Deadly Games!

Evil gangster lizard Zabra is making a killing from Cybertron’s gladiatorial games and pits Ultra Magnus against a hideous four-armed brute named Hooligan…

Transformers #170 was the issue that I feared I might never get. It was June 1988 and I’d been religiously collecting the comic every week for three years. My routine was to get up early on a Friday and be at the newsagent for when it opened at 7am and then I’d read my weekly instalment of Transformers from cover to cover before school. This time though something had gone wrong, there was no comic on Friday, nor the weekend and not even Monday.

Cue a minor panic. Had the comic been cancelled? Surely not, it was Marvel UK’s flagship title. However, I still remembered the fate of ‘Scream!’, an early 80s horror comic which I’d collected and loved, vanished without warning. Interestingly our very own Simon Furman had cut his teeth as a comics writer on that title.

Finally, on Tuesday the comic showed up. What a relief! It was four days late and with a 3p price rise to rub it in, but at least normal service had resumed. The editorial (Transformations), to its credit, immediately acknowledged the rise rather than hoping kids wouldn’t notice, and blamed it on rising production costs, which Marvel had held off from passing on for as long as possible.

Later in the year we’d see the paper quality dive and after that the return of black and white pages, although it would be the reprints that were the final straw for me and when I switched from the UK comic over to the monthly US title. More than to come.

Back to TFUK#170 though, we’ve a a delightful cover from Jeff Anderson which I really admire, depicting the reptilian Zabra with a huge knife and catching the horrified reflections of Ultra Magnus and the Sparklers in the weapon’s reflection. It’s such a great idea and allows us to see the main villain and the reaction of the heroes in one striking image. In fact, Deadly Games was to be the swansong of Magnus and the Sparklers. They’d had a good run together since Salvage, but all good things come to an end.

There’s a mention of a new Marvel UK title Dragon’s Teeth, from Furman and Senior (more on that later) before readers and dropped straight into a Roman-style arena and fight to the death between a multi-armed gladiator called Hooligan, and an Autobot extra named Chameleon (no surprises about how that is going to end up).

Simon Furman provides the story and to Dan Reed’s art, tipping their hats to the 1986 Annual story State Games (which established that gladiatorial combat had been a thing in Cybertron’s history and Megatron had risen to prominence and celebrity through this route) and after centuries of closure the Jekka amphitheatre is now back in service as a place where Autobots and other unfortunates meet their brutal end for the entertainment of a motley array of alien spectators.

Hooligan ‘from the planet Mil-Wal’ (a reference to Millwall FC which had a poor rep for football hooliganism at the time) wields a powerful mace and is also pretty deft with his fists. Chameleon is hopelessly outmatched but what he does have is an ability to blend into his surroundings, effectively turning invisible. This works against the lumbering Hooligan, until finally he twigs that he needs to switch to infrared where his quarry is quickly located and dismembered.

As an aside, we learn that Transformers can still transform with a limb missing but it is painful process.

The following day, Magnus and the Sparkabots are poking around and conducting an unauthorised investigation. We learn that Chameleon had been looking into rumours of a deal between the Decepticons and an alien when he met his end. However, the Wreckers are preparing to travel to Earth to confront Galvatron just as soon a dimensional portal is in alignment, and the orders are to stay put. Instead, Magnus feels that Chameleon’s demise deserves some of their time and they sneak out.

They are about to head back when Sizzle suggests they check out the abandoned Jekka Amphitheatre. Among the pile of bodies and severed limbs they find Chameleon’s missing arm, but before they can report back, they are confronted by the Firecons Flamefeather, Sparkstalker and Cindersaur, who are keen for a rematch (see Enemy Action for details). Magnus tries to help but is rendered unconscious by an attack from the scorpion tail of Zabra, the alien controller of the games. Is Zabra is organic? If so it’s hard to believe he could take down the Autobots’ greatest warrior unless he’s a cyborg of some sort.

The first half ends with Zabra announcing that Magnus will be the star attraction at the next games… setting up the exciting prospect of a showdown with Hooligan. Hurrah!

In addition to the always fun Grim Grams letters page, Furman and Lee Sullivan have produced a tightly written one-page story with Magnus fighting-while-narrating and setting the scene for the Transformers UK storyline (civil war on Earth and Cybertron and in the future) and declaring, “Only a miracle can save us,” cue an inset picture of Powermaster Optimus Prime… our first glimpse of the new incarnation of the Autobots’ greatest leader. So far so amazing! Marvel must have felt that the return of Prime provided a ‘jumping on point’ for new readers and the ad will have been intended to be rolled out across Marvel’s various UK titles.

Issue #171 has cover art by Jerry Paris depicting a battered and bloodied (oiled) Magnus in the arena with a poster showing what he’s up against. I like it a lot.

The Transformation page majors on ‘Dragon’s Teeth’ a flagship title for Marvel UK’s American-format monthly titles. It was a dystopian sci-fi story set in 8162 where survivors from a violent team sport (The Game) are recruited to a law enforcement role. What’s interesting about this plug for the latest Furman-Senior spectacular is that the title was found to be already owned by an independent, so very soon after it was rebadged as ‘Dragon’s Claws’ which is arguably better. I never actually saw an issue of Dragon’s Teeth on sale, even though Transformation suggests here that issue #2 is in the shops.

Back to Transformers – the story opens with an array of weird and wonderful aliens flooding into the amphitheatre, including a slug alien with a Decepticon insignia (is he wearing it as a fan?) and gives Dan Reed an opportunity to let his imagination run wild. There’s a nice touch with the souvenir sellers doing a good line in offering up severed limbs and parts from the games’ losing contestants.

In the dungeons below the stadium, Magnus and the Sparkabots are visited by Zabra and his Firecon minders. A painful strike from the guard’s mace sets Magnus’ hands on fire and puts him in his place. Just in case he still refuses to fight, the bad guys threaten to execute his friends, so Magnus has little choice at this point.

On the way to the arena, he attempts an appeal to Zabra’s conscience and gets precisely nowhere. For this alien mercenary it’s all about the profits and pandering to base instincts of the audience is a price worth paying. Likewise, Magnus soon discovers, as he’s being roughed up by Hooligan, that this brute enjoys what he’s doing – he’s not the fellow victim of the games that Magnus first thought, which means Ultra Magnus doesn’t need to hold back.

Much of the issue flips between the arena battle and the Sparklers tricking their guard and affecting an escape. They face a choice about getting back to Autobase in time for the transport to Earth – to fill in for Magnus in the assault against Galvatron, which given their power compared to Ultra Magnus is pretty ludicrous – and in the end they stick around an come to their friends’ aid, by ambushing the Decepticon troops who were poised to open fire on Magnus.

Finally, with the Optimus-style soul searching and compassion parked, Magnus can show his potential as a warrior and give Hooligan a deserved pummelling. At one stage Magnus picks up his opponent’s mace, only to realise that to execute Hooligan would make him no better, so he casts it aside and gives a sermon to the crowds about the sanctity of life – before taking Zabra into custody. Nobody cares and as they walk away, a couple of the alien spectators are already talking about a great murder-pit to visit!

The story feels like a satirical comment on TV/movie violence and concerns that were regularly raised in the media at the time. ‘Where’s a policeman when you need one, to blame the colour TV?’ as a popular song from the era memorably said. Is it escapist fun or the root of societal ills? I think probably more the former than the latter as Transformers itself exemplifies. We love nothing more than a clash between great rivals but also identify with the good and evil archetypes.

In summary, it’s a reasonably enjoyable two-parter with nods to Transformers history and some nice creative art, rounding off a run of stories of Ultra Magnus and the Sparkabots and Magnus’ performance as a stand-in for Optimus Prime before the great leader returns.

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Meltdown!

The countdown is on until Cybertron itself is ripped apart by Megatron’s unstable engines, but salvation may be coming in the unlikeliest of forms as the Autobots and Decepticon unite against Flame

A powerful cover by Marvel UK artist Jerry Paris illustrates the predicament that the Cybertron Autobots find themselves in. Xaaron, Ultra Magnus and the Wreckers, while not actually caught in the clutched fist of the rogue Autobot scientist Flame, are in that bind metaphorically, as captives of his zombie army.

Until last issue that army included the Wreckers’ former (now deceased) leader Impactor, who was also reanimated by Flame’s computer mainframe, but has started to regain some echoes of his consciousness. As the Transformation (intro) page for Transformers UK 168 memorably puts it: ‘Old soldiers don’t die, they get reanimated by insane Autobot scientists.’ Impactor wants revenge on the guy who interrupted his eternal rest, and you get the impression that he will play a pivotal role in what is coming next.

Meltdown, which was published by Marvel UK in June 1988, with art by Robin Smith and story by the prolific Simon Furman, is the third and final instalment of what has been a quirky and offbeat tale. It utilises a cast of Cybertron bots and cons that Furman has assembled and it a great example of the expanded story that the writer has created to fill the gaps between material from the comic’s US sister title (this is because the UK comic was weekly, and the US was monthly.)

These days it is not unheard of to have bad Autobots and noble Decepticons, I mean just look at efforts to recast Megatron as a heroic/tragic revolutionary against an oppressive Autobot State in the modern era. However, in the Eighties things were by and large nice and simple: the Autobots were the good guys and Decepticons the were the villains, so Meltdown is memorable for having an Autobot as the arch baddie. It also shows that bad apples are present on both sides.

The story begins with a recap of what’s happened so far, as told from the perspective of Flame’s computer briefing him on the threat level, and finally a countdown to the firing of the vast engines that will relaunch Cybertron as a mobile dreadnought.

As a minor point, having been told in Legion of the Lost that the events happened ‘three weeks’ before City of Fear, we’re now back to counting time in the Cybertronian vernacular established by Bob Budiansky way back in the 1986 classic, The Smelting Pool, by counting down in ‘breems’ (each one equivalent to eight point three earth minutes).

Robin Smith does a nice job of depicting Flame as a garish nightmare of a robot, utterly self-obsessed and hell bent on reviving an insane idea from Cybertron’s history so that the planet can sail the heavens with himself at the helm, everyone in awe at his achievement. The fact that a good chunk of the planet would be extinguished in the process is by the by.

The rest of the issue is mostly about getting the cast assembled and into place. Springer leads Ultra Magnus and the Sparkler Mini-bots below ground, with Sizzle still whinging about Magnus’ decision to send Flywheels, a Decepticon prisoner, for help. Magnus is charitable in the circumstances and explains that Flywheels is the only one with a jet mode and access to reinforcements, but he equally could have put this upstart back in his place. In a war situation and high stakes there’s no room for petty bickering and questioning superiors.

Below ground Broadside is about to find himself a meal for a hungry Zombie when Impactor intervenes with his trademark harpoon, decapitating the foe. He leaves armed with the information that Flame caused this situation and Broadside gets access to the armoury, which is likely to be extremely useful.

Xarron meanwhile confronts Flame, an old colleague who is still holding a millions-of-years-old grudge against him. When reason fails, Xarron tries to intervene and switch off the reactor, prompting one of the memorable moments of the issue as Flame transforms into his fire cannon mode. We learn that Xaaron also has a combat vehicle mode, but he hasn’t used it in several centuries – the shock of transforming may kill him. It’s a nice twist. I suppose it’s like asking a very elderly and long retired athlete to run a marathon.

With the Wreckers tooled-up, the zombie army is becoming manageable, so Flame’s computer takes defensive measures by sealing the reactor off with blast doors. The opening instalment ends with Springer and Broadside making a dash for the surface to get “stuff” from Autobase that can cut through, only to find their paths blocked by the biggest, most deadly Decepticon of all – Trypticon!

It’s a welcome, if totally unexpected, return for this character, who became an instant fan favourite at his debut in the 1987 story King of the Hill and sets the scene nicely for the conclusion.

This of course begins with Jeff Anderson’s cover depicting Trypticon ‘partying’ at the expense of the zombie hordes. His arrival has the potential to tip the balance heavily in the favour of Flame’s opponents, but first we’ve got three pages of Xaaron dodging blasts from Flame, attempting to transform, and finally reasoning with Flame again, so basically a rehash of scenes from the previous issue.

In the battle of the Wreckers versus the blast doors, it’s the doors that are holding firm. Magnus asks where Springer and Broadside are with the heavy artillery, only to get the answer in the shape of the monstrous Trypticon advancing towards them.

Springer and Broadside appear with Flywheels – who apparently could not get reinforcements in terms of numbers, so he settled for the biggest Decepticon of the lot. Then a memorable line from Flywheels, “Trypticon get the door,” sees the giant Decepticon headbutt the doors down and they are in (with zombie Impactor following close behind).

Magnus makes light work of Flame and the Autobots argue about who should be the one to undertake the surely fatal trip inside the reactor to switch it off. Xaaron is their talismanic elder and too important to sacrifice, but before Magnus or Springer can go in, they are forced to repel more of Flame’s zombies. This is the scene that the cover is based on.

Flame, having been an irritating pain in the arse for the last four issues, finally gets his comeuppance, as he’s about to launch himself at Xaaron and gets harpooned through the head by Impactor. The ex-Wrecker leader then becomes the one to enter the reactor and shut it off, getting torn apart in the process. As the Autobots and Decepticons escape to the planet surface, the engines destroy themselves, and the Xaaron pays tribute to Impactor – the Autobot who “died twice” so that others may live.

In closing it’s a satisfying conclusion to the story. Sure, it’s in many ways predictable, but there are a few unexpected turns, such as the return of Impactor and Trypticon, and some great moments like Xaaron attempting his transformation and Flame’s fire tank, to keep things exciting. It’s no surprise that the City of Fear saga is a fan favourite from the original Marvel run.

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Legion of the Lost!

The source of the zombies is revealed, as Wreckers leader Springer must overcome his inner doubts if he is to confront the past and save the future…

In City of Fear, fans were treated to a hugely entertaining zombie-fest as Ultra Magnus, the Sparklers, and their show-stealing Decepticon prisoner, Flywheels, fought to stay a step ahead of the armies of the undead, succeeding against all odds and probably much to their own surprise.

It wasn’t at all clear how or why the bodies of dead Transformers had sprung to life and started menacing the living, and it didn’t matter because the lack of explanations allowed us to enjoy a fun, uncomplicated and thrilling ride. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

However, inevitably Simon Furman was going to have to explain the zombie situation, as well as the whereabouts of the Emirate Xaaron and the missing Wreckers. Legion of the Lost, the middle instalment of our story (from May 1988), is where those explanations are revealed, and the pieces put in place for an explosive finale (literally).

A bit like playtime followed by the classroom, Legion is essential learning but ultimately less satisfying than City of Fear or even the final instalment, Meltdown.

Things pick-up where we left off, with Magnus and co. having learned that a mysterious signal which animated the zombies originated from deep below the surface of Cybertron. However, the locus switches to our mysterious villain (Flame) who we can only see by his arm and its flamboyant fire markings – a bit like a bad Hot Rod tribute act – watching the Autobots and Flywheels on his monitors.

Magnus is caught on camera booting a now deactivated zombie across the floor in a moment which raised an eyebrow for me, is this the same Magnus who was so worried about injuring the zombies last week that he ordered a ceasefire that nearly got everyone killed?

We see Xaaron, once a member of Cybertron’s governing council and ever after a talisman figure of the Autobot resistance, sitting in a cell. Whoever this mysterious enemy is, he’s responsible for the disappearance of the Wreckers and everything that has transpired so far. Furman transitions into the events of three weeks earlier and a massive nuclear explosion which fried a lot of bots.

Springer, who is the main character in the second instalment, had stormed into Autobase in an absolute panic, only to find Xaaron calm and in control (no doubt this sort of thing used to wind up Springer’s predecessor Impactor also). Xaaron has already determined that the enemy were not responsible and that someone else was, and, on cue, a technician briefs the assembled Wreckers on his theory that a reactor below ground had been vented.

Xaaron reminds us that Megatron, the founder of the Decepticon movement and the instigator of the millennia long civil war, had once schemed to turn Cybertron into a space-faring dreadnought. It turns out that he might have actually got around to building the engine room before he disappeared.

Springer immediately deployed with his men to find a way underground, only to return in failure. Sitting there dejected he wallows in doubts and self-pity about his mistakes since taking over leadership of the Wreckers following the heroic death of the team’s long-time leader Impactor. These include falling for Megatron’s disinformation and nearly executing Optimus Prime, which as mistakes go is about as bad as it gets.

It’s all shaping up to be a classic Furman redemption story (I remember reading one of his Thundercats stories with Lion-O wracked with doubts and having to overcome them by the story conclusion, and similarly Prime himself in Crisis of Command or even Magnus recently in Salvage) – you get what I mean, it’s a familiar trope.

Things usually must get worse before they get better and sure enough Autobase is quickly overrun with Zombies bursting up from the floor. Springer has no idea what to do and his men are started to get overwhelmed.

Sandstorm shouts to Springer to get away and save Xaaron, which eventually he resolves to do, even though it means leaving his men to their fates. This sets up a ‘shock ending’ for the first part as the fleeing Springer comes face-to-face with his worst nightmare, a zombified Impactor!

Did we see that coming? Well yes, I think the build-up with Springer invoking Impactor’s memory – revealing that he looks up to his predecessor massively, even though they only met for a very short time in Target: 2006, pretty much gave the game away. Still, he was a great character in that iconic 1986 saga, still arguably Simon Furman’s greatest Transformers stories, and its exciting to see him return (proving that in comics, no death is truly forever).

In the second part, Transformers issue 167, we learn the Wreckers survived the attack, along with Xaaron, and are now in the cells with a band around their mid-rift which prevents transformation. Impactor enters as the zombie bodyguard of Flame, who we finally see, and surprise, surprise, he’s an Autobot! (Albeit clearly a loon).

There’s a bit of history here between Xaaron and Flame. It turns out that Xaaron was responsible for snuffing out Flame’s grand ambition to activate Megatron’s engines and propel Cybertron on a journey through the cosmos (presumably in a more controlled way than currently, with it having spun out of orbit in issue 1).

Flame had been presumed dead in an explosion, but he survived and has like a science geek who got ridiculed at school he’s returned all embittered and desperate to prove he was right all along. Luckily for the Xaaron and company, they are needed alive long enough for that ‘I told you so moment’, although Xaaron’s expects that the loopy plot will probably destroy Cybertron in the process.

A quick check on the surface sees Flywheels jetting away in his plane mode and Magnus arguing with the Sizzle about why their prisoner has been allowed to go. Magnus rather hopes he can trust the Duocon to bring reinforcements. We’ll see.

Back to what I was saying about the ‘overcoming self-doubt motif’, Springer has reached rock bottom in terms of his lack of belief in himself. It takes Xaaron to remind him of the insult he’s giving to Impactor’s memory if he doesn’t snap out of it. Finally, Springer sorts himself out, and uses his leaping ability to launch himself through a vent in the ceiling, with Impactor gripping his legs and getting carried along.

The old trick of escaping through an air vent is not very original, and I have to wonder at the point of vents on a planet inhabited by robots who don’t need to breathe. That said, much later the Neo Knights (Earth superheroes) are able to survive on Cybertron so perhaps there’s an atmosphere after all, just without plants to release the oxygen.

Springer reasons with Impactor as they tussle in the shaft, finally triggering Impactor’s limited consciousness starts to reassert. He leaves to ‘find out what he has become’ and Springer resumes his mission to alert the outside world about the impending doom. To be concluded…

It must be said that 1988 is a boom time for Marvel UK. In both issues there are plugs for new releases, as the company launches a line of American format monthly titles – there’s Action Force, Dragon’s Teeth (soon to be Dragon’s Claws when it turns out that an independent already has the name) and a one-page strip about Death’s Head which hints at his return. Exciting stuff.

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City of Fear

The dead walk the streets in the Cybertron city of Kalis! Can Magnus, the Sparklers and their Decepticon prisoner Flywheels make it out alive?

Location, location, location. Any estate agent will tell you this is the top consideration when investing in property. So, whoever decided to relocate the headquarters of Cybertron’s Autobot Resistance to Kalis really screwed up royally!

On the face of it, Kalis is a bombed-out wreck of a place, but pretty much your average Cybertron metropolis after millions of years of ongoing civil war. However, recently it has earned itself a feared reputation for supernatural goings on. Whisper it gently, but some say the dead walk the streets here!

Like I said, not the best place to open a new base. Or maybe it is if you don’t want Decepticon patrols to find you?

Welcome to City of Fear, the first chapter of a six-issue saga from writer Simon Furman and artist Dan Reed, published in issues 164 and 165 of Marvel UK’s weekly Transformers comic (still enjoying its hey day back in May 1988).

I’ll say up front that I absolutely love this two part story and for me it ranks among the best of Simon’s UK material. It also really suits Dan’s artistic style. These days a zombie fest is common enough but less so in the 80s and I wouldn’t have expected the concept to work for a Transformers story but by Primus it does.

Dan’s cover for 164, ‘Face it Sparkers there’s no-one home’ – with zombie silhouettes reaching for Magnus and his mini-bot mates lets you know what you’re in for. The Transformation intro page also ramps up the anticipation for the ‘most spinetingling Transformers story we’ve ever dared to present’. This one would have made a very good Hallowe’en story if it had been later in the year.

Simon is not adverse to stealing concepts from Star Trek (like warp drive, Hot Rod beaming down in Kup’s Story, time travel, communicators etc) and this also includes the unwritten rule that a character who is not part of the main cast (in this case the Hasbro toy line) is almost certain to die horribly.

A case in point is the anonymous green and orange Autobot making his way across Kalis in the opening scene. (I have a vague memory of him being revealed as Chuffer on a later Grim Grams page – not sure if this was a gag by Furman).

Chuffer, or whoever he is, has got the jitters alright. He’s jumping out of his skin at eery noises and big-time regretting not heeding the warnings to stay hidden. A skeletal-looking robot zombie rears up behind him, still wearing an Autobot badge, and punches a hole clean through the robot’s chest. Eeks. As openings go its dramatic and defy anyone not to read on.

On Earth, Ultra Magnus and the Sparkabots are awaiting the arrival of an interdimensional portal that will transport them to Cybertron and the new Autobase on Kalis. The mini-bots are still being referred to in the UK comic as the Sparkler Mini-bots (why I don’t know?) and Sizzle and Fizzle’s colourings are reversed. These are curiosities that endure to this day, however they are a good foil for Magnus, who is our main character and Optimus Prime stand-in.

As I’ve mentioned before, the Cybertron Autobots led by Xaaron and the Wreckers have enough on their plate trying to retake their home world without worrying about the future Decepticon Galvatron, who is at large on Earth, a very distant for them. For some reason he is a priority though, and enough to send the Sparklers to Earth to spy on him and with the secondary aim of recovering Magnus.

With the mission complete, it’s time to return to Cybertron and report back, so they step through the portal and emerge in a trashed and deserted Autobase. Magnus questions who could have been mighty enough to best the Wreckers, their elite commandos? And where is everyone now?

One clue might be a very old, severed head that Sizzle finds. Odd that the blaster damage looks recent. He drops the head and runs to catch up with the others, only for it to come alive and bear vampirical fangs. A brilliant moment.

Our intrepid heroes find Kalis a ‘ghost town’ and even the Empties (Cybertron down and outs) that they see, beat a quick retreat when they see them. They think they see movement in a window, but no-one will come out and talk, much to Magnus’ annoyance.

Instead, everyone reverts to vehicle modes (Dan Reed uniquely illustrates their transformations with electrical energy in yellow and black) and they head out of the city in search of some answers, only to run into a Decepticon cordon. Are they keeping something out or something in?

Then an unexpected character debut (I always loved those) of the Duocons Flywheels and Battletrap who attack via their aerial modes and drop a bomb on the four Autobots. The Sparklers are rendered temporarily unconscious, but Magnus, who is still standing and pretty riled up by this point, whacks Flywheels with a girder and forces him to crash-land and revert to his robot mode.

Duocons, as we know, separate into two vehicles and therefore Flywheels’ jet should only be able to form his robotic torso and would have been parted from his tank mode (needed to form his legs). To get around this obvious problem, Furman has the Duocons function as triple changers, which is a real shame. Better I think, to have had the vehicle mode teleport across.

Flywheels is actually the unexpected star of the show from this point on. He’s such a brilliant addition to the team – wise-cracking, untrustworthy and one real cool dude. Initially though, he’s freaking out after discovering that he’s been bundled into Kalis – don’t they know the dead walk the streets in Kalis and their victims become like them, the living dead?!

Right on cue, hands burst from the floor and grab their feet. The dead have risen… and it’s a hell of cliff-hanger to top off a downright entertaining opening instalment.

On the letters page Grimlock deals with the confusion over Jawbreaker/Overbite, explaining that Jawbreaker was the Seacon’s name on Cybertron and it stuck. Hmm. He also reveals that the message that the Headmasters received which brought them to Earth was sent by Goldbug from the cave at Mount St Hilary. Since the message was received before we saw the story where it was sent, I’d assumed that it must have been Soundwave’s message sent in The Next Best Thing to Being There, way back.

In the opener for issue 165 there’s the first mention of Dragon’s Teeth, a new title on the way from Furman and Senior (a real classic) that would end up being renamed ahead of its release to Dragon’s Claws. I think at some point I’ll review it.

Back to City of Fear, and part two opens with zombie hordes spilling out from the sides and surrounding our protagonists like circling wagons from a Western. They’ll have to ‘fight their way out’ declares Magnus, and everyone starts gunning down their attackers using their identical blasters (Dan Reed standardised the weapons which was a shame as often the guns were unique to each Transformer and certainly looked different).

Magnus won’t allow Flywheels to have a gun back (he’s their prisoner after all and being a Decepticon, he’s not to be trusted) but the latter has a tank mode which comes in rather useful. The Sparklers unleash a fire bath from their engines, until Magnus realises some of the zombies are Autobots – they are killing their own troops.

It’s a dumb move and risks getting everyone killed. Luckily, Flywheels takes not a bit of notice of the order and saves Magnus from getting mauled by a flying zombie. Not that Magnus is particularly grateful!

Having beaten a retreat they regroup nearby and theorise what might be reanimating these dead Autobots and Decepticons. If it’s a remote control (or computer transmission as stated) Flywheels suggests they jam the signal. Obvious huh?

Cue Magnus and Flywheels heading into the Baird Beaming Transmitter (a nice nod from Simon to the Briton, John Logie Baird, the inventor of television) and he reluctantly agrees that he’ll have to hand the Decepticon back his gun. Can Flywheels be trusted? Magnus doesn’t think so, but feels he has no choice, he needs the help.

Magnus is successful, only to find himself staring down the barrel of Flywheels’ blaster. Luckily, his target turns out to be a still reanimated zombie – phew!

The threat is over, and Magnus was able to learn something significant – that the signal which activated the zombies was coming from hundreds of feet beneath the surface of Cybertron. Interesting.

In closing, what a fun ride and a distinctly different Transformers story. The rank-and-file Sparklers compliment the more senior and serious Magnus, our stand-in Optimus who is comfortable getting his hands dirty as well as commanding. The Sparklers are a nice, easy-going bunch (as much as anyone can be with zombies on their trail) but they don’t register as separate personalities.

Flywheels steals the show. His wanton disregard for life is just the ticket in this situation and gung-ho philosophy contrasts with restrictive Autobot morality. He is the black humour element and enjoys the Autobots’ discomfort in having to side with their prisoner. There’s always the feeling that Flywheels is about to turn on his new allies, but instead he saves Magnus twice. Perhaps he was starting to like his new Autobot allies?

With that, we’re on to Legion of the Lost, the next instalment, where the explanations begin and events go from bad to worse.

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Salvage!

Shockwave recovers Megatron from his watery grave to use as an agent against Galvatron, who appears to have mentally broken poor old Ultra Magnus…

‘Look who’s in Transformers’, teases the Transformation page for issue 160 with Lee Sullivan’s realistic drawing of a familiar face from the ‘real world’ – Richard Branson. Genuinely this was unexpected.

Branson was/is one of the Britain’s most recognisable business personalities, and in April 1988 when the comic was released, he was famous for high-profile marketing stunts such as driving a tank through New York’s 5th Avenue or wearing a wedding dress to launch his Virgin Brides line.

It’s easy to imagine that when Marvel UK asked if he would like to appear in Britain’s best-selling weekly comic, Branson was tickled by the idea. It may well have engendered some goodwill from young readers towards Virgin corporation (and sales as the Virgin Media stores) but if Sir Richard was hoping to look cool and down with the kids, he might be disappointed. If anything, he’s on the receiving end of some Decepticon humiliation, in a manner that other billionaire GB Blackrock knows well.

Our story opens with a full-page of Megatron and Centurion being dredged from the bottom of the Thames by Mr Branson, while still locked in the battle poses they were in when bombed by Action Force in the Ancient Relics crossover story.

Mr Branson is dreaming of his corporation being splashed across the headlines – all good publicity for his environmental credentials (that was a thing in the 80s too!) -when an employee shouts a shark warning. This sounds ridiculous, as ‘there are no sharks in the Thames’, but the Seacon Jawbreaker pops up and bites through the chains that are holding the two petrified giants. Then Blitzwing, Ramjet, Dirge, and Thrust swoop down make off with Mr Branson’s prize, leaving the tycoon shaking his fists.

Hours later at Mount Verona, USA, the Sparkler Minibots – Sizzle, Fizzle and Guzzle – free Magnus from his tomb, where he’s been contained since the 1987 Transformers Annual. Magnus is at first disorientated and then overcome with fear as images of his fateful last encounter with Galvatron flood back. Sullivan’s nightmarish depiction of Galvatron’s laughing face inside a Decepticon sign is genuinely creepy.

FYI Salvage is Lee Sullivan’s first ‘interiors’ for Transformers UK after cutting his teeth on a series of covers. I wasn’t a fan back in the day, as I didn’t think robots should have human expressions, wrinkles and saliva – metal faces shouldn’t contort. But revisiting the story now I think Lee has done a much better job than I’d initially given him credit. His splash page of Optimus Prime looming over a cowering Megatron in part two is particularly inspired.

When Magnus and the Sparklers catch sight of the Decepticon jets flying Megatron and Centurion in the direction of Fortress Sinister, their original and long abandoned base, the Autobots set off to investigate. Meanwhile, a shadowy figure keeps watch outside the said base. Sullivan does well to conceal the figure’s identity, but most fans will have immediately twigged it was Galvatron.

Why’s he there? Well, ever since Enemy Action Galvy has been keeping tabs on Shockwave and plotting his moves to overthrow him. He thought the present day Decepticon leader had ‘escaped’ him by blasting his island base into space, only for Shockwave to fall to Earth moments later in a blaze of fire. As we know, he was shot down by Fortress Maximus in last week’s story and got sucked into Earth’s gravitational pull. His demise looked conclusive, and it will see Shockwave written out of the US comic for the next two years, while Ratbat rules.

However, Simon Furman has need of Shockwave for his developing storyline in the UK and downplays the demise, which is a shame as Bob Budiansky had written such a good exit for the character. Now the Earthfall is relegated to a minor setback leaving Shockwave stranded with a handful of remaining Decepticons but free to pursue his long-term aim of ending the threat of Galvatron. What’s odd about this of course is that Shockwave is worried about Galvatron stealing his command, when Ratbat has actually gone and done exactly this. How has Shockwave not realised?

Inside the fortress, Snaptrap shows himself to be quite capable as Shockwave’s mad scientist sidekick complete with ‘psycho-probe’ equipment. Finding Megatron in a vegetative state, it will be necessary to stimulate coax his catatonic mind back to consciousness and requiring the former Decepticon leader to overcome his greatest fears along the way.

Ultra Magnus is about to face the same mental trial, as he arrives at Fortress Sinister with the Sparklers hoping to prevent Megatron’s revival, he runs into his archnemesis Galvatron. Magnus sinks to the ground screaming ‘nooooo’ as part one ends on a suitably dramatic cliff-hanger.

In part two, Megatron once again strides confidently through the corridors of the Decepticon fortress, is he restored to his past glory? No, as it turns out. Where once he was a force of undiluted evil, feared by the enemy and his own troops alike, now he is reduced to a quivering wreck as he is confronted with a ghost from his past… that of Optimus Prime. In the real-world Shockwave is frustrated – he needs Megatron back to his aggressive and arrogant best if he is to be of any use.

Furman now runs the twin plots of Megatron and Magnus in parallel as both are forced to confront their demons. Magnus is on his knees, broken by the haunting memory of past battles with Galvatron, battles where he’s been utterly defeated. The fear is suffocating but if he can’t get snap out of it his new friends, the Sparklers are about to become Galvatron’s next victims, having rejected the offer to take Magnus and scram.

In possibly the finest moment of the story, we’re treated to the return of Lord Straxus – who asks: ‘why so surprised to see me?’ – after all he shares the same mind as Megatron following a botched body takeover back in issue 103. As if to revel in Megatron’s weakness, Straxus proceeds to tear Prime limb from limb, just as Galvatron is busy knocking seven bells out of the Sparklers as Magnus is in the grip of despair.

Then comes the turning point for both protagonists. Megatron remembers how he used to be – previously if any being dared to challenge him, he would crush them utterly, and with that his anger swells and he punches a crater sized hole in Straxus’ face, tearing him in two! Megatron is victorious and Shockwave is pleased, his subject is now ready to receive new programming.

Likewise, Magnus finally comes to his senses, knowing he has to act to save his fellow Autobots – better to die than live a coward. He reigns blows on Galvatron, taking him by surprise and amazingly wins the battle. Galvatron is hurt and retreats (first time for everything). Magnus does not pursue but he knows now that he could have beaten his foe all along, he just lacked the confidence. Next time will be different he vows, and they will fight for the last time. That next encounter was, I think, intended to happen in Time Wars but fell by the wayside when the saga was shortened.

All in all, Salvage is a satisfying read and lays the building blocks for epic upcoming events that will take us up to and beyond the milestone 200th issue.

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Legacy of Unicron (Parts 5 & 6)

Death’s Head journeys into Unicron’s mind and learns the origin of the Transformers as Rodimus travels to Junk for the final showdown with the Chaos Bringer!

January 1988 saw Marvel UK’s flagship comic, The Transformers, notch up another milestone of its eight-year run – the 150th issue.

For issue #50 we had a fight to the death between Grimlock and Sludge in the epic Dinobot Hunt (one of my faves) and on reaching triple figures readers were treated to a fantastic wraparound cover poster and an extended story featuring Optimus doing battle with barbaric cyborg apes! Yes, every bit as weird as it sounds.

Issue #150 also provides a wraparound poster that is something really special. Jerry Paris, who drew the cover of issue #1, that memorable and dare I say iconic Prime versus Soundwave cover, now turns his hand to depicting Unicron in his planet devouring glory. This sets us up nicely for issue #150’s story – the honest to gosh origin of the Transformers.

It’s a bold move into unchartered territory and moving beyond anything we’ve seen so far from the Transformers’ American parent title. This was Simon Furman and the UK comic laying the foundations of the franchise and staking a claim to being the main canon. It also makes #150 one of the most significant issues in the Transformers run. Arguably an origin story was needed following the events of the 1986 movie which established the relationship between Unicron and the Matrix.

So, to the story, which is pencilled this time by Jeff Anderson. It begins with Wreck-Gar deploying explosives in a cavern underneath the head of Unicron. It’s like a modern-day Guy Fawkes moment.

Unicron, for all his vast mental ability is strangely oblivious. His attention is focused on Death’s Head who has somehow managed to inject his consciousness into Unicron’s vast mindscape. The planet eater is impressed by his slave’s resourcefulness and ‘bare faced effrontery’. Whilst it will not be enough to spare Death’s Head from oblivion, as a last request Unicron will share with him a story unheard of by any mortal – Unicron’s origin!

‘Elsewhere in the real world’ Rodimus Prime’s shuttle soars towards the planet of Junk. The Autobot leader ponders who Unicron really is and why he’s so hell bent on destroying Cybertron. He also watches Smokescreen at the ship’s controls with barely concealed contempt for abandoning Prime’s pal Wreck-Gar. Smokescreen takes it on the chin as he’s desperately disappointed by his own actions, but it’s hardly fair.

We learn from Unicron that he was once a god of chaos and fury who was pitched in an eternal battle against his counterpart, Primus, leader of the light gods and protector of all life in the universe. According to Unicron, he had the measure of Primus, both in the physical realm and the astral plane (perhaps wishful thinking on his part as the two seem essentially to be in stalemate). Primus knew this and outsmarted Unicron. He fled the astral plane with Unicron pursuing and materialised them both within enormous barren asteroids.

They appeared to be trapped for all eternity. However, as the millennia passed, Unicron used his fury and hatred to physically reshape his prison, becoming a mobile planet. Much later he was able to restructure himself further, adding a robot form. In effect he had become the first Transformer!

Primus had also shaped his body but rather than become a giant robot and continue their evenly matched battle, he instead chose to become the habitable world of Cybertron. He created the Transformers to succeed him and distilled his essence into a Matrix capable of giving life but also destroying Unicron. Pretty clever.

We also learn that Primus and Unicron shared a mental link and therefore is aware of the other’s motives and plans. Unicron knew the danger of the Matrix, which is why in the Movie he recruits Megatron and transforms him into Galvatron to act as his agent to capture and destroy the Matrix. As we know, Galvatron failed and Hot Rod eventually unleashed the power of the Matrix, becoming elevated into Rodimus Prime and destroying the planet eater.

Unicron’s concentration is broken as Rodimus’ shuttle arrives and begins a bombing run. He returns fire using the deadly laser eye beams we saw in the Movie. The Junkions are ordered to counterattack along with Death’s Head, who resists and is lucky to escape a Unicron eye beam in his direction. It’s enough, however, to send Wreck-Gar tumbling inside the underground shaft, burying him under rubble just as the detonator counts down. Eeks!

A Rodimus fact file rounds off the treats for issue #150 before we move on to the next issue and the concluding part of the Legacy of Unicron. There’s a hint on the Transformations page about a ‘major new development’ in the pipeline, which will turn out to be the closure of the weekly Action Force comic and amalgamating it into Transformers as the regular back-up strip. Bryan Hitch, one of the AF artists, makes his TF debut and makes an instant impact with a truly demonic depiction of Unicron’s head.

As Prime decamps to the surface of Junk, Smokescreen continues to strafe Unicron’s eye beams in an apparent death wish. He’s giving Scattershot the jitters and perhaps Unicron too, as the demi-god orders Cyclonus and Scourge to head for Junk to bolster his defences. With their departure from the battle on Cybertron, Soundwave can see no point in continuing the suicide attack and orders a strategic Decepticon retreat. This is the point where Soundwave can be said to have taken over the leadership of the future Decepticons.

Hitch strikes an incredibly dramatic pose for Rodimus Prime, who is wracked with guilt at the fate of the Junkion slaves (whom the Dinobots are busy dismantling). Death’s Head arrives with an appeal for Prime to trust him. Next thing he’s holding the Matrix up to Unicron alongside a defeated Rodimus and asking to bargain. Unicron immediately prepares to capture Death’s Head’s mind again and the bounty hunter propels Prime into the psychic plane where he confronts Unicron (appearing as regular sized) as a surrogate for Primus.

I’m not sure of what the point of the confrontation is. Rodimus is hopelessly out of his depth and runs a real of risk of losing the Matrix to the great enemy. Thankfully Death’s Head pulls him out in the nick of time, having also freed Wreck-Gar from his entombment.

Things then rush to a swift conclusion over the space of two pages. Cyclonus and Scourge arrive just as the explosives begin to detonate. Death’s Head knows the only route of escape – the only way to fulfil his contract on the pair – is to bundles all three of them into Unicron’s time portal so that they can fight another day. They vanish just as Unicron is engulfed in a catastrophic explosion that rains debris on to Rodimus and his allies.

As the dust settles, we learn that Unicron’s essence has been absorbed into the Matrix. Such a powerful evil would surely taint the sacred lifeforce but that’s a story for another time. In the short postscript we discover that Cyclonus and Scourge were transported to Cybertron’s past where they joined Scorponok’s army and this explains how the pair are able to exist in the past as Target Masters. Nicely done Simon Furman.

We end on a line about the real star of the show, ‘of Death’s Head there was no trace’. What happens to him? He’ll encounter Doctor Who at the crossroads of time but shrunk to human size and then wind up in Earth’s distant future in a springboard to his own monthly Marvel title.

So ends the first epic tale of 1988 with a lot more still to come.

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Legacy of Unicron (Parts 3 & 4)

Cyclonus and Scourge lead the Decepticons in a suicidal attack on the Autobots as part of Unicron’s insidious plan to decimate both warring factions, and Inferno meets a fiery end

A quick recap: Death’s Head pursued Cyclonus and Scourge to the Planet of Junk to execute them and complete the contract he agreed with the Autobot leader Rodimus Prime. There, on New Year’s Day 2008, they encountered the head of Unicron being rebuilt by an army of mind controlled Junkions. They were also enlisted into his service and used to assassinate the Decepticon leader Shockwave. With Cyclonus and Scourge now installed as the new leaders they are poised to launch an all-out attack on the Autobots to keep everyone distracted while Unicron rebuilds.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this six-part saga from 1988 has treated readers to one of the best starts to a Transformers story since, well, Simon Furman’s previous future epic, Wanted Galvatron. However, that story had started strongly and then quickly went south, and I must admit that Legacy was in danger of going the same say, as part three is in my opinion the weakest of the six. Thankfully it gets better.

As we go into issue #148, expectations are sky-high after those magnificent first and second instalments. In part three we’ve got an epic battle between the deadlocked Autobot and Decepticon factions in prospect so on paper it should be a good one. And artist Dan Reed deserves praise for the amazingly detailed sea of battling robots he renders over two pages and also the menacing, if slightly phallic, armada of jets that overfly Rodimus at the start.

It’s difficult to put a finger on why the issues a bit flat overall, but I think it’s because we’re detached from the action. We never delve into the battle and see characters that we care about bite the dust or perform heroics so its difficult to feel all that invested. Part three feels like it is just moving the plot on until the better stuff comes along.

It begins with Rodimus and Kup strolling on the veranda of their command centre on Cybertron. Kup is twitchy for some action and Prime is irritated by the gung-ho attitude. As Hot Rod he might have shared the sentiment, but as leader the death and destruction is a heavy burden to carry. We all know what’s coming and sure enough their words set up the splash page of the Decepticon forces swarming overhead like a scene from the Blitz. Evidently the Autobots don’t do radar, as they are ‘taken by surprise’ but they quickly scramble a full response.

This provides us with the high point of the issue, Reed’s double pager with the battle scene. It must have been a hell of a challenge and time consuming to pencil all the detail.

On Junk Unicron is watching events unfold through the eyes of Cyclonus and Scourge. His new shoulders are also starting to take shape! As I’ve mentioned before, it’s somewhat impractical for the Junkions to be hoisting him up and adding layers – much better to have rebuilt Unicron in space.

Wreck-gar, Inferno and Smokescreen have been watching in horror and hear Unicron boast of his intention to “descend on Cybertron” once his body is rebuilt and the Autobots and Decepticons have largely destroyed one another. They make a break for their shuttle, hoping to get back and warn Prime, but they are confronted with a (miscoloured green?) Junkion with a torso that really reminds me of Galvatron’s 1986 toy form. Wreck-gar is forced to take out the mind-controlled Junkion out with a flying axe, adding further to the Junkion leader’s immense distress. He’s still talking in TV references but less so. The situation is too serious for silly comments.

Then we have Death’s Head, the unofficial star of the show, for whom the Legacy of Unicron story is really an opportunity to showcase him ahead of his own Marvel UK monthly comic that is coming up later in 1988. Uniquely, because he’s Death’s Head and awesome, he’s able to display a stronger will than Cyclonus and Scourge and attempt to resist Unicron’s mental control. This only amuses Unicron who turns up the dial on his mental control. Soon DH is back in service and shoots Inferno in the back as the Autobots near their shuttle, causing the Autobot serious internal damage. Wreck-gar stays to battle Death’s Head and buy Smokescreen and the injured Inferno the time they need to blast off.

Unicron orders Wreck-gar to be finished off but again Death’s Head resists. He is swiftly punished with an influx of pain but allows the Junkion leader to scarper off. Death’s Head takes this a significant step forward in defying the mind control, as part three ends.

In the Grim Grams page, Grimlock responds to a reference to Autobot City being called Fortress Maximus by saying that it may have been named in honour of Max. Later in 1988, in the story Space Pirates, it would be confirmed that Autobot City was in fact Metroplex.

Onwards to issue #149, which is all about Inferno meeting his end in a massive ball of fire – only fitting really. Inferno is in fact one of the early Hasbro releases but for some reason he never featured in either the UK or US Transformers comics, save for an appearance in a UK annual text story which was not considered canon.

Finally, he shows up as part of the 2008 Autobots but sadly it doesn’t take long before Inferno comes to sticky end. On the plus side, it is a heroic and rather memorable exit and because these are future events, the way is clear for Inferno to make further appearances in the comics that are set in the ‘present day’, which he does.

The story opens with Smokescreen at the controls of a large Autobot ship, desperate to make it back to Cybertron and raise the alarm about Unicron’s return. For a moment it looks like Smokescreen and the injured Inferno (in the medical bay) might make it back in one piece, but they’ve come under aerial attack in the skies above their home world by Unicron’s agents Cyclonus and Scourge.

Without a co-pilot to man the guns, Smokescreen is a sitting duck. A quick check to the power core reveals it as near empty, and they are almost out of time. Suddenly the power gauge fills up, allowing them to pull the shuttle up. Inferno staggers in, and although severely injured he has been repairing the engines. Smokescreen fears his friend will not survive unless he returns to med bay but unless Inferno helps, they are both as good as dead anyway. The huge battle still rages below.

Inferno discovers that the ship is wrecked and has little chance of landing in one piece, so with a heroic effort, he lifts Smokescreen and hurls him out of the shuttle window, while remaining on board to direct the ship into the hordes of marauding Decepticons below. Smokescreen watches the incredible mushroom cloud that follows the explosion.

On Junk, Unicron is pleased as it suits his purpose to remain undetected. Death’s Head continues to provoke his master, which seem rather unwise, except that for now he knows he is more useful to Unicron alive than dead, and he’s testing for ways to loosen Unicron’s mental hold by distracting him.

Talking of distractions, Unicron has had his Junkion slaves – who were working flat out as it is – build him a time portal that he can use to snatch Galvatron from the past once the time is right. You would think however that the resources required for this side project would be enormous, and better directed at Unicron’s reassembly. Plus, unless Galvatron dies in the past he should still be around in 2008 and could be picked up then. I was always confused on this point as a reader in the 1980s but (spoiler warning) as we see in the 1989 story Time Wars, Galvatron does indeed meet his end in the past.

Meanwhile, Smokescreen makes it back to Autobase and fills Rodimus in on the new threat. Prime will have to go to Junk to confront Unicron, but how can he leave with all-out war unleashed on Cybertron? Grimlock is never one to underrate the Dinobots’ fighting abilities and suggests with them at Prime’s side, they can prevail against a planet eating god (perhaps with a bit of help from the Matrix too). So Rodimus, the Dinobots, Smokescreen and Scattershot will go to Junk for the big showdown.

The issue ends with Death’s Head making his move. He grabs his gun and blasts some of the Junkion workers. Unicron responds by wracking Death’s Head’s body with pain, allowing the bounty hunter an opening to project his mind into Unicron’s. Perhaps on the mental plain they can battle on equal terms… it seems rather unlikely but it does set the stage for the awesome 150th issue of Transformers where Unicron’s secrets (and the origins of the Transformers themselves) will be revealed. 

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Ark Duty

Hot Rod is ordered to guard the Ark from Decepticon attack but can’t resist leaving his post when he sees Kup under attack from the Stunticons

At the end of March 2020, as the UK went into lockdown, and have some unexpected time on my hands due to no longer commuting for 1.5 hours a day, I embarked on this project to re-read and review all of my classic 1980s and 90s Transformers comics. It’s been a lot of fun, I might say a blast from the past and I’ve been struck by how good those stories still are despite the passage of time. A year and two weeks later, I’ve reached the end of 1987 with Ark Duty… a story from the Transformers Annual of that year.

Somewhat unusually there are none of the usual credits, so it’s difficult to be sure who the production team is. I would hazard a guess though that its a Simon Furman story with Will Simpson on art duties; I’m pretty sure its his style.
This seven page story is a nice, compact little tale, which fills in some of the gaps between the then ‘present day’ (1980s) era and the Transformers the Movie set up.

It defies the usual Furman practice of setting future stories exactly 20 years on from the publication date by being set in 2003. Ultra Magnus is now the Autobot commander on Earth (no explanation is given for Optimus Prime’s absence, but we might assume that he’s on Cybertron’s moons at this put overseeing the operation to retake the homeworld) and plans have been drawn up to build Autobot City Earth. Obviously in the Movie, which is set in 2005/6 depending on whether you follow cartoon or comic continuity, the city is built.

We open with Magnus in the Ark showing the gathered Autobots a video simulation of how Autobot City will be able to withstand and repel a Decepticon attack. Magnus alludes to the fact that the Ark contains many valuable secrets that cannot be allowed to fall into Decepticon hands – this is intriguing as we have no idea what these secrets may be. My feeling it’s something in the Ark/Auntie’s data banks. He also speaks of the Autobots having been given land and all the materials they need by Earth’s governments, which rather suggests that humanity has finally accepted the Autobots as their protectors. It’s taken a while. I wonder if even Circuit Breaker has stopped attacking Autobots and is targeting Decepticons at last by 2003?

Magnus explains that all Autobots will take part in the convoy to collect the materials they need for the city, except for Hot Rod, Kup and Blurr. Oddly enough the trio are not Targetmasters, despite becoming bonded to Nebulans over the course of 1987, and the Ark is still embedded in the side of Mount St Hillary, that’s despite it being repaired and returned to orbit in the main Transformers strip by the end of the year. This begs the question of whether Ark Duty is in the same continuity as the regular comic. It’s likely that its in the Transformers Movie alternate reality. For anyone who doesn’t know what I mean, the Transformers comic departed from the Movie future by having Unicron show up and attack Cybertron in 1991 and not 2005/6. This pretty much cast the Movie into a different reality to the comic stories.

The Decepticon spy Ravage observes from the wings, his electro-magnetic shield ensuring that he remains undetected. When Magnus reveals that Kup will deliver a top secret data tape to the human authorities, Ravage determines to steal it and tasks the Stunticons with intercepting the Autobot old timer. (It’s great to see the under-used Stunticons again).

Kup made a point of ordered Hot Rod to guard the Ark and not to leave under any circumstances. Blurr is uttering dialogue similar to his lines in the Movie (“positively absolutely certain” sounding like his “absolutely positively definitely”) but unlike the Movie which Blurr is something of a novelty character and quite fun, here he’s just plain annoying. When Hot Rod sees Kup getting roughed up by Motormaster and his crew on screen, he wastes no time in defying orders and setting out after his colleague.

After checking Kup is okay, he takes off after the Stunticon convoy to retrieve the stolen tape. Hot Rod doesn’t stick around to allow Kup to tell him something important, namely that the tape is a fake and they wanted the Decepticons to steal it. Hot Rod catches up with the Stunticons and challenges them. Shortly after, Kup arrives and finds Hot Rod beaten up and left bruised and battered at the roadside.

He explains the plan and thanks Hot Rod for making it seem all the more convincing. Now they will be left alone to build the city as the Decepticons will believe they know its secrets, he says. The obvious flaw in the logic is that the Decepticons will surely know that the Autobots are aware that their plans have been stolen and are likely to change the plans. Hot Rod apologises and insists he will stay in the Ark next time, but Kup somehow doubts it. They hobble off together into the sunset.

I liked this story overall because it bridges the divide between the present day 80s set-up and the Autobots we see in the Transformers Movie. It’s also a welcome to see Ravage back to his cunning best (he hasn’t been seen since he disappeared down a mine shaft of course) and the Stunticons are rarely used, compared to other special teams. The dynamic between Hot Rod and Kup is established by this point. They are polar opposites but true friends.

Now its time to fast forward from 2003 to January 2008 and a post-Movie showdown on the Planet of Junk between Death’s Head, Cyclonus and Scourge.

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Ladies’ Night

Susan Hoffman is on the brink of the greatest find of her archaeological career – the fossilised remains of Ultra Magnus and Galvatron!

Transformers is and has always been a bit of a sausage fest. Not that giant alien robots have a gender either way, at least not officially. But in appearance, personality, voice and behaviour they’ve always been depicted as male. That was certainly true in the 1980s when the Marvel comic was on sale, and the arrival of Arcee (the first Autobot of female Autobot) in the 1986 Transformers Movie only cemented the idea that the rest were male.

So, the premise of Simon Furman’s 1987 story Ladies’ Night – that the sisters are doing it and taking centre stage in the fight against the Decepticons – was something of a novelty. Is it sexist? I wouldn’t go as far as to say that. The dictionary definition of sexism is prejudice and discrimination based on gender and I don’t think that’s in play here. But take a look at the cover with the ‘fellas’ Rollbar and Goldbug being shocked at being relegated to the side lines by the three ladies and there’s a whiff of something patronising and gender stereotyping, that looks a bit antiquated these days.

That said, the story is pretty good and advances the Ultra Magnus and Galvatron plot a little, as well as the rivalry and paranoia of Shockwave in relation to the threat that he perceives Galvatron to be to his command. We catch up with the human characters we haven’t seen in a while and the story provides a plausible explanation for the Combaticons’ pursuit of the Throttlebots which would be the plot of the next US story Used Autobots. But mostly for me, the highlight of the entire story is Dan Reed’s rendition of Magnus and Galvatron petrified in stone. It’s a kind of nightmarish Pompeii meets Han Solo in Carbonite.

The tale begins with Susan Hoffman, the archaeologist we met in the Ancient Relics story earlier in 1987. You might have been forgiven for thinking her specialism was Roman architecture given that this was what she was investigating under London.

However, in Ladies Night she’s half a world away in Southern Oregon about to descend into Mount Verona to uncover the secret of its sudden and mysterious eruption recently (and the presence of metal debris at the volcano mouth). We’ll just have to suspend our belief and go with it. She doesn’t have to descend far before she lands on something. A spotlight quickly illuminates what it is – Galvatron’s shoulder! Susan has found the fossilised remains of the future Decepticon leader and his greatest enemy (in this era at least) Ultra Magnus.

Incidentally Simon Furman later confirmed that Susan Hoffman was modelled on Susanna Hoffs, lead single of the 80s the band The Bangles, who he evidently had a crush on.

Fast forward a week and Goldbug is helping Rollbar get acquainted with Earth but parking up outside an electronics store that has closed for the night. They are watching TV with Blaster on hand to intercept the sound at source and provide the volume. As he notes, it’s “sorta inconsiderate” of the shopkeepers to turn the sound off on the sets! A news broadcast catches Goldbug’s attention – it is Joy Meadows, the investigative reporter who got involved in the Transformers war when she attempted to uncover the Robot Master hoax with help from the Dinobots – and she’s broadcasting her Ladies Night show from the summit of Mount Verona. Joy is interviewing Susan Hoffman about her amazing find and Goldbug is shocked to see a close-up of the petrified Magnus. He’d thought his friend had perished along with Galvatron but evidently not. (It’s that old rule of comics that nobody actually stays dead for good).

Elsewhere Cindy Newell, the student who befriended Ultra Magnus during the Galvatron saga, is suffering a recurring nightmare about the monstrous Galvatron. Its fair to say that coming up close to a being that powerful and evil, coupled with the loss of her friend, probably has left some post traumatic stress. Incidentally the scene looks really reminiscent of Buster Witwicky in his bedroom, with Cindy even wearing Buster’s trademark colours of pink top and blue jeans. I digress, she wakes from her dream to sees the face of Galvatron on her TV screen!

The Decepticons have seen the broadcast too. Soundwave, who monitors human channels routinely, flags it up to his commander. Shockwave’s response is not to order Soundwave to accompany the Combaticons to Mount Verona, not to free Galvatron but to finish him off. It’s a risk for Shockwave and one that will come back to haunt him later, but no doubt his logical mind has concluded that he would be unable to withstand a leadership challenge from Galvatron so he must take advantage of his rival’s current helplessness.

With the key players mobilised, the story flips back to Mount Verona where the US military is keeping guard (with several tanks and jeeps securing the scene) as Hoffman and Meadows talk post-interview. There’s a scuffle as Cindy attempts to reach them and has her way blocked by a soldier. Joy appeals for her to be let through but she’s wittering on about Magnus and not making a great deal of sense.

Suddenly an explosion rocks the area, as Combaticons arrive and lay waste to the military. (I particularly enjoy Brawl verses a tank. It’s actually something of a relief to see him functional again after the particularly gruesome way that Megatron squashed his head back earlier in the year (in Gone But Not Forgotten). With the humans in retreat Soundwave instructs the Combaticons to proceed with the plan to destroy Galvatron.

Nearby, Goldbug and Rollbar and watching and listening. When you consider that they were watching the TV news from 200 miles away they’ve wasted no time in getting there. However, on learning that the Decepticons are there to rub out Galvatron, Goldbug concludes that they would be wise to withdraw and let them get on with it.

Cindy confronts Goldbug and appeals to him to rescue Magnus. He rightly points out that if the Autobots did that, Magnus’ original sacrifice would be in vain, and tells Cindy to go home. She insists that, on the contrary, the fight has only just begun!
On the letters page Grimlock confirms to reader Andrew Jackson that the Terrorcons and Technobots will feature in next issue’s Headmasters instalment and Runabout and Runamuck are still at the bottom of New York harbour. Going back to what I was saying about TFs never truly being dead, you have to wonder at this juncture whether anyone will be coming to fish them out (they will eventually). And a letter from Christopher Millwood asking for Transformers reprints as the back-up story would sadly become rather prescient as the comic cut corners in its latter years! In the Robo Capers strip, one Margaret Thatcher makes a cameo (with the banned spook memoir Spycatcher in her bin!).

Part two begins with a great splash page by Geoff Senior of Swindle planting an explosive just as a flaming jeep comes bearing down on him. He can’t react in time and takes the impact full on. He turns, angry, to see who has dared attack, only to see a tank approaching. Next thing he’s hit square in the chest with a projectile and collapses backwards bemoaning his resale value in true Swindle/Ferenghi fashion.

It turns out that Joy Meadows operated the tank. The Ladies Night edition she did with a female tank driver surprisingly provided all the training required. Hmm.

The trio are jubilant at taking first blood and we get an insight into why Hoffman and Meadows are helping Cindy. In the former’s case its protect the Decepticons from destroying the greatest find of her archaeological career and for the later it’s the prospect of a great news story.

Nearby Soundwave completes his work priming the detonator, while the Combaticons are wondering why Swindle hasn’t returned. Soundwave sends them to find out while he remains to guard the detonator. Elsewhere, the Throttlebots and Blaster are concerned that the humans might be attempting to tangle with the Decepticons and implore Goldbug to rethink his earlier decision to step away. It’s the first time that Goldbug has appeared to be the defacto leader of this group, even though Rollbar commands the Throttlebots. I suspect its because Goldbug has the most experience of Earth while the rest of relative newcomers and he’s also a fairly switched on chap most of the time (and in fact in the IDW verse Goldbug’s alter ego Bumblebee would enjoy stints as an Autobot civilian leader).

Finding Swindle unconscious, the Combaticons look for signs of the perpetrators. An empty jeep rolls down the mountainside towards them. Only when it arrives do they notice the explosives. Onslaught orders them to scatter but they are too late – as Cindy and Joy fire a tank shell at the powder keg, catapulting the Decepticons into the air. Debris from the explosion lands in the volcano, cracking the solidified lava around Galvatron!

The blast is also enough to upturn the tank and both women crawl out dazed. Onslaught seizes the unconscious Susan Hoffman in his palm. He’s mad enough to squish her but then relents. Cindy and Joy realise why when they spot four Throttlebots present with their weapons drawn. Onslaught withdraws, smarting from the humiliation.

From a safe distance, Soundwave transmits the detonation signal only for there to be no ensuing explosion. The Autobots could not have defused the bombs in time he thinks. The explanation, as if we couldn’t guess, is Blaster in radio mode jamming the signal. This might be the one and only time Soundwave and Blaster have competed, though not in battle more’s the pity. There’s a nice satirical conclusion with Goldbug chastising the girls for trying to take on the Decepticons. That said, he notes they “did pretty well for mere…” and Meadows, triggered, jumps in expecting him to say “mere women”. In fact Goldbug was going to say “mere humans”!

Magnus and Galvatron have been present throughout the story without actually playing an active role. It’s fitting that they have the final scene with the rock around Galvatron cracking and his eyes returning to life. A story for another time we’re told…

In summary. This Ladies Night is an enjoyable two parter that shows that’s that a bit of human ingenuity can actually be a match for a team of heavily armed and dangerous Decepticons. The execution is good and doesn’t stretch the boundaries of belief too far. Onslaught declares that, after their intervention, the Throttlebots will become their primary targets which ties in nicely to the US story arc that starts in the next issue.

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Vicious Circle!

Ultra Magnus must make one final attempt to stop his arch nemesis Galvatron from harnessing the power of a live volcano – but will it be end of one or both them?

The Wanted Galvatron saga ran for eight weeks from May to July 1987 (through issues #113-120). After a strong start, picking up threads left dangling from Transformers The Movie and introducing us to the badass space mercenary Death’s Head (a character who would go on to command his own monthly Marvel comic) the story switched to Earth’s past for a long and drawn-out battle with Galvatron that feel overly padded, despite moments of quality.

By issue #120 I was ready for some closure. I would have been perfectly content for Galvatron to have been whisked away on Wreck-Gar’s time vortex but it was not to be. He had successfully uncoupled himself from the time-jump trigger and was able to remain in 1987, with only Goldbug left to stop him. It was quite a cliff-hanger and like most readers I was curious as to how the mini-Autobot would be able to survive the predicament – but we knew he would survive as he starred in the issue #121 story Mechanical Difficulties.

The answers and the resolution to Wanted Galvatron (finally) would be found in the pages of the 1987 Transformers Annual, courtesy of a further 11-page story Vicious Circle (the story I’m reviewing here). At the time the comic cost a very reasonable 32p and the annual was £3.75 so some young fans may have been peeved at a further raid on their piggy bank (or an expense for mum and dad) but no big deal for me as I would have bought the book come hell or high water. I suppose you can’t fault Marvel on a clever marketing ploy.

This final instalment is penned by Simon Furman (who else) with art from regular Jeff Anderson. It begins with Ultra Magnus clings to inside of Mount Verona. He had been chucked into the volcano by Galvatron at the end of issue #119 and the encounter looked pretty fatal at the time. However, no-one would seriously have thought Magnus was gone for good and sure enough, here he is clawing his way out (saved by a convenient ledge apparently). Magnus notes via the narration that it is as if he and Galvatron are trapped in a ‘vicious circle’ that can only end with one of their deaths… prophetic words.

Several panels are given over to a recap of previous events, which again feels like padding but is justified in this case as it’ll have been three months or so between issue #120 and the annual’s release, longer if kids got the book for Christmas, and maybe they missed the weekly issues anyway. Magnus provides the recap of events that led to him being unceremoniously dumped into the volcano by Galvatron. Once again the luck of the gods had saved him from death. A familiar yellow hand helps him the final way to the surface… it is Goldbug looking very much alive considering where the story left off.

Goldbug updates Magnus on the dire situation. The future Autobots are gone and only the two of them are left to try to prevent Galvatron’s mad plan to erupt Mount Verona and destroy most of the US West Coast. Why they don’t radio the Ark for reinforcements I’m not sure? Now would be a good time particularly as Magnus has run out of fight and cannot summon the strength for yet another confrontation with Galvatron. Goldbug calls the Autobots’ greatest warrior ‘pathetic’ and vows to fight on alone. Magnus can only mumble apologies.

Goldbug finds Galvatron surveying the fiery volcano below and awaiting the eruption that will power him up to god-like levels. Goldbug enters the siphon’s control room and fires off a few rounds at Galvatron before getting dropped by a single blast from the Decepticon’s particle cannon. Previously Galvatron had spared Goldbug as he deemed him insignificant and not worth the effort of killing him, but now he’s earned a painful demise.

As Galvatron warms up for a fatal blast he hears the familiar voice of Ultra Magnus and he cannot believe that his Autobot rival has survived yet again. What must he do to destroy this pest? Galvatron pounds Magnus with his fists. Magnus fights back. He lifts a huge piece of machinery like a boulder to squash Magnus but Magnus rugby tackles Galvatron. He gets thrown through a window but again clings to a rail rather than fall into the pit.

As Goldbug comes to help he spots that the siphon has become damaged in the battle. With it malfunctioning there will be nothing to contain the eruption and all of them will be destroyed! Magnus orders Goldbug to get clear and moments later there is a huge explosion. Thankfully and ironically the structure at the mouth of the volcano contains the worst of the eruption. It is hours before the lava cools sufficiently for Goldbug to return to take a look. There is no sign of Magnus or Galvatron, it appears their circle is finally broken.

In summary, Vicious Circle makes the most of its limited cast of three and actually provides a satisfying conclusion (as well as a decent battle between Ultra Magnus and Galvatron, two hot properties in the toy range at the time). Magnus’ psychological dilemma was not unexpected – it’s a narrative that Furman often employs to have a character overcome their self doubts. Goldbug plays the role of Magnus’ conscience and sets the example of courage which outstrips his diminutive form. The menace was resolved simply in the end by the siphon exploding and bury both the leaders under molten ash. If only Rodimus and company had thought of that four of five issues back instead of messing about? An air strike from Aerialbots might have actually saved everyone a lot of bother.

Anyone who doubts it will be the last we see of Magnus or Galvatron has only to turn to page 44 of the Annual for the story Ark Duty which features a very much alive Magnus. In fact both characters will return before the year is out, in the 1987 story Ladies’ Night.

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