Reprinting: The Transformers #51-#55 (Marvel US)
Written by: Bob Budiansky (Also Layouts on pages 1-10 of #55)
Pencils by: Jose Delbo (51-54 [Credited as Pencil Breakdowns on 54]), Jim Fern (55 [Also Layouts Pages 11-22])
Inks by: Dave Hunt (51-53) Danny Bulanadi (54 [Also Finishes]) Mike Gustovich (55)
Colours by: Nel Yomotov
Editor: Don Daley
Editor in Chief: Tom DeFalco.
Bob Budiansky takes his final bow as a Transformers writer. Unfortunately he seems to have written these issues whilst on his way out of the door…
First up is The Man in the Machine!, which has the honour of being the least offensive strip in the collection. It's still not very good, mind. It’s noticeable for two things; the first is that it’s the last appearance of the original human supporting cast of Sparkplug and Buster, cruelly cast aside in favour of Spike for no better reason than him having a toy. The second is that it’s the first appearance of the “Spike wants a normal life but gradually realises that his destiny is to be Fort Max” plot we’ll see twice more, done almost exactly the same, before the end of Generation 2.
It also suggests some interesting things about the Headmasters. Max is mothballed when Spike quits, which not only implies there are no more spare Nebulons to take his place, but that the Headmaster process is irreversible (else why else would a short-staffed Prime let one of their strongest surviving soldiers sit about in a cupboard gathering dust?). Other than that the only redeeming feature of this fairly dull winter survival story is Jose Delbo’s attempts at drawing surreal dream images, something so far beyond his meagre talents it’s actually quite funny.
Issue 52, the first of a two part story—Guess Who The Mechannibals Are Having For Dinner?—signposts a lot of what’s wrong with these issues. The idea of the Mechannibals (as the name implies, robot eating robots), whist not particularly brilliant, is ripe for a fun B-Movie spoof (something that Delbo seems, surprisingly, to be in on as he draws them like the stars of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes). However, the execution here is so bland and listless there’s no real sense of the creative team having a knowing wink at the reader. Even Dreadwind and Darkwing are muted in comparison to their previous appearance, whilst some resolution to a fairly unmemorable dangling plot thread about Skylinx can’t keep the interest levels up. Having two non-entities like Cloudburst and Landmine as stars doesn’t help either.
Of course, it might be a lot more bearable if they’d kept it to just one issue, but unfortunately the story is rather artificially padded out into issue 53, Recipe For Disaster”. The padding comes in the shape of a journey by our two (insanely bland) heroes to that favourite sc-fi standby, the Planet Ruled by Women! (In fact, as they’re Transformer sized you might say this is closer to Attack of the 50-foot Women.) There’s some fun to be had with Cloudburst being pursued by the female leader (who then gives Landmine head…), but other than that these two issues represent the nadir of Bob’s entire run.
Of course, once you’ve hit bottom the only way to go is back up, and King Con! (surely an example of the title being thought up first and the story coming second) is a moderate improvement in quality. Perhaps because it features a return to ground Bob is more comfortable (human innocents getting caught up in and playing crucial roles in the war), or perhaps because Delbo takes a two month vacation from this point. King Kong is an obvious source to rip-off… I mean, pay homage to, and the story doesn’t quite go far enough for the parallels to work (it really needs some airborne Autobots swooshing round Iguanus at the end to make it work), but it’s good to have some Decepticon machinations centre stage again. Even if Skorponok is still in his third-rate-Bond-villain phase.
The noticeable thing about this issue is the introduction of the Autobot Micromasters (and readers of the latter Dreamwave series should note the term 'guzzler' first appears here). The big problem with the Micros is that if you were to look up “Bland” in a dictionary you’d find a picture of these characters… they’re such stock “angry hot-heads” it’s hard to tell one from another (hell, I’m not even sure which one of them is supposed to be on the front of this collection), it’s telling that only Roadhandler stands out for his amazing long-distance fisting ability. There’s little help from the human supporting cast- Cecilia Santiago is the very cliché of a female journalist (and for UK readers she’s hard to distinguish from Susan Hoffman), just itching to be described as “doesn’t suffer fools gladly”.
To be honest the absolute highlight of this issue is professional Pat Stewart look-alike Hi-Q going to all the effort of dressing up as a trucker in order to not arouse suspicion, only for Prime to transform to robot mode in the middle of a dinner carpark in broad daylight (why have the Micromasters beamed down into such a public place anyway?)
And so we come to issue 55, [DEEP BREATH] The Interplanetary Wrestling Championship!, not just the last issue in this collection but the last issue by Budiansky—he’ll continue to do the tech-spechs for a while and Simon Furman credits him in the introduction to End of the Road with a unofficial supervisory role on the latter days of the comic but as far as written fiction goes this is it for Bob. I’d love to say the guy who contributed so much to the Transformers goes out on a high, but if you’ve been paying attention you’ll know that’s sadly not the case.
This story blows any chance of credibility out of the water on the very first page—Roadhandler goes on a TV chat show. Now up until this point the American government has been keen to stamp out the evil alien invaders at any opportunity, but now an Autobot can be booked onto TV without anyone seemingly noticing (and Circuit Breaker must be slipping as she managed to hunt down Skullgrin a few issues earlier with a lot less to go on). Yes, later on Furman will reveal RAAT has been disbanded, but the idea that no government agency would be interested in this is stretching things a tad. As is the idea that in more than five years no one has managed to take a good picture of Optimus Prime, hence Cecilia whipping out a dodgy pencil drawing of him.
As for the plot… well, Roadhandler takes up wrestling because… well, because wrestling was quite popular with the kiddies at the time and someone at Marvel clearly thought it might pep up sales. Other than that there are only two things of interest here: the first is that the insanely camp gay stereotype interior designer guy from Mannequin seems to have taken up a job ringside since the events of that film (the bloke who gets nearly throttled by Swindler for suggesting Roadhandler might lose… he’s the spitting image).
The second is that, unusually for one of Bob’s silly stories, there’s a very downbeat ending. It’s hard not to imagine that Roadhandler's disillusionment and rage are an example of Mary Sue-ing on the writer’s part. All in all, a hugely disappointing last bow.
Right, before I begin I want you to pour yourself a stiff drink and make sure you’re sitting comfortably lest you fall down from shock… After several disappointingly barren collections Last Stand not only has a fair amount of bonus material, but it's virtually all interesting and very nearly all relevant to the issues in this trade! There, I said you’d need that drink, didn’t I?
First up is the least exciting—a checklist of the US reprint books in chronological order. Though for the more casual buyer this will prove handy to keep track of what order these should go on the shelf, I imagine that for most of you reading this it’ll be fairly irrelevant. Then we have a cover gallery of all the hardback-edition art. It’s not essential by any means but speaking as someone who stuck to the cheaper paperbacks I found it an interesting flick through. Now we come to the good stuff… Bob’s original treatment for the Creation Matrix, not anything to do with the stories contained herein but still a worthwhile read. It’s particularly fun to note that years of “Where do baby Decepticons come from?” arguments are pre-empted with the simple sentence: "This is only one method of creating new Transformers. There are others."
Following a somewhat crude design sketch for a Mechannibal we come to the real meat of the extra features: The third draft of Bob’s submission to Hasbro for the “New Generation” storylineૼin other words, the introduction of the ActionMasters. It bears no relation to what we’d eventually see, being full of stuff about Black Holes and properly featuring the ActionMaster partners… anyone who’s seen the first Darn’N’Blast letters page from the UK comic will recognise it as the source for the explanation Blaster gives for himself there. What’s really noteworthy is that it’s dated the 29th September 1989, a year and a half before ActionMaster Gimlock made his debut in the March of 1991, cover-dated US #76. This not only shows how far plots were being worked out in advance, but I think gives credence to the long standing rumour that Simon Furman’s first few issues were written from a Budiansky synopsis. Certainly this storyline treats Megatron as being active right from the get go (it being his idea to use Nucleon on the Decepticons), suggesting his return was planned before this. All in all it’s a fascinating glimpse into what might have been had Bob stayed on, though all in all the Furman version is vastly superior (sample Megatron dialogue: “Anything the Autobots can do, we can do better. And badder!”)
Rounding off the interesting stuff we get the rough pencil outlines of the pages Bob had a hand in from issue 55. One thing that afflicts these (and the New Generation storyline) is that the originals must not be in existence anymore, forcing Titan to resort to using poor quality photocopies. Still, I’d rather have grainy photocopies than a random interview with a cartoon voice actor any day.
Add to that the standard cover gallery (including the famously censored Jim Lee cover to issue 53) and the “It’s the wrong cover, Gromit!” Aspects of Evil advert and you have Titan ending their US reprints on a high.
What we have here is a trade paperback where the bonus material is vastly more interesting than the actual comics contained therein. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Bob being stuck in a unrewarding job on one of Marvels less regarded titles for far too long... it’s just a shame he couldn’t find the enthusiasm to make even his last issue a winner. Still, the British invasion was just around the corner, and whilst Furman’s initial arc wouldn’t be exactly earth-shattering, it did begin the process of bringing the comic back to the top of its game.
Reviewed by Inflatable Dalek