The Bridge to Nowhere!

Lord Straxus activates his Space Bridge, linking Cybertron to Earth. Unless the Autobots stop them, the Decepticons could send unlimited reinforcements to plunder our world. The stakes are high in the Marvel TF classic by Budiansky and artist Don Perlin.

July 1986. As I entered the final weeks of my first year at secondary school, good things were afoot in the world of Transformers comics (my escape from stresses of everyday life). We’d just had the fantastic Smelting Pool story, introducing a host of new characters from the wider toy range and my new favourite Autobot, Blaster. I’d been blown away by that story, which was (and would remain) one of Bob Budiansky’s finest, and equally delighted that we’d be getting a further instalment – The Bridge to Nowhere. I knew it would struggle to reach the uncommon heights of the Smelting Pool (and would be correct) but Phil Gascoine’s fine cover to TFUK#68, depicting the two planets joined and the faces of Prime, Megatron, Perceptor and Straxus, created the impression of more excitement to come.

The Transformation page sets the scene – after four million years of radio silence, contact is made with Cybertron, but it’s the Decepticons getting in touch. As we saw last issue, Straxus (ruler of the Polyhex province) was overseeing the frantic construction of something epic. It was a project that required the kidnap of a neutral scientist – Spanner – who Blaster, a leading light of the local Autobot resistance, is obsessed with for reasons we never find out. Perhaps there’s a back history there we’re not privy too, or maybe just Blaster’s innate concern for any innocent taken captive by the Decepticons. In this story we find out that the construction project was in fact a Space Bridge, and Spanner is very closely involved (more on that later).

If last issue was unusual for the absence of Earth and humans (save for a glimpse via Soundwave’s message) this issue resumes normal service. It opens on the Columbia River Gorge, home to some of the most spectacular scenery in Northern Oregon. ‘Charlie and Rita’ are driving through a rugged track overlooked by mountains and pine, when they spot a gigantic metal bridge that piques their curiosity. They drive their red Jeep onto it, only to slam on the brakes when they realise to their horror that it stops halfway!

As the couple make a hasty U-turn, a gigantic robot appears from nowhere and explodes spectacularly! They drive away at speed just as the bridge begins to vanish… only to re-materialise on Cybertron, several light years away, where it reconnects to its other half.

Lord Straxus, the badass Decepticon despot, already showed the cruel contempt he holds for his Autobot prisoners. It seems this also extends to his Decepticon lackies as well – as he orders a robot onto the bridge to investigate the malfunction. He promptly explodes as well. Shrapnel contacts Spanner to identify the issue (a faulty fuel line). Blaster is watching and recording from above in his Cybertronian communications device mode. It’s a pretty useless alt mode when it comes to travel or combat, it must be said. Luckily, someone with a more useful alternative form – the plane Powerglide – arrives to collect him and they return to the Autobot secret underground base.

Blaster is keen to rescue Spanner. In some way this would allow him to atone, at least partially, for having to abandon Scrounge last issue. But the news that the bridge is almost operational is top priority for Perceptor, who needs every Autobot to play their part in destroying it. The Decepticons must not be allowed to reach Earth and endanger that distant world.

And what of the Earth? We see it now surrounded by a weird cloud (like Roadrunner has zipped around it). I’m not sure why Don Perlin drew the Earth so strangely. In Wyoming, Megatron and Soundwave are holed up in the coal mine along with the human captive Donny Finkleberg, aka Robot Master. Ravage now arrives with a vending machine full of candy bars for the prisoner’s food. Robot Master has just finished another Autobot-bashing broadcast to North America but tests the limited patience of Megatron even further by complaining about his poor treatment and lack of appreciation.

Shockwave arrives with the other flying Decepticons and the two square-up briefly. Interestingly, three of the panels have been altered in the UK comic to reflect the situation from Transformers #65 where Megatron and Shockwave agreed to try out a joint leadership. In the US none of the UK extras are published, so as far as the American audience is concerned this is the first meeting between the two leaders since Megatron reappeared. The square up for a fight but are interrupted by the holographic form of Lord Straxus. He acknowledges Soundwave’s (sent in issue #36) and offers to help the Decepticons conquer Earth, adding that they have a means of instantaneous travel between the two distant worlds.

The news is enough to restore the truce between Shockwave and Megatron. And in the US version it becomes the reason for the pair agreeing to put their differences and make the necessary preparations. Donny hears about the Earth being drained of its natural resources and realises he must escape and warn the Autobots.

In the second half (published in TFUK#69), Straxus oversees the final stages of the Space Bridge’s activation from viewpoint high up in Darkmount. Little does he realise that Perceptor and his crew have tunnelled underneath the stronghold and are busy planting explosives. Everything Warpath utters seems to be related to shooting or warfare, and his line now “nothing pleases me more than a big blast”, raises a smile. Two ‘extras’, Corkscrew and Borebit, drill an escape tunnel to the surface, where the Autobots come under instant attack. It’s not clear if the pair are the first victims, but as a rule, any character who is not part of the Hasbro toy line is usually guaranteed to die.

Darkmount explodes and crumbles. Straxus falls, transforming into a fearsome-looking flying cannon, and vowing revenge. This little act of destruction is but a diversion to allow Blaster on to the Space Bridge to plant more explosives. He’s busy doing that when the bridge begins to transform. It reveals itself to be none other than the missing Spanner. In a nice twist, which for once I’d not had an inkling about, he’d not only been used by the Decepticons for his physics know how but they built him into the bridge. As punishments go its pretty sadistic, or perhaps it simply works more efficiently with a living Transformer at its heart. Spanner pleads with Blaster to plant the explosives and free him, but Blaster falters.

Straxus, meanwhile, is blasting anything that moves. Shrapnel alerts him to the attack on Darkmount being a ruse – pointing out the Autobot presence on the bridge. If Blaster’s flaw is his compassion which causes him to flinch from what must be done, Straxus’ weakness is surely his impatience. It’s not very sensible to activate the bridge while the battle is raging but he orders Shrapnel to do just that. This allows Blaster a glimpse of the strange world that is Earth.

A Decepticon seeker zapped by Blaster’s disorientating Electro Scrambler spins out of control and into the swirling void at side of the bridge, being destroyed instantly (this is the compressed space that the bridge spans – very deadly). A misplaced blast from Straxus also crosses the bridge, disintegrating trees on the Earth side, which is noticed by a passing Police car. Truly this is a battle between the worlds!

The main event soon arrives as Straxus blasts the Autobots unconscious and squares up the last man standing – Blaster (who has lost his scrambler). Straxus swings his axe furiously at Blaster, who does well to avoid most of the blows until one cuts into his leg. He spots the fuel line he noted earlier (the one that caused the malfunction at the start of the story). A huge swing from Straxus’ axe cuts the line, and, with the bridge now unstable, Blaster boots Straxus towards the Cybertron side of the bridge where he dies immediately (though not in the UK continuity where he’ll be back for a swansong or two).

Blaster is left off balance but saved by Powerglide (not for the first time). The seven remaining Autobots exit the malfunctioning bridge on to the Earth side as it begins to vanish. Although it won’t take the Decepticons long to repair it, they’ve bought a little time to warn the Autobots on Earth. It’s time for ‘Cybertron seven’ to bid greetings to the Earthlings (police and military) who approach them.

And so, we conclude the Return to Cybertron story. A head to head between the main hero and villain was really the only way to end this brief but excellent saga. Straxus ultimately goes the way of all who are not part of the toy range, but as mentioned he’ll appear again in the UK comics. Blaster, Perceptor and the others finish up on Earth, allowing them to eventually be part of the regular characters. However, we won’t learn their fate until issue #90, which is about five months away at the time the comic was published.

The Space Bridge idea has been lifted from the Sunbow Transformers cartoons (along with Energon Cubes previously) and with this now a feature, it will be a highly useful vehicle for bringing new characters into the comic relatively simply as Bob Budiansky would be under constant pressure to do. In the next issue it’s back to the adventures of the Earth-bound Autobots and the debut of Omega Supreme.

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Plague of the Insecticons

What do Ronald Reagan, Roller and the Insecticons have in common? Answer, they all make their Transformers comic debut in the 1985 annual story, Plague of the Insecticons – a UK exclusive by Simon Furman with art from Mike Collins and Jeff Anderson.

Annuals are something of a tradition in the UK. Growing up in the 1980s it seemed that every popular children’s TV show or comic had one. I remember receiving the Knight Rider, Spider-Man, Metal Mickey, Roland Rat and Thundercats annuals at various Christmases, and probably more books that have since faded from memory.

These tended to hardbacked, containing text stories and comic strips (my favourites) plus puzzles, interviews and anything else they could think of. So, a real mixed bag and of varying qualities. If they were connected to an ongoing comic there was no guarantee that the stories would actually fit into any established continuity, and so it was with the first Transformers Annual, released to popular demand in the UK in late 1985.

Of the four stories, arguably only There Shall Come a Leader, a prequel, gelled with the weekly Transformers comic. The rest simply jarred. So, we had Hunted which featured Topspin and Twin Twist as part of the Ark’s crew; Missing in Action in which Tracks, Inferno, Grapple and Hoist were also part of the set-up. Though three of those would be introduced in early 1986, Inferno doesn’t make his debut until issue #188. So, these stories are mainly there to showcase new Transformer toys but not to sweat it about where they fit into the overall picture.

The Insecticon story is the biggest muddle of all. Kickback, Shrapnel and Bombshell are not due to join the Earthbound Decepticons until TFUK#89 in late 1986, and by this time Ravage is out of the picture (having disappeared down a mineshaft, so they could not appear together). On the other hand the Insecticons in the story appeared to have been hatched in a lab and perhaps they are clones of the actual Insecticons. This might explain why it is necessary for Ravage to control them remotely. Warpath’s presence is similarly problematic (he won’t join the Earth setup until after Ravage is written out and the genuine Insecticons are on Earth).

Putting that aside, Collins and Anderson have done a good job in capturing Reagan’s likeness and capturing the drama and carnage caused by the Insecticon attack. Their depiction of Warpath with his feet joined together is accurate to the toy design but in practical terms, if this is not a serious weakness in battle, I don’t know what is.

The story sets out to answer the question of why the Autobots haven’t announced their presence to humanity and forged a common alliance against the Decepticons (after all the Autobots are sworn to protect mankind from the Decepticon tyranny). The scene opens at nightfall over Washington DC, and troops sweating it out as they await the arrival of actual aliens – the Autobots! Optimus Prime, Prowl and Warpath drive on to the White House lawn where Ronald Reagan strolls out to greet them.

The meeting is presumably secret, hence the absence of the world’s media at this historic moment, so you wonder why it’s in the very public location of the President’s front lawn?! I also question the wisdom of Prime bringing Warpath along as a tank doesn’t exactly convey ‘we come in peace’. Reagan extends the hand of peace and friendship, while wryly observing it’s the first time he’s conversed with a truck. Optimus transforms to echo the president’s wishes for peaceful relations.

At that moment, the ground shakes and our three Insecticons spring up and declare they will “kill all the humans in the name of the Autobots”. The phrase ‘public relations disaster’ doesn’t quite cut it. Prime is shocked and surprised – he had instructed Jazz to reach out to the US government and talks were held under the tightest security to stop the enemy from finding out. In flashback, we see a military man making a careless call without a scrambler, allowing Soundwave to pick it up in one of his routine sweeps. Megatron responded by releasing the Insecticons from booths where they had been in suspended animation, or perhaps growing.

At the White House, Prime and his warriors return fire. Bombshell declares “Great Optimus we hear your command” and withdraws to attack the Capital. Despite seeing the Autobots fighting these Decepticons, the military fall for the ruse and turn their anger against the Autobots.

As Optimus sets out to discover who is remote controlling the trio of saboteurs, Prowl and Warpath hit the streets to track down the Insecticons. They find the city ablaze and people fleeing for their lives. The trio are introduced along with a short summary of their main abilities: Bombshell can control minds; Kickback is a master of espionage, and Shrapnel is a master of electricity.

Prowl takes out Kickback with a missile but succumbs to Shrapnel’s splinter grenade. Warpath rams Shrapnel, looking like he destroys the Insecticon, but evidently not, for when Prime dispatches his drone Roller from his trailer, it arrives to engulf Shrapnel in a ball of fire.

We know that Prime’s trailer and Roller are extensions of him, so much so that he feels any pain inflicted on to his other components. As Optimus confronts Ravage (who has been operating the Insecticons) he’s unaware of Bombshell swooping down to inject him with one of his mind-controlling cerebro shell. Conveniently, at the crucial moment Kickback blows up Roller and causes the Autobot leader to lurch forward in pain. Bombshell completely misses him and injects Ravage instead. This leaves the controller mindless and the Insecticons inert.

At this point the way is clear for Prime, Prowl and Warpath to explain the situation to the President. Instead they return to the Ark convinced the humans would not believe them and lamenting a lost opportunity. I suppose Furman couldn’t realistically plot a major game-changer like the Autobots joining forces with the US government, tension in the story demands that the Autobots are typically on the backfoot.

However, as mentioned this story is far removed from the comics continuity and therefore it allows Furman more creative licence. As a reader it is a little frustrating that Prime just accepted the smear on the Autobots’ name and didn’t try to explain. It’s nice to see Roller used in a story (this being his only appearance outside of the cartoon series) even if questions are unanswered such as Ravage how recovers from the surprisingly creepy and horrific depiction of his invaded mind.

All in all, not a bad story if you’re willing to overlook the jarring conflicts with the US and UK comics continuities, and a nice showcase for Roller, Warpath and the Insecticons.

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