Used Autobots

Hunted by the Combaticons, RAAT and the Protectobots, the Throttlebots hide out in Big Steve’s auto dealership – but how far can they trust a guy with morals lower than a snake pit?

By this point in the series (Marvel UK’s Transformers #139) I’d grown quite fond of the Throttlebots. Since they arrived to purge the Scraplet plague and then teamed-up with our favourite deserters Blaster and Goldbug they’ve made a credible unit operating independently of Grimlock’s Autobots. It would have been nice to see them notch up a few more successes against the Decepticons, really making a nuisance of themselves and a target for the bad guys, before fate caught up with them. Alas Used Autobots marks a (rather premature for me) parting of the ways between them and Blaster.

The story opens on a California highway with the team under fire from Vortex in his helicopter mode. We’re told via the Transformations page that the Combaticons are fuming after they were prevented from completing their mission to destroy Mount Verona and Galvatron (and from executing the pesky fleshlings that caused them so much trouble). The US audience will not have seen the events of Ladies Night, as it was a Transformer UK story, so presumably for the majority of the readership, Vortex’s attack is a random thing, literally a case of him spotting six Autobots and using them for target practice.

Although its seven against one, the advantage is with Vortex as the Throttlebots are stuck in the traffic and unable to retaliate. Blaster, hot headed as ever, has no qualms about returning the fight. He ejects from Goldbug’s dashboard, transforming to robot mode and straddling Chase and Rollbar as he aims his electro scrambler at the airborne pest, while on the move. The moment is captured on the cover to issue #139, published in November 1987, with a rather constipated looking Blaster riding the cars with no context – and a tree lined highway (in the story he actually on a river bridge). It’s not one of my favourites.

As Rollbar is forced to swerve, Blaster takes a tumble, but holding on to bridge, he’s finally able to zap Vortex and send the Decepticon spinning away with his circuits running haywire (the good old Electro Scrambler strikes again). The Throttlebots have had a lucky escape but they are low on fuel now and must find a Blackrock garage to top up their tanks.

Things get a bit daft at this point as our old friends RAAT (Rapid Anti Robot Assault Team) are up to their old tricks hunting Transformers, Autobots mainly. Having figured out the link between the Transformers and Blackrock they are staking out his garages. Now when you consider how many petrol stations there must be in California, this is a pretty major labour intensive operation, and not to mention the wisdom of having a pitched battle on top of highly flammable petroleum!

As misfortune would have it, RAAT are waiting in ambush at the very station that the Throttlebots pick, and emerge from a garage in an Action Force/GI Joe style tank type vehicle with a detachable small plane. Again, Blaster leaps out to save the day, but his gun is out of energy. He’s forced to do things by uprooting the Blackrock sign and giving the tank a might whack. It demolishes a pump and creates an eruption of gasoline – which the plane’s shooting ignites. Blaster frees the RAAT troopers from the overturned tank and shields him from the resulting explosion. The RAAT plane is sent crashing to the ground, but not before it inflicts a nasty wound on Rollbar’s rear chasis.

Having expended even more fuel, and with a trail of destruction behind them, the Throttlebots make their escape. Unbeknown to them, Vortex is monitoring from above.

Back at Mount St Hillary, home to the Ark, all of the UK writer Simon Furman’s efforts to pass Grimlock off as a tough for shrewd Autobot leader and once again massively undermined by US writer Budiansky’s portrayal of Grims as a massive egotist and dimwit. This Grimlock is still wearing that embarrassing crown and seems oblivious that he’d tasked Wheeljack with solving their fuel problem. In fact Wheeljack has come up trumps by building a geothermal generator which taps heat from the volcano core to generate Energon Cubes. They’ll no longer be dependent on humans like GB Blackrock for fuel.

Rather than praise his engineer for this significant step forward, Grimlock goes on a mini tirade about “taking” he needs and humans being weak and unimportant. He shows a complete lack of awareness for the obvious discomfort this will cause his troops. It can’t be in his interests to undermine his own leadership this way. It’s just moronic and I’ll bet Simon Furman cringes to read the dialogue – its difficult for him to square the circle between his Grimlock and the US one at this point.

Slag informs them of radio reports about Autobot sightings, and suggests it might be Blaster and Goldbug in trouble. Grimlock orders Hotspot to gather his Protectobots and bring them in, adding ominously “they’ll be in trouble no more”.

The Throttlebots, still concerned about the injuries to Rollbar and their fuel situation, decide to lay low to consider their next move. Goldbug leads them into what they think is a car park full of “abandoned vehicles”, but is actually Big Steve’s used car lot. As morning comes we meet the unscrupulous slippery Steve. He’s visited by a couple of cops who leave him a piece of literature about six vehicles the authorities are looking for (yep, its the Throttlebots) but he takes no notice at this point as he wants the police off the premises before they scare the customers away.

Steve then establishes his credentials as the ultimate cliche car salesman, pressuring a poor unsuspecting couple with bogus claims of a special offer. His assistant Clifford goes to work on an old car, knocking 100,000 miles off the clock, and marking it up by a thousand dollars. Big Steve palms the vehicle off on the young family and retires to his office light up a fat cigar.

Clifford shows him a cassette deck (Blaster) he found in one of the new vehicles that have magically appeared in the lot. Steve says he can keep it (he’ll deduct from Clifford’s next pay cheque) and inspects the new cars. He’ll try to “make a few bucks” off them, even though he has no idea where they came from, whether they are stolen, and has no paperwork!! However, Steve wants Rollbar junked as an obvious embarrassment.

At this point the Throttlebots decide to brake cover by transforming and taking Big Steve into their confidence (bad move). All they want is a refuel and they’ll be gone by nightfall they tell him. Blaster, communicating with the team through internal radio, cautions Chase that “humans often act out of self interest”. Sure enough, Steve’s now reviewing the letter that the cops delivered which promises a $50,000 reward per Autobot, and dispatches Clifford to buy a vat load of extra sugary soda pop. He’ll stick that in the Throttlebots’ tanks and disable them.

Walter Barnett of Triple I soon arrives in combat fatigues leading a RAAT convoy of tanks and a car transporter. The Throttlebots are unable to move and are sitting ducks!

At this point the Combaticons come crashing into the yard. Onslaught transforms and stakes his claim to the stricken Autobots. Hotspot and his team arrive to complete the stand-off. Big Steve hilariously suggests a bidding war (rather than an actual war that might make a huge mess of his cars). Stupidly the parties consider this, with Onslaught even suggesting the Decepticons could “steal” whatever money they need!

Swindle, who is the obvious candidate to hold such an auction (and in fact is depicted on the cover inviting bids for Big Steve) is oddly out of the picture. He’s got Big Steve in his sights and is preparing to open fire, perhaps a distraction that the Combaticons can take advantage of? Blaster leaps out of Steve’s office and seizes Swindle, throwing the surprised Combaticon into a parked car.

The Protectobots and Combaticons go at each other and RAAT take the opportunity to load the Throttlebots onto their transporter (amazingly none of the transformers notice this happening). Still, it’s nice to see First Aid in one of the panels, proving that he made it back safely from being mass-displaced to Limbo by the time travelling Death’s Head (back in issue #114).

Blaster saves Hotspot from being shot in the back by Brawl and generally turns the tide, with Onslaught forced to signal a humiliating retreat. Big Steve is aghast at the site of his wrecked inventory but at least he still has Walter Barnett’s cheque for $300,000 – or does he? A zap from Blaster’s Electro Scrambler sees the paper disintegrate before the crooked salesman’s eyes. Blaster tells him its bad enough he lost his friends saving Steve’s life, he won’t allow him to get rich off it. At this point you’d think Steve would be calling back Barnett to ask for a new cheque or even for funds to be deposited in his account – and not to mention calling his insurers.

We then get one of the best cliff-hangers of the year, with Blaster turning to Hotspot and saying he’ll skip thanking the Protectobots for showing up, as they need to get after RAAT while the trail is warm. Hotspot’s men circle Blaster with their weapons drawn – Grimlock didn’t send them to affect a rescue, but to arrest Blaster for desertion and to bring him back to the Ark for trial and execution! Crikey.

A couple of nit picks: Vortex is drawn twice as big as Streetwise, and Blast-off is similarly out of proportion to Hotspot. You’ve also got to say that it doesn’t say much for Autobot justice that execution is the preordained outcome here. What about presumption of innocence? Why have a trial at all? It’s all very ‘un-Autobot’. With Goldbug being on Grimlock’s wanted list also I’m surprised the Protectobots would not want to retrieve him from RAAT as well, plus the rest of the Throttlebots for aiding and abetting the fugitives.

Next story
Previous

Decepticon Graffiti!

The Battlechargers, Runabout and Runamuck, arrive from Cybertron intent on causing a bit of mayhem – and embark on a graffiti spree across America!

Marvel’s UK weekly Transformers comic enters 1987 brimming with confidence. The title and its creative team are riding high following the success of its recent epic Target: 2006 and basking in the glow of the amazing Transformers the Movie, and its coming off the back of a year of (mostly) strong stories and looking ahead to its landmark one hundredth issue and another solid year. The comic’s devoted fanbase which included my twelve-year-old self at the time also knew we were on to a very good thing.

Just prior to the Christmas edition we’d seen the Aerialbot gestalt Superion squaring off with the Stunticons combined as Menasor – coming off worse after Circuit Breaker intervened. Then insult was added to injury when Donny Finkleberg betrayed the Autobot Skids to Walter Barnett and RAAT.

US writer Bob Budiansky picks up where this cliff-hanger left off and takes the opportunity to spice things up by introducing a pair of newcomers from ever expanding Hasbro toy range in the shape of the Decepticon Battlechargers, Runabout and Runamuck. This was an exciting development for me as I’d recently invested in a Runabout toy. Rather like the less appealing Jump Starters (who the US comic ignored) their gimmick was that you can pull them back and they would release and transform in mid-drive. In the comics universe this translated as them being the ‘fastest Transformers on Earth’.

The first impression is of course the cover. Herbe Trimpe’s cover for issue #23 of the US Transformers comic, the infamous ‘Humans are Wimps’ Statue of Liberty cover appears on TFUK #95. For issue #94, where the story kicks off, we’re treated to a fantastic cover by Lee Sullivan. Now, Lee’s style hasn’t always hit the spot for me, but I really love his work on this cover! The story is about graffiti and the Battlechargers literally look like they’ve been spray painted. There’s a metallic shine that looks fab (whether Lee is responsible for the colouring I don’t know) but it brings the art to life and I remember picking up the issue and thinking that TF had lifted its game even further for the new year.

The title is of course a spoof of the 1973 cult movie American Graffiti. Except here the title is interpreted literally as the Battlechargers go on a spray paint wrecking spree. It wouldn’t be the last time Budiansky would reference a film in his story title… the infamous Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom comes to mind. Could it be that Bob is a Harrison Ford fan? The actor stars in both American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and of course both are directed by the one and only George Lucas.

The story begins at RAAT headquarters where an unusually sedate and gentle looking Circuit Breaker holds a tiny Transformer brain module on the tip of her finger. By generating electrical pulses, she can stimulate movement in the deactivated body of the Autobot Skids. To her this is research, but to Donny Finkleberg it looks like she’s dissecting his erstwhile partner and he’s starting to regret selling out Skids for $50,000. He protests that Skids looks in pain, but Circuit Breaker snaps that this is a machine not a person. Poor Skids is not the only RAAT captive – the hanger wall is adorned with the face plates of twelve other Autobot hunting trophies which includes the Aerialbots and the Cybertron seven. Donny realises that their captivity is leaving the Decepticons with even greater freedom to do what they want on Earth… and he helped – great! We’re starting to see the redemption of Donny at this point.

Over at the Decepticon coal mine base in Eastern Wyoming, one of the themes of the year is starting to emerge: that of Megatron’s mental instability. He is seated on a throne made of the cab of a truck and greeting his latest recruits from Cybertron, the two Battlechargers. They have been summonsed across the galaxy via the Space Bridge for the purpose of taking a challenge to Optimus Prime. When Soundwave helpfully suggests a simple phone call, he is bashed in the face by his boss using a car exhaust! Having seen how Megatron deals with insubordination, neither Runabout nor Runamuck are inclined to argue and promptly roll out. When you consider that Soundwave has been a stand-in leader and very loyally stuck by Megatron against Shockwave, it really is a very poor way to treat him and perhaps a sign of Megatron losing his grip.

Once on the open highway the Battlechargers voice their displeasure at working for this bully. They decide to blow off this rather ridiculous mission and have a good time on their new world. Given that Megatron will probably tear them limb from limb for disobeying him this is either very brave or stupid. It speaks to the childish, fun-seeking natures of the pair.

With no plan of action, they pull up at a service station to look for a bit of inspiration. A typical American nuclear family is taking a break on their cross-country road trip vacation. While the mother wipes a young girl’s face (the daughter, Leah has been eating chocolate coated sushi which sounds positively vile) and her badly behaved older sibling Noah has a bad habit of scrawling graffiti wherever he goes, earning him a severe telling-off from his father. The Battlechargers rather like this defiant little fellow and decide to follow the family. (Re-reading now I’ve noticed that young Noah has a Spider-Man face on the front AND the back of his t-shirt which is a bit odd!)

Three days later at RAAT headquarters, Triple I agent Walter Barnett draws Circuit Breaker’s attention to news reports about weird markings that are appearing on several US landmarks. First it was a Football stadium in Wyoming, then Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, and finally the Gateway arch in St. Louis. Barnett thinks they have been left by Transformers and Circuit Breaker is to investigate. Donny suggests that Skids could help but Circuit Breaker is not amused – no human can trust a robot, she says ironically!

In Washington D.C. the next morning, Noah Acton and his family are visiting the Washington Monument. Two cars across the grass and transform into Runabout and Runamuck, now armed with a barrel of spray paint (one wonders how they came by these). Unusually for a couple of land-based vehicles, they possess the ability to fly while in robot mode and soar to the top of monument and spray graffiti, taking delight in the comedic phrase the other is daubing. Since the human crowds are unable to decipher Transformers writing (or the comic’s readers for that matter) nobody is any the wiser what they are writing. However, I like that they make a point of adding punctuation.

Circuit Breaker arrives on the scene along with Barnett and Donny. They are introduced to the Acton family and learn of the strange co-incidence, that the graffiti attacks seem to follow them. Circuit Breaker tells them to travel as normal and her troops will lay in wait at the next stop, Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

The Decepticon vandals propel themselves airborne towards the monument, where a squadron of RAAT aerial assault craft swarm around them. The Decepticons are unphased and rain debris on to the innocent bystanders below. RAAT stage a swift withdrawal, but Circuit Breaker refuses to back-off and attacks the robots. Noah is almost hit by falling concrete until Circuit Breaker moves and gets knocked her to the ground. Runabout and Runamuck decide to find safer targets and transform and blend into the traffic.

Circuit Breaker is seen by a doctor and confined to RAAT headquarters, which is incredibly frustrating for her knowing that there is a robot menace on the loose. Donny suggests that if she really wants to stop the Battlechargers she must make use of the ‘help’ around her – namely the deactivated Autobots!  Circuit Breaker is adamant they cannot be trusted but starts to succumb to the idea of fashioning them together in a robot body she could interface with and control. And so, the next day as RAAT commandos take up positions inside the Statue of Liberty, Circuit Breaker and Donny make their way towards the island on commandeered trawler. She’s connected herself to the torso of a bizarre amalgam of Transformer parts and rockets towards the statue.

Runabout and Runamuck unleash their latest bit of graffiti this time in English! It’s unclear how they’ve downloaded the lingo but its an exciting development for the pair as now they are finally able to wind-up the ‘fleshlings’. They deface the noble statue with the words ‘Humans are Wimps!’ before coming under attack by Circuit Breaker’s robotic monstrosity.

The conglomerated creature disintegrates Runamuck’s shoulder mounting and when the Decepticon retaliates with a blast of his own, the amalgam’s giant hand moves to protect Circuit Breaker of its own free will! At last a glimmer of hope that she might finally be seeing the light and recognising that the Autobots are the good guys. Runabout severs the Statue of Liberty torch which threatens to land on the ferry below. Circuit Breaker detaches the hand from her robotic host which catches the torch. She and her ally then emit a blast of full power to frazzle the Battlechargers and their smoking wrecks are last seen plunging into New York harbour!

They’ll certainly be gone a while… Bob Budiansky never brought the duo back in the rest of his tenure (they were literally one issue wonders) but his successor as US writer, Simon Furman, would recover them as part of Shockwave’s group during the Decepticon civil war of 1991.

The story ends with Walter Barnett discovering the hanger empty of the thirteen captive Transformers and firing Circuit Breaker and Donny. Circuit Breaker confesses that she had no choice in order to get their co-operation. The Aerialbots weren’t in there so they were presumably allowed to go free. This issue holds out the hope that Circuit Breaker has mended her attitude towards the Autobots, and we won’t see her for a long while, but when we do, she is still busting away without too much thought for good or bad.

Donny bows out from the franchise. As a support character he’s had a good run, but now he returns home thinking about spending his big pay cheque. He sees a TV news item about the Statue of Liberty and in a fit of conscience writes out a $50,000 cheque to the statue repair fund.

Years later Bob Budiansky would cite this story as one of his favourites (he obviously had a lot of fun writing it) and he even got a fan-mail letter about it from the great Stan Lee! That’s praise indeed.

Next story
Previous

Heavy Traffic!

This 1986 Marvel classic sees the Stunticons take to the road and do battle as Menasor with the Aerialbot combined form, Superion – with Circuit Breaker in the mix, hunting down Transformers for her trophy wall.

December 1986. The Marvel Transformers comic enters the final furlong of a remarkable year where it has grown in confidence and reputation thanks to stunning original material like Target 2006. And at the same time fans are being to be blown away by Transformers the Movie – which opened in the UK 12th December. It was the first big screen outing for the franchise and after 35 years is in my opinion still the best.

To mark the occasion, Grimlock’s regular letters page is dropped for issue #91 with him reviewing the Movie instead, LOL. His verdict: “Kids – let’s not mince words… this movie’s utterly, utterly brilliant!”

Transformers #91 & #92 features the Marvel US story Heavy Traffic! Writer Bob Budiansky properly reintroduces Circuit Breaker as an existential threat and provides a neat debut for Stunticons. I should declare an interest; Motormaster was the first Special Team toy I bought back in the day and the Stunticons have always been personal favourites. It’s great to see them finally taking to the road, rather than as a Matrix-induced dream (see issues 63-65).

Equally brilliant is the long-awaited return of Blaster and the rest of the ‘Cybertron Seven’ – though its fair to say they’ve seen better days. The story begins with the unsuspecting septet examining military vehicles for signs of sentient life. It’s that favourite old stich about Transformers not recognising organics and mistaking vehicles as Earth’s dominant species. The Ark’s computer core AUNTIE made the same error after it awoke in 1984 of course, but you’d like to think Cybertron has encountered many diverse worlds during its four million years traversing the stars – surely Transformers would have encountered organic life in that time? Or perhaps Blaster and company were holed up in their resistance cell throughout?

The account of what proceeded their arrival on Earth via the Space Bridge in issue #69 is revealed by Circuit Breaker in a briefing to her government sponsor, Walter Barnett of Triple I. She’s been hired to head-up a crack squad called RAAT (short for Rapid Anti-robot Assault Team). This must be the least comfortable team acronym to work under since Richard Nixon’s Committee to RE-Elect the President (CREEP) and the boss is just a tad obsessive about her work!

She tells Barnett the robots were ‘moments away from crushing’ the vehicles before RAAT intervened. Even he can see that isn’t the case but probably realises that CB has a major mental blackspot where Transformers are concerned. RAAT helicopters and released electrical foil above the Autobots which disrupted their circuits, allowing troops to abseil down and affix a pad on to each robot’s head. Circuit Breaker then personally intervened, unleashing 300,000 volts upon the disorientated Cybertron Seven and rendering them inoperative. After loading them on to flatbed trucks they were on their way to RAAT headquarters, all in 46 minutes!

Barnett thinks the use of force may have been unnecessary but the results speak for themselves. How would Circuit Breaker appreciate a cash bonus, he asks? Naturally, she’s appalled – money is certainly not her motivator, she lives for the destruction of all robots! Though you have to wonder how she earns money for her food and board when not working as a government hired gun.

As she departs to continue her work, she passes the mounted faces of the Cybertron seven – a grim reminder of her personal vendetta against Transformers.

A world away at the Ark, Ratchet treats Optimus Prime for an open wound he sustained in the Limbo dimension (see issue 100). Unknown to the pair the tiny insect form of Bombshell is watching (having sneaked into the Ark on Silverbolt’s wing last issue). He sees Prime’s wound as the perfect opportunity to plant one of his mind-controlling ‘cerebro shells’ and manoeuvres unnoticed. The shell makes its way up to Prime’s brain module and takes root – but for some unexplained reason it fails to take control and can only monitor the Autobot leader’s thoughts.

With his wound repaired, Prime heads to Wheeljack’s lab where the technician is fitting a chemical tracker to Skids. The device will allow him to follow the fuel trail left behind by Blaster, and hopefully lead to the Cybertron Seven. It’s interesting to see how Prime and the Autobots have nearly as much disdain for Donny Finkleberg (the human who supplied the intel) as his former Decepticon captors. Perhaps that’s understandable given that Donny was ‘Robot Master’ a Decepticon stooge for several weeks/months. Optimus will know that Megatron is easily capable of coercing a human, so the Autobots’ mistrust of Donny probably runs a little deeper. They’ve concluded he’s a greedy weasel who would sell his granny for a Walter Barnett $25,000 cheque. This being the case, what happens later with Skids trusting Donny makes little sense.

As it happens, Donny is carrying one of those Triple I cheques in his wallet. All the Autobots have to do is hold on to that to secure his cooperation. So Prime assigns Donny to accompany Skids to track down the Cybertron seven. Bombshell uses the opportunity to plant a homing device inside Donny’s wallet, hoping to lead the Decepticons to him.

Skids and Donny depart and Prime turns his attention to the Aerialbots. Following the near disaster at Hoover Dam their minds have been blanked, ready to be reprogrammed and given life by Prime’s Creation Matrix. Unbeknown to the Autobot leader, Soundwave is eavesdropping via Bombshell’s cerebro shell and the Decepticons are ready to steal away the Matrix when it is released. It’s the Transformer equivalent of piggy backing on to a neighbour’s unsecured WIFI signal perhaps?

Since the opportunity for the Decepticons to ‘hack the Matrix’ was entirely fortuitous and unexpected, it’s rather difficult to believe (as readers of the US comics are expected to) that the Decepticons were able to rapidly engineer the five Stunticon bodies, program them and design their combination ability in the short time between Prime instructing Wheeljack to prepare the Aerialbots for Matrixing and him actually carrying out the action. In the UK continuity this makes a little more sense, as the Decepticons had also been privy to Buster’s dream and had time to begin constructing their Special Teams.

Meanwhile, Skids has a fix on the Cybertron Autobots but is forced into an impromptu rescue when a woman careers off the road in the rain and crashes into an electric pylon. Skids transforms and goes to her aid – leaving Donny to whine about getting soaked. His noble act makes the TV news and is seen by Walter Barnett, who starts to believe there could be some truth in the theory that not all robots are evil, and Circuit Breaker who decides there’s another robot loose that she has to hunt down! Megatron has also been watching the tele and sends the Stunticons to rendezvous with Skids and undo his good work.

Skids succumbs to Donny’s weary protests that he needs to stop at a motel and sleep. They find a suitable establishment and the Autobot, very unwisely asks Donny to press his ‘shutdown button’ that puts Skids in his own recharging mode. The off switch is a very suspect idea and it appears that Skids cannot activate it himself. When morning comes, the Stunticons are quietly waiting in vehicle modes at the motel car park.

Skids and Donny resume their journey and spot a commotion in the rear mirror. It’s Motormaster taking road rage to new levels by ramming cars aide and telling the traffic to ‘get out of the way or die’ – ha!

Issue #92, which carries the second part, continues the Transformers the Movie love-in with a full page advert for the film’s (excellent) soundtrack and a reader offer to win copies of the album if you can answer such questions as who Megatron is transformed into and the Mr Spock actor who provides a voiceover! Grim Grams also plugs the film fairly remorselessly but what caught my eye was the reply to one Michael Blagg of Blackpool. He’s told in reply to comments about the Wreckers, that Impactor can switch his right arm for a variety of weapons – the harpoon being his favourite. That sounds an awful lot like the Death’s Head character which Furman would be introducing around 20 issues after this one.

But getting back to the story… as the Stunticons transform and close in on Skids, they come under attack from RAAT helicopters who deploy their electrical interference foil. Deadend considers the human attack beneath their notice, but Motormaster is more canny and warns his men never to underestimate an enemy.

Deadend promptly disperses the foil using his compressed air gun and Breakdown blasts one of the choppers out of the sky (presumably with the four abseiling RAAT troopers meeting a sticky end?).

Circuit Breaker realises that this group of robots are far more aggressive than the last and unleashes on Dragstrip and Wildrider. It’s one of the rare occasions she attacks Decepticons! Motormaster (got to love him) uses his huge sword as a golf club to swipe the cab clean off a truck and send it skywards into Circuit Breaker, who hovers back to the ground. It’s a cool moment and at this point I’m practically rooting for the Stunticons, since CB is such a pain in the rear end and is finally getting what she deserves!

Donny runs over to see if CB is okay. Their exchange, with him saying “they must be paying you a ton” and her reply, speaks volumes about the characters and motives. Barnett also arrives to confront Donny – they have a lot to discuss! To be fair to Donny he does his best to defend Skids and the arriving Aerialbots, even succeeding in persuading Barnett. Then the Stunticons surround Skids and pretend to protect him. This Decepticon trick appears to work as both Circuit Breaker and Barnett now accuse Donny of being in league with the bad robots and CB goes to re-join the fight.

At last the moment arrives that fans have been waiting for, as the two teams combine into Superion and Menasor respectively. The behemoths square off. Menasor uses a section of flyover as a shield and Superion shattering it with a single punch. They seem pretty evenly matched, until Circuit Breaker flies alongside Superion’s head and unleashes a mighty burst of electricity, stunning the Autobot and allowing Menasor to steal the advantage and blast Superion at close range. He falls and Menasor hails his victory, moving to crush the weakened Circuit Breaker.

Barnett, in an amazing display of strength it has to be said, clings to a rope dangled from a RAAT chopper and swings into action, rescuing CB in mid-air from Menasor’s clenching fist. In the distraction, Skids and Donny flee the scene. There’s nothing they can do to help Superion.

Later that night, Donny puts Skids to bed via his deactivation button, and goes into a motel. He places a call to Walter Barnett… asking how much a Transformer would be worth to him, no fuss, sleeping like a baby. It is the quickest 50 grand he has ever made!

I’m tempted to say ‘what a creep’ but Donny is not all bad, just weak. His desire to get out of the situation financial enhanced gets the better of him and he takes advantage of Skids’ trusting nature. The Cybertron Seven captured, plus the Aerialbots and shortly Skids. Things are not looking good for the Autobots at this point.

Next story
Previous

I, Robot Master

Desperate for fuel, Megatron attacks a coal mining plant and becomes rooted to the spot! And a washed-up comic book writer is recruited by the US government to claim to be the terrorist mastermind behind the Transformers.

April 1986. Bob Budiansky’s most offbeat story since… well, his last two where Megatron was controlled by a small-time hoodlum, and Hoist stole the show at a rock concert, arrives on UK shores. The Marvel UK Transformers comic is mid-way through an eight-week run of US stories at this point. Don Perlin is once again on art duties.

After taking his leave of Joey Slick, Megatron apparently spent weeks walking through the American North West in search of fuel. I say apparently because it seems somewhat unfathomable that a giant Decepticon with a hair-trigger temper such as he, could possibly wander around and not attract an awful lot of attention. Particularly when you consider that he can’t exactly convert into a vehicle and blend in.

His sensors have bought him to a coal mine which is high in hydrocarbons. Megatron attacks the huge machinery and in his desperation, showers himself in coals. He finds these black rocks indigestible in their current form. Suddenly, he stops dead in his tracks, drained of fuel, paralysed and helpless! A worker notes that he “just ran out of gas”. We’ve previously seen Transformers dangerously low on fuel but this is a new situation.

Walter Barnett, the Triple I agent we met in the last story, arrives at a restricted government building at the behest of his boss, Forest Forsythe. Along with the rest of the board, they are shown footage of recent high-profile robot incidents (Megatron and Shockwave’s battle, the capture of G.B. Blackrock’s aerospace plant, Hoist at the Springhorn concert and the incident with Megatron at the coal mine in Wyoming).  

Blackrock has been invited to give his insight to the group and attempts to persuade them that the Transformers are two factions, one good and one evil. It’s a huge waste of time as Forsythe is not interested in hearing this and after showing Blackrock out, tells Triple I that the policy will be to treat all robots as a threat. For a group called the Intelligence and Information Institute they really are lacking in basic intelligence. Despite acknowledging that there is evidence to back-up Blackrock’s claims they are willing to throw away the chance of an alliance with the Autobots that might solve their Decepticon problem. Instead they’ve decided to invest in a cover-up. I suppose this will have been only a dozen years after Watergate and cynical government cover-ups will have been in the public consciousness, including Bob’s. This feels like a spoof of the government cover-up cliché.

Barnett comes across like a real deadbeat dad and husband as he arrives home. His young son is excited to see him but all Walt does is tell him to tidy up his toys. He then spots the boy’s Robot Master comic, about a guy who controls an army of robots, and before you can say co-incidence he rushes off to catch a plane to New York. You have to wonder if his family see much of him. I’m not sure if his destination, 387 Park Ave, might be another in-joke, perhaps it was Marvel’s address in the day. He’s in time to catch the writer of the Robot Master comic, Donny Finkleberg, on his way out of the building, having had his book cancelled.

According to TFWiki and other knowledgeable fans, Donny is based on an actual comic book writer called Danny Fingeroth, who worked with Bob on Marvel’s Avengers in 1981. It’s not clear whether Bob or Don Perlin created Robot Master in his likeness as a hilarious office in-joke or whether Bob’s getting his own back. Certainly, Donny Finkleberg is not presented as a great guy. Instead he’s greedy, unscrupulous, a geeky loser and has a rather incessant smoking habit to boot.

Barnett takes Donny to lunch and offers him $25,000 if he can help come up with a Robot Master story to hoodwink the American public. Naturally he suggests bringing to life the character he created (Barnett could have saved £25k by simply reading the comic). They could say the Transformers are being controlled by a human terrorist mastermind, which apparently is less likely to result in a public scare that giant alien robots. If Donny would like to play Robot Master, he can double his money (and best of all, no acting experience appears to be necessary).

The idea is loopy on several levels. When Donny appears on TV he’s likely to be recognised by someone (like his old boss perhaps) and outed, and it wouldn’t take the media very long to discover the similarity to the Robot Master comic and expose the whole hoax. Triple I are playing with fire and it’s a wonder and it’s a wonder that Barnett he was not laughed out of the agency for coming up with such a foolhardy plan.

Nevertheless, the next day Donny is broadcasting as Robot Master and claiming to be the human leader of a robotic army. Optimus Prime is alerted as is Mr Blackrock, who realises that Triple I must be behind this.

He suggests to the media that the whole thing might be a hoax. Triple I are furious but it shows what a house of cards their plan is – it really could fall apart in a moment. Blackrock shuns his limo to drive away in a VW Beetle, which is hilarious (though his calling Bumblebee ‘Bum’ is not really the sort of nickname you’d want).

A photo of frozen Megatron makes the news, much to the horror of Barnett and Forsythe (honestly, how was that ever going to stay private seeing as Megatron attacked a mine full of workers). They decide to offer Donny a way to double his money, with another broadcast.

In part two, the Autobots have been monitoring the TV news and Optimus Prime sets out to capture his old nemesis with assistance from Skids, Tracks and Bumblebee (once again the comic is showcasing its recently introduced characters, and Hoist also appears earlier in the issue making a nuisance of himself by taking charge of Autobots maintenance schedules). This small band, albeit including Optimus, seems decidedly light to capture a Transformer as powerful as Megatron. Even if he is currently immobilised, why take the chance? So much better to go in overwhelming numbers.

In downtown Portland, Soundwave is hanging out at a TV and video store in his cassette deck mode for some totally inexplicable reason. When the shop worker/owner (who oddly enough has been drawn exactly like G.B. Blackrock before they started forgetting his moustache) tests whether it is working, apparently intending to sell this equipment he found on the doorstep. There’s a deafening sound, followed by Ravage transforming and escaping with Soundwave, who are picked up and flown away by Laserbeak and Buzzsaw. They all head off in the direction of Wyoming, some 1,022 miles away. The sequence doesn’t add-up. Why not hang out a store more local to Megatron, or monitor TV from the Decepticon base?

There’s a nice scene however, where Barnett and Donny (in his Robot Master threads) arrive at the mine and Megatron’s eyes burn as Donny refers to him as “old junkpile” and strikes a match on his foot. Apparently with Robot Master broadcasting next to a giant robot, the story’s credibility will be bolstered by a thousand percent! Blackrock arrives (minus tache) to make a final attempt to persuade Barnet to drop the crazy plan, pointing out that Triple I are lumping potential allies (the Autobots) in with the enemy – and inviting Decepticon attack.

The Autobots arrive and are promptly fired upon by the US military and of course they can’t return fire. Barnett’s comment about them coming to free a comrade is ridiculous, given that the Autobots are clearly not being hostile even under extreme provocation. However, it’s all too late as Soundwave and his cassettes arrive with a casket of fuel (and a petrol hose) and quickly restore Megatron to working order. The Decepticons make very short work of the army and the Autobots, in their weakened state are forced to withdraw. It’s odd seeing them leave humans to the mercy of Megatron (even if it’s the army’s own silly fault) it seems to run contrary to Autobot principles.

Laserbeak retrieves Donny and plonks him in front of Megatron for termination. Donny’s quick talking saves his own neck. He offers the Decepticons his assistance in continuing the dark propaganda so that they can continue to cast fear and suspicion about the Autobots. At this point Megatron really should’ve blasted him into oblivion but with Soundwave thinking it’s a good idea, he also agrees. A second broadcast occurs, with Robot Master backed up Megatron’s raw power (crushing huge boulders for effect). Afterwards Donny very stupidly strikes another match on Megatron’s foot (does he not have a matchbox?) and gets hoisted by the cape (if not his own petard) and warned by Megatron, in full-on public health warning mode, never to presume his value to the Decepticons or he may discover that smoking is hazardous to his health!

So, there you have it kids, smoking is not cool – as Donny’s habit gets him in trouble with Megatron! Overall, it’s a fun, slightly camp and off the wall story from Bob Budiansky that helps keep momentum with the Decepticons and the Autobots on the backfoot, which is important for the drama and tension. Robot Master is a rather ridiculous figure. He looks more like a bloke going to a comic convention in a silly outfit than a potential world dominator or terrorist mastermind. If you think about the concept seriously it quickly unravels – people will know Donny Finkleberg from his regular life and it wouldn’t take the cops or the media long to find out he’s a struggling comic book writer. I guess the story is meant to be enjoyed but not taken too seriously.

Interestingly, Shockwave won’t learn of Megatron’s return until TFUK#65 in another nine issues, which is strange since the ex-Decepticon leader has appeared on every TV channel with Robot Master.

Next story
Previous

Rock and Roll-Out!

Jetfire joins the Autobot club and gets a free badge, as five reinforcements – Grapple, Hoist, Skids, Tracks and Smokescreen – debut and uncover a Decepticon presence at Brick Springhorn’s concert!

A key difference for me between Bob Budiansky, the writer of the US Transformers comic (and cover artist for this issue – see above) and his Marvel UK counterpart Simon Furman, was the way they approached the storytelling.

Simon’s stuff tends to be more serious, pitched to an older audience and leans towards the epic, while Bob’s style was more light-hearted and tongue in cheek (though always well structured and paced). Even when he’s writing about the serious business of Ratchet shouldering the burden of being the last surviving Autobot, or Megatron’s explosive showdown with Shockwave, Bob will keep the fun factor by inserting comedy moments involving baffled or freaked out humans.

Thanks to sillier ideas such as Robot Master and the infamous Carwash of Doom, Bob tends to get unfairly compared to Simon. In truth both made exceptional contributions to Transformers comics and both have had great moments. The cool thing about being a UK Transformers fan was that we our weekly comic ran every US story as well the homegrown material, so we had a best of both worlds.

Budiansky’s ‘Rock and Roll Out!’ appears in TFUK #53 and #54 in March 1986. It’s the first of his more ‘offbeat’ stories. The story opens with Jetfire undergoing the sacred Rite of the Autobrand. It’s an age-old ceremony which involves burning an Autobot insignia on to a recruit and them accepting fuel donated by their new comrades. Prime’s words “May your lustre never dull and your wires never cross” had a bit of charm to it, and years later I added the line to my email signature for a while. Another geek confession: even now, if we’re going somewhere, I might say to the kids ‘lets rock and roll out’ so this story must have left an impression.

Jetfire was of course created by the Decepticons, but stolen away by the Autobots. Optimus Prime used his Creation Matrix to give him life and a new purpose. He is the first of a new generation of Autobots, constructed on Earth, and as the Special Teams pull-out included with issue #54 amply illustrates, there are more on their way. A visit to Ratchet’s medical bay shows why new recruits are needed: it’s full of injured warriors, some in a bad way. As far as US readers are concerned these copped it during Prime Time, but in the UK expanded continuity they were casualties of the Dinobot Hunt. Luckily in Wheeljack’s lab, are five robotic bodies waiting to house the personalities of Grapple, Hoist, Smokescreen, Skids, and Tracks.

Budiansky was under constant pressure to keep up with the ever-expanding Hasbro toy line. These five, released in 1985, were overdue an appearance in the comic. The obvious way to bring them in would be to have the Autobots build them and Prime give them life with his Creation Matrix. To Budiansky’s credit he avoids the predictable solution and comes up with something novel (if a little flawed). We find out that these five previously existed on Cybertron and allowed the Ark to copy their minds in case reinforcements were needed (on the original mission to blast a safe passage for Cybertron through the asteroid belt, four million years ago). It begs the question of why not just just take the five along in the first place, rather than go to the trouble of building new bodies during the mission? Also, since we know that Transformers are basically immortal, isn’t it possible that the originals and are kicking around on the home world? Awkward.

Prime and Jetfire step into Wheeljack’s lab, where we witness crystals containing coded memories transfer via laser beams into five newly created robot bodies. With that they wake up as if from a deep sleep.

After the welcomes, Grapple is tasked by Optimus Prime to work on a secret task (we discover what that is in the upcoming story Command Performances). Meanwhile, Bumblebee will help the four other newbies to get acquainted with Earth.

Elsewhere, a fleet of navy vessels closes in on the Decepticon-controlled oil rig. G.B. Blackrock, the rig’s rightful owner, is on the deck of a ship with Walter Barnet from the government agency Triple III. This is Walter’s first appearance in the comic, but he’ll be a recurring character from this point onwards. Blackrock is depicted without his trademark moustache. It could be that artist Don Perlin forgot or just prefers him clean shaven!

It turns out that Starscream, Thundercracker and Skywarp have been toiling away on the rig, harvesting fuel for their recently returned commander, Shockwave. It’s been weeks already and Starscream is in mutinous mood. They are soon joined by Shockwave himself – who blows a hole in a cliff and emerges in flying gun mode (sending a couple of lovebirds diving for cover). He easily evades the navy’s fire and shows his warriors the power siphon he invented. It can convert energy from any sources into Energon cubes and will reduce their reliance on isolated outposts such as the rig. His every word is being eavesdropped by the navy who hear of a plan to harvest a huge release of sonic energy.

Incidentally this is the first time the US comic has acknowledged the existence of Energon cubes (which appear constantly in the cartoons). They do feature in the UK story Decepticon Dambusters, which is itself based on an episode of the Sunbow cartoon. Also, Shockwave’s return is handled without any fanfare. He simply got out of the swamp that he was chucked in by Optimus two US issues ago. In the UK continuity the Decepticons were leaderless for a time.

So, next morning Bumblebee and his trainees are blending into the Oregon traffic. Tracks is already admiring his sleak new vehicle mode. Thanks to modifications, the Autobots can now hide their insignias if necessary and create an illusion of a driver – a mannequin springs up on the driving seat at each Autobots command. After explaining such things as a speed limit, Bumblebee takes them into a Blackrock petrol station where they converse rather awkwardly with the attendants (who think they are either ventriloquists or double jointed). Hehehe!!!

Skids, the more sociable of the Autobots, is intrigued by the song on the station attendants’ radio. He’s told it is Brick Springstern and the Tenth Avenue Band! The lyrics are near identical to Dancing in the Dark, except with a few key word changes. Oddly, Springstern becomes Springhorn later in the story. That one obviously slipped by Editor Michael Carlin. I’m guessing that it was easier for the team to spoof Bruce Springsteen rather than go to all the trouble of asking permission to feature him.

So, to the second part which begins with Prime passing on information to Bumblebee that G.B. Blackrock has warned of a Decepticon plot to steal sonic energy. Both agree that it is likely to involve the Springhorn concert and Bumblebee is told to investigate, but not engage the enemy.

At the Washington DC, offices of Triple I (Intelligence and Information Institute), Walter Barnet calls on his boss Forrest Forsythe. The agency still has no idea what the Transformers are or what they want, and steps must be taken to contain the growing public hysteria. Barnett is told to come up with a plan. The interlude lays the seeds of the next story.

Bumblebee and his trainees drive into the concert parking area without paying the entrance fee. Fortunately, by deactivating their mannequins they park up and fool the security. There are 80,000 fans singing along to ‘Born in America’ when the noise is suddenly drained away. Hoist severs a mysterious cable leading from the stage to somewhere underground and suddenly the three Decepticon jets burst through the ground to attack.

Bumblebee falls in the hole, leaving the four rookie warriors to fight the Decepticons unguided. Luckily the fans all think the missiles and explosions are part of the concert (so much for Triple I’s fears of hysteria), even when Hoist steps up to the stage to weld a piece of rigging back together.

Shockwave is under the stadium, generating cubes from his siphon. It’s all a bit undignified for the Decepticon leader, who you would think wouldn’t have to do the graft himself. He decides to take his revenge for the Autobots spoiling the plan by soaring into the air in gun mode and preparing to incinerate the crowd. Bumblebee throws an Energon Cube at him and the blasts lights up the sky, sending Shockwave spinning off. We don’t find out whether the siphon Shockwave spent weeks making is retrieved or left under the stadium.

Despite Bumblebee disobeying orders, Prime is pleased at the way the new warriors acquitted themselves and they all learned an important motto from the day: the show must go on!

Included free with TFUK#54 is a pull-out mini comic featuring the new combining teams – or Special Teams as Marvel UK is referring to them – the Stunticons, Aerialbots, Combaticons and Protectobots. At a stroke the headcount is increased by 24. The three-page story sees the teams squaring off outside and power plant and demonstrating their combining abilities. The story is a little underwhelming but works as an advert for the new toys, which is what it’s intended to be. The story will be expanded on and put into a proper context by Marvel UK in issue #64.

Next Story
Previous