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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Dinobot Hunt

One of the most eagerly anticipated Simon Furman stories of the early Marvel UK Transformers. The Dinobots have reverted to primal states – their brains addled by millions of years spent in a tar pit. It’s up to the Autobots to bring them in before they unleash havoc, but the Decepticons are determined to exploit the situation for maximum advantage.

Bob Budiansky said that one of the challenges he faced as the writer of the American Transformers comic was the constant requirement to introduce new characters. This was to ensure the comic kept pace with Hasbro’s ever-expanding toy line – but with only 12 monthly issues per year it inevitably meant that characters would be introduced and then vanish for long periods (the Constructicons for example).

The Dinobots were criminally under-used in the US comic for two years after their introduction. However, this created an opportunity for Simon Furman to utilise them in the weekly UK Transformers comic without conflicting with anything Bob was doing. So, in 1985/6 we had the Wrath of Guardian/Grimlock, Dinobot Hunt, Victory and In the National Interest.

Dinobot Hunt, published in February 1986 (with Will Simpson and Barry Kitson alternating on the art), was our first meaty Dinobot story. It follows on from The Icarus Theory which reintroduced Swoop and alerted the Autobots to the fact that the Dinobots had reverted to their baser instincts. Optimus Prime declared that their top priority was now to track down and subdue the Dinobots before human lives were lost.

Issue #47 kicks off the hunt in the Nevada Black Rock desert where three human soldiers venture into a sandstorm to investigate giant spikes protruding from the ground. These solar collectors are attached the missing Dinobot Snarl, who is submerged in the sand. One of the men uses a laser saw (standard issue for the US army in the 80s?) and tries to cut into a spike. The predicable result is that the sleeping Dinobot roars into life and attacks the humans. They are saved only by the arrival of Mirage, Brawn and Trailbreaker.

In flashback, we see Optimus Prime and Prowl briefing the hunter teams of situation and their targets – Grimlock, whose jaws that can cut an opponent in two; Snarl, whose strength increases ten-fold in sunlight; Slag, fast, ferocious and fire-breathing; and Sludge, deadly in water.

Snarl’s vision appears to be severely pixelated. Whether this is due to his condition is unclear, but if not then he really should go to Specsavers. He makes out the three enemy forms and charges, injuring Mirage before escaping into the storm. Prowl, who is coordinating via a shuttle, tracks the Dinobot heading west – where he runs into a secret military base (literally), taking out the fence and coming under heavy fire.

General Carl Thompson, commanding, finds the alarms a welcome relief from the boredom. On seeing Snarl, he realises that “only a nuclear strike” will do – this sounds incredibly like ‘sledgehammer to crack a nut’, but their weapon alters molecular structure and in this case is useful for making Snarl revert to his robot mode and collapse.

Simpson does a solid job on the art, but it’s a slow start to the story. Unfortunately, neither Snarl or the hunters get up-to much and we’re missing the involvement of the Decepticons. With Laserbeak spying on the Autobots at the end though, it’s an indication that they are about to enter the fray.

Things hot up in the second part as we head to Little Wood, a “vast inland waterway” in Northern California. It’s popular with tourists apparently (despite looking like a midgie-filled swamp) and three newcomers have shown up today – trouble is they are Decepticons! We don’t see who until the end of the story, leading to speculation from my comic reading schoolfriends back in the day that it might be the Insecticons – no such luck. They bully a couple of locals to spill the beans about a monster sighting in the swamp, before blowing their home to bits. Harsh!

The Autobots have sent A-Team (no not that A-Team) of Gears, Cliffjumper and team leader Windcharger to track-down the Dinobot Sludge, who they think is in the area. In those pre-google days I imagine Furman having to pour over an atlas of North America to identify swamps and deserts that can feature in the story. Interestingly, according to Mr Google, only Black Rock Desert which is a real location.

Sludge is not far away, quietly munching on vegetation (his condition having turned him docile) and has been befriended by a TV reporter named Joy Meadows who eyes him as her ticket to the big time.

After some mirth with Gears getting pulled out of the swamp by Windcharger’s magnetic powers, the Autobots are confronted by the river police who are responding to all the local destruction caused by the Decepticons and decide these three robots are the culprits. It’s a nice opportunity for Cliffjumper to deploy his glass-gas gun (not seen for a long while) against one of the vessels.

The Autobots see blaster fire in a clearing and run towards it. They find poor Joy Meadows “dealt with” (though she’ll survive and return) and Sludge unconscious. The trio are cut down by a volley of fire, as Soundwave, Skywarp, and the Scavenger (yay!) reveal themselves. I’m genuinely excited to see Scavenger reappearing (although annoyingly drawn with a regular face instead of his distinctive ‘gas mask’ in one panel) as the Constructicons have been is conspicuous by their absence.

You have to wonder how Sludge made it as far as Northern California without being noticed by anyone. Or Grimlock all the way to Canada for that matter! The issue features a ‘Who’s Who’ flowchart about the Decepticons which also provides a reminder of previous stories.

From the muddy swamps of California, we’re off to Cowboy country for part 3. Slag, amusingly described in the blurb as “as mean a critter as you’ll ever come across” is causing havoc by trampling a ranch and gets pursued by hot-headed human Greg and his brother. I’m quite fond of this instalment, partly for the ridiculousness of cowboys lassoing Slag and for Jetfire showing up still wearing his Decepticon badge.

Soundwave, Skywarp and Scavanger arrive in Idaho to discover a buckled Decepticon insignia and evidence of a recent battle. They find Laserbeak in bad shape but still able to transform and deliver his report (interestingly he makes bird like noises while in robot/bird mode but can ‘speak’ while delivering playback. Perhaps it’s like Bumblebee in the Bay films being unable to speak and communicating through his radio).

Laserbeak had observed two “suicidal” human brothers on horseback pursuing Slag and one of them unloading a rifle on him at close range. The crude weapon only served to get his attention. D-Team, consisting of Jazz, Ironhide and the Decepticon defector Jetfire came to their rescue.

The bad attitude Jetfire gets from Ironhide over his Decepticon badge shows that things must be uncomfortable for him at the moment. Jazz alludes to there having been no time to perform the ‘Rite of Autobrand’ (giving him his badge) which rather pre-empts the upcoming US story Rock and Roll-out. Slag might be a triceratops, not a bull, but that’s close enough for Furman who has him ‘see red’ and charge at Ironhide. This allows Jetfire to swoop down, transform and wrestle the Dinobot to the ground.

Jazz gets Greg safely out of the way but pays the price with a fireball at close range. We’ve always known that Transformers have the ability to grow or shrink in transformation, but the rule also applies to their weaponry. We see Jazz remove a gun from a compartment in his mid-section, and it promptly enlarges to actual size. It’s a nice detail.

Jetfire got pierced by Slag’s horn, explaining the amputated badge that would later be found by Scavenger, and Laserbeak was rendered unconscious by being thrown into Slag’s maw by the Autobots. This turned Slag’s flame inwards and he overheated. Laserbeak proves himself amazingly durable.

His offer to take responsibility for the failure to apprehend Slag shows a certain honour among thieves, while Soundwave’s refusal to apportion blame is perhaps indicative of his respect for Laserbeak, loyalty towards one of his cassettes and good leadership skills (better to keep the troops on side). We learn that Soundwave hopes to set their captured and manacled Sludge against any other Dinobots they can find – and having lit a fuse they’ll sit back and watch the Autobot casualties mount. Soundwave may only be interim Decepticon leader, but he’s demonstrating a flair for exploiting the weaknesses of his enemy in order to make quick gains.

So, to the concluding part, which also happens to be Transformers UK’s landmark 50th edition. To mark the occasion readers are promised a clash between two frenzied Dinobots and the issue doesn’t disappoint.

The Decepticons have travelled to Doonstown in Canada where the last remaining Dinobot, Grimlock, is located. They rigged up a device in their captured Autobot shuttle (the one used by A-Team, who are manacled inside) to broadcast a signal to Sludge, keeping him in a fighting mad state, then set him against Grimlock. The result was explosive – the destruction of the town and C-Team also down. Bluestreak and Huffer are unconscious and a wounded Sideswipe was radioing Prime for reinforcements when the Dinobots rampaged through the shuttle.

The splash page shows the Dinobots fighting each other over a cliff. It actually looks like Grimlock would have no trouble biting Sludge’s head off, but they plunge down a scope and into a frozen lake, where Sludge is the stronger in water. Scavenger and Soundwave watch with satisfaction and Skywarp announces the arrival of Prime’s shuttle as well as the discovery of an oil rig nearby which they can plunder. All in all, a successful little mission.

As Ratchet recovers C-Team and Bumblebee scouts investigates how Sludge came to be there, it falls to Prime to engage the Dinobots and prevent them from getting out of the lake. His gun overheats and explodes in his hands. Luckily, he buys enough time for Prowl to arrive in a shuttle, electrify the hull and bail out as it hits the lake. The charge is enough to knock out Grimlock. However, Sludge recovers and turns his aggression towards Optimus.

Bumblebee using a piece of kit we haven’t seen before (a Portable Energy Tracer – PET) locates their missing shuttle, finding it cloaked. This wouldn’t be the first time Furman would use a Star Trek concept. He drags Windcharger and co. to safety before triggering Scavenger’s booby-trap and exploding the shuttle. This immediately renders Sludge unconscious. The hunt is over, but it is Soundwave who declares victory!

That’s it for Dinobots for a while, though they do return in TFUK#65 and in the scarily good 1986 Annual story ‘Victory’, which delves into their dreams while they recover in Ratchet’s medical bay. On the Transformations page we hear the buzzword for the next 50 issues – ‘Special Teams’. We’d soon find out that this meant more combiners on the way. This were heady days for young Transformers fans.

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