Dinobot Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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And There Shall Come a Leader

Two decades before Simon Furman’s War Within prequels made Cybertron’s early years cool – came this first attempt in the 1985 Transformers Annual. It marks a turning point in the Transformers’ civil war, where one individual stepped forward to make a difference.

And There Shall Come a Leader, written by Simon Furman and with John Stokes on art duties, is the second strip in the 1985 annual. Though 10 pages shorter than Plague of the Insecticons, it is in my opinion the better story. Partly this is because it doesn’t upset the apple cart by messing with current stories (introducing characters that shouldn’t be there etc) but mainly because its setting is on the Transformers home world in the early years of their civil war. This is an undiscovered country of stories, rich in potential that would be largely untapped until Furman returned to the theme in his three War Within mini-series (published by Dreamwave from 2002-04).

The narrative informs readers that the story is set millions of years before the Transformers began their exile on Earth. In this time, Cybertron’s capital city Iacon is under siege and on the brink of falling to Megatron’s invading Decepticons. The council of Autobot Elders meets to discuss the dire situation. It’s suggested that their ineptness in trying to exert central control over the fightback is what has hastened the end.

This is our first introduction to Emirate Xaaron, a wily Autobot leader who Furman invented for this story and would continue to feature almost throughout the comic’s seven-year run. Xaaron alone has the foresight to see that they must entrust command to a warrior general and empower him to make the decisions that are required to defeat the Decepticons. He has someone in mind – a natural born leader (and if you said Optimus Prime go to the top of the class!).

Xaaron refuses to accept defeat – his leaping from his chair and exclaiming “never” is reminiscent of Megatron’s defiant reaction to being given an ultimatum to surrender – both characters are similar in nature, if worlds apart in their values. He persuades High Councillor Traachon (another never before-seen character with double a in his name) to use his veto to “free the Autobots” according to Xaaron’s plan.

On the battlefield, Optimus is issuing orders to a host of unfamiliar names – Pulsar, Tempest – and some we do know such as Hound and Ratchet. Interestingly, he’s already called Prime, suggesting that this is not a title which was bestowed upon him being given leadership of the Autobots. Does he have the Matrix yet or is that received after he becomes leader? We don’t know.

Prime suggests that, thanks to the Council, his hands are tied, and he must watch his comrades fall, however we also learn that Bluestreak and (another new character) Fusion are engaged in a race against time to bring them a supply of shatter bombs. Cut to the aforementioned duo, who are racing towards the Autobot lines across one of Cybertron’s many high-elevated bridges. They are under aerial attack from Decepticons resembling Earth jets (rather than the triangular forms that appeared in the cartoon’s origin story). If this seems a little unimaginative, it’s also disappointing that Bluestreak looks an Earth car except with a rocket booster rear. Fusion, on the other hand, is at least more alien – we only see him in vehicle form, which resembles to the mobile cannon that Optimus Prime transformed into in the first issue of Transformers.

There’s an unwritten rule that any character who is not part of the Hasbro toy range is expendable and likely to suffer some grisly fate in short order (it’s like the Transformers equivalent of the red-shirted extra beaming down on Star Trek). In this case poor Fusion can see the writing on the wall. Bluestreak clears a missing section of bridge with panache, while Fusion provides covering fire. He takes out one of the jets before being blown to bits. Bluestreak (who thankfully is in the toy range) can do nothing but swear revenge and go full speed ahead.

In Iacon, Prime is called away from the battle to receives word from Xaaron he has been granted control of the Autobot army and the war effort is now in his hands. He’s relieved, also hearing that Bluestreak is back with the bombs they’ve been waiting for.

Megatron, arriving in Iacon is briefed by Soundwave (who seems to have a very different head than usual – either intentionally or by mistake) informs him that the defeated Autobots are regrouping. Soon enough his passage is blocked by Optimus Prime, in what is possibly the earliest meeting of the two leaders in a Marvel Transformers comic. A fierce battle ensues with casualties on all sides. Below, Gears prepares to use Bluestreak’s bombs to detonate the bridge where the battle is raging. The Decepticons triumph by virtue of superior numbers and Prime finds Megatron standing over him preparing to savour his victory. He orders his troops to retreat moments before the bridge explodes – causing the Decepticons to come crashing down together with the debris (clearly, they don’t have flying abilities in robot mode, unlike the cartoons). Meanwhile, Prime is plucked to safety thanks to Windcharger’s legendary magnetic abilities. No-one could have survived they think, but of course Megatron does and, emerging from the rubble, he vows to have his revenge. Thus, the stage is set for the rivalry between Prime and Megatron that is central to the Transformers story.

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The Wrath of Grimlock

As Ratchet labours to reactivate the fallen Autobots, there’s a rogue battle droid on the loose, stuffed full of explosives, and the Dinobots are about to blow him to bits! It’s the second part of the Wrath story from Simon Furman and drawn by Barry Kitson.

There’s a sense of counting down to disaster which kicks in right at the off in Transformers UK #32 (published 26 October 1985). When we last left the Dinobots they had Guardian at their mercy (the ‘rouge’ battle droid as the narrative misspells it). Trouble is, if Grimlock pulls the trigger he’ll detonate the thermo nuclear charge and wipe out the Ark and everyone in it and probably the whole mountainside too!

Conveniently (for the drama) if not the protagonists, communications are down in that part of the Ark. So being unable to raise the alarm, Wheeljack does the next best thing by using remote control to commandeer the headless body of Optimus Prime and seize Grimlock’s arm. This is a nice surprise because when Ratchet ran into Prime last issue, it seemed like his body was incidental to the plot and merely reminding readers of Prime’s current predicament. Just like last issue where Grimlock’s head was drawn at the size of Ratchet’s chest, Kitson’s got the dimensions wrong again, with Prime towering over Grimlock.

The Dinobots go from being pumped-up aggressive to finding Grimlock’s helpless situation rather funny. While larking around they forget that Guardian is down but not out and he’s able to engage power reserves and punch his way loose. Prime and Grimlock are physically separated, with the Dinobot leader suffering a severed hand. He’s in a foul mood by now and later, once Ratchet reconnects the hand, he tests it by punching the medic in the face! As last week’s teaser pre-empted, it’s the ‘Wrath of Grimlock and look who’s on the receiving end’.

Ratchet dismisses the assault as a case of the terminal sulks. There are more important things to worry about like repairing the other Autobots, starting with Windcharger as his magnetic abilities were so useful against Guardian the last time around. Though Grimlock’s attitude is dismissed, its an early indication of the Dinobots being loose canons in future.

As Guardian recharges we get a flashback to Soundwave and Shockwave referring to the nuclear charge as a failsafe should Megatron or the Autobots return. I wonder if this means they also saw the TV footage of Megatron’s ski-slope battle with the Dinobots. Rather than send a search party for Megatron, Shockwave seems to be content to think he was either destroyed or has gone AWOL. Guardian calculates that, with fourteen Autobots active, the odds are now against him and therefore he activates his detonation sequence… one hundred seconds and counting! He seeks out the largest concentration of the enemy, which as it turns out is quite handy.

As Ratchet puts the final touches to Swoop, with Grimlock looking over his shoulder. Guardian bursts in and attacks. The Dinobots lay waste to him and Grimlock bites his arm – not so much an eye for an eye than an arm for an arm. Windcharger is denied another moment of glory, as Swoop revives, attempts to shoot Guardian and blows a hole in the roof, after Ratchet throws his aim off. Hearing that Guardian is packed with explosives, Swoop transforms into pteranadon mode and flies Guardian outside. He reaches a decent height and distance and he lets go only to get caught up in the blast as Guardian explodes!

I like how Furman is able to revisit the opening narrative about so much being possible in so few seconds, but in Swoop’s case not quite enough. He saved the Ark but apparently paid the ultimate price (chances are that most readers will expect him to return at some point, as nobody ever really dies in comics – well except Guardian, he looks toast). In epilogue, the Autobots hold a memorial service for Swoop and afterwards the Dinobots leave to go their own way. We wonder what will become of them. Ratchet is able to complete repairs on all but one of his fallen comrades (Sunstreaker being the unlucky one) and in a hospital bed Josie Beller, now reborn as Circuit Breaker, is preparing to undo all of his hard work!

In summary, it’s an ending to the saga of the Autobots being dead/captive which began with The Last Stand some months ago. It’s a moment of tragedy and optimism. Things are back to approaching the status quo, with Autobot and Decepticon armies back in situ, except with obvious absence of Optimus Prime from the Autobot ranks. That’s a big loose end for them to tie up!

On the Soundwaves page the mystery of why Shockwave’s toy is not available in the UK is solved. In response to a letter from Paul Sherwood of Loughborough, we’re told Shockwave forbid Hasbro from making a toy replica because they could not possibly capture his true greatness! There’s also a welcome Factfile on Inferno – a character who will not feature for another two and a half years.

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Raiders of the Last Ark

I’m tempted to say the best thing about ‘Raiders of the Last Ark’ is the title. That’s not quite fair as the story does have some good moments. In general though, Transformers UK comic is treading water at this point with two months still to go before the sequel to the US story ‘The Last Stand’ lands.

Once again Simon Furman is on writer duties – this is only his second Transformers story in fact, so if it’s a little underwhelming that is perhaps understandable (he’s still finding his feet). Though I think the problem is more about the reduced format which is spreading stories thinly over twice as many issues. It increases the pressure on those smaller instalments to pack more punch.

I read elsewhere (via Stuart Webb’s excellent and entertaining blog) that the plan had been for Steve Parkhouse and Furman to alternate, but Parkhouse quit Marvel and they obviously decided to pad the comics out with more filler (i.e. poor backup strips) rather than double Furman’s workload.

The story’s title derives (obviously) from the 1981 Indiana Jones movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, whose sequel The Temple of Doom was released in June 1984 around a year before this comic hit the shelves. Last Ark follows on directly from the events of The Enemy Within, and sees the Decepticons thirsty for revenge and launch a surprise assault on the Autobot base, the Ark.

First we have a re-telling of the familiar events which brought the Transformers to Earth – the Autobots went into space aboard the Ark only for the Decepticons to board the ship and attack – only there’s a twist. We knew Optimus Prime put the ship on collision course with the Earth but we now learn that the Ark’s computer core ‘Auntie’ presented Prime with this option, having assessed this as the best way to win.

History now repeats itself as the Decepticons gather atop of Mount St Hillary and again breach the Ark’s hull. Laserbeak and Buzzsaw are first in and surprise the unprepared Autobots. Prime literally disintegrates Laserbeak with his laser rifle before (uncharacteristically) berating his troops for their ineptness and orders them to arm up. Laserbeak will be back soon enough, but to see the damage he takes here, its hard to see how. The poor guy is literally in pieces!

Some very average art of the two armies doing battle is lifted for TFUK#18’s cover, which seems kind of lazy but is the custom for the comic at this time. We find out Soundwave’s armour and weaponry are the more effective in battle against Jazz – but Sideswipe is physically superior to Rumble. Windcharger versus is Ravage is a more interesting contest. Windcharger deploys his unbelievably powerful magnetic powers, launching his opponent some distance. But Ravage can manipulate electro-magnetic fields (usually to avoid detection) and in this case can counter Windcharger’s ability. This is an early hint that these two will be central characters in this story (in fact, this is pretty much Windcharger’s only moment in the spotlight as he’ll be a background character for the rest of the comic’s run).

Part two sees Prime step away from the battle to attempt to reactivate Auntie and her powerful defences. Interestingly, until now the Autobots have relied on basic computer functions. We don’t know why this is and I would speculate its possibly connected to their lack of power/fuel situation. Megatron, sensing Optimus is up to something, follows him and blasts a hole in the computer screen. It’s enough to ensure that when Auntie wakes – her huge golden holographic face filling the room – it’s quite an entrance!

Her power within the Ark is incredible and the fighting Transformers are suddenly magnetised helplessly to the walls as Auntie puts its defence procedures into operation. In her damaged state, Auntie seems to have morphed into Hal from 2001 crossed with Judge Judy – she remarks oddly that “nobody built her” and thus no loyalties any longer, but she will decide the Transformers’ fates after hearing both arguments.

In part 3 we learn that Ravage and Windcharger are immune to Auntie’s magnetism and have had to form an ‘unholy alliance’. Neither is particularly happy at teaming up with the other, which I think makes for a fun dynamic. Ravage expertly avoids a field of lasers (he’s showing off now) and then disables the weapon. The pair are then attacked by electricity and momentarily subdued.

Elsewhere, the trial is not going well for both leaders. Optimus manages to convince Megatron that Auntie will destroy them both unless she is shut down. Perhaps Windcharger and Ravage can get to her core? We then get another significant moment as Auntie deploys her ‘last line of defence’, the muscle-bound bruiser known as Guardian!

The Ark’s bouncer – he certainly looks like he can do some damage. Sadly not on this occasion as Windcharger is able to defeat him fairly easily in Part 4 – quite a disappointment, but perhaps inevitable given the constraints on page count. It will not be until Furman’s sequel story Wrath of Guardian that we’ll see the full potential of this opponent (cue hundreds of letters to the comic asking what Guardian transforms into – the answer is nothing, he’s a droid used for menial tasks and defence).

For the first of only two occasions in the comic, Megatron draws on his rare and incredibly unstable ability to summon anti-matter from a black hole, in an attempt to escape Auntie’s magnetic clutches. It isn’t necessary as Ravage pounces into the computer core and destroys Auntie. Both factions are released and Windcharger generates the largest magnetic field he can muster to repel Megatron through the Ark’s roof and into the sky. At this point you’re thinking Windcharger must be the most powerful Autobot ever, until his systems overload. Even so you wonder why he’s so little used going forward.

Later Optimus Prime says prophetically that the Decepticons will be back (which leads us nicely back to the shocking events of The Last Stand, which is continuing next issue). Given the long hiatus the UK comic reprints that gob-smacking last page of TLS with Shockwave blasting the surviving Autobots. The stage is set for the most eagerly awaited continuation in the comic’s short history at this point.

Other things to mention: The Transformers are still being drawn to their toy forms with sometimes comical effect, such as Megatron with a trigger for a waist. There’s a back page advert for the Decepticon jets which has the names all mixed up. Dirge is captioned as Starscream, Ramjet is called Dirge and Starscream is called Ramjet! What a mess. It looks like the person who prepared the ad didn’t have the first clue. The fans spotted it though and I seem to remember a letter being published in Soundwaves (the name for the letters page from TFUK#22) to rub it in!

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