bus passengers cheer before going on their way, escorted by Streetwise.
The youth is sure Starscream must have got satisfaction from his good deed. However, Starscream makes out that he was simply motivated to humiliate an Autobot! The human gives up, thinking this Transformer is beyond redemption. All he can do is bid Starscream ‘Merry Christmas’ as the Decepticon laughs and walks off. He takes a few steps and then pauses, perhaps a twinge of conscience or a remnant from the earlier events, he turns and wishes the youth a Merry Christmas back!
It’s a nice note to end on and perhaps a sinister turn there too, as we realise Starscream is on the way back to being his treacherous best. Streetwise’s presence is interesting from a continuity standpoint. When the Protectobots freed Blaster and bade him farewell in the captured Blast Off, my assumption was that they had missed the Ark’s launch and were stuck on Earth. Had they have been picked up on the way you would have thought that the team would have been severed punished for allowing Blaster to go free – but in Space Hikers the Protectobot Blades was clearly aboard, so how is Streetwise on Earth for Christmas? Perhaps its a sign that even while space borne, the Autobots are still able to pop down to Earth for missions.
On that note, we’ll shortly bid a fond farewell to 1987 – a very prolific year for the comic – and get stuck into the next lot of twists and turns from 1988, including a character’s shocking and rather epic return! But first a final story from the 1987 annual.
The Protectobots are escorting the Autobot deserter Blaster back to the Ark for trial when they run into a Combaticon ambush – and four human children get caught in the middle.
In issue #122, when Blaster and Goldbug deserted rather than put up with Grimlock’s tyrannical leadership, it was obvious that a reckoning would be coming. Last issue it looked like that moment had arrived, when the Protectobots caught up with Blaster and placed him under arrest. Anyone reading Child’s Play and expecting a showdown between Blaster and his old commander will be disappointed, as the situation is destined to drag out for two more stories before taking a long hiatus and coming to a head in issue #174 – eight months on from this point.
For the moment Blaster is wearing a mode locked (the Transformer equivalent of a car clamp) trapping him in cassette-deck form, and chained to Groove, who is in turn in the back of First Aid, as the Protectobots keep the prisoner secure for the journey back to the Ark. We’re about to meet four human children – Sammy, Allen, Jed and little sister Robin, and Daisy her teddy bear, who look like being this issue’s human support cast but are destined to be around for a surprisingly long while (much to the annoyance of some fans).
Bob Budiansky’s story (which is published in Transformers UK issues #141/2 in November 1987) opens in a rail yard in northern California where the boys are playing with toy guns. Little Robin just wants the game to finish so she can go home. When the children see a police car approaching they decide to hide. However, it’s not the authorities come to reprimand them for playing where they shouldn’t, but Streetwise leading the Protectobot convoy.
Their update to HQ triggers Grimlock, who makes another embarrassing outburst about Blaster being “leader of traitors” and will be punished. Wheeljack, who is fast becoming Grimlock’s whipping boy, is thinking he can hardly blame Blaster for going his own way. Grimlock orders the Protectobots to hurry back as the Ark is repaired and ready for take off! Why there is a need to get space-borne is unclear, particularly as Wheeljack has just constructed a device which draws heat from the volcano in order to supply the Autobots’ fuel needs.
As Blaster contemplates the diminishing possibility of escape, Blades spots tanks treads in the area, possibly belonging to the Combaticon Brawl and suggesting an ambush (in fact the Combaticons have been hanging around like a bad smell since the events of Ladies Night two stories ago). Groove is told to deposit Blaster somewhere out of the way for safe keeping. Jed witnesses the driverless motorbike and tries to persuade his doubtful friends, while Blaster is stuck in an open water pipe and sees the kids. There’s nothing he can do to keep them out of harm’s way.
In a train shed a mile away, Brawl and Swindle lay in wait and startle a railway worker. When Vortex gives the signal they roll-out, demolishing the shed, and confront Hotspot’s team. Sammy is shocked to find a talking cassette deck and run back to tell the others, who think his winding them up. Robin collects who tells the kids to evacuate the area (wise advice given the fierce battle ensuing nearby).
With too much going on the previous issue to feature the Combaticon and Protectobot combined forms, Budiansky makes up for that now by having Bruticus enter the fray and blast the Protectobots. They retaliate by forming Defensor and the two giant gestalts go at it, throwing carriages at each other. A quick check in at the Ark, shows Cosmos and Beachcomber completing Grimlock’s infamous ‘Variable Voltage Harness’ torture chamber for Blaster, their old colleague in the Cybertron resistance. (You have to wonder when exactly the Autobots are going to stand-up to Grimlock and his ever more extreme ways).
Back at the fight, a dialogue box which I think is intended for Bruticus is ascribed to Defensor. The giant Autobot shows off his forcefield ability to repel his opponent’s weapons discharge. Meanwhile two of the boys are arguing with each other again in a tedious and unnecessary way that brings to mind that old Harry Enfield Scousers sketch until Allen pulls the mode lock off Blaster, enabling him to transform. He goes on to win the kids’ trust by saving them from a falling pylon.
When Bruticus uses a train to batter Defensor into submission (echoing Dan Reed’s cover), Blaster shows up claiming to have turned against the Protectobots who had kept him prisoner. Bruticus asks Blaster to prove it by destroying one of the kids (which reading that now feels a little uncomfortable). He pretends to open fire on Sammy who fakes being dead. The distraction is enough for Blaster to whack Bruticus with the downed pylon, sending thousands of volts coursing through the Decepticon’s body and causing him to break into his component parts.
Later Blaster offers his surrender to the Protectobots but Hotspot has other ideas: if he arrested someone who does a better job of protecting than he does he ought to ‘turn in his engine’. Instead they decide to mode-lock Blast Off in shuttle mode and allow Blaster to take the kids for a trip into orbit as a thank you. As they launch you get the impression that the Protectobots are now going to be in a world of trouble with Grimlock, since they have now effectively defied orders too and should also be fugitives like Blaster.
Finally, the children are just starting to enjoy weightlessness, when Jed spots a large ship bearing down on them – it’s the Ark! After four million years of be buried inside Mount St Hillary it is free and space-bourne again, and what timing. To be continued…
In closing the Ark has been under repair for a long time but ironically it’s under Grimlock’s otherwise disastrous leadership that progress has been made. (He obviously has ways of motivating his troops to deliver). Now we know what the Autobots were doing during the period of Grimlock’s tyrannical reign, because they weren’t out battling Decepticons, although some were looking for Blaster and Goldbug! Luckily the Decepticons have been quite idle as well with a hypnotising car wash the height of their global masterplans of late.
It’s March 1987 and after two and a half years of writing the Marvel US Transformers comic, Bob Budiansky is about to do something incredibly bold to shake things up – he’s about to kill off the two stars of the franchise, Optimus Prime and Megatron!
Of course, with this being comics, death is never really permanent but for the best part of the next 18 months or longer these two much loved characters (or love to hate in Megatron’s case) are about to disappear from the pages of our favourite comic.
The question is how to do it in an original way. After all the two leaders have clashed on countless occasions on the battlefield and had been seen in a fight to the death in the Transformers Movie less than four months previous. Bob being the super imaginative writer that he is, comes up with a novel way of having his two main protagonists do battle for the ‘last time’ by having them duke it out in a computer game. This is a game with very high stakes as the loser must be destroyed in real life. For this reason Afterdeath! is one of the most controversial stories in the history of Transformers comics. It’s a decent story but is detested by many because of the ending, as we will see.
First a quick mention of the cover to issue #105. Lee Sullivan, who admittedly is not one of my favourites when he’s illustrating the main strip – mostly for his tendency to draw saliva in the mouths of his robots (I’m picky I know) – nevertheless has been turning in some really solid covers of late. There was the Battlechargers on Transformers UK #94 and his latest effort has Defensor and Bruticus squaring up alongside Prime and Megatron. Deadlock indeed! It’s great to see the two remaining Special Teams finally making their debut.
Following a public health warning on the Transformation page, letting readers know that the demise of one of the two leaders is coming up, the stakes and the stage is set for the story to come. It begins with the genius programmer and gaming enthusiast, Ethan Zachary, playing his Multi-World creation on a huge wall-sized screen. His character is overwhelmed by the hordes of Hazzak just as his colleague Margaret arrives and wonders why Ethan wastes so much time playing silly video games. We learn that they are working inside a top security facility which houses the Hydrothermocline, a revolutionary new technology for extracting energy from the thermal layers in the ocean. (Eighties kids were already learning about green technology years before they became a thing!)
Ethan demonstrates his technique for restoring his game character to life using the command ‘AFTERDEATH’, which is a pretty significant detail as we later find out.
Little do they know they are being monitored from above by Vortex in helicopter mode. Here’s our first glimpse of a Combaticon in the comic for real as opposed to appearing as part of Buster’s Matrix-induced dream. As Ethan re-immerses himself in the Multi-World, at the Ark, Wheeljack is extracting the Cerebro Shell which the Insecticon Bombshell had implanted within Optimus Prime’s head module (as seen in the story Heavy Traffic). This shell has already served its purpose as the Decepticons were able to use it to siphon off the Matrix as Prime was giving life to the Aerialbots, allowing them to breathe life into the Stunticons. Now can assume that the same thing happened in respect to the Combaticons and Protectobots.
Wheeljack turns the tables by using the device to eavesdrop on the Decepticons and they learn of Megatron’s plans to seize the Hydrothermocline. And later that evening, when Onslaught, Brawl and Swindle roll through the perimeter fence, they are met with the sight of Optimus Prime and the Protectobots laying in wait. Megatron jumps out from Onslaught’s cab and they are joined by Vortex and Blastoff. In a blatant bit of product placement both teams combine to their respective gestalts and it’s clear that the situation is a stalemate. That is until Ethan Zachary decides to make a run for it right by Bruticus and is easily snatched by the fearsome but insanely stupid Decepticon. His request to crush the Zachary is denied, as Megatron thinks he might make a useful hostage.
Ethan suggests a way the two sides could fight it out without destroying the plant, by connecting to his Multi-World. Amazingly they all agree and pretty soon the teams and their leaders are attaching cables to their heads in order to appear as avatars in the game (a good thing Ethan keeps these cables handy eh?). The rules are simple, if the Decepticons destroy Optimus Prime in the game they can take the Hydrothermocline, but Megatron is loses then they can’t. Ethan assures a sceptical Groove that there is no way to cheat (famous last words!) and Megatron decides to up the ante by insisting that the loser must be destroyed in real life.
So Ethan controls two joysticks that can trigger a lethal explosion in one or other leader, which strikes me as incredibly trusting of Megatron to allow a human he’s only just met to hold the power of life or death over him. Additionally, it was only a few weeks ago that Prime was so concerned about his warriors’ inability to cope without him that he was faked his own death to test them, and yet now he’s entering into an agreement where the outcome could well be his actual death! Very strange.
The first half ends with Optimus Prime and the Protectobots arriving in the strange computer generated landscape that makes up Multi-World, and Prime preparing to lead his troops. Issue #106 again reminds readers of the stakes. This is the honest to gosh ‘final battle’ between Prime and Megatron we’re told… and one will die! The story then resumes with Hotspot basically ordering Optimus to stay put and allow the Protectobots to fan out and pick off the enemy. After all in this game their deaths are meaningless whereas if Prime dies they all lose. Prime agrees, but reminds his warriors that even though nothing is real, they must all remain true to their Autobot principles avoid harming any of this world’s inhabitants.
Hilariously, we see the mirror situation with Megatron and the Combaticons. Onslaught is almost cocky about inviting Megatron to take the lead. That earns him a swift boot up the rear as the more canny Megatron realises that he must be preserved and his Combaticons are mere fodder. He sends them ahead and tells them “let nothing stop you” – Multi-World inhabitants need to beware!
Now usually the Autobot concern for innocent life tends to be handicap in their encounters with the Decepticons but this is one of those rare occasions where doing the right thing brings powerful dividends. Streetwise and First Aid take great care to avoid harming any of the vines in their path, which leaves them open to ambush from Brawl and Swindle, who also take out many of the vines in the process. The two Combaticons transform and are ensnared by the vines, who it turns out possess sentience. This allows First Aid to crystallise the stunned pair with his roof mounted gun (it’s nice to see their weapons being spotlighted in addition to the characters) and Streetwise to shattering them with a blast of compressed air. Back in the real world, Ethan Zachary cheers the victory.
In the Cloud-steppes region, Blast Off and Vortex cut the skyway support cables, sending Grove and many of the Cloudstepper inhabitants falling. Blades swoops down to save his comrade, but is told to catch the Cloudsteppers instead as Groove just manages to grab a ledge. Blades does so, leaving himself wide open to a Combaticon attack. But one of the Cloudsteppers lets off a smoke bomb, blinding the two Decepticons who crash into each other while Grove finishes them off with his Photon Pistol.
Two more down and one to go as Hotspot and Onslaught face off in the Slimepit region. Onslaught makes use of the mud to launch a surprise ambush. His random laser blasts decimating the homes of the local Slimepit people and Hotspot uses his body to shield the defenceless creatures. They reward him by pulling him and resurfacing behind the Decepticon. A powerful blast from Hotspot allows him to claim an unlikely victory. Ethan applauds the win, while Megatron screams to know what is going on.
With the Combaticons failing to return, Megatron goes searching for Prime and soon finds his foe in the Metropipe region. As the pair stand either end of a bridge over a bottomless chasm, It would appear that the final battle now comes down to just the two leaders – or not, as the ominous form of Defensor appears behind Prime! Megatron screams at his fellow Combaticons to aid him, but with all having been defeated he can only lash out at them blindly in the real world. Vortex explains there’s a way to cheat by inputting the word “Afterdeath” when you lose. Thus when Defensor carries himself and Megatron over the ledge to their dooms, Megatron reappears behind Optimus and blasts him with full force. In the real world the Protectobots and Ethan are puzzled as to what just happened.
Back in the game, Prime hangs off the edge by a single arm, with the other a mangled wreck. Megatron looks down at his helpless foe when suddenly with the last of his strength, Prime yanks at one of the support pipes toppling one of the towers above and knocking Megatron to his death a second time. This time there is no reprieve as Megatron and many of the small Metropipe inhabitants plunge to their doom. The game over message appears, with Prime the sole character left on screen, and the Protectobots hailing their leader as everyone’s optics are switched back on.
Streetwise tells Ethan to press Megatron’s detonator before he can escape, but a far from happy Optimus Prime speaks his disapproval of the win. He argues that because he deliberately caused the deaths of the innocent inhabitants of Metropipe he in fact violated his own sacred Autobot principles. He cannot accept this victory and insists that Ethan press his detonator, which the incredulous human reluctantly does. In a full page to convey the sheer enormity, Prime explodes spectacularly as the Protectobots – and the readers presumably – watch in utter shock and horror!
With the battle over, Megatron and the Combaticons prepare the Hydrothermocline for transport and the Protectobots round-up the remains of their fallen leader before departing in utter silence. Now alone, Ethan reflects on what he witnessed, Optimus Prime was the most noble being he had ever met in his entire life. In a final, teasing image he writes the name Optimus Prime on a disk and files it away, taking comfort that in the realm of Multi-world, for a character such as Optimus Prime there is always the Afterdeath!
Wow! So where do I start? Optimus Prime is dead (just like in issue #78 and #97 of course) but this time he really is! So what will happen now for the Autobots? Who can pick up the mantle of the greatest Autobot of them all? Prowl, Ultra Magnus? Intriguing questions remain and of course Bob will have plenty more surprises in store. In the end I really enjoyed the video game scenario, but the way Prime insists on his own death is disturbing, and many people despise this story for that single reason. The fact that Megatron cheated just seems to rub it in, and the way this fact is unaddressed at the end leaves readers feeling angry and dismayed. But hey, great art and literature is meant to have an emotional impact right, and why shouldn’t that apply to comic books?
The final scene where Ethan Zachary appears to save Optimus Prime’s mind onto disk also brings up a lot of points. If a Transformers mind can apparently be backed up (as shown back in issue #53 using high density crystals) then why don’t all Transformers do this as an insurance policy against death, not to mention the fact you could potentially use this to create as many Optimus Primes as you wish. Lastly, it seems unlikely that Prime’s vast personality and millions of years worth of memories could be backed up onto a single floppy disk. In 1987 a gigabyte of data was practically unheard of, and you would expect Prime’s memory to be vastly in excess of that.
The US comic was running a Transformers/GI Joe crossover series in parallel to this and the next few issues. Although initially excluded from the UK continuity, it was printed much later on as a space-filler in UK #265-281.