Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Afterdeath!

It’s March 1987 and after two and a half years of writing the Marvel US Transformers comic, Bob Budiansky is about to do something incredibly bold to shake things up – he’s about to kill off the two stars of the franchise, Optimus Prime and Megatron!

Pictured: The US cover to the Afterdeath! story

Of course, with this being comics, death is never really permanent but for the best part of the next 18 months or longer these two much loved characters (or love to hate in Megatron’s case) are about to disappear from the pages of our favourite comic.

The question is how to do it in an original way. After all the two leaders have clashed on countless occasions on the battlefield and had been seen in a fight to the death in the Transformers Movie less than four months previous. Bob being the super imaginative writer that he is, comes up with a novel way of having his two main protagonists do battle for the ‘last time’ by having them duke it out in a computer game. This is a game with very high stakes as the loser must be destroyed in real life. For this reason Afterdeath! is one of the most controversial stories in the history of Transformers comics. It’s a decent story but is detested by many because of the ending, as we will see.

First a quick mention of the cover to issue #105. Lee Sullivan, who admittedly is not one of my favourites when he’s illustrating the main strip – mostly for his tendency to draw saliva in the mouths of his robots (I’m picky I know) – nevertheless has been turning in some really solid covers of late. There was the Battlechargers on Transformers UK #94 and his latest effort has Defensor and Bruticus squaring up alongside Prime and Megatron. Deadlock indeed! It’s great to see the two remaining Special Teams finally making their debut.

Following a public health warning on the Transformation page, letting readers know that the demise of one of the two leaders is coming up, the stakes and the stage is set for the story to come. It begins with the genius programmer and gaming enthusiast, Ethan Zachary, playing his Multi-World creation on a huge wall-sized screen. His character is overwhelmed by the hordes of Hazzak just as his colleague Margaret arrives and wonders why Ethan wastes so much time playing silly video games. We learn that they are working inside a top security facility which houses the Hydrothermocline, a revolutionary new technology for extracting energy from the thermal layers in the ocean. (Eighties kids were already learning about green technology years before they became a thing!)

Ethan demonstrates his technique for restoring his game character to life using the command ‘AFTERDEATH’, which is a pretty significant detail as we later find out.

Little do they know they are being monitored from above by Vortex in helicopter mode. Here’s our first glimpse of a Combaticon in the comic for real as opposed to appearing as part of Buster’s Matrix-induced dream. As Ethan re-immerses himself in the Multi-World, at the Ark, Wheeljack is extracting the Cerebro Shell which the Insecticon Bombshell had implanted within Optimus Prime’s head module (as seen in the story Heavy Traffic). This shell has already served its purpose as the Decepticons were able to use it to siphon off the Matrix as Prime was giving life to the Aerialbots, allowing them to breathe life into the Stunticons. Now can assume that the same thing happened in respect to the Combaticons and Protectobots.

Wheeljack turns the tables by using the device to eavesdrop on the Decepticons and they learn of Megatron’s plans to seize the Hydrothermocline. And later that evening, when Onslaught, Brawl and Swindle roll through the perimeter fence, they are met with the sight of Optimus Prime and the Protectobots laying in wait. Megatron jumps out from Onslaught’s cab and they are joined by Vortex and Blastoff. In a blatant bit of product placement both teams combine to their respective gestalts and it’s clear that the situation is a stalemate. That is until Ethan Zachary decides to make a run for it right by Bruticus and is easily snatched by the fearsome but insanely stupid Decepticon. His request to crush the Zachary is denied, as Megatron thinks he might make a useful hostage.

Ethan suggests a way the two sides could fight it out without destroying the plant, by connecting to his Multi-World. Amazingly they all agree and pretty soon the teams and their leaders are attaching cables to their heads in order to appear as avatars in the game (a good thing Ethan keeps these cables handy eh?). The rules are simple, if the Decepticons destroy Optimus Prime in the game they can take the Hydrothermocline, but Megatron is loses then they can’t. Ethan assures a sceptical Groove that there is no way to cheat (famous last words!) and Megatron decides to up the ante by insisting that the loser must be destroyed in real life.

So Ethan controls two joysticks that can trigger a lethal explosion in one or other leader, which strikes me as incredibly trusting of Megatron to allow a human he’s only just met to hold the power of life or death over him. Additionally, it was only a few weeks ago that Prime was so concerned about his warriors’ inability to cope without him that he was faked his own death to test them, and yet now he’s entering into an agreement where the outcome could well be his actual death! Very strange.

The first half ends with Optimus Prime and the Protectobots arriving in the strange computer generated landscape that makes up Multi-World, and Prime preparing to lead his troops. Issue #106 again reminds readers of the stakes. This is the honest to gosh ‘final battle’ between Prime and Megatron we’re told… and one will die! The story then resumes with Hotspot basically ordering Optimus to stay put and allow the Protectobots to fan out and pick off the enemy. After all in this game their deaths are meaningless whereas if Prime dies they all lose. Prime agrees, but reminds his warriors that even though nothing is real, they must all remain true to their Autobot principles avoid harming any of this world’s inhabitants.

Hilariously, we see the mirror situation with Megatron and the Combaticons. Onslaught is almost cocky about inviting Megatron to take the lead. That earns him a swift boot up the rear as the more canny Megatron realises that he must be preserved and his Combaticons are mere fodder. He sends them ahead and tells them “let nothing stop you” – Multi-World inhabitants need to beware!

Now usually the Autobot concern for innocent life tends to be handicap in their encounters with the Decepticons but this is one of those rare occasions where doing the right thing brings powerful dividends. Streetwise and First Aid take great care to avoid harming any of the vines in their path, which leaves them open to ambush from Brawl and Swindle, who also take out many of the vines in the process. The two Combaticons transform and are ensnared by the vines, who it turns out possess sentience. This allows First Aid to crystallise the stunned pair with his roof mounted gun (it’s nice to see their weapons being spotlighted in addition to the characters) and Streetwise to shattering them with a blast of compressed air. Back in the real world, Ethan Zachary cheers the victory.

In the Cloud-steppes region, Blast Off and Vortex cut the skyway support cables, sending Grove and many of the Cloudstepper inhabitants falling. Blades swoops down to save his comrade, but is told to catch the Cloudsteppers instead as Groove just manages to grab a ledge. Blades does so, leaving himself wide open to a Combaticon attack. But one of the Cloudsteppers lets off a smoke bomb, blinding the two Decepticons who crash into each other while Grove finishes them off with his Photon Pistol.

Two more down and one to go as Hotspot and Onslaught face off in the Slimepit region. Onslaught makes use of the mud to launch a surprise ambush. His random laser blasts decimating the homes of the local Slimepit people and Hotspot uses his body to shield the defenceless creatures. They reward him by pulling him and resurfacing behind the Decepticon. A powerful blast from Hotspot allows him to claim an unlikely victory. Ethan applauds the win, while Megatron screams to know what is going on.

With the Combaticons failing to return, Megatron goes searching for Prime and soon finds his foe in the Metropipe region. As the pair stand either end of a bridge over a bottomless chasm, It would appear that the final battle now comes down to just the two leaders – or not, as the ominous form of Defensor appears behind Prime! Megatron screams at his fellow Combaticons to aid him, but with all having been defeated he can only lash out at them blindly in the real world. Vortex explains there’s a way to cheat by inputting the word “Afterdeath” when you lose. Thus when Defensor carries himself and Megatron over the ledge to their dooms, Megatron reappears behind Optimus and blasts him with full force. In the real world the Protectobots and Ethan are puzzled as to what just happened.

Back in the game, Prime hangs off the edge by a single arm, with the other a mangled wreck. Megatron looks down at his helpless foe when suddenly with the last of his strength, Prime yanks at one of the support pipes toppling one of the towers above and knocking Megatron to his death a second time. This time there is no reprieve as Megatron and many of the small Metropipe inhabitants plunge to their doom. The game over message appears, with Prime the sole character left on screen, and the Protectobots hailing their leader as everyone’s optics are switched back on.

Streetwise tells Ethan to press Megatron’s detonator before he can escape, but a far from happy Optimus Prime speaks his disapproval of the win. He argues that because he deliberately caused the deaths of the innocent inhabitants of Metropipe he in fact violated his own sacred Autobot principles. He cannot accept this victory and insists that Ethan press his detonator, which the incredulous human reluctantly does. In a full page to convey the sheer enormity, Prime explodes spectacularly as the Protectobots – and the readers presumably – watch in utter shock and horror!

Pictured: Don Perlin’s iconic depiction of Optimus Prime’s destruction!

With the battle over, Megatron and the Combaticons prepare the Hydrothermocline for transport and the Protectobots round-up the remains of their fallen leader before departing in utter silence. Now alone, Ethan reflects on what he witnessed, Optimus Prime was the most noble being he had ever met in his entire life. In a final, teasing image he writes the name Optimus Prime on a disk and files it away, taking comfort that in the realm of Multi-world, for a character such as Optimus Prime there is always the Afterdeath!

Wow! So where do I start? Optimus Prime is dead (just like in issue #78 and #97 of course) but this time he really is! So what will happen now for the Autobots? Who can pick up the mantle of the greatest Autobot of them all? Prowl, Ultra Magnus? Intriguing questions remain and of course Bob will have plenty more surprises in store. In the end I really enjoyed the video game scenario, but the way Prime insists on his own death is disturbing, and many people despise this story for that single reason. The fact that Megatron cheated just seems to rub it in, and the way this fact is unaddressed at the end leaves readers feeling angry and dismayed. But hey, great art and literature is meant to have an emotional impact right, and why shouldn’t that apply to comic books?

The final scene where Ethan Zachary appears to save Optimus Prime’s mind onto disk also brings up a lot of points. If a Transformers mind can apparently be backed up (as shown back in issue #53 using high density crystals) then why don’t all Transformers do this as an insurance policy against death, not to mention the fact you could potentially use this to create as many Optimus Primes as you wish. Lastly, it seems unlikely that Prime’s vast personality and millions of years worth of memories could be backed up onto a single floppy disk. In 1987 a gigabyte of data was practically unheard of, and you would expect Prime’s memory to be vastly in excess of that.

The US comic was running a Transformers/GI Joe crossover series in parallel to this and the next few issues. Although initially excluded from the UK continuity, it was printed much later on as a space-filler in UK #265-281.

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