Transformers - a guide

By Adam Hogg


US origins

The Transformers comic first appeared as a four issue limited series in the US. Released in May of 1984, this bimonthly title from Marvel was aimed at fans of Hasbro's new Transformers toy line. It was a success and at the end of the fourth issue it was announced that the comic would continue as a monthly - with issue five being released in February 1985. The US comic became a best seller, remaining a monthly until its cancellation at issue 80 in April 1991.

The UK version of this comic debuted on Thursday the 20th September 1984. Despite its humble beginnings, this extremely popular publication from the now deceased Marvel UK was to become their most successful ever title, and many fans were distraught when it was eventually cancelled over seven years later. By the time the final 332nd issue was released in early 1992, it must be said that Transformers as a franchise was in decline, and with comic sales also suffering (and also no new US material) it was to become the end of an era. Originally a fortnightly comic, it became a weekly from #27 onwards, only to revert back nearer the end at #309.

During its run, the UK comic reprinted virtually every story from its US cousin, with each usually split across two issues because of the shorter British format. With the UK comic appearing weekly, original US material was insufficient to fill the comic, therefore new stories from Marvel UK were written to fill in the extra weeks. These added events were seamlessly integrated between the current US story lines, while often focussing on new or lesser-featured characters. The UK comic also contained a short and mostly non-Transformers back-up strip, usually stories from other Marvel US series such as Action Force or Iron Man. About two thirds through the comics run, it reverted to a duel format (#213), featuring US reprints alongside the UK only stories, while the non-Transformers back-up strip also remained.

With up to 15 UK issues sometimes squeezed between the US continuity, it led to an overall quite different and in many ways enhanced story compared to the US. This made the UK comic quite popular in US, even though it was sometimes very hard to get hold of. In fact, some of the UK stories were so epic, its hard to imagine how they were just placed between the US reprints, especially since the US stories were rarely edited to mention UK only story lines. By the time the comic was cancelled, almost half of it was UK exclusive material, with virtually all written by Marvel UK regular Simon Furman, the same writer who would eventually take up writing the US comic.

The Stories

The UK/US comic as a whole was like a giant serial, characters were occasionally killed off or written-out, and newer ones (mainly the newer toys) were introduced. Past events were often referred to, dead characters stayed dead, and for the most part the stories were consistent even with long past events. A long time reader would generally get a lot more from the comic than those that might only buy the occasional issue, especially with the cliff hangers present at the end of many issues.

The comic produced many excellent story lines but overall almost every story was memorable in some way. All were written with a mixture of your usual over the top "Anime", and a much more believable and down-to-earth 'Westernism'(?!?!). Some stories were complex, and reading them now I realise that I never appreciated them to the full first time around. The first real ambitious UK only story was "Target 2006" (UK#78-88), which is considered to be the best overall, although many of the much later stories do come close.

Despite his pleas, Cyclonus' death 20 years in the past was to prove too much for the fragile sace-time continuum, triggering 'the end of the world!!!'

Not all of the best plots and scenes were unique however, with some even inspired by certain Hollywood films. The UK story City of Fear borrows from "Night of the Living Dead", The Price of Life includes a concept taken from the original "The Fly", and US stories "Pretender to the Throne" and "The Meccanibals" borrow from "Tron" and "Star Wars" (the cantina scene) respectively. More obviously is the UK comics time jumping complexities such as the ability to change the past and future, this being from "Back to the Future". While the later story Dark Creation is so much like the film "Alien" that it might as well be included in the same universe!

While the comic progressed through the years, the vision of giant, cold and emotionless robots was quickly forgotten, replaced with living and feeling mechanical beings. This was probably all brought about by trying to explain the Transformers origins, something that become increasingly confusing after the release of Transformers: The Movie. With the action remaining graphic and clever, it was now portrayed as real life or death. This new concept allowed the writers to produce a completely different type of comic, while also taking on some strange and potentially controversial themes!

How many children's comics can claim to feature strong scenes of graphic and often gratuitous violence, helpless suffering, removal of limbs, and the occasionally death by decapitation! This probably sounds irrelevant by thinking they're only robots, but because the comic was written with these characters portrayed as alive, they have all the connected feelings such as pleasure, pain, guilt, fear, anger and remorse (not "love" though!). The other popular comics at the time such as "Action Force" and "Real Ghostbusters" were nothing like this.

The Movie's influence

An obvious difference between the UK and the US comics, was the influence Transformers: The Movie had on the British comic. This high profile animated feature length cartoon, appeared in both the UK and US during 1986, but was actually set in the future year 2005. Although film was only intended to compliment the Transformers cartoon series, the UK comic writer accepted its events into the normal continuity (this despite normally ignoring the cartoon).

While the movie was basically a marketing event to introduce many new characters (more toys), it brought up a number of aspects that up-until-then were unheard of, or simply unexplained properly within the Transformers universe. These were namely, the Creation Matrix (The Transformers sacred life-force) as an actual entity, and the gigantic planet-sized Transformer - Unicron. With these events, the UK comic was to change drastically, introducing Unicron as a dark god, who is destined to destroy the light god Primus' planet Cybertron (yoiks!!). This was all in stark comparison to the US comic, which seemed to ignore all the movie issues and content on staying with the present day Transformers and its limited array of characters.

"This is the end of the road Galvatron"! How can anyone deny that after the movie, Rodimus Prime was the character everyone wanted to see. And WE got him!!!

The comics UK readers were now treated to stories set in the post movie future, including the hot at the time characters like Galvatron and Rodimus Prime. From here on and for the most part, the UK comic always tried its best to fit in with the movie plot, with its major characters never killed off in the present day, or always reborn in some way or another.

As well as the future characters created during the movie, the UK comic was now starting to feature the many other names it introduced, but this time into the present day continuity. Being such a high profile character, its very strange that Ultra Magnus was never to appear properly in the US comic, especially seeing as he featured a major role in many of the stronger UK storylines, such as "Vicious Circle" (the conclusion to UK#113-120) and "Legion of the Lost" (and other stories from UK#164-169). Other more noticeable characters missing from the US comic, such as Springer, Arcee and Wreck-gar as well as non-movie characters like Roadbuster, Whirl and the other two Autobot "Triple Changers" were also to make regular appearances for UK readers.

The total number of characters who never appeared in the US comic is surprisingly high, and whenever its readers wrote in asking, they were simply given unhelpful "wait and see" type replies. Those missing out is put in stark contrast against the UK comic, where during its entire run you would be hard pressed to find even the most obsolete character not get at least a walk-on part. This made the UK Transformers toy range look very poor, especially with US children able to buy many of the toys that only appeared in the UK comic, while we didn't even get some main characters like Shockwave or Blaster. It must also be noted however that the US writer was under strict scrutiny from the toy manufacturer Hasbro over which characters were to appear in each issue, so there could be many reasons why some didn't appear!

What the future holds

While the present day Autobots and Decepticons went about their civil war, the Transformers of the post movie future were also still fighting. The advantage the UK comic gained from these settings was more freedom to the writers. Epics like Space Pirates (UK#182-187) or The legacy of Unicron (UK#146-151) couldn't have happened in the present day, while other benefits included the ability to kill off a character without the worry of them appearing in a forthcoming US strip (Shockwave for one). The original character Death's Head (who went on the star in his own comic), a ruthless bounty hunter in the future became a big readers favourite, while Metroplex made his only appearance here. This future we saw ran in real time, and was always 20 years ahead of the present day, so the future Transformers in the 1989 story Time Wars for example, are from the year 2009.

The present day Ultra Magus fighting Galvatron from the future, this fight from "Salvage" was to be their final battle of a long running saga!!!

Also only included within the UK comic were the many bizarre time-jumping scenario's, "past and present" collide situations where present day Transformers were moved to a Limbo to pave way for the future Transformers to appear in the present. "Target 2006" (the tie in to the then soon-to-be-released movie) was the first of many of these. The many complex events that followed, combined with the as-ever excellent scripts kept the comic consistently head and shoulders above its US cousin. It is worth pointing out however that while Galvatron and co. ran riot in the present day, they rarely met up with characters strongly following the US continuity (probably to lessen the chance of problem storylines in the future).

The US comic did contain one story set in the future, The Big Broadcast of 2006 (US#43 UK#180-181) was a story based on a cartoon episode of the same name. This odd and out of place account of the future contained many brief cameo's for US readers, its was still a very poor story though and it's questionable whether or not it was meant to be accepted into US continuity (regardless of the fact that it's set in a parallel universe - see below). Perhaps the point is how it was portrayed in the UK comic, here we see it as told by Wreck-gar who is being tortured by the Quintessons. UK readers see it as a made-up story by him to mock his captors.

After the story Time Wars however, the movie future as we saw it was to become only one of many possible futures. The future Transformers from this story returned to the extremely bleak parallel universe we see in Rhythms of Darkness (UK#298-301, US#67). In this universe, I assume that the movie events have still taken place (again creating Galvatron, Cyclonus, Scourge), but for some reason, instead of Unicron being destroyed like in the Movie, he has ended up destroying Cybertron. Here, virtually all the Autobots are dead, and even Earth has fallen to the Galvatron led Decepticons! Despite this grim setting, even as you read "Rhythms of Darkness", that possible future becomes obsolete with certain events leading to the coming of Unicron now (now being 1991 instead of 2005).

US/UK conflicting story lines

Due to the fact that the US comic ultimately lead the way, many potential problems for the UK comic arose. Simon Furman has admitted that it was often guess work; so imagine introducing or killing a certain character, only to have them thrown into a later US story in a completely different way. The US writers must have known about the UK storylines, simply because the conflicts were not as high as you might expect. But despite attempts to avoid them as much as possible a few big situations still occured.

I felt that Megatron's excellent mind battle saga with Lord Straxus (from UK#103 onwards), was completely ruined by his later appearance in the US story Back From the Dead (US#56 UK#240-242). In this story, which only follows the US continuity, Megatron is said to have laid deactivated on Cybertron for the last few years (since his last US appearance in UK#108, US#25). Because of this, UK readers were forced to believe that the Megatron who had been appearing in the last 100+ issues wasn't actually Megatron, but instead a duplicate robot built by Straxus to house both their minds (I didn't understand it either)!?!?!? Bizarrely, Back From the Dead was Furman's first US story after his transfer to the US comic, but to explain this mess to British readers he wrote a UK exclusive story entitled Two Megatrons! (UK#244), in which both unsurprisingly meet up. Clearly though, during stories such as Salvage (UK#160-161) and Time Wars, the same writer believes he is writing about the real Megatron.

A similar problem involving Shockwave occurs in the US/UK story Surrender! (UK#311-312, US#71). Here we are faced with Shockwave explaining to the Decepticon rebels where he has been for the last few years, this because he was last seen in the US comic plunging to Earth amidst a ball of fire in The Desert Island of Space (UK#158-159, US#39). His explanation about laying low for a while was not changed for the UK comic, even though we saw Shockwave survive and appear in the very next issue to lead the few Decepticons left on Earth. Shockwave would also play a major role in the next 40 UK issues, but then sort of disappears (as do most Transformers) during the mess of the next 100 issues.

"Whatever happens, Bumblebee should have stayed home this day!!!

Another continuity problem arises involving Goldbug's creation, which was actually changed for the UK comic. Goldbug was created using the remains of the destroyed Autobot Bumblebee, occurring sometime after Optimus Prime's death during the story Afterdeath (UK#105-106, US#24). The way in which the US comic wrote him in was during a "Transformers and G.I.Joe" cross-over series in which the G.I.Joe's inadvertently destroyed Bumblebee, and then repaired him as Goldbug with Ratchet's help. For some reason this was axed from the UK comic, instead opting for an explosive end at Deaths Head's hands (UK#114), and then being reconstructed as Goldbug by Wreck-gar (UK#118). These different events may seem straight forward enough, but quite some time later, that the Transformers and G.I.Joe cross-over series was reprinted in the UK comic. The most likely reason was because there were no for this however could possibly be explained (with a tiny bit of imagination!).

Despite the constant shadow of conflicting storylines always a possibility, (and there are many more lesser examples), the fact that the US comic had so many holes in it must have made life that much easier for Furman. For example, Skids' disappearance to limbo (UK#101) for over 100 issues was made that much easier by his strange and rather sudden absence from the US comic. Although he was perfectly operational, and residing with the Autobots in the Ark, his only appearance during this time was in the US story Totalled! (UK#174-175, US#41), and you probably already guessed that he appears when he clearly shouldn't.

Another different issue involves the future movie characters - Cyclonus and Scourge's, strange appearance on the present day Nebulous. It was during this story in which they join the present-day Target Masters, being introduced in the US comic along with all the respective others. While the US comic made no attempt to explain their appearance (it ignores the movie and just regards them as regular Decepticons), the UK does explain this during the future story The Legacy of Unicron in which they are thrown back in time.

If you look at the story problems I've pointed out, you might notice that no matter how blatantly obvious the conflict is, they could all be explained in some way or another. This is often best described as papering over the cracks, but it is always just enough to keep the story together (just when you think it should fall apart!).

The Infamous Carwash of Doom. First you are hypnotised, then you drive to a secret location where the Decepticons siphon out your petrol, lastly your left wondering why they don't just steal from petrol stations. DOH!!!

The low points

The way Landmine talks the Mecannibals into releasing him by suggesting a recipe in which he be covered in mercury sauce and iron filings, and the way he is released to look for them was pathetic even by Budiansky's standards!!!

The many US stories that appeared during the UK comics run were almost all written by the American writer - Bob Budiansky. While they are generally considered okay, they were sometimes criticised for being lacking in substance, either they were too simple or just plain silly! Reading them now I guess I have to agree to some extent, however some stories like The Smelting Pool and Crater Critters still remain big favourites of mine. Usually his heaviest criticism was for stories like The Carwash of Doom (UK#128-129, US#31), The Interplanetary Wrestling Championship! (UK#236-239, US#55) and The Mecanibals (UK#213-220, US#52-53), all of which sucked badly. Other stories that I've found him criticised for, were Afterdeath! and The Cure, although I actually enjoyed these and overall I like most of US stories.

It is no coincidence that the UK comics sudden decline coincided with the two-story format introduced in issue 213, something that angered many UK readers. This new format contained many short black and white stories, while still continuing to reprint US issues, this time usually splitting each into 4 parts. This new format seemed to bring the immediate Transformers saga to a stand still, while long stories such as "The Mecanibals" and "Recipe for Disaster", as well as reprints including "Wanted: Galvatron" and "The Legacy of Unicron" were doing the comic no favours at all.

The way Landmine talks the Mecannibals into releasing him by suggesting a recipe in which he be covered in mercury sauce and iron filings, and the way he is released to look for them was pathetic even by Budiansky's standards!!! Around this time, Simon Furman took over writing the US comic, which probably explains partially for the lack of decent UK only material. Although some of the new black and white stories (Still written by Furman) were OK, they were for the most part too short, or uninteresting, and ultimately not to the standard we were used to. Predictably though while the UK comic was on the decline, the US comic with Furman now writing was getting a lot better. Incidentally I stopped collecting the comic shortly after the duel-format, only to collect it again from around #310 onwards when it returned to a single story format. As a long time reader, I must say that it was never the duel format that finished it for me - but it was the reprints. If like me, you didn't care much for Action Force, you were sometimes only getting a 5 page black and white story worth of unique material, along with an old UK story which you already had.

The artwork

Its hard to really comment on the actual artwork, mainly because it was always adequate or better. The many cosmetic errors found are for the most part forgivable when you consider the sheer number of different characters (check out Rodimus Prime's chest on the first page of UK#119 for a real howler!), consisting mainly of colouring, and slight artistic mistakes. Soundwave has a mouth for many of the US reprints during the late hundreds, while some of the Headmasters seem to get their bodies and heads mixed up (seeing a 100 foot tall Lord Zarak is quite comical!).

The numerous artists who worked on the comic all seemed to have their own styles with Geoff Senior being my personal fave, I preferred his arts straightness giving the most authentic robotic feel. Most of the US art was adequate enough if unspectacular, while it was UK artist Dan Reed who I felt was the least suited to drawing the comic (look and you will easily see why). The UK comic was infinitely better coloured than the US version, with expertly painted colour from some really talented people, and appearing like a not so glossy magazine compared to the traditionally rough paper and dot colour US style.