Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom!

One of the most bizarre Transformers stories of writer Bob Budiansky’s reign sees Buster Witwicky uncover a plot by Ratbat to steal gasoline by hypnotising motorists in his Wash and Roll car washes!

Simon Furman titled one of his early Marvel UK Transformers stories Raiders of the Last Ark and in 1987 it was the turn of US writer Bob Budiansky to run with the Indiana Jones theme. His story, Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom is one of his most off-the-wall and rather sounds like the title came to him in the shower one morning and he decided to craft a story around it.

On the up side it’s got Ratbat as a main character, offering us a chance to enjoy more of his obsessive penny pinching and complete absence of morals – and it’s a welcome return for the Buster Witwicky (who saves the day without help from any of his Autobot friends). On the downside its a stand-out silly story that even the UK editorial team are struggling to take seriously and raises questions about whether Bob was starting to get a bit bored with the book by this point.

Car Wash has been a few issues in the making. Bob introduced us to Ratbat an his role as Decepticon fuel auditor and bean counter in chief in the Trypticon story. Crater Critters established that he’d sent a mysterious cargo to Earth and in The Cure, Astrotrain darted GB Blackrock with a brainwashing microchip that allowed him to be manipulated for what’s to follow. At this point in the US run, readers last saw Buster at the end of the 1985 story Prime Time where he returned the Matrix to Optimus Prime and returned to a normal life. In the UK Buster returned a couple more times, not least in a major way for the Special Teams debut story Second Generation, but even this side of the pond he’s been absent for a good nine months. And what an infamous story to return to!

The story is printed in the UK in the pages of Transformers #128, with a cover depicting Shockwave setting his ‘dogs’ (Ramjet, Thrust and Vortex against a Blackrock tanker). I like it a lot. Now, Blackrock must be one of the most unlucky billionaires there is! Literally every time the Decepticons target a rig or a plant its always one his, never a competitor. (Having said that Blackrock did comment in UK#123 that tankers were going missing so perhaps the Decepticons have been targeting indiscriminately). On this occasion one of Blackrock’s tankers is attacked in a bit of piracy on the high seas by the Conehead jets, Vortex and the Insecticons (all fairly recent additions to the Earth Decepticons’ ranks).

Before too long the vessel is seized and the crew rounded up. Bombshell hits one poor soul with a mind-controlling Cerebro Shell in order to have the man direct them to the control room. It’s a waste of a good shell as Kickback suggests – he’d have rather used his own powers of persuasion! – but Bombshell reveals their effectiveness is being tested. This being a family comic, the crew are put to sea in lifeboats rather than be executed (which might have been easier). The ship is towed to a small uncharted island, or rather the Decepticon’s undersea base which is concealed below. Commander Shockwave and the newly arrived Ratbat fly out to it.

Shockwave is smugly content that the operation went flawlessly, thanks to his “infallible logic” (naturally). But when Ratbat sinks his fangs into a pipe line there’s red faces all round – the tanker is empty!! It appears the tanker had already delivered its cargo when the Decepticons attacked. Shockwave is furious, immediately laying the blame with his warriors! Ratbat makes sure to rub it in by calculating the units of lost energy. The dynamic between the two is highly amusing. Clearly there’s no love lost between them but Shockwave has to be on his best behaviour to avoid Ratbat pulling the plug on the Earth operation. It’s difficult to imagine Megatron controlling himself and not roasting Ratbat with his fusion cannon and the first sign of condescension.

Ratbat suggests that they ought to be making use of the planets natives. Shockwave has little time for the idea and warns Ratbat not to bother – but Ratbat reveals that he already has plans in place…

Back on the mainland, in Portland, Oregon, Sparkplug Witwicky’s auto dealership now has a vulgar-looking Wash and Roll car wash adjacent (presumably this would have required months of applying for planning permission or perhaps not). Business seems to be booming with a queue formed on the forecourt. Sparkplug arrives to take over filling the customers’ tanks from Buster, mentioning that he also wants to fill his own tank – very strange as it was only filled an hour ago. Suddenly Buster’s girlfriend Jessie arrives on her bike and invites Buster to join her for a drink. He is forced to decline as another customer pulls up. Jessie shows Buster the local paper reporting a feared fuel shortage in the north west. Could it all be linked?

Elsewhere, at his corporate headquarters, GB Blackrock holds a press conference to reveal the success of the Wash and Roll – the “cleansing experience for both car and driver” – and reveals his plans for Wash and Roll mark two. After the reporters leave, Blackrock’s mind turns blank like he’s been hypnotised. He removes a tiny cassette from his inside pocket, which transforms into the fearsome form of Ratbat – his plan working perfectly.

Later that evening, Buster is sweeping up the forecourt when a final customer pulls up – Jessie! Her brother’s car needed a wash, and Buster reluctantly accepts her invitation to join her through the Wash and Roll! As the car slowly moves through, various flashing lights and heavy metal music blaze out, but Buster spends every day at this place so he’s not too excited. She decides to cheer him up another way – i.e. jumping on him! All of a sudden a light flashes into Jessie’s eyes, and the effect is instant. As the cycle soon finishes, Jessie tells Buster she has to go and then drives off zombie-like. Buster is confused and concerned and decides to follow her for an hour’s drive until she turns off the highway into a Blackrock fuel depot…

Elsewhere in the issue, we’ve got our first advert for the Hasbro Headmasters toys, and Grimlock defends the decision to conclude the Wanted Galvatron saga in the annual. It seems the marketing gimmick is not to everyone’s liking, though I would have thought most Transformers fans would want to pick up the annual anyway. We’re also at the start of a long an enjoyable Robo Capers saga with King Nonose and the Inventor on Earth’s moon.

In part two (UK #129) Buster uncovers the Decepticon plan. He follows Jessie into the Blackrock depot wondering whether she has a night job that she hadn’t mentioned before. He sees her ‘fill up’ her tank before driving off again and blocks her path with his car. Jessie doesn’t seem to acknowledge him until he flashes his headlights, snapping her back into reality. Suddenly Laserbeak swoops down and blasts at Buster’s car. He hasn’t been recognised the human as an Autobot as first thought, just a human who is out of line
The cons are actually siphoning fuel from hypnotised motorists before sending them on their way.

Presumably there is an art to leaving just the right amount of fuel in the tank or there would be a lot of folk breaking down on the drive home? Ratbat’s plan seems very inefficient compared to just stealing the oil directly as per Shockwave’s approach. The only justifiable reason for the laborious process of stealing gasoline from drivers must simply be down to its discreteness, but then you can only wonder how long people would take to notice their partners constantly staring into space and going on late night drives. Plus spending all the household income on petrol!

Buster and Jessie climb to the roof of an adjacent building where they can see Blackrock, flanked by Ratbat, addressing the crowd. He helpfully explains (for the readers – it’s difficult to imagine why the hypnotised crowds need to know) that Astrotrain zapped him with a hypnotising chip and he’d witnessed the Decepticon’s cargo transform into the first Wash and Roll car wash. Blackrock then instructed his organisation to begin mas production of the washes. The only problem is that the hypnosis quickly wears off – however Wash and Roll mark II will be a lot more permanent. He selects someone from the crowd to test it out, and picks on Buster’s dad Sparkplug (who oddly gives his name as Irving Witwicky and not William as he did previously in Prisoner of War – Bob probably forgot).

Buster must act right away, and after sending Jessie to find help, he speeds his own car into his dad’s path. The brainwashed humans soon surround him, leaving Buster no choice but to flee into the Wash and Roll (not the most sensible escape route given that it washes brains!) and Ratbat follows him, jumping onto Buster’s bonnet, and draining the cars fuel vampire-like. Buster rolls out of the door, covering his eyes, and gripping a tyre iron. He kicks a water pipe, splashing Ratbat in the face who releases him. Suddenly Jessie comes speeding in and shunts Ratbat (she couldn’t leave Buster to face this monster alone, she says). Buster decides there is no time to call the Autobots, this must be ended now.

He smashes the neon Car Wash sign with a throw of the iron, creating a big flash that wakes everyone from their trances. The crowd bombard the Laserbeak and Ratbat with spanners forcing the Decepticons into a rather pathetic retreat. Buster has saved the day and is congratulated by his dad and GB Blackrock (amazingly this is the first time the two have met considering they are both so closely linked to the Autobots). Blackrock vows to dismantle all the Wash and Rolls and Jessie thanks Buster with a big smooch.

In summary, the infamous Car Wash of Doom is not one of the best examples of the Marvel Transformers run, which is a shame seeing as it sees the welcome return of Buster, Jessie and Sparkplug. The story has its moments, in particular the moment where the Decepticons discover the tanker they went to all the trouble to hijack is empty! It’s odd to think that an operation run by the calculating Shockwave could be incompetent. Mind you Ratbat may not be in a position to criticise after this, now that his ropey scheme to hypnotise people into handing over their fuel tanks has literally run out of gas. Why not capture a rig or demand fuel in return for not destroying a city or something? Bizarre.

Next issue we go off-world for our first glimpse of the planet Nebulos, home of the most unique Autobots and Decepticons yet – the Headmasters!

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The Gift

It’s the festive season but Jetfire is having trouble fitting in with the other Autobots and visits their human friend Buster Witwicky seeking advice.

As 1986 draws to a close, the Marvel UK Transformers comic sees the welcome return of James Hill for one of his rare appearances, standing in for regular writer Simon Furman. James bookends the year, having written the first story (Crisis of Command) and now the last, with The Gift. This is his second festive Transformers story, having penned the quintessential yuletide tale Christmas Breaker! the previous year, and his last story for the Marvel TF comic.

On art duties is Martin Griffiths, who is best known for his work of the Marvel UK Thundercats comic. Issue #93’s story is his only strip for Transformers UK, although he would later illustrate the cover for issues #103 and #143.

The first thing that strikes you about the comic is the Robin Smith cover. Rather than illustrating the story within, there’s a surprise appearance from Galvatron, exclaiming “I’ll be back!” while taking aim at a metallic looking Christmas fern. Those Terminator-style words are a hint of what’s to come if ever there was one. Naturally none of us will have thought we’d seen the last of Galvatron when he scuttled off back to his own time in issue #87, but to be talking about bringing him back already (barely five weeks later) feels like indecent haste. In fact, his actual return to the 1980s would be in issue #101 – and he’d be staying for good!

The issue’s Transformation page, complete with festive snow coating and Xmas wrapping, explains that the cover hint is part of the production team’s attempts at pulling out the stops to produce the ultimate Christmas present for their loyal readers. There’s also 20 of the Sunbow Transformers videos to be given away in a competition and an AtoZ entry (always appreciated) on Beachcomber and Blades.

The Gift is two mini-stories in one, knitted together through the device of Jetfire’s narration. It being almost Christmas, the small Oregon town of Portland is enjoying a coating of snow. Buster Witwicky is in his room weighed down with his college history project and wandering if future kids will be studying the Transformers war on earth.

The TV news details a recent incident at a chemical plant concerning the giant robots, and Buster hears a knocking at the window – it’s Jetfire.

Buster’s décor is a bit odd. There’s a banner up saying ‘Happy Christmas 86’ which I’m guessing can’t be used again, and a framed photo of a bare-chested guy (should Jessie be worried?) but it’s nice to see the scale of Transformers compared to humans, with Jetfire’s face filling the entire window frame. I also notice that Griffiths has a style of drawing circuitry within the mouths of his Transformers, giving them a more machine-like appearance than we see from many of his contemporaries.

Jetfire’s timing is not ideal as Buster has imminent exams to revise for. Nevertheless, it is clear he has come in need of advice that only the Autobots’ closest human ally can provide. He tells Buster he is feeling alienated from the other Autobots, because they are from Cybertron while he was created on Earth. He knows nothing of the Primal program and has never seen the celestial spires etc and come to that, he has never even been to the Transformers’ home planet. This seems immediately at odds with his mention of Basketrek games on Cybertron in his conversation with Donny Finkleberg recently (though a possible explanation is that Jetfire had been studying Cybertron culture to try to fit in).

He narrates a recent encounter with the Decepticons to illustrate his point. It had been just after the ‘business with Galvatron’ he says (suggesting that Buster in the loop about such things) and Wheeljack had been monitoring news bulletins. The Decepticons had taken control of a NASA facility and Prowl quickly suggested that he and the recently repaired Trailbreaker should slip past the police cordon and assess the situation. Prime accepted the plan requesting that Jetfire go as back-up. They came under attack from Dirge, Kickback and Soundwave, who were attempting to magnify the power of a NASA radio telescope to send another message to Cybertron.

The Insecticons and ‘coneheads’ Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust have only recently been introduced into the ranks of the Earth based Decepticons at this point, and their appearance here helps cement them as mainstay characters.

Jetfire had ignored Prowl’s orders to attack Soundwave and instead targeted Kickback, who promptly shrunk into insect mode and vanished, causing Jetfire to crash. Dirge took advantage of the calamity to topple Trailbreaker, scoop up Soundwave and escape. Jetfire claimed Prowl’s order had been drowned out by the noise of laser fire, but this was not true.

Buster listens to the story and reminds Jetfire that Prowl always overreacts. Jetfire expels a frustrated thud that shakes Buster’s house, a comical moment (and probably as well that Sparkplug is not around – he thinks the Autobots are trouble at the best of times).

Jetfire tells of another recent skirmish, this time involving himself and Jazz, another Target:2006 victim who has now recovered. They had been overseeing fuel production at a Blackrock chemical plant when Thrust and Bombshell attacked. The surprise left the two Autobots reeling, and as the base became a flaming battle zone G.B. Blackrock warned that toxic fumes could poison the area if the plant went up. Thousands might die! Jetfire saw red. He punched out Thrust (a cool moment) and blasted Bombshell. Then he jetted to a huge water tank, lifted it and threw it in the direction of the fire – using it to douse the flames. Buster is ecstatic to hear of his friend’s heroics!

Jetfire’s problem is that he reacts fine when humans are in danger but is not so capable when it comes to helping his fellow Autobots. He worries about being forced to choose between saving Autobots and humans. Buster reminds him that he is the first of a generation of Terran Transformers and it is natural that he should feel closer to Earth than the others. These words of comfort are his Christmas gift. As Buster returns to his revision, Jetfire sits outside the window and thinks things over, then smiles, transforms and takes to the sky.

And there we have it – another nice Christmas tales which ties up some of the loose ends of Target:2006 but of no major significance to the ongoing story. A festive Robo Capers finishes off the Xmas edition and then there’s a look ahead to the new year and the continuation of Circuit Breaker’s vendetta. But first, the 1986 Transformers Annual.

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Aerialbots Over America!

The Aerialbots take to the skies in their debut-proper, but after the heady heights of Target: 2006 the UK comic is back to Earth with a bump in this largely run-of-the-mill tale from over the pond.

Target: 2006 was such a blockbuster that whatever followed was always likely to feel second best, and that’s the case with Aerialbots Over America. Written by US mainstay Bob Budiansky and published in October 1986 (the UK reprint coming out in the November) it is an okayish story that has some good moments, but which mostly fails to ignite. The story is really a vehicle to introduce recent Hasbro toy releases into the comic – so we get the Insecticons, Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust embedded within the ranks of the Earth-based Decepticons at last, and of course the launch of the Autobots’ first combiner team, the Aerialbots.

Surprisingly enough, the Insecticons play almost as large a role in the story as the titular Aerialbots. As this issue begins, Bombshell is in his tiny insect form, perched on a leaf and watching his human target Ricky Vasquez. It feels like he’s finally in his proper element – there being no insects on Cybertron (that we’re aware of) the Insecticons were literally made for an Earth existence.

Budiansky regularly grounds his Transformers with a human character. Ricky, our guest this issue, is a devoted family man – husband to Carmen and dad to little Maria, who he promises to take to fourth of July celebrations on his return from work. It’s his job that makes him of interest to the Decepticons – he’s assistant chief-engineer at Hoover Dam, the huge facility in Nevada which provides electricity to 20 million Americans. To the bad guys, it’s a source of energy which they can use to replenish stocks on Cybertron.

Bombshell injects Ricky with one of his mind-controlling ‘Cerebral Shells’ which quickly takes root in his brain and renders him a helpless puppet of the Decepticons. He turns his car off the main highway and on to a desolate dirt road, where Megatron and the other Insecticons (Kickback and Shrapnel) are waiting. Bombshell demonstrates the effectiveness of his shells by sadistically making Ricky remove a grease spot from his foot with his tongue.

Shortly afterwards, Ricky is strolling past Dam security zombielike as a jolly cop wishes him a happy fourth of July. This guy should have gone to Specsavers, as he completely misses the stonking great gun (Megatron in his gun mode) that Ricky is casually carrying. And minutes later they’re in the control room and Ricky is holding the staff hostage, demanding the dam be switched off!

At this point it might be worth mentioning the strange chronology of this story. Though published in October 1986 its set on American Independence Day in July, which means that all of the stories that have taken place previously that year (from the crisis of command to the Dinobot Hunt, the advent of the Special Teams, Megatron’s return, Target: 2006 and more…) all of it would have had to have happened in the first six months of the year!

And since we’re practically at Christmas, we’re meant to believe that nothing whatever of note is occurring in the second half of the year. It’s a jarring discrepancy and I can’t help thinking that Bob should have set this story at Thanksgiving in November where the timing would have made more sense, but he probably didn’t anyone who notice or care too much.

Meanwhile, Skids has returned to the Ark (having been lost for dead as far as the Autobots were concerned) and bringing with him Donny Finkleberg, aka Robot Master. Ratchet is on unusually cantankerous form for him. He’s repairing a wound Optimus Prime picked up in the Limbo dimension during Target: 2006 (though in the US continuity it was inflicted by a huge swinging axe during the Autobot assault on the Decepticon base) and is concerned about a human perspiring and causing a rust infection. I’m amused by his offer to perform a little surgery on the untrustworthy Donny to get the truth out of him about his claim of seven Autobots having travelled across the Decepticon space bridge. Instead, Prime assigns Jetfire to escort Donny to the location.

Bumblebee notifies Optimus of the siege underway at Hoover Dam. On hearing this, Prime postpones repairs and rushes outside where Wheeljack is testing the five newly constructed Aerialbots. They are now instilled with life, but only Silverbolt has been properly programmed. Their lack of battle readiness is a worry, particularly as Prime is convinced that the Decepticons are involved in the Dam siege but dispatches the Aerialbots anyway with instructions to thwart the enemy plan and defend human life.

Back at the Dam a large police presence and the media have assembled. The gunman is soon identified as Ricky and his family (now at the scene) can only watch in horror. Within moments the space bridge materialises and Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust – fly out and transform. A giant drill follows in their wake and begins to grind away at the Dam’s cement exterior…

The second half begins with Jetfire soaring above the Columbia river gorge with Donny Finkleberg onboard. They are right above where the seven Autobots arrived but there’s no sign of anyone. Jetfire transforms in mid-air and catches the screaming Donny as he falls, noting that humans don’t bounce particularly well. Jetfire’s refers to the Cybertron sport ‘Basketrek’ that they used to play but of course he has never been to Transformers’ home world as he was created on Earth! Perhaps he’s been studying his heritage or didn’t want to let on to Donny about his origins. It seems neither Autobot nor Decepticon has much regard for Mr Finkleberg, or trust.

However, Jetfire does find a puddle of fuel which suggests that Transformers have been in this region, and one of them was leaking! This is of course the gaping leg wound Blaster received when he took a blow from Lord Straxus’ axe in their fateful battle. More on the Cybertron Seven shortly…

The Aerialbots’ arrival at Hoover Dam is announced by the TV reporter at the scene, as clearly not the US Air Force as they are led by an SST (supersonic transport)! This gives Ramjet, Dirge and Thrust an opportunity to showcase their abilities to the reader. Thrust uses his engine roar to deafen Skydive and play havoc with his internal systems, forcing him to land. Ramjet crashes head-first into Slingshot and Dirge fires missiles at Fireflight – they miss the target but reign rocks and debris on to the crowd below. Silverbolt, uniquely, recognises the danger and orders Fireflight to stop the rocks (which he does by melting them) but clearly the rest of the team’s incomplete programming is rendering them a liability to the humans. In fact, Dirge congratulates his opponent on his disregard for the humans who “get in the way”, and taps into Silverbolt’s hidden fear of heights, causing the Aerialbot leader to panic and dive for the ground. So far, the team’s debut is far from successful.

Megatron orders the Insecticons to assist their Decepticon comrades outside. We learn that they are intent on transferring water to Cybertron to ‘generate enough energy to power the planet for years. A human hostage protests that the missing water would devastate the American Southwest, but as far as Megatron is concerned, all of Earth will be a wasteland once he’s finished any way! Ricky’s subconscious starts to struggle against the shell’s effects.

Outside, Thrust and Dirge congratulate themselves on a job well done, when Air Raid dives between them and transforms. He shoots Ramjet’s fuselage severely damaging him, as Kickback sneaks up in insect mode and gives the Aerialbot a massive wallop! In order to save the dam, the Aerialbots combine into their eight-storey sized alter-ego, Superion and begin to demolish the drill. Ricky arrives, holding Megatron, who orders him to fire upon the giant Autobot. (It always surprises me that Megatron needs someone to pull his own trigger!)

Superion notices the threat and manoeuvres a giant hand to crush Ricky! The part of their unified mind that is Silverbolt protests, and for a moment Ricky and Superion are frozen as they fight the confusion within their minds. Suddenly, young Maria Vasquez, Ricky’s daughter, runs from the crowd calling out to her father. Ricky overpowers the shell controlling him and blasts the drill instead. The space bridge instantly begins to dematerialise back to Cybertron, while Megatron retreats with all but one of his Decepticons.

As the Aerialbots return to the Ark, Silverbolt thinks the mission went well all things considered: the drill was destroyed, and despite Superion’s problems, the humans they sought to protect were saved. He doesn’t realise that Bombshell is secretly stowing away on his wing for a free ride into the Autobot base! Ricky, meanwhile, apologises to his daughter about being unable to take her to the fireworks, but she does not mind – she’s seen enough of those today.

Finally, what about the Cybertron Seven? This issue’s epilogue holds the answers to that long-running question. We see flatbed trucks arrive at a disused aircraft hangar in New Jersey that is serving as the secret headquarters of RAAT (Rapid Anti-robot Assault Team) – a creature of the United States government. Seven cargoes are quickly unloaded and uncovered to reveal the deactivated Cybertron Seven. Each Autobot is placed under precision machinery and has its face plating removed and mounted on to the hanger wall, as hunting trophies! A RAAT worker announces to his boss that this is the ‘last of the heads’ and she corrects him – this is only the beginning, so swears Circuit Breaker!! RAAT are set to be a major thorn in the side of the Transformers but – as we soon see – they seem to have an annoying habit of only attacking the Autobots!

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The Smelting Pool

One of – IF NOT THE – finest Transformers story Bob Budiansky ever wrote. The Smelting Pool is an instant classic, transporting readers to the dystopian world of present day Cybertron, inhabited by powerful good and evil archetypes. It’s a story of hope and despair, horror and heroism.

We thought it would be good, but not THIS good! The return to Cybertron story had been hinted as far back as issue 40, some six months previous, and was eagerly awaited by the readers (myself very much included). I was looking forward to it from a novelty point of view – a chance to see the home world again, some of the toy line characters we hadn’t seen yet, and the story wouldn’t have to be too good for it to be an exciting event.

On picking up my copy of Marvel UK Transformers #66 before school on a Friday in June 1986, that amazing cover by Herb Trimpe which appeared on the UK and US editions (Blaster plunging head first towards a pit of lava and melting wrecks) was the first hint of something above average, and in fact a very special event for the comic.

And Bob’s story and the characters he created blew me away. Blaster, the classic Western hero whose tough exterior disguises a big heart – Scrounge the plucky underdog, desperate to prove his critics wrong – and the axe-wielding total bastard of villain (that we’d love to hate) Lord Straxus. Added to that the concepts of underground Autobot resistance, Transformer down-and-outs, industrialised murder (courtesy of the Decepticons’ Smelting Pool), comic debuts of the new mini Autobot, seeker jets and Insecticons toys, and even Cybertronian time concepts. Frankly, its impressive quite how much Bob packed into the first 11 pages of story.

Our first glimpse of Cybertron reveals it to have two moons, just like in the upcoming (at the time) 1986 Transformers Movie. Marvel universe Cybertron also bears little resemblance to the Sunbow cartoons, appearing dark and bleak, almost reminiscent of the apocalyptic future in The Terminator.

Don Perlin’s pencils bring the horrors of Polyhex province to life from the get-go, as three civilian robots flee from a trio of Decepticon seekers, using them as sport. On Cybertron these days, anyone who is not part of the ruling class or useful to them, is likely to be exterminated as an unnecessary drain on the planet’s dwindling fuel supply. It begs a question of what naturally occurring fuel Cybertron has? Not fossil fuels as its a metallic world and even solar power will be difficult to harness, as the Transformers home world is not tethered to any star.

Two of the robots – Telus and Rotorbolt – are destroyed by a Decepticon called Ferak. A third watches in horror as his friends are scooped up a by Decepticon harvester unit as scrap to be recycled. He flees in the direction of Blaster, the red shouldered hero of our story. Blaster is irritated about being stood-up by his fellow Autobot, Scrounge, who was meant to be delivering information 12 breems ago (we learn that one breem is a very precise 8.3 Earth minutes!).

Blaster is however perfectly placed to go to the aid of the third runner.  Stepping into the open, he deploys his Electro Scrambler gun against Ferak, causing the Decepticon to spin out of control. In a demonstration of his raw strength, Blaster seizes the Decepticon and throws him into a derelict structure, which collapses over him. The small transformer thanks his saviour, but Blaster insists he has better things to do than save his “rusty hide”! These rough words are at odds with Blaster’s thought bubbles, which earlier revealed his concern for the ‘little fella’ being picked on by a Decepticon bully.

Elsewhere, the mini Autobot spy Scrounge is in his wheel form outside the enemy stronghold, Darkmount. He has acquired information that a missing neutral called Spanner – a scientist with specialist knowledge in inter-dimensional engineering – is being held inside. Scrounge sees an opportunity to finally prove his worth to his fellow Autobots. Any readers who have ever felt inadequate or not quite accepted, can immediately sympathise with Scrounge. He reminds me a little of Bumblebee but has an extraordinary ability to extend his finger, deftly steering them through long winding shafts without tripping alarms, in order to listen on the Decepticons inside – in this case Shrapnel and two technicians who are discussing an all important transmission they have received. It’s the most profound revelation for 50,000 vorns (83 Earth years!) apparently. It is of course the message transmitted by Soundwave from Earth in the Next Best Thing to Being There.

In his excitement Scrounge gets careless and triggers an intruder alarm. He rolls for it, radioing Blaster on the way that he is returning with a big catch. Blaster is sceptical as they’ve all heard Scrounge’s tall stories before. Then, in one of my favourite scenes, Scrounge rolls through the Dead End, which is inhabited by Transformer down-and-outs called the Empties. They are a forgotten class of Transformer, a symbol of the despair and inequity in Polyhex, and reduced to begging for fuel. Poor Scrounge is seized by Shrapnel in his giant insect form and carried off.

Blaster lifts what appears to be a stray wall plate to descend into the secret underground ‘Autobase’. As a 12-year-old reading this in 1986 I thought that was supercool and mysterious. He is greeted there by Powerglide, Cosmos, Seaspray, Warpath and Beachcomber – all making their comics’ debut – along with Perceptor, who commands the resistance cell.

The tensions between Blaster and his commander are immediately apparent. They are very different characters – one impulsive, emotional, daring, and the other (Perceptor) patient and prone to cold realism. Both embody different leadership qualities. I got the impression that Blaster’s daring-do would win the respect and loyalty of the unit if he had really wanted to lead it, but he has no time for politics, ambition or the sort of long-term strategizing needed to run a successful resistance cell, so Perceptor – who is better suited to the long game – leads.  You can practically see the steam rising from Blaster’s ears when he demands they search for Scrounge and Perceptor refuses to risk the group on a fool’s errand (guessing correctly that their missing mini bot is probably captured on his way to the Smelting Pool). However, the sympathies of the group are with Blaster on this occasion and Perceptor wisely backs down, but they will make one attempt only.

In the shadows of Darkmount lies the awesome spectacle of the Smelting Pool. Blood-red molten metal boils with the devastated bodies of Transformers disgorged into it by Decepticon Harvester units. Its perimeter is lined with heavily armed Decepticon guards who make sure that none who go in ever come out, except as remoulded raw materials for future use. Despite having only 11 pages to play with (22 for the full story) its bloody marvellous that Bob devotes a full page of art to showing us this final solution in its full horror.

Shrapnel lands at Darkmount, threatening poor Scrounge with the pit. He will enjoy hearing the Autobot’s screams but first he wants to take Scrounge for interrogation by Lord Straxus. Shrapnel is ever hoping to win the favour of his master, but ever failing. We then meet Straxus – holding court flanked by Ramjet, Thrust, Dirge and the other Insecticons, Bombshell, and Kickback. As villains go, he looks utterly the business – cutting two unfortunate victims in half with a swing of his Energo Axe and uttering the immortal line: “Mercy is not dispensed here fools, only death!”

Straxus is less than grateful to Shrapnel for his capture. And when Scrounge refuses to talk, his special arm is wrenched off by Straxus and crushed. You can almost feel Scrounge’s despair at this, and he is dragged off to meet his fate. Whatever information he has learned, he will not live long enough to pass on.

Sadly, there is no preview page in TFUK #66 to tell us about the following issue. We just had to endure an agonising seven day wait for the concluding part. Lew Stringer’s Robo Capers strip again features Transformers – Bumblebee and the embarrassed joke of an Autobot called Push-Along, who transforms into a pram! It follows on from the Optimus Prime “It’s rude to stare at someone when they are changing” strip last issue, that was also rather good.

In part two, the Autobots travel to the Dead End in search of information. Perceptor creates a holographic image of the missing Scrounge, hoping to jog a few decaying memory circuits from the Empties. However, where they are concerned everything has a price. Wheezel (who we met in the first half) hints at information, and beaker of donated fuel seals the deal – along with the threat of violence from Blaster – elicits the sorry news that Scrounge was captured and taken to Darkmount. At this Perceptor orders everyone back to base – the chances of finding Scrounge alive are minimal. Blaster is determined to discover his friend’s fate and goes on alone.

At the rim of the Smelting Pool, he attacks the guards. He’s quickly captured, (as planned) but prevented from being thrown into the pool by Shrapnel, who has spotted another prisoner he can deliver to Straxus. Blaster is marched inside Darkmount where the Decepticons are busy constructing a huge Space Bridge. Straxus is not impressed with Shrapnel for bringing him yet another distraction and threatens the Insecticon with his own dip in the pool if he doesn’t stop wasting time.

Finally, Blaster is thrown into molten pit, echoing the cover of last issue. The incredible heat scolds his metallic skin, but he’s able to climb onto a small ledge. He finds Scrounge barely alive and suddenly one of the gun turrets explodes above, as Powerglide arrives having disobeyed orders. He lowers a cable and as Blaster grabs on, he yanks Scrounge from the pool and is shocked to see his friend already melted from the waist down! Scrounge insists on being left to his fate and wriggles free. Before he sinks, he throws Blaster a recording of the Decepticon transmission (thankfully Blaster is a good catch) and asks that he be remembered as doing something right.

Outside the other Autobots minus Perceptor are involved in their own pitched battles with Decepticons. As they escape in vehicle modes, they are attacked by the Decepticon jets and Insecticons. Once again Blaster shows he’s the man. He rips out huge pipes which suck molten metal from the Smelting Pool and turns the hot jet on the Decepticons.

Back at Autobase, Perceptor plays Scrounge’s recording. Soundwave is heard and video shows the distant planet Earth, rich in resources and ruled by the primitive organic lifeform man. A group of long thought dead Decepticons crash landed here millions of years ago. The recording suggests they are led by Megatron, which wasn’t the case when Soundwave sent the message. And opposed by Optimus Prime (who was a Decepticon captive at the time of sending). That aside, the message is huge for the beleaguered resistance, just to know that the great Optimus lives gives them hope. Blaster hopes that wherever Scrounge is, he knows he did good.

In summary, Blaster’s stock-in-trade rocketed after this incredibly strong debut. He would go on to become one of the most popular Autobots among the readers, even taking up the mantle of letters page answerer in the UK comic towards the end of the run. For a time, it even looked like Blaster could become leader of the Earthbound Autobots in place of Grimlock, though it wasn’t to be. He is one of the characters Bob cared about and wrote brilliantly, bringing him back and again throughout his run on the US book. While Simon Furman used Blaster occasionally in the UK book, there wasn’t the same spark. I guess Furman preferred to cultivate his own favourites (Grimlock, Galvatron, Nightbeat etc).

Should Scrounge have detached his head and thrown that to Blaster, allowing him to survive with message intact? Perhaps. I don’t know that this was ever an option but his death, though tragic, was purposeful and heroic (which is more than most made-for-comics/hi-then-die characters get). Blaster would feel the loss of Scrounge and guilt at not saving him for some time to come.

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