Mechanical Difficulties

The Mechanic returns, more audacious than ever as he uses his stolen Autobot technology to power a one-man crime wave; can Blaster and Goldbug can stop him, and what punishment awaits them if they fail?

It’s July 1987 and the Wanted Galvatron saga has drawn to a close (albeit to be finally concluded in that year’s annual) and with the future Autobots and Death’s Head now departed its time for the comic to resume normal service. As previously mentioned, the Galvatron saga had felt over long so I was pleased to move past it and excited to see the latest imaginings from the furtive mind of US writer Bob Budiansky. His latest story Mechanical Difficulties is reprinted in UK issues #121 and #122.

Bob recently installed Grimlock as the new leader of the Autobots so we’re waiting to see how that is working out. And in the story before that he introduced readers to the Transformers’ latest human foe, The Mechanic. He’s an engineering genius and car thief who, on his debut, brazenly infiltrated the Ark and stole Autobot tech. Like Circuit Breaker and Professor Morris he suffers from being ever so slightly annoying. In Circuit Breaker’s case she’s constantly picking on Autobots over the real enemy, and The Mechanic is a cocky git who you want to see getting a good slap and locked up in a police cell. Sadly its not to be.

Bob must be pleased with the character as he brings him back for a second outing – along with sidekick Juan – so soon after his introduction. In the US its a matter of two issues later but in the UK some 10 weeks have passed. Just like Joey Slick (the down on his luck gangster who found himself in possession of Megatron) Nestor Forbes aka The Mechanic is able to use his brush with the Transformers to propel him into the big leagues.

Budiansky’s story, drawn as usual by Don Perlin, opens late night at Portland International Airport where the control tower personnel watch in amazement as a lone figure walks off with one of their huge radar dishes below. It’s The Mechanic using the stolen Power Booster Rod which has the ability to render even the most heavy equipment light as a feather. A truck then crashes through the perimeter fence, driven by his sidekick and the radar dish is placed in the back. Airport security show up but are stopped in their tracks by Ratchet’s former cryogenic spray and laser scalpel which The Mechanic wields as laser guns. The pair of crooks take off at speed – another successful operation.

Several miles away at a run down Industrial section of Portland, we find Goldbug parked up outside the Mechanic’s old garage headquarters. Blaster sits on his dashboard in cassette deck mode. The two Autobots have been waiting for days, under orders from Grimlock to recover the stolen equipment. As Blaster tunes into a rock station he catches the attention of two passing deadheads. One punk takes a crowbar to Goldbug’s passenger door, which the Autobot obligingly opens and then promptly slams shut. The pair are spooked and decide to just break the window with a brick – with Goldbug speeding forward a few metres to avoid contact. They thieves make a run for it, into the waiting arms of detectives Altman and Greco who are assigned to the Mechanic case.

What I thought was little more than a comedy moment has actually prompted Blaster and Goldbug to break off their surveillance and return to base. They find Grimlock trying on crowns (seriously?! This leadership business seems to have gone to his head). When he hears his warriors have come back empty handed Grimlock furiously crushes the crowns and questions why they didn’t simply destroy the humans that got in the way of the mission? So much for humility Grimlock seemed to have learned after the Trypticon incident. His behaviour and leadership style are a major red flag already and shows a staggering lack of awareness of Autobot values. It’s a quick way to lose the trust of the troops. Or perhaps Grimlock thinks the way to make his mark is with being tough and racking up successes?

At the Portland Police department, Detective Greco chats to his boss about the two punks he hauled in earlier and their story about a car that drove off by itself. Greco’s chief has heard about the giant robots can disguise as everyday vehicles and figures that they may be involved with the The Mechanic’s elevation from small time car thief to stealer or hi-tech equipment. They set a trap by leaking word of a high-tech computer coming in by road and the cops will be lying in wait. The important thing to remember is that if any robots show up, then they become the Prime target!

On the outskirts of Portland in an abandoned canning factory, the elusive Mechanic addresses one of Portland’s many gangsters over his new franchise. The customer Mr Bigalow seems unconvinced about the Mechanic’s car modifications, and at 50,000 dollars a time would rather just take his car and leave. Juan takes the car apart using robot arms and his boss throws Mr Bigalow and the remains of the vehicle out the front door and into the river using the Power Booster Rod – The Mechanic doesn’t like time wasters! Wheeljack is able to lock onto the rod’s signal and Blaster and Goldbug are once again dispatched. Grimlock warns them that failure will means much punishment!

The vehicle carrying the so-called super computer with its 256 megabyte capacity is forced to a halt by a tree laying across the road. Juan holds the driver and his friend up at gun point and The Mechanic steals the wonder computer. My first PC in 1989 had a 10MB hard drive so perhaps this one is impressive but I’m feeling underwhelmed.

The cops close in on one side and Blaster and Goldbug are on the other – The Mechanic appears to be trapped. However, the guy who ran away in a panic when he heard police sirens in the Ark, has been replaced by a far more cock-sure fellow who promptly uses the rod to hoist the fallen tree trunk and swing it into the two Autobots as though it were a baseball bat. They make off with the truck and its precious cargo, icing the road behind them to prevent the cops from following. Blaster raises his Electro Scrambler to stop the accelerating truck, but his aim is thrown as a police trooper blasts his arm with a rocket. The Mechanic would probably have been captured if not for the intervention of the police. Sheesh! Detective Greco get a lucky shot on Goldbug’s rear tire, forcing Blaster to repair this ‘flesh wound’ by fitting the spare (who knew Autobots carried spares?).

Later, at The Mechanic’s hideout, what appears to be every crime boss in the North West is assembled for a preview of his car upgrade service. Like every auto mechanic there’s a steep price to be paid; in this case it’s 50,000 dollars to drive off with a car kitted out with an array of firepower and armour. Outside, Goldbug leaves Blaster a distance from the building and goes ahead to spy on The Mechanic. Juan notices the gold beetle and figures it’s not the sort of car one of their wealthy clients would drive!

As police helicopters approach, the Autobots fear the officers will be easy prey for The Mechanic’s arsenal. Blaster transforms, revealing himself to the cops, and warns them of the trap they are walking into. Like Greco, he’s been given lousy orders from a superior but perhaps they can work together to stop the Mechanic.
So, as Goldbug enters the factory via a rear door and is seized by Juan’s production line machinery, Greco waltzes in carrying Blaster in cassette deck mode. He whips out his badge, and switching off the music is the signal for the cops to swarm the building. Blaster transforms and sprays the Mechanics modified cars with his Electro scrambler, causing the vehicles to turn on each other. With the crime bosses being rounded up, Greco orders Juan to stick ’em up and he’s arrested, saving Goldbug from the disassembly line. However, in the chaos The Mechanic slips out of the exit.

Later, Greco thanks the two Autobots for their help, even if it did mean disobeying orders. Blaster and Goldbug realise that their mission has ended in failure and Commander Grimlock will care little for the success achieved with the humans. With the Ark behind them to the East, the pair speed off west…

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) this story marks The Mechanic’s last appearance, despite the unfinished business with the Autobot tools. The story was clearly left open for him to return (and it is even mentioned on the letters page that he will), but with the US book being monthly and the ongoing pressure to introduce characters Budiansky just never got time to do it. A UK story would have sufficed but this never happened either. Grimlock later seems more obsessed with capturing Blaster and Goldbug than the Mechanic! Still this is a good twist having two Autobots become deserters and fans will be intrigued to see how this one pans out.

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Funeral for a Friend

It’s April 1987 and in the Marvel UK Transformers comic the fall-out from the shocking death of Optimus Prime continues.

In the previous story we saw how Megatron was driven insane by the realisation that he had waited four million years to destroy his arch nemesis only for the opportunity to slip through his hands. Unable to comprehend this, Megatron eventually blew up the Space Bridge with himself on it. Is he also dead? No seasoned comic book reader would bet on it, but for now he’s out of the picture and a new era has descended on the Decepticon camp with Shockwave once again in command.

In Funeral For A Friend we get to see how the Autobots are reacting to the loss of their inspirational leader and talisman – the being who more than anyone else embodies their cause. Writer Bob Budiansky’s big reset is in full swing and will conclude with the appointment of the next Autobot leader (and a controversial successor indeed) but for now there is the gut wrenching business of saying goodbye.

The story begins in the Ark’s medical bay as chief physician Ratchet welds together the broken frame of Optimus Prime. Just to add to the enormous pressure on the surgeon’s shoulders, he’s being observed from the gallery by a couple of dozen of his colleagues, all waiting for him to restore life to the dead. No pressure then!

It’s interesting to note who is there and who isn’t – Jetfire, the Protectobots, the Aerialbots, the Cybertron seven, Omega Supreme and the new Autobots (Hoist, Grapple and co) so all of the newer characters basically. The original cast is represented only by Wheeljack and Ratchet himself which goes to show the importance of Hasbro’s latest toyline over the old characters it is phasing out, and the comic reflects this by and large. Thank goodness that Bob keeps the faith with old favourites such as Ratchet.

Skids also appears in the assembly in the US version of the story but has been airbrushed out for the UK comic (since in the UK continuity he was displaced to Limbo by the time travelling Galvatron). It’s lucky that Skids appeared at the back and was easy to erase and I find myself wondering whether this is serendipitous or Simon Furman agreed it with the US team.

We discover that Ratchet has been working non-stop to repair Optimus Prime for 238 hours – which is almost 10 days! He administers a 2,000,000 volt charge to revive their fallen leader, Frankenstein-style… but nothing. The terrible truth is that Optimus is beyond fixing.

Some hours later Omega Supreme (still large but quite a bit smaller than on his comics debut) demonstrates an array of new defences which he built into the mountainside surrounding the Ark. They are activated by a radio signal or by pulling on a power booster rod inside the base. Perceptor is pleased that the base will be secure while everyone is attending Prime’s funeral. He seems to be pretty senior within the Earthbound Autobots despite being a recent arrival. I suppose because he commanded a unit on Cybertron…

Ratchet is haunted by his failure to revive Optimus Prime and refuses to attend the send-off. We see First Aid trying to console him and I imagine it might be a big help for Ratchet to finally have a second medic to split the burden. However, First Aid is newly created and Ratchet thinks the young Protectobot is too inexperienced to understand what it’s like to lose comrades. First Aid does offer a good piece of advice though: “where there’s life there’s hope” – Ratchet must concern himself with the living.

As the convoy departs, Ratchet is alone in the Ark and with his moping. He checks on Prowl and other patients in the life support area, oddly reminiscent of a laundrette with a row washers. Each window contains a fallen Autobot and Ratchet might be able to repair them if he had replacement parts. He decides to heads to a scrap yard under the cover of darkness to see what he can salvage… quite a bit as it turns out. However, he hears human voices and is forced to revert to ambulance mode to avoid detection.

In the Transformation page for issue #109, readers are warned to expect the debut of the Transformers latest and most deadly human foe – Nestor Forbes aka The Mechanic. That’s probably overstating his abilities somewhat but as threats go he’s not insignificant. We join the Mechanic’s assistant, the car thief Juan, who is being pressured by a buyer to let him deal the boss rather than a middleman. The Mechanic steps out of the shadows – perhaps now the customer will do business properly? Suddenly the buyer pulls out a police badge and sqaud come screaming in. The Mechanic is reduced to a quivering wreck (so much for being a super villain) and flees with Juan into the waiting Ratchet. They take off with the cops in hot pursuit.

The Mechanic has a real phobia about the police. He did an eight year stretch behind bars and is terrified of going back. As he cowers in the back of Ratchet, the Autobot uses his cryogenic scalpel medical tool to ice up the road and assist their escape. He’s hoping the Mechanic is too freaked out to notice. No such luck. Pretty soon he’s got a screwdriver out and has removed the tools from Ratchet’s interior. Once back in the Mechanic’s garage HQ, Ratchet reveals his robot form and announces he’s taking his weapons back and will be leaving. While elsewhere, Omega Supreme places the body of Optimus Prime in a funeral barge and the vessel is blasted off to the stars. So long Prime!

In the second instalment, things have turned decidedly frosty for Chief Medical Officer Ratchet who has been turned into a giant snowman by a blast from his own cryogenic scalpel, now wielded by the Mechanic. Frozen to the spot, he has no choice but to stay put until he thaws. He then sets off to drive back to the Ark with the Mechanic and Juan following and hoping to score some more advanced technology.

At the funeral, Perceptor delivers the eulogy and remarks that Optimus was a beacon in this dark alien world. He’s speaking for all I suppose but its odd in that Perceptor literally only arrived at the ark seven issues previously so he’s had little or no opportunity to experience Prime’s leadership on Earth. As the Autobots begin their return to base, Ratchet is there ahead of them and transmits the radio signal to deactivates Omega’s defences. The Mechanic’s pick-up truck parks nearby and the wily criminal slips in on foot.

Once there he observes Ratchet reactivate the defences using the rod. Mechanic is feeling pretty brave now he’s in possession of weapons (and irritated at being labelled a thief) and he uses one of stolen lasers to blast a gaping hole in Ratchet’s knee. The medic crashes to the floor, leaking fuel, but the tables are about to be turned as the other Autobots appear on the monitor, having arrived outside. The Mechanic knows he is finished if they get into the Ark but he cannily switches the gun turrets back on and decides to hold on to the power booster rod, which miraculously makes even the heaviest equipment light as a feather.

As Omega Supreme and the other Autobots take heavy damage, Ratchet flees the Mechanic in ambulance mode, still leaking fuel, and retreats into his medical bay. He props himself against Prowl’s life support capsule. It looks like he may never get the chance to repair his friend… or will he. He still has a few minutes before the Mechanic finds him, so he decides to use them to install the scrap yard parts. In Prowls case that was a set of lights, however we’re supposed to believe that this was enough to revive Prowl. So much so that when the Mechanic appears and uses the rod to haul a hunk of machinery into the air intending to crush Ratchet, he’s startled by the wail of a police siren and makes a swift run for it. He joins the waiting Juan in the pick-up outside and exclaims that it was police trap. Juan thinks his boss has taken leave of his senses and not surprisingly.

Ratchet and First Aid get to work patching up the latest casualties. First Aid is pleased to see his comrade in better spirits. Ratchet has not yet put the loss of Optimus Prime behind him but he’s been too busy concerning himself with helping the living! As he speaks the funeral barge containing Optimus streaks across the sky.
In closing – poor old Ratchet. He’s been a favourite character of mine since the 1985 story arc where he was the last surviving Autobot and had to take on the Decepticons alone. This time he’s not looking too clever getting outsmarted by the latest annoying human enemy. In light of the pressure on Bob Budiansky to continually introduce new characters from the ever expanding Hasbro toy range we can be grateful that older characters like Ratchet still get to go centre stage.

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