Oh no they killed Oppy!!

By Omega Steve

What exactly did the writers of Transformers have against Optimus Prime? No character this side of Kenny from South Park can lay claim to having been killed off and resurrected as many times as Optimus.

Bob Budiansky, the writer of the US stories, Simon Furman in the UK, Transformers Movie and the cartoon series have had a crack at killing off Optimus - and in some cases more than once! Each time the architect of Prime's demise is usually Prime himself, let's consider the evidence.

Prime blown up after the battle in multi-world
Prime's insistance that he lost the battle in Multiworld and should die (even though Megatron cheated) was quite possibly the stupidest thing he ever did! What a way to go.

Firstly we have the fateful crash four million years ago which brought the Transformers to Earth (UK#2). If you recall the Autobots had gone into space in the Ark to clear a path through an asteroid belt for Cybertron. But they had been ambushed by the Decepticons, leaving Prime with one option open to him - to crash the ship and all Transformers aboard into Mount St Hillary on Earth. It had been Prime who plotted the course and executed it, telling Prowl: "Farewell my friend. Though we die at least our enemies are taken with us." In time an eruption in the year 1984 would awaken the Ark's computers which in turn would rebuild Prime and the others. But here is his death number one. We can argue whether it is a genuine or simply an extended deactivation, but all I'd say is if it wasn't a death then four million years laying in bits on a space ship floor must surely come close.

It's not long after his rebirth that Prime encounters his next near miss - after he is blasted into unconsciousness by Shockwave. Prime's moral responsibility to the people of Earth had excluded the possibility of the Autobots taking the fuel they badly needed - but the Decepticons of course had no such principles. And consequently the fully-fuelled Decepticon army closed in, and Prime and four warriors were forced to siphon fuel from the other Autobots to make a 'last stand' (UK#8). Despite the fight going badly the Autobots actually won, thanks to some very dodgy fuel that the Decepticons' ingested. As the bad guys fell about with their insides on fire, Shockwave arrived on the scene and put paid to any celebration of an Autobot victory. Cue some months of decapitation and imprisonment at the hands of the Decepticons for Optimus Prime. Okay this can't count as death number two (because Prime continues to function after this) but it is definite proof that the writers have it in for our favourite Autobot. And it made for a great cliff hanger too - I mean what TF fan could not have bought the next issue after the shock ending of UK#8/US#4?? (Sadly British fans would have to wait until issue 22 to find what happened next)

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Prime avoids near death experiences for a good many issues after this until the prologue of Target 2006 (UK#78) which introduces the loss of Optimus as a reoccurring theme for the next 30 or so issues. While briefing the Autobots in the Ark he, and two lieutenants Ratchet and Prowl, are engulfed by anti-mater and vanish before the eyes of the horrified gathering... leaving behind a nasty stain on the floor! This was a strange moment because nothing like this had ever occurred in the Transformers continuity before. It signalled that a very different story was to unfold where sci-fi elements such as time-travel, dimensional displacement, and multiple worlds would play a part.

Initially we're led to believe (as the Autobots do) that Prime has perished in this freak incident. It is not until much later it transpires that he and the others have instead been deposited to an alternate dimension by the time-jumping activities of Galvatron, Cyclonus and Scourge. In the meantime the Autobots have to try to cope without their leader, and they do so very badly. Firstly by rushing into a badly prepared attack on Galvatron's HQ and after by teaming up with their greatest enemy Megatron. Ultimately Prime is returned to them thanks to the intervention of the future Autobots, Hotrod, Kup and Blurr (under Unicron's direction) who trick Galvatron into returning to the future.

Prime's return quickly leads to his next run-in with the Grim Reaper (continuing the theme started in issue #78). In the UK story Prey (#96-97) he plans to fake his death in order to make the Autobots less dependent on him. To this end Prime orders Wheeljack to build him a duplicate (or facsimile construct) which he will destroy to make it look like the result of a Decepticon ambush. But of course things get wildly wrong when the Predacons attack and the result is that a fighting-mad Prime and Megatron are cast across the space bridge to Cyberton. All that remains is the ripped up body double of the Autobot leader which his followers mistake for the genuine article. Now they must again deal with the reality of 'Prime's death' and once again it is Optimus who has actions have engineered the situation. It seems likely that Simon Furman got the idea for this storyline from elements of two up-coming US stories, Afterdeath and Gone But Not Forgotten. Both address the themes of Prime's death and a Predacon attack - although in very different contexts.

Prime in bits after the Predacon attack
Holy shit, it's Optimus Prime - or rather what's left of him!

After a spell on Cybertron which takes in issue 100 and beyond, Prime returns to Earth in the midst of his own funeral! The Autobot's relief is short lived though as, just two issues later, Prime is dead for real! Yes with hardly a pause for breath the Afterdeath story comes rolling on and sees Prime blown to bits after a battle with Megatron in the video-game 'Multi-World' (UK#105-6). Prime and his Protectobots had agreed to fight Megatron and the Combaticons in a computer simulation, to avoid damaging a valuable power source known as the hydrothermocline. Megatron had stipulated that the losing leader should forfeit his life in the real world. In the event the Autobots had found themselves much better players than the Decepticons, because their respect for Multi-World's inhabitants had won them valuable allies. Megatron's troops crashed and burned and despite his best attempts to cheat, he lost. However Prime could not accept the victory because in defeating Megatron he had allowed innocents to perish. In a display of stubbornness, principle, selflessness, and sheer stupidity, he orders Ethan Zachary (the human moderator) to push his detonator. Though this is a vintage stance from the noble Optimus it is incredibly harsh considering that Multi-World inhabitants were not even real beings - and let's not forget that Megatron had cheated anyway! Prime's death is brought about incredibly graphically by his own hand on this occasion.

So why might Bob Budiansky have wanted to write Prime out at this stage? It seems a high risk strategy to dispense with such a central character - although the continued success of the book suggests that it did not lose too many TF fans. I'm not sure exactly what influence Hasbro (the toy makers) had over characters and stories, but I suspect that as a general rule the writers could not kill off a character that was part of an ongoing toy line. And likewise on many occasions new characters were introduced because they were on sale as toys. I suspect that Prime had gone out of production at this time and this gave Budiansky a rare freedom. In any event the door was left open for Prime to return as Ethan Zachery had recorded his essence on to a floppy disk. Incidentally how much storage capacity did that disk contain?? It seems unlikely that Prime's personality and aeons of memories could fit neatly on any disk.

The Autobots having tried the Earthen burial method, a few issues before, now opted to blast Prime's body into space (with the Matrix still inside him - doh!). How come Ratchet didn't notice when he was fixing him?.

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It was around this time (well a couple of months before if I'm honest) that the Transformers Movie arrived in UK cinemas and gave us a chance to see Prime die on the big screen. And I'm sure I wasn't the only one that found it an emotional moment - especially when accompanied by the soundtrack by Vince DiCola. It could have ruined the film for younger fans so goes to show that it was a brave move on the part of the writers, and an indication that they were aiming for an older audience with this movie. Again the writers dispose of the Autobot's greatest leader for dramatic effect and to make way for the new toy line of Rodimus Prime, Ultra Magnus, Hot Rod, Kup etc. The cartoon series would pick up where the Movie left off - and in time reintroduce Optimus Prime after some miracle surgery by the Quintessons.

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Prime destroys Unicron and himself in the process
An all too familiar site by now. Prime's latest demise comes after he sacrifices himself to destroy Unicron! (a better excuse than losing a video game anyway)

Back to the comics though and Prime's next appearance (aside from as a figment of Megatron's tormented mind) is in the issue 162 story 'Pretender to the Throne' which introduces - you guessed it - the Pretenders. In the story Prime is seen to be existing post death as a character in Ethan Zachary's video games. Despite Ethan's best efforts to rehabilitate him, Prime has forgotten his past life and seems incapable of realising that he is more than a computer generated character. To jog his memory Optimus is given remote command of the Autobot Pretenders and even battles a digitised Scorponok. Some issues later (#177) his restoration is complete when he is transferred to a new Powermaster body and binary-bonded to HiQ. The events of issue 106 are reversed for the moment.

That should have been enough deaths for one lifetime but it seems the writers hadn't got the bug entirely out of their system. Over a hundred issues later in UK#323 Prime dies again!! This time he is a casualty of the ultimate battle against Unicron. Once again it is Prime who has sacrificed himself in order to unleash the Matrix in close proximity to Unicron so that Cybertron and the Autobot/Decepticon alliance may endure. And once more all is not final as writer Simon Furman leaves himself a final trick up his sleeve in the form of Prime's nebulan companion HiQ. As the issues go by we learn the extent of Prime's bond with HiQ, that essentially they have become one being of two souls. This means that in the final TF comic (UK#332) the Last Autobot is able to combine the pair into a single robotic entity, that of the Action Master Optimus, and once again Prime lives. Were it not that this was the last issue this process may well have gone on indefinitely!

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So to summarise I've counted four deaths here, and two near misses, and I have a sneaky suspicion there may be more! What conclusions can we reach from all of this - apart from the fact that the writers really liked to sock-it to Optimus Prime? What can be the reason for all of this? I suspect that there are two main objectives to be achieved by each death of Optimus Prime. The first is a commercial consideration, given that Prime's latter two returns (as a Powermaster and Action Master) have coincided with the release of new toys. A period of absence in the story builds up anticipation and can only be of benefit to sales of a toy.

Let's not forget also the sales of the comics themselves. There's no question that comics are a business like any other and to survive they must ensure that readers keep returning. If momentum cannot be sustained then the long-term future of the title is in peril - and therefore cliff-hangers such as the Shockwave ending of issue #8, or Prime's destruction in issues 97 and 106 become essential. In addition there are the straightforward dramatic considerations; the desire to make great stories that wow the reader and surprise them. Plot twists such as the death of Prime (in all instances) keep readers guessing: 'What happens next? Will he return? How?'. We're also getting a good lesson in life here that the good guys often finish last. The righteous and selfless path followed by Prime is usually the one fraught with the most danger, as opposed to the quick and easy, selfish approach of Megatron. Ultimately you can't keep a good Autobot down - and Prime for all his fortunes is always guaranteed to return.

Phew! This article went on a lot longer than I thought it would. If you're still here thanks for reading!