Totalled

The long awaited grudge match between Blaster and Grimlock takes place, with the leadership of the Autobots in the balance, as the Decepticons prepare an ambush

There are a few things you should never do to your loyal fanbase and one of them is keep them waiting too long for a conclusion.

In Transformers #144, published in the UK at Christmas 1987, the fugitive Blaster surrendered to his increasingly despotic commander Grimlock, to spare the lives of Sky-Lynx and the Space Hiker children. It was the sort of courageous, self-sacrificing act that we’d come to expect from this big-hearted fan favourite (a red shouldered robot in the Optimus Prime mould if ever there was one).

Readers were desperate for answers to their questions: How would Grimlock exact his revenge? Might the Autobots find a spine and rise-up against his tyranny at long last? Could Blaster be installed as Autobot Commander in Grimlock’s place (something I doubt this reader was alone in wanting to see).

Instead, we had to wait seven long months – until well into the summer of 1988 – for the continuation. The delay was made bearable by some great stories along the way like Legacy of Unicron, Trial by Fire, City of Fear, etc, but even so.

That long awaited sequel, Totalled, by Bob Budiansky was finally published in the pages of UK Transformers #174 and 175. Is it worth the wait? You betcha!

Not only do we get Blaster and Grimlock settling their differences mano-a-mano, but the crew of the Steelhaven are in the mix, the old guard meeting the new for the first time, and a massive ensemble cast on – of all places the Moon – including original characters we haven’t seen in a long while.

The scenes of the Steelhaven and Ark crews strolling onto the lunar surface are a visual representation of how the sheer number of characters, and therefore the commercial success of Transformers by this point in the run (mid 1988) which was still the highpoint for the franchise.

Budiansky’s Grimlock, reintroduced after a several months’ hiatus, is still a massive ass and lacking the depths or intelligence that Simon Furman imbues his version with. The Dinobots of the US comics appear to be modelled on the Sunbow cartoons, which to be fare were probably better known by many of the readers – outside of the diehard collectors that is.

The cover for #174 contrasts the old and new. Grimlock’s representing the originals, meets his first Headmaster, and on learning that a human (Spike Witwicky) controls Fortress Maximus, exclaims that it’s a “revoltin’ development!”. Perhaps there are a few purists who may agree with the sentiment to a greater or lesser extent.

The story title, Totalled, suggests something or something is about to be destroyed; I’m not clear what, but I think it probably refers to the devastating Decepticon attack against the Autobot forces, who are caught unawares, or perhaps it’s a reference to Optimus Prime getting blown to bits (again) on the opening page.

Jose Delbo does a good homage to the Don Perlin’s iconic exploding Prime from the 1987 shocker Afterdeath. This time though, it’s not the real Optimus being exploded but a new body built for him by Brainstorm and Highbrow. Either the pair are extremely negligent in their wiring, or somehow attempting to transfer the consciousness of Optimus Prime from a floppy disk has caused a catastrophic feedback loop. The problem is unclear; however, it makes for an attention-grabbing opening page and provides the catalyst for Steelhaven to seek out the Ark; put simply they’ve run out of resources to rebuild the former Autobot leader and they need help.

It’s worth noting Goldbug’s discomfort as he’s told the ‘good news’ that they’ve located the Ark space cruising nearby and are on course to meet them. Whilst Goldbug has fitted in nicely with his new shipmates, he hasn’t entrusted them enough to explain that he and Blaster were deserters from Grimlock’s army. Perhaps he fears that this would be seen as a major black mark.

Aboard the Ark, we are reminded why Grimlock is so loathsome. He’s in his dinosaur mode lounging on a throne, being fed oil, and still wearing that stupid crown (a symbol of hubris if ever there was). Ratchet pleads with Grimlock to return the Ark to Earth where humanity will be at the mercy of the Decepticons. Considering their back-history and the Dinobots would still be in a tar swamp if not for the medic, there is no quarter given.

When Snarl informs Grimlock of the contact from Steelhaven, Grimlock immediately reacts like a territorial animal in the presence of a rival. He will see them, but if there is any suggestion of who’s in charge, it’s going to be him!

Given Grimlock’s paranoia it’s no surprise the meeting does not go well. The towering figure of Fortress Maximus ought to cut an imposing figure, but Grimlock is not impressed, particularly at the suggestion the two crews could work together to rebuild Optimus Prime. Labelling Prime “a peace-loving coward,” and assaulting poor Doc Ratchet for good measure (not for the first time in fact, see the 1985 classic The Wrath of Grimlock) and dismissing humans as “worthless”, Grimlock is horrified when Fortress Maximus’ heads transforms to Cerebros and then to Spike Witwicky. Things have moved on and Grimlock has been left feeling like, well, a dinosaur!

The discovery that the fugitive Goldbug is being harboured aboard the Steelhaven is the final straw and Grimlock challenges Fort Max to a duel to determine who should lead. Max ought to be able to take Grimlock given he two to three times larger, but we’re told he’s still recovering from the injuries he sustained in his assault against the Decepticon base (in The Desert Island of Space). You might wonder why Max, as a robot, is not immediately recovered once his parts are repaired or replaced – much as F1 car, speeds out the pits with a new nose – this is not a human body that takes time to recover. Nevertheless, the threat is that Max will lose unless somebody fights for him…

Goldbug, having surrendered in a futile attempt to bring about harmony between the two Autobot crews, is unceremoniously dumped in the brig where he finds his old buddy Blaster attached to a torture device. If the seven months interim between Space Hikers and now has been tough on the fans, it’s been worse for Blaster, hooked up to the VVH and he’s now reduced to wallowing in self-pity.

Blaster gives a useful recap on what happened to him since he parted company with Goldbug, including that the Autobots had begged him to save them from Grimlock. However, since surrendering to protect his human friends, nobody intervened to prevent him being treated as a prisoner; the status quo of Grimlock’s rule continues. Goldbug suggests that Blaster could fight in Max’s place, and take his revenge on Grimlock, and so the stage is set.

Every great gladiatorial match needs a suitable arena and Bob’s fertile mind has dreamed up the perfect location – a large Moon crater. The stakes of a duel have not been so high since Prime fought a power enhanced Megatron in the cartoon classic Heavy Metal Wars. Meanwhile, Ratbat’s Decepticons (including Soundwave drawn with a mouth in place of his usual plate – argh) are poised to launch a surprise attack on the unsuspecting Autobots. How wonderfully “energy efficient” as Ratbat puts it, once a bean counter always a bean counter.

I’m reminded of a pub fight where one fighter asks a pal to hold their coat; in this case Grimlock hands his crown to Snarl, promising that it will be a quick battle. Blaster meanwhile has been reunited with his beloved Electro Scrambler gun – there’s probably nobody outside of the Dinobots who is rooting for a Grimlock win.

Omega Supreme (who seems smaller every time we see him) is referee. Let’s not forget he was originally a towering giant who bested Megatron and several of his henchmen and is now reduced to taking orders from Grimlock the tyrant. Strange. However, part one concludes in epic style with the battle getting underway and the Decepticons waiting in the wings. Fantastic stuff.

On the Transformations page for UK #174 there’s a reference to ‘Dragon’s Teeth’ – an awesome new sci-fi comic from Furman and Senior for Marvel UK set on Earth of 8162. There’s been quite a bit of build-up and now suddenly we’re told that the title has been renamed ‘Dragon’s Claws’ due to a licensing matter (a bit of googling reveals that Marvel discovered the title was already in use elsewhere – I’ve no idea how many copies of Dragons Teeth #1 had been printed or whether they were pulped). The Claws turned out to be a fun ride, with a cameo from our very own Death’s Head to boot, and one I’ll hopefully get around to reviewing in time.

The return of Sunstreaker warrants a mention as a selling point for the issue. In Streaker’s case he’s been inoperative since The Last Stand in UK #8 and last seen on Ratchet’s operating table in the Constructicon debut story, three years earlier. Now, finally he’s back in the land of the living, along with Prowl, Cliffjumper and others.

In part two, the battle begins in earnest. Grimlock, sword drawn, immediately advances with a huge slice, while Blaster displays incredible agility by ducking and diving, and disorientating Grimlock with an Electro Scrambler blast, before booting him away. Grimlock transforms into T-Rex-mode as he lands and latches his jaws on Blaster’s arm. The assembled Autobots watch in horror. Beachcomber, ever the pacifist bemoans all the violence.

Then, right on cue, the Decepticon rocket base arrives in low orbit and blasts the Autobot spectators. The advantage secured, Ratbat orders Onslaught to the troops outside and to engage the remaining Autobots in hand-to-hand combat.

During what must be described as a spectacular lunar battle (a Transformers fanboy’s dream) in which Soundwave even (near) recites his tech-specs motto of cries and screams being music to his ears, the Constructicons perform a raid on the Ark and recover the neatly packed and stored bodies of the Decepticons put out of commission by Omega Supreme in his 1986 debut story Command Performances.

Ratbat watches the carnage unfold with growing delight, while we’re reminded that Buster Witwicky is still their prisoner and indulged with a ringside seat.

During the battle, Fortress Maximus makes a strategic and fateful decision to dispatch Goldbug back to Steelhaven and order its skeleton crew of Slapdash, Joyride and Getaway (a trio we’re now familiar as Autobot ‘Powermasters’ from the latest Hasbro toy adverts) to depart immediately with the Optimus Prime disk.

All of this seems to have miraculously escaped the attention of Grimlock and Blaster (a situation parodied on the cover of UK #175) while the battle on the Moon’s dark side. Finally, explosions catch Blaster’s attention. He suggests a truce while they investigate. Grimlock on seeing Steelhaven blasting away, suspects treachery from Fort Max (or ‘Fullstrength Motleypuss’ as he nicknames him – in fact Grimlock has a few amusing names for Max this story) but Blaster convinces him that a full scale Decepticon attack is clearly underway and what’s more is their fault for causing the distraction that gave the enemy its opportunity.

Grimlock, rather uncharacteristically offers Blaster a draw, which is gratefully accepted, and the pair fight side by side and begin to turn the tide of battle. This is all fantastic punch the air stuff of course, but difficult to believe that two Autobots, even ones as powerful as Grimlock and Blaster can make all the difference.

Even more unlikely, is that the duo can disable the Decepticon ship with an Scrambler blast and well-placed impact from Grimlock’s sword. The ship begins to shake violently due to circuit overload and Ratbat orders a swift retreat.

There are some tough lessons to learn and clearly the two Autobot crews will need to work together to restore their injured and rebuild their ships. Grimlock requests the help of Max in this endeavour, only to be told that Steelhaven has set a course for Nebulos: the one place in the universe where they can reconstruct the great leader, they now need more than ever – Optimus Prime.

Some points in closing, 1) the lunar battle seems on the face of it like a desperate mismatch in the Autobots favour, as we not only have the full count of regular Autobots but the super-enhanced Pretenders/Head/Target Masters, Fortress Maximus himself and Omega Supreme, versus the regular compliment of the erstwhile Earth-bound Decepticons. Their surprise attack using the firepower of their base for the opening salvo was a tactical masterstroke.

2) Some minor editing was required for the UK version of the story. As the Constructicons retrieve the Decepticon POWs, Starscream, Thundercracker, and Frenzy have already been freed during Target 2006, while Skywarp was blown to bits in the same story, so for the UK edition the names on the caskets have been altered to Buzzsaw and Rumble, the only two left unaccounted for. That’s a lot of trouble to go to for just two minor Decepticon warriors, you might think.

3) The story draws a line under the entertaining Blaster and Goldbug deserters story arc, and the disastrous first phase of Grimlock leadership (he will of course get another chance in 1991 following another of Prime’s demises).

4) Many fans struggle to reconcile why the Autobots are so timid in standing up against Grimlock’s tyranny; even in the face of his abandoning of the Earth and torture of Blaster, they do nothing. One theory is that the Autobots are an incredibly honourable race, and obliged to obey the recognised Autobot leader, which may explain why Blaster and Goldbug’s desertion was so frowned upon.

5) While it’s nice to see so many original characters reappear, there are a couple of errors. Skids is pencilled in the background, when in fact he’s meant to be in Limbo dimension, having been displaced there by Galvatron (though not in the US continuity of course) and in Blaster’s flashback, an Autobot that looks suspiciously like Override is among the Ark crew; when he should of course be on Steelhaven. Given the sheer number of characters in this story its to be expected that there will be some mistakes, and ultimately forgivable… though Soundwave drawn with a mouth does stretch my tolerance.

Overall, Totalled is a fantastic standout story in the Marvel Transformers original run, and one I always enjoy coming back to. It sets the scene nicely for the big event of 1988, the return of Optimus Prime.

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To a Power Unknown

A prototype weapon designed to reverse the direction of missiles, causes a dramatic change in the Transformers’ personalities. Plus, other stories from the 1986 Transformers Annual.

Growing up in Britain in the 1980s, annual were a Christmas staple. These hardback books carried text and comic stories, posters, fact files, interviews, quizzes and anything and every else. All the popular TV shows of the day had an annual and I recall my bookshelf being stocked with Knight Rider, Buck Rogers, Roland Rat, Spider-Man… and of course The Transformers.

The first annual was released in 1985 and was pretty good, even if it jarred quite annoyingly with the comic continuity (the Plague of the Insecticons story being a case in point) and the 1986 book sets out to eclipse the previous years. Overall, it succeeds but mostly due to Simon Furman’s amazing Dinobot story Victory (which we’ll come to next) and text stories like State Games which aren’t too shabby either. The book is edited and compiled by Sheila Cranna who was the original editor of the UK Transformers comic. No offence to her, but I tend to think things really improved after she departed.

To a Power Unknown offers the intriguing concept of Evil Autobots and Heroic Decepticons long before the 2008 Shattered Glass story set in a parallel universe. The spectacle of a super polite Megatron and Shockwave complimenting the other’s leadership abilities is a hilarious moment but all in all the story is let down by poor execution, jarring dialogue and some questionable colouring (Seekers all being coloured like Starscream for example). The reversal of the Transformers personalities is well explained though by way of a computer virus that infiltrates and reprograms hardware.

The story is by the unfamiliar pairing of Ian Mennell and Wilf Prigmore with semi regular artist Will Simpson on pencil duty. I like Simpson’s work and he has some good moments here, like when Starscream is hit by Jazz’s missile in mid-air – and he draws a realistic Bet Lynch and Ken Barlow from Coronation Street in a bizarre sequence later in the story. Then there are the scenes in Pinewoodsville where Prowl appears in two places and you can make out Mirage’s back wheel but not what he’s doing, that are crammed and confusing.

The story begins with Optimus Prime thundering along a British motorway with several of his Autobots huddled in the trailer. For the explanation of why they are on the other side of the Atlantic, we’re shown a flashback to recent events where the Autobots were the honoured guests of the citizens of Pinewoodsville, USA. All had been going well until a freak malfunction caused the Autobots to attack the humans and one another. All the goodwill they had built up with the townsfolk evaporated. Once the madness passed, Optimus Prime had ordered Prowl, Jazz, Mirage and Sideswipe, to accompany him to Britain where the signal which altered their behaviour originated.

At the same time the Decepticons had also been affected. In their case the signal made them friendly and docile; they even started apologising to humans for trashing their town! Afterwards Megatron was furious and ordered his Decepticons to locate the ‘Autobot’ device that they thought must be responsible for the hack.

We learn that trigger for these personality changes is a top-secret prototype called PARD – the Purnel Auto-Reverse Defence system. It has been invented by one Professor Purnel to reprogram missiles and turn them against their sender. Its waves had literally covered the globe even being felt in the US. Purnel’s Nazi sounding assistant Zeke Heilmann turns out to be a spy who intends to steal the PARD technology.

Prime is injured by a direct hit from Starscream’s missile and is then attacked by his fellow Autobots as another wave from PARD hits them. After it wears off Starscream tries to press the advantage against the wounded Optimus, but his circuits are still scrambled and he starts picking up errant TV broadcasts, including Coronation Street (!!). This is an even weirder cameo than when Richard Branson featured in the TFUK story Salvage a couple of years later.

Jazz arrives at Purnel’s headquarters to find it on fire and Heilmann escaping with the computer core. He hops into Jazz, believing the Porsche to be a getaway vehicle supplied by his employers and is captured by Starscream. Jazz can’t allow the technology to fall into Decepticon hands, so he lobs a rocket at the Decepticon. Starscream transforms in mid-air, narrowly avoiding the heat seeker and Heilmann is blown up along with the computer chip.

Later the Autobots are driving home with the injured Optimus on their roofs. A passing family think Prime is an art sculpture until he waves at them!

The story shows that the Transformers are little more than machines that can be reprogrammed. It’s a serious vulnerability as super advanced robots should be easily capable of replicating anything the Professor has come up with and that’s a weakness of the story. This is also the first and only time we see the Autobots able to fly in their robot modes.

Also, in the annual is the text story The Beginning. Teenager Adam Reynolds tries to hack into Portland National Bank but instead accesses the Decepticon mainframe and uncovers a history of the Transformers war on Earth. It’s a more creative way than a straightforward ‘story so far’ and with a sting in the tail as Adam triggers a security protocol which sends one million volts coursing through his home PC, blowing it to bits!

The Return of the Transformers concerns Danny Philips, the boy rescued from an exploding bank by Inferno a year ago (that’s the same Inferno who isn’t destined to arrive on Earth for another two years in the main comic). He stumbles into a Decepticon-captured power plant and is rescued by Fireflight. Later, Superion demolishes his hotel to get to Starscream. The experience makes Danny realise that the Transformers are not the perfect beings he thought they were, and he throws his scrapbook about them into the sea. Superion as a liability has echoes of the Marvel US story Aerialbots Over America.

The third text story is State Games which is a nice prequel showing Megatron as a gladiator in the Cybertron province of Tarn. Sunstreaker is thrashed by him and is saved by another fighter, Optimus Prime. The games are a public distraction from a serious fuel shortage. However, war breaks out between rival cities. Optimus tries to get Overlord (who in this story is an ageing Autobot ex-ruler rather than a formidable Decepticon) and is guarded by Ravage and his brother Nightstalker. Nightstalker self-destructs when he comes under attack and Ravage switches sides to join Megatron’s new world order. As Megatron builds an army he is hailed, just as he was in the arena.

State Games is also a good read and fills in some of the back history to the civil war. It attempts to portray Megatron as more than a self-centred, power-hungry bully. He is a popular charismatic who’s able to sway hearts and minds and has a justification in trying to overthrow a corrupt and tired world order. In many ways this story is a precursor to 21st Century tales such as Eric Holmes’ 2007 Megatron Origin mini-series for IDW.

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