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Marvel Comics
Other Books
and Titles
Titan Books
Devil's Due
IDW Publishing
[book cover]
HM 1 "Ring of Hate"
HM 2 Broken Glass"
HM 3 Love and Steel"
HM 4 Brothers In Armor"
38 "Trial by Fire"
39 "The Desert Island of Space""

Marvel US book 7 of 14: Trial By Fire

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Reprinting: Headmasters #1-4 and The Transformers #51-55 (Marvel US)
Written by: Bob Budiansky
Pencils by: Frank Springer (HM #1-4), José Delbo (US #38-39)
Inks by: Ian Akin (HM #1-4), Brian Garvey (HM #1-4), Dave Hunt (US #38-39)
Letters by: Diana Albers (HM #1), Pat Brosseau (HM #2-3), Jack Morelli (HM #4), Bill Oakley (US #38-39)
Colours by: Nel Yomtov
Editor: Don Daley
Editor in Chief: Jim Shooter (HM #1-2), Tom DeFalco (HM #3-4, US #38-39)

An abundance of new characters and mediocrity.

The Stories:

At least one person has suggested that the reason for issues #31-37 being so dire is that Budiansky was simultaneously involved with getting the Headmasters limited series produced. It is indeed more readable, although the quality of the art and colouring takes a further nosedive. Headmasters is also a little more difficult to relate to, or so I found it as a kid—mix together a ton of new characters, a ton of additional non-Transformers characters, the fact that they're on an alien world and the production values of these comics... and you have the recipe for a confusing mess.

Headmasters isn't utterly awful though, and it's easier to appreciate some of its high points now. The setup we're presented with in Ring of Hate is a Cybertron locked in perpetual war. Optimus and the others are presumed dead, having crashed on Earth and been deactivated. (This setup is in rather sharp contrast to the virtually uninhabited world presented in the cartoon over which Shockwave lords it as janitor.) However, there are a lot of characters referring to each other needlessly by name in typical "toy introduction" style, which is wasted effort this early in the series: it's difficult or impossible to work out from the art who some characters are, plus the art models often change throughout the four-part story.

After a skirmish with Scorponok and his Decepticons, the Autobots led by Fortress Maximus reconvene at an Autobase. The Autobots (including Kup and Hot Rod) are in self-congratulatory mood apart from Fort Max, who declares he's sick of "war without end" and that he intends to leave Cybertron to its fate. A fairly sizeable number of Autobots (including the Technobots, Monsterbots and those who'll become Headmasters and Targetmasters) join him in charting a craft destined for Nebulos, a world of peace. It's explained that Nebulos is reachable because Cybertron is passing near to it, and that Cybertron has been moving out of its original orbit for a long time now.

The narrative text and dialogue aren't too bad, although the second half introduces Zarak playing a stereotype of "all robots are evil" as is expected in these stories. Unlike with Circuit Breaker, it isn't really explained why: he listens to no-one, pre-empts talk of peace by engineering an accident that injures several Nebulans and runs around screaming for military action. Considering the planet has supposedly been at peace for ten thousand years (its serious weapons locked away but, er, still in fully functioning order) it seems to foster violence and ignorance in an altogether convenient manner...

It ends with a standoff situation during which the Autobots disarm and five of them offer their heads as a gesture of peace. As was shown earlier in the US series when Shockwave captured Optimus, decapitation doesn't seem too much of an issue for Transformers, but it's nice to have it underlined as not just a trick Prime can pull off because of the matrix.

Broken Glass is similarly full of conveniences, but we get backstory for Zarak—who is showing off to his daughter and trying to make Galen (her love interest) look incompetent and unfit for leadership of the planetary government. A bit of sense on Nebulos is even restored, as an accurate representation of the first contact between Nebulans and an Autobot—in which a Nebulan was accidentally injured—is recounted. Zarak is forced to back down for a while, and the Nebulan leaders take a trek out to where the other Autobots have started building dwellings as per their earlier truce—and as luck would have it for the plot, it happens that they're setting up a radio to listen in one-way to happenings on Cybertron. A hench of Zarak's records the co-ordinates for Cybertron (er, wasn't it spinning through the cosmos just last issue? obviously its off-kilter movement couldn't have been that fast) and Zarak broadcasts a signal. He gets in touch with Scorponok... and before we go any further, I'd like to remind you that Zarak seems to hate Transformers and the idea of giant robots running around on Nebulos. Ready to continue? Yup, Zarak invites over more Transformers for a spot of self-policing.

Cue the very predictable sight of Decepticons attacking Nebulans. There's some decent interchange between Galen and Fort Max, along the lines of Scorponok not leaving the world in peace even if the Autobots are turned over, and Galen holding to the pledge to his people to keep the headless Autobots out of commission. The Nebulans attempt to remote-control the bodies of the Autobots on their own initiative, so it doesn't seem too strained when Fort Max suggests another way...

Other notes in brief: the transformation of Nebulans to headmaster partners is both glib and rapid, considering the major surgery. Stylor scores points for appearing to be played by Alan Rickman. Llyra is apparently more concerned about Galen's commitment to peace than the planet being scourged by Decepticons, which seems particularly harsh but realistic. Why are Gort, Arcana, Stylor, Galen et al able to offer such a dramatic improvement to Autobot fighting prowess, given the ostensibly peaceful leanings of their culture?

Love and Steel sees the conflicts continue, showcasing the Terrorcons and Technobots in a brief clash, but underlining the damage being done to Nebulos. Meanwhile, Zarak and his thugs have been captured by Scorponok, who intends to, um, float them in bubbles up and out into the vacuum of space... eh, it's still fatal. The Horrorcons return with more praise for the Headmasters' skill in battle, leading Zarak to propose a similar merger. Why does Scorponok agree? I'll leave that speculation with you, gentle reader. For his part, Zarak lures the Autobot forces into a trap, placing the planetary council and Llyra at risk... it isn't made clear how the balance between his mind and Scorponok's works, though: Zarak is warned that the power will corrupt him, the Decepticon leader is able to take control whilst in robot mode, and yet Scorponok seems immobile without Lord Z to form a lump on his shoulders. Moving the storyline on, Mindwipe's hypnotism ensures that the Autobot Headmasters are overcome and Zarak's forces are exonerated.

The conflict escalates in Brothers in Armor, introducing the Targetmasters... with even less rationale being offered for this batch of bio-engineering, and the Nebulans who become Targetmaster partners are actually referred to as humans in the text. Overall, the impression is of sloppy writing brought on by resentment of so many character introductions and not being able to think of a credible introduction to the newest toy gimmick—though who can really blame the guy by this point?

Following a raid on a Nebulan research nursery and its accidental destruction, Zarak finally begins to question bonding with Scorponok. This results in a change of heart and his freeing of the Autobot Headmasters; a last act of sanity, as Galen refers to it. Then it's a quick wrap-up, in which it's revealed that the Autobots left a spacecraft in orbit (which the Decepticons neither detected nor blew up when they arrived); like her father, Llyra also has a change of heart, but Galen lies to her in order to keep her safe; and the Autobots depart in the direction of Earth to follow a distress call and take the war away from Nebulos. This last part is evidently Zarak's subconscious protection, there being no other reason why Scorponok wouldn't simply stick around and drain the planet of resources.

In brief summary of these four issues... I would have no idea who most of the Transformers in them are if I hadn't read others stories featuring them.

Moving swiftly on, we come to Trial By Fire, which must have been rather confusing for those reading the US series at the time who hadn't picked up the Headmaster mini-series, despite the token quick recap. The Autobots travelling from Nebulos head for Earth, in response to the signal sent by Goldbug in US #37 / UK #154-5. For some reason, Galen is characterised as being solely concerned with finding and assisting the sender, rather than the possible danger to Earth from Decepticons tracing their landing—in fact, this seems to be nothing more than an awkward plot device so that he's prepared to sacrifice himself in order to save Spike later in the story... another device is that Fort Max is being retooled at the start to have Cerebros as his head, and Galen as the head of Cerebros (in order to better fit with the toy, full details of which are presumably now available. I suppose we should be glad or surprised that this happened in-story rather than being retconned in without explanation.)

The rest of the narrative re-introduces characters by name and is heavy on the fight scenes, although one vaguely interesting bit of trivia is that Spike is able to control Fortress Maximus within minutes of donning Galen's Headmaster helmet. Again, when thought about even briefly, it doesn't make a great deal of sense that having an organic partner makes a Transformer more effective tactically. To round things off, the Autobots decide Spike should lead them based on his performance against Scorponok: are they really that anxious to fob the role off onto someone? And abdicate responsibility to a random alien?

The Desert Island of Outer Space explains the Spike->Cerebros->Max three-step sequence of transformation again, as Spike explains to his father that he's going to try to find his brother. (Buster was captured by Ratbat's group of Decepticons back in the same issue in which Goldbug sent the distress signal mentioned above.) Also back in the picture, equally confusingly for anyone who hasn't read other volumes than this one, is the R.A.A.T. government team. This anti-robot crew bring with them some captured Throttlebot brain modules, though they don't have a great deal to do with anything in this story.

The title of the story comes from the 'surprise' of the island Shockwave has brought Buster to being the Decepticon base (most of which is submerged beneath the waves) and transforming into a rocket ship. The island heads out into space, with a desperate Spike/Max clinging to it, whereupon Shockwave reveals that he's equipped the island with ground-to-air javelins disguised as palm trees and spears Max with one of them. Cerebros separates off, but is blasted by Shockwave himself, before Spike radio-controls Max's guns and blasts Shockwave. He's unable to rescue Buster before the island travels further into outer space.

The Autobots are very impressed with Spike's bravery, though, in spite of him having wrecked their leader's body and that of Cerebros in the process (and the fact they only met him last issue.) As for whether Cerebros is an actual character or just a large bodysuit with a name, that question is left open. If this all sounds like incoherent, cluttered nonsense with huge plot holes, it's because it frankly is.

At the same time, some of it isn't Budiansky's fault... having been forced to introduce far more characters than was sane into Headmasters and having the plot suffer from endless conveniences in order to keep a story moving, he's forced to re-introduce the characters in fewer issues of the main title. There isn't enough room for credible characterisation, and all this needs to sit with the story strands already established in order to provide continuity for existing readers.

The Presentation:

Art and colouring in the Headmasters stories are both underwhelming, being sketchy and muddy respectively. The work in the regular stories is functional. As for the cover... one more piece of messy clutter, I'm afraid, though between the horn drooping out of the side of Skullgrin's head, the re-entry sheath around Shockwave, and Max's gun, it'd be a phallic-obsessed psychoanalyst's dream if Freud ever came back from the dead...

The Verdict:

Do I recommend this? No. There's nothing that stands out here (and hasn't been, at this stage of the US comic, for many issues.) Each of the Headmasters set was originally about $1.00, and probably won't be much more now if you wanted original comics. Nor is anyone likely to be hording the other two US issues reprinted in this volume. If you're aiming for as complete as possible a set of books and already have most of the others then you might want to pick this up, but otherwise... there are so many other interesting written works, Transformers and not, that you could be reading.

Reviewed by Denyer
This review has been written on the basis of the original comic issues. Information about any bonus features in the Titan reprint (such as interviews and creator bios) will be incorporated as it becomes available.

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