Heavy Traffic!

This 1986 Marvel classic sees the Stunticons take to the road and do battle as Menasor with the Aerialbot combined form, Superion – with Circuit Breaker in the mix, hunting down Transformers for her trophy wall.

December 1986. The Marvel Transformers comic enters the final furlong of a remarkable year where it has grown in confidence and reputation thanks to stunning original material like Target 2006. And at the same time fans are being to be blown away by Transformers the Movie – which opened in the UK 12th December. It was the first big screen outing for the franchise and after 35 years is in my opinion still the best.

To mark the occasion, Grimlock’s regular letters page is dropped for issue #91 with him reviewing the Movie instead, LOL. His verdict: “Kids – let’s not mince words… this movie’s utterly, utterly brilliant!”

Transformers #91 & #92 features the Marvel US story Heavy Traffic! Writer Bob Budiansky properly reintroduces Circuit Breaker as an existential threat and provides a neat debut for Stunticons. I should declare an interest; Motormaster was the first Special Team toy I bought back in the day and the Stunticons have always been personal favourites. It’s great to see them finally taking to the road, rather than as a Matrix-induced dream (see issues 63-65).

Equally brilliant is the long-awaited return of Blaster and the rest of the ‘Cybertron Seven’ – though its fair to say they’ve seen better days. The story begins with the unsuspecting septet examining military vehicles for signs of sentient life. It’s that favourite old stich about Transformers not recognising organics and mistaking vehicles as Earth’s dominant species. The Ark’s computer core AUNTIE made the same error after it awoke in 1984 of course, but you’d like to think Cybertron has encountered many diverse worlds during its four million years traversing the stars – surely Transformers would have encountered organic life in that time? Or perhaps Blaster and company were holed up in their resistance cell throughout?

The account of what proceeded their arrival on Earth via the Space Bridge in issue #69 is revealed by Circuit Breaker in a briefing to her government sponsor, Walter Barnett of Triple I. She’s been hired to head-up a crack squad called RAAT (short for Rapid Anti-robot Assault Team). This must be the least comfortable team acronym to work under since Richard Nixon’s Committee to RE-Elect the President (CREEP) and the boss is just a tad obsessive about her work!

She tells Barnett the robots were ‘moments away from crushing’ the vehicles before RAAT intervened. Even he can see that isn’t the case but probably realises that CB has a major mental blackspot where Transformers are concerned. RAAT helicopters and released electrical foil above the Autobots which disrupted their circuits, allowing troops to abseil down and affix a pad on to each robot’s head. Circuit Breaker then personally intervened, unleashing 300,000 volts upon the disorientated Cybertron Seven and rendering them inoperative. After loading them on to flatbed trucks they were on their way to RAAT headquarters, all in 46 minutes!

Barnett thinks the use of force may have been unnecessary but the results speak for themselves. How would Circuit Breaker appreciate a cash bonus, he asks? Naturally, she’s appalled – money is certainly not her motivator, she lives for the destruction of all robots! Though you have to wonder how she earns money for her food and board when not working as a government hired gun.

As she departs to continue her work, she passes the mounted faces of the Cybertron seven – a grim reminder of her personal vendetta against Transformers.

A world away at the Ark, Ratchet treats Optimus Prime for an open wound he sustained in the Limbo dimension (see issue 100). Unknown to the pair the tiny insect form of Bombshell is watching (having sneaked into the Ark on Silverbolt’s wing last issue). He sees Prime’s wound as the perfect opportunity to plant one of his mind-controlling ‘cerebro shells’ and manoeuvres unnoticed. The shell makes its way up to Prime’s brain module and takes root – but for some unexplained reason it fails to take control and can only monitor the Autobot leader’s thoughts.

With his wound repaired, Prime heads to Wheeljack’s lab where the technician is fitting a chemical tracker to Skids. The device will allow him to follow the fuel trail left behind by Blaster, and hopefully lead to the Cybertron Seven. It’s interesting to see how Prime and the Autobots have nearly as much disdain for Donny Finkleberg (the human who supplied the intel) as his former Decepticon captors. Perhaps that’s understandable given that Donny was ‘Robot Master’ a Decepticon stooge for several weeks/months. Optimus will know that Megatron is easily capable of coercing a human, so the Autobots’ mistrust of Donny probably runs a little deeper. They’ve concluded he’s a greedy weasel who would sell his granny for a Walter Barnett $25,000 cheque. This being the case, what happens later with Skids trusting Donny makes little sense.

As it happens, Donny is carrying one of those Triple I cheques in his wallet. All the Autobots have to do is hold on to that to secure his cooperation. So Prime assigns Donny to accompany Skids to track down the Cybertron seven. Bombshell uses the opportunity to plant a homing device inside Donny’s wallet, hoping to lead the Decepticons to him.

Skids and Donny depart and Prime turns his attention to the Aerialbots. Following the near disaster at Hoover Dam their minds have been blanked, ready to be reprogrammed and given life by Prime’s Creation Matrix. Unbeknown to the Autobot leader, Soundwave is eavesdropping via Bombshell’s cerebro shell and the Decepticons are ready to steal away the Matrix when it is released. It’s the Transformer equivalent of piggy backing on to a neighbour’s unsecured WIFI signal perhaps?

Since the opportunity for the Decepticons to ‘hack the Matrix’ was entirely fortuitous and unexpected, it’s rather difficult to believe (as readers of the US comics are expected to) that the Decepticons were able to rapidly engineer the five Stunticon bodies, program them and design their combination ability in the short time between Prime instructing Wheeljack to prepare the Aerialbots for Matrixing and him actually carrying out the action. In the UK continuity this makes a little more sense, as the Decepticons had also been privy to Buster’s dream and had time to begin constructing their Special Teams.

Meanwhile, Skids has a fix on the Cybertron Autobots but is forced into an impromptu rescue when a woman careers off the road in the rain and crashes into an electric pylon. Skids transforms and goes to her aid – leaving Donny to whine about getting soaked. His noble act makes the TV news and is seen by Walter Barnett, who starts to believe there could be some truth in the theory that not all robots are evil, and Circuit Breaker who decides there’s another robot loose that she has to hunt down! Megatron has also been watching the tele and sends the Stunticons to rendezvous with Skids and undo his good work.

Skids succumbs to Donny’s weary protests that he needs to stop at a motel and sleep. They find a suitable establishment and the Autobot, very unwisely asks Donny to press his ‘shutdown button’ that puts Skids in his own recharging mode. The off switch is a very suspect idea and it appears that Skids cannot activate it himself. When morning comes, the Stunticons are quietly waiting in vehicle modes at the motel car park.

Skids and Donny resume their journey and spot a commotion in the rear mirror. It’s Motormaster taking road rage to new levels by ramming cars aide and telling the traffic to ‘get out of the way or die’ – ha!

Issue #92, which carries the second part, continues the Transformers the Movie love-in with a full page advert for the film’s (excellent) soundtrack and a reader offer to win copies of the album if you can answer such questions as who Megatron is transformed into and the Mr Spock actor who provides a voiceover! Grim Grams also plugs the film fairly remorselessly but what caught my eye was the reply to one Michael Blagg of Blackpool. He’s told in reply to comments about the Wreckers, that Impactor can switch his right arm for a variety of weapons – the harpoon being his favourite. That sounds an awful lot like the Death’s Head character which Furman would be introducing around 20 issues after this one.

But getting back to the story… as the Stunticons transform and close in on Skids, they come under attack from RAAT helicopters who deploy their electrical interference foil. Deadend considers the human attack beneath their notice, but Motormaster is more canny and warns his men never to underestimate an enemy.

Deadend promptly disperses the foil using his compressed air gun and Breakdown blasts one of the choppers out of the sky (presumably with the four abseiling RAAT troopers meeting a sticky end?).

Circuit Breaker realises that this group of robots are far more aggressive than the last and unleashes on Dragstrip and Wildrider. It’s one of the rare occasions she attacks Decepticons! Motormaster (got to love him) uses his huge sword as a golf club to swipe the cab clean off a truck and send it skywards into Circuit Breaker, who hovers back to the ground. It’s a cool moment and at this point I’m practically rooting for the Stunticons, since CB is such a pain in the rear end and is finally getting what she deserves!

Donny runs over to see if CB is okay. Their exchange, with him saying “they must be paying you a ton” and her reply, speaks volumes about the characters and motives. Barnett also arrives to confront Donny – they have a lot to discuss! To be fair to Donny he does his best to defend Skids and the arriving Aerialbots, even succeeding in persuading Barnett. Then the Stunticons surround Skids and pretend to protect him. This Decepticon trick appears to work as both Circuit Breaker and Barnett now accuse Donny of being in league with the bad robots and CB goes to re-join the fight.

At last the moment arrives that fans have been waiting for, as the two teams combine into Superion and Menasor respectively. The behemoths square off. Menasor uses a section of flyover as a shield and Superion shattering it with a single punch. They seem pretty evenly matched, until Circuit Breaker flies alongside Superion’s head and unleashes a mighty burst of electricity, stunning the Autobot and allowing Menasor to steal the advantage and blast Superion at close range. He falls and Menasor hails his victory, moving to crush the weakened Circuit Breaker.

Barnett, in an amazing display of strength it has to be said, clings to a rope dangled from a RAAT chopper and swings into action, rescuing CB in mid-air from Menasor’s clenching fist. In the distraction, Skids and Donny flee the scene. There’s nothing they can do to help Superion.

Later that night, Donny puts Skids to bed via his deactivation button, and goes into a motel. He places a call to Walter Barnett… asking how much a Transformer would be worth to him, no fuss, sleeping like a baby. It is the quickest 50 grand he has ever made!

I’m tempted to say ‘what a creep’ but Donny is not all bad, just weak. His desire to get out of the situation financial enhanced gets the better of him and he takes advantage of Skids’ trusting nature. The Cybertron Seven captured, plus the Aerialbots and shortly Skids. Things are not looking good for the Autobots at this point.

Next story
Previous

Second Generation

The Autobots and Decepticons are shown a vision of their future – the Special Teams, courtesy of Buster Witwicky’s Matrix-induced nightmares, and Megatron battles Shockwave for the Decepticon leadership once again.

Late May 1986, the big summer event from Hasbro is the release of the new combiner teams – the Aerialbots, Protectobots, Stunticons and Combaticons. Unlike the Constructicons, which are fiddly to combine (and not for sale in the UK anyway) these new teams are more streamlined. A larger ‘team leader’ becomes the body of the combined robot and the other four members easily click into place as arms and legs. All are interchangeable. As a disgruntled Mixmaster wryly observes in the story, suddenly the Constructicons are “yesterday’s news”.

There’s one problem. The new toys are not scheduled to appear in the UK comic until late November. That’s good timing for Christmas sales but not ideal for Hasbro execs looking to give the Special Team toys a push as they go on sale in mid 1986. The solution is this story, Second Generation, where the Special Teams debut in a dream, ahead of their actual debut.

Issue #63’s cover by Alan Stevens is an arrangement of Superion and Menasor from their box art. I can’t be sure whether Stevens is the box artist or the guy who arranged the compilation, but it’s reminder (if any were needed) of some major product placement on the way. There’s the third and final Robot War round-up explaining the saga so far, and then straight into the action from Simon Furman and artist John Stokes.

It starts by delving into Buster’s dream and this time the readers are along for the journey. Buster runs from Shockwave in a strange barren dreamscape with fire and orbiting moons. His legs scream in agony and oxygen-starved lungs beg for release (all told, it reminds me of the first 10k I ever ran). Shockwave is like the Terminator, he’s relentless and unstoppable, making light work of Optimus Prime, Jazz and Ratchet, as you can see above. It’s a great sequence apart from the blunder with Shockwave being drawn with two hands in one panel, rather than his distinctive gun arm, oops.

Buster is saved from certain death by the appearance of Superion, who blows Shockwave to pieces! Then Menasor attacks the giant Autobot and Buster flees the madness again, only to have his path blocked by the Combaticons, who combine into Bruticus.

Buster wakes with a scream – he is safely within the Ark. His father and Jessie are there, along with Prime and Ratchet. Sparkplug complains bitterly that the Autobots and Prime personally have made his son a “walking target” in their civil war. Stokes does a good job of drawing robots and making the dream sequence other-worldly and vivid, but I’m not keen on his humans. Buster like he’s about 12 and in need of a haircut, and Sparkplug like a wrinkly old crone. Not appealing.

Prime correctly interprets Buster’s nightmares as a message from the Matrix. And, in the Wyoming coal mine Soundwave explains the same theory to Megatron. The dynamic with Donny Finkleberg (aka Robot Master) irritating the hell out of Megatron is good fun. Megatron is desperate to blast him to a pulp (a sentiment shared by a fair few readers) but cannot because Donny is integral to the Decepticon propaganda war. Presumably, Ravage is with Megatron full time, guarding their captive.

In flashbacks we’re reminded of Buster’s sacrifices on behalf of the Autobots (for the benefit of new readers presumably, though this feels a bit like filler). He will help the Autobots again, this time by re-entering the dream with Optimus Prime at his side. At the Decepticon base, Shockwave has dusted down the technology he used to plunder Prime’s mind of the Matrix a while back, and will use it to eavesdrop on the visions.

It’s interesting to see how close Soundwave comes to being discovered as a double agent. Luckily for him, Shockwave is more concerned with the bigger picture stuff and tends to ignore trivial details. For all his vast intelligence and logic, he is easily duped.

And so, to issue #64 and chapter two of the saga. It’s the first time I’ve seen Shakespeare quoted in the comic (‘perchance to dream’ being mentioned on the Transformation page – I’m not sure I would have got the reference aged 12) and the first French quotation, with Defensor delivering the “coup de grace” to Bruticus. Barry Kitson is on art duties for the final time (though he’d draw a few more covers).

The story is a re-do of the mini comic that readers were treated to in Transformers #54 except longer and better drawn. The first team they (and we) meet are the Protectobots (this is only fair as they were missing from the opening instalment). They helpfully namecheck themselves for a proper introduction. Their mission is to make sure that the plant is safely evacuated. Blades, in helicopter mode, spots five vehicles approaching, who turn out to be the Stunticons.

Moments later, the Decepticon cars demonstrate their ability to combine “in one fluid move” into Menasor. Shockwave is watching along impressed (hopefully he missed the bit where his rival Megatron was depicted as Decepticon leader in the vision). He thinks Menasor is infinitely superior to the Devastator. Unsurprisingly Mixmaster is less convinced, probably realising the Constructicons are likely to get even less exposure in the comic once the new teams come along.

Buster and Prime observe Defensor wrestling Menasor (possibly the only time in the comic that we see them clash). Three military vehicles pull into the plant along with an army helicopter (Vortex mis-coloured as Blades – whoops), while high in the air, space shuttle Blast-Off dodges five planes (the approaching Aerialbots) to merge with his fellow Combaticons into Bruticus! It is two against one, until Superion arrives to even the odds.

Menasor turns out to have a pretty major weakness – his component parts can’t always agree. Dead End takes exception at being told when to fire and misses the opportunity. Also, embarrassingly he’s been drawn as Dragstrip. With so many new characters being introduced, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Kitson got confused who he was meant to be drawing. The kids will have noticed though.

Superion directs the blast at Bruticus and Defensor stamps on the stunned Decepticon’s head (brutal for a kids comic). Menasor’s retreat is halted by Superion’s Stress Fracture Cannon creating a mini earthquake under his feet. And so the battle ends with Prime and Buster waking up and saying with them the phrase of the moment…. SPECIAL TEAMS!

There’s also no mention of Matrix dreams after this, which suggests that the merger with Prime exorcised the visions from Buster’s mind. For that matter, there’s no explanation why the dream was a coherent story when Prime and Buster accessed it, and a hellish nightmare previously.

Megatron learns about the combiner teams from Soundwave and resolves to challenge Shockwave again for the Decepticon leadership. This is the premise for the third and final instalment (and the best). Though still under the banner of Second Generation its only loosely connected to the previous two parts. As the Transformation page suggests, this is a rematch that has been inevitable and eagerly awaited by readers.

Jeff Anderson takes his turn on the art duties, introducing us to coloured borders around frames to denote flashbacks. It’s a technique that he uses again in the upcoming Target 2006 to good effect.

Donny Finkleberg plays up his Robot Master alter ego, introducing the two challengers and the fact they are fighting for leadership. While it’s great fun to read this presented like a heavyweight boxing bout, it’s totally illogical the Decepticons would have Robot Master do this. His cover is meant to be that he’s the commander of the machines, so why introduce the idea of factions in the public consciousness, or the idea of there being a commander of the Decepticons with rivals contesting the job?

Apart from the doubtful set-up, the fight itself is pretty good. It’s no holds barred using fists, weaponry and discarded army tanks. Though evenly matched, you get the impression that Megatron at full strength (he wasn’t last time around) is the more powerful of the two (and the dirtier fighter). My expectation before reading the issue the first time around was that it would result in a Megatron victory. However, the outcome really isn’t in the hands of Simon Furman, as the UK comic reprints all the Marvel US stories, so any change of leadership would need to marry up with want Bob Budiansky is doing over the pond.

Soundwave cannot believe the Decepticon leaders are scrapping around for the benefit of humans. The scene where he spits at Donny, making the sound PUTTUP answers one of the long-standing questions of the letters page hosted by Soundwave. Every time an Autobot is mentioned on the page, he would accompany it with the word PUTTUP. Now we learn it’s the sound he makes when spitting oil. How Soundwave does this with a plate over his mouth is a whole other matter.

Soundwave hopes that the Autobots aren’t watching the broadcast. They are, but Prime is not too bothered as humans are not in danger. He hopes the pair will destroy one another. Their attention is on creating the Special Teams, with Wheeljack having already created a schematic of Superion. Wheels are in motion for future stories, including the mention that the Autobots do not yet understand the combination process and will need to observe someone. He is interrupted by an alarm before he can finish the sentence, but we know Prime is referring to Devastator. This also dovetails with the upcoming story Command Performances. I assume Furman got quite a bit of advanced warning of what Budiansky was planning State-side.

That alarm is the Dinobots waking up. The madness which caused their earlier rampage is now gone (as evidenced by the return of their usual bad attitude) and there’s the intriguing hint of more about their recovery in the 1986 Transformers Annual. This is a reference to the superb Furman/Senior story, Victory. With the Dinobots also due to appear in Command Performances, Furman has taken the opportunity to revive them here.

Soundwave, ever the grown up, intervenes to bring the fight to a close by offending both Megatron and Shockwave in unison. He cites their very different approaches – one logical and patient, the other action orientated – and proposes that they work together as joint leaders. The one who’s approach results in the most Autobot casualties will lead. Surprisingly, both agree, perhaps sensing that they are more evenly matched as fighters than they care to admit.

Remember what I said about the result needing to concur with the US storyline? This joint leadership is what results when the two leaders meet in the upcoming story Bridge To Nowhere, except in the UK the panels are edited to refer to an existing situation. It’s much better in my opinion that we’ve had this issue establishing the set-up instead of Bob’s approach which feels rushed and perhaps a bit underwhelming given the anticipation of a rematch.

And so the story ends, with Prime feeling confident that with Dinobots active and the secrets of the Special Teams solely in Autobot hands, they are finally on the front foot. If only they knew. Then finally we see the message that Soundwave transmitted to Cybertron in issue #36 finally reaching its target.

The blurb for next week’s return to Cybertron epic sounds amazing! There the war is over and the Decepticons have won. Plus, Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust and the Insecticons will appear, along with someone called Lord Straxus! And there’s fact files on Soundwave and Blaster. In hindsight it’s a hint of Blaster’s imminent debut in the comic. Onwards to one of the best Transformers stories of all time… The Smelting Pool.

Next Story
Previous