Reprints: The Transformers #255-260, 230-233, 241, 242, 287-289 (Marvel UK).
Written By: Simon Furman.
Art: Andrew Wildman (241, 242, 255, 257, 260), Staz (256, 258, 289), John Stoaks (259), Lee Sullivan (230, 231), Jeff Anderson (232) Geoff Senior (233).
Pencils: Pete Knifton (287, 288).
Inks: Pete Venters(287, 288).
Letters: GLIB (232, 233 255, 256, 289 [Credited as Gary Gilbert on this issue]), Stuart Bartlett (231, 241, 242, 257-260, 287, 288), Helen Stone (230).
Editor: Euan Peters.
Five classic character and one mystery Decepticon get solo stories, whilst Nightbeat dons his trench coat for the first time, Decepticon Micromasters are created and a journalist gets too close to the war. Then it's the end of the original UK strips, and the moment hasn't been prepared for...
I have a soft spot in my affections for the black and white stories — I started reading the comic relatively late in the day (Space Pirates, fact fans!) so many of my memories of the UK strip come from the dying days. Here we have some of the very best stuff the monochrome strips produced, albeit let down by a weak final arc that sadly ended the home-grown strips rather suddenly.
Perchance To Dream (#255-260) came about at Hasbro's request for some product placement for the contemporary Classic Heroes toyline (the very first reissues to trade on the "classic" nature of the toys/characters)... though oddly Silverbolt is featured instead of Inferno (released in a "cars" selection with the others here.) Getting to write for some of the more established characters again was very welcome to Furman, and would lead directly into the Earthforce stories that came to dominate most of the black and white era.
It features a narrative device Furman was very fond of: stand-alone stories linked by a overarching plot. We saw it all the way back in Dinobot Hunt, then in Matrix Quest and Aspects of Evil (indeed, this was pushed as a Autobot-centric semi-sequel to that arc at the time). The framing device in this case is a totally mysterious and unknown Decepticon using a device to watch the memories of deactivated Autobots in stasis on a oddly unoccupied Ark, looking for examples of un-Autobot-like characteristics and behaviour.
First up is Prowl, in what's the first time he's had more than a few lines in any issue of the comic (something that can be said of most of the characters in this arc — as much as we think of them as "established" most of the first wave of characters never got much chance to shine pre- black and white).
This story effectively lays the foundation for Prowl's development as Grimlock's straight man (which we'll see later in this collection): he's the guy who thinks he knows better that the bloke in charge and is out to prove it. In this instance it's hard not to agree with him... Optimus may be worried about collateral damage if the Autobots go head to head with the Battlechargers on the streets (in a flashback set during Decepticon Graffiti) but considering they're causing chaos anyway the order to do nothing doesn't seem right somehow. Certainly the totally unguessable mystery Decepticon finds it to be exactly what he's looking for.
This is the first of five issues in this collection to be drawn by Andrew Wildman — who now admits that the bulk of his black and white work isn't something he's particularly fond of as he rather rushed it. There's nothing in here as bad as all that, but in none of these strips does he take any advantage of the medium — it all looks like a strip waiting to be coloured rather than one meant to be in black and white.
Part two sees Stewart "Staz" Johnson take over the art reigns on a Ironhide Vs. Middle Eastern Terrorists story (can you imagine a kids comic doing that today?) Unfortunately Ironhide's dilemma is virtually the same as Prowl's — he finds Prime's orders restrictive, strikes out on his own and winds up frustrated with the way things are. It might have helped if the Sunstreaker strip had come between them to make this seem less obvious, but on its own merits it's a nice enough but slight story, but with improved art that feels more appropriate for black and white. We also get a good look at Mr. Mystery's chin. It looks almost familiar...
Part three is my single favourite of all the black and white strips — and indeed one of my favourite Transformers stories in any medium full stop. Prowl and Ironhide were shown to be basically good people who's mindset didn't quiet let them fin in with the Autobot chain of command. Sunstreaker on the other hand is shown to be a complete and utter bastard of the first order. He's so completely self absorbed that not only does he run rather than help a wounded Jazz for fear of messing up his bodywork, but at the end of the story is more interested in checking out his reflection than worrying about the humans who've died as a result of his actions here.
What's even more shocking is that there's ultimately no comeuppance for Sunstreaker as would normally be the case in most kids' comics, in fact in the long term he's rewarded as it's his behaviour that singles him out for reanimation by the as yet unknown Decepticon (we see the back of his crowned head this time — but still no clue as to who he is.) The idea that the good guys can be complete gits absolutely blew me away when I first read this all those years ago, and it still stands up as one of the finest examples of blurring of the lines between Autobots and Decepticons you'll see. Even Wildman's art is the best it gets in this collection.
Wheeljack can't help but be a slight comedown after that, but still stands up very well. Most action franchises do the "Good guy A wants good thing X that only bad guy B can give him, but said bad guy will only do it in exchange for bad thing Y" story at some point, and here as in most others Wheeljack ultimately refuses to brainwash Jetfire for the Decepticons in exchange for advanced medical knowledge from Ravage. The real surprise is the reader winds up almost believing that he will do it — after all, Wheeljack's defining phrase in his A-Z profile is "mad scientist", and anyone even half familiar with the Universal and Hammer horror films know mad scientists can't stop messing with the contents of people's brains. As he watches the Blackrock factory where the secrets he wanted were go up in smoke, it's hard not to have the unsettling feeling that even now Wheeljack doesn't know if he made the right choice in the end.
Silverbolt is the least effective part of this arc, partly because it's a very fragmented story as we join it half way through and the Autobots wake up before the end, but mainly because Silverbolt is a bit dull and Furman can't do a lot to make him interesting. Effectively the other Aerialbots learn Silverbolt is afraid of heights when they're Superion and he gets so annoyed he bears the bolts out of Menasor when there are humans around to get hurt. And that's it really.
It's hard not to long for an Inferno story in its place as that could have been much more interesting, the fact he was alive when we last saw him seems a poor excuse not to do one when they could have had him bumped off in a unseen adventure John Stoaks' art is Jeff-Anderson-functional, nothing spectacular but nothing horrendous. Just there, rather like the strip itself. The ending does set up the grand climax though, with the Autobots all accidentally revived by the machine probing their memories and ready to face their mysterious foe. Who as well as the crown head seems to have a giant sex toy strapped to his arm when we see him in shadow. But who can it be? Have you guessed yet children?
Oh all right, it's Galvatron. A fact that's painfully obvious from his first half hidden appearance — even to readers at the time who would have considered him rather permanently dead. The debate over where this fits in continuity is one to leave for another time and place, but what really stands out as odd is that in Time Wars Galvatron had to be returned to the future else the entire Universe would be destroyed, a possibility no one seems worried about here when he gets put in cold storage on the Ark (in fact, if you place this before The Last Autobot and subscribe to the theory that this is a third Galvatron, that means that Megatron and two Galvatrons are on the Ark when it crashes. Which really should annihilate the entire space/time continuum.)
Effectively this is the (no doubt Hasbro-required) reaffirmation of the good characters of the Autobots whose motives we've been questioning through this story. Galvatron has a device that he thinks will unleash their dark sides (and make them call him master; the kinky sod)... but it doesn't work because deep down Autobots are gosh darn heroic despite their flaws (though we don't see the mind controller used on Sunstreaker, the most morally ambiguous one). Then we discover this Galvatron isn't as tough as his namesakes (who single-handedly defeated entire armies) as five Autobots take him down easily and Wheeljack finally gets to screw with someone's mind by trapping him in a VR headset where he'll be spanked by Rodimus Prime for all time (the kinky sod.)
Now, that sounds a little daft and perfunctory when you write it down in a paragraph, but it's the little details that make this a joy, Wheeljack just punching Galvatron in the face as soon as he sees him, the way the whole continuity issue is resolutely ignored with a cheeky "A different Galvatron I think", Prowl and Wheeljack's casual shooting of Galvatron when they reveal their true colours (in fact Wheeljack steals the show... his Blue Peter style "Here's one I made earlier" mind control helmet is a joy as well.) Wildman even seems to be putting effort into drawing Galvatron.
All in all, by leaving us with a revived cast of old characters to carry the bulk of the future monochrome strips this seemed to promise great things for the future strips that would build on this foundation (not all that promise was delivered upon though, as we'll see).
But before we can go forward we have to go back. Not just twenty or so issues, but back to the 1950's for the inspiration to the next story in this collection. The two part Big Shutdown! is probably the only Transformers comic that actually demands to be in black and white. And so of course it was one that got reprinted in colour. Film Noir is a genre that seems to work well in a Science Fiction setting — not just in Blade Runner but in every SF TV show that's done a homage at some point. Of course, Transformers has done... well, "homages" is the polite way of putting it, "rip offs" is the impolite way... to different movies/TV shows etc. before, but never has the story been so immersed in the style of the genre. If you don't know where this is going from Nightbeat's opening voiceover you're probably a very young reader.
Nightbeat himself is a fantastic character, as all those hard boiled detectives usually are. He doesn't really get very much detecting to do here as his comedy sidekick Siren effectively tells him everything that's going on as soon as they meet up in the second part (though Nightbeat has at least worked out the bulk of it) but this is more about the style of storytelling and creating a mood rather than the plot.
Which is good because the idea that the final exam for Thunderwing (another new character who'll go onto great things. Despite the fact in his case he's a bit rubbish...) to become Decepticon leader is to hunt down and kill some unarmed Autobot prisoners- rather than say, demonstrating he has a decisive plan to fight and win the war- is rather daft. And the whole "Nightbeat uses his head" ending is risible at best. However, as an exercise in style it's hard to beat. And Lee Sullivan's square jawed art fits it like a glove.
Next up, in original publication order for a change, is A Small War! A comic that was presumably supposed to show the origin of the Micromasters but in retrospect seems an attempt to make Thunderwing seem less like a total fool. Unlike their initial appearances in the US comic (being reprinted as the "lead" strip in the UK comic as this was published) this makes us like Roadhandler and the other Autobot Micromasters. The fact that even Emirate "I love peace and life and fluffy bunnies" Xaaron considers them utterly disposable and orders them to go blow up some colleagues that the Decepticons have captured (to learn Micromaster secrets from) makes the reader get right on their side.
The fact the Micromasters ultimately decide that, yes, their lives do matter as much as the big boys is a obvious one, but well played. As is Xaaron's ultimate apology. The bit with the bomb is fantastic as well. Ultimately this story has a very downbeat ending, with the Autobots getting the moral victory but with Thunderwing getting the tactical advantage he wanted. Jeff Anderson handles art on the first part, and does a workmanlike job. Though either he doesn't know Roadhandler is a Micromaster or thinks Emirate Xaaron is a midget. Geoff Senior's art on the second part is stunning — the panels of the partially disassembled Battle Patrol hanging from the ceiling are chilling and amongst his best work.
For issues 241 (Rage! and 242 (Assault on the Ark!) we get a sequel to The Big Shutdown. Unfortunately it's told in a more traditional way and the flaws stand out more. To recap, Thunderwing's rise to power goes like this:
Oddly enough the story almost manages to make all that look sensible thanks to some nice dialogue, but once you spot the sheer daftness of Thunderwing getting anywhere in the Decepticon army it starts to fall apart. It's not helped by Wildman's weakest art on the strip as well, for the most part the interior of the Ark is a featureless white void. This ones best read as a dumb action movie rather than anything of depth. But compared to what comes next, it's poetry.
In the years since Furman has said that the final black and white strips were written with no idea if the comic would last long enough to see them published (in fact, the separation between the UK and US material that happened at this time can most likely be put down to everyone assuming that the title would be cancelled before the US strips that contradicted everything would be seen). At a time when most long running UK comics and magazines were beginning to boast "Now in full colour!" on the cover a black-and-white comic's days were numbered — Doctor Who Magazine did keep it's strip in black and white till the turn of the century, but that was always presented as a secondary bonus to the main full colour magazine rather than the centrepiece). In the end, it did manage to stumble on to the end of the US comic, but only at the expense of loosing the home-grown material that many of us had come to cherish. This collection finishes with the dying days of the UK comic, and each of the three issues in this arc reeks of "Bloody hell, are we still here?"
The focus is on journalist Irwin Spoon (yes, Hunter O'Nion was not the first example of Furman's silly name syndrome.) When a writer features in a story it's often hard not to wonder if the author is Mary Sueing. Irwin is a bright young thing who wants to aim for the top of his profession but is sucked into and trapped by the world of Transformers and can't escape no matter how hard he tries. At the end he's just a mindless hack knocking out drivel about the war without even thinking about it. I'll leave it to you to decide if Furman sees any of himself in there...
First up is Inside Story!, the seemingly obligatory Fantastic Voyage spoof (the cartoon did it in Microbots). Unlike other homage’s the twist here is that Irwin isn't made small, he just goes into something very large- A mind controlled Superion in order to remove a Cerebro-shell before a town gets destroyed. Unfortunately that small twist, and the funky typewriter style font used for Irwin's narration are the only remotely interesting thing here.
Things start of worse with the next part (strictly speaking called Frontline!, but on the page it looks as if it either doesn't have a title or it's Comic Convention Scandle!) For a short strip to not only waste space on a big mocked-up newspaper (the source of the title confusion) but also several panels on a mostly pointless recap of last week is extremely poor story structure. The fact that the preceding arc ended with Starscream a willing Autobot prisoner but here free as a bird without explanation is almost cartoon-level insulting. However, things do pick up, simply because of the fantastic Grimlock/Prowl odd couple relationship. Grimlock's thundercloud thought bubble is nearly the equal of the legendary Prowl brick one. Unfortunately the ease with which Motormaster breaks into Earthforce HQ to steal Spoon rather undoes this good work. It also leads into the next, final UK strip.
End of the Road! Yes, this is the first appearance of that title, but not the last. The best part of this issue is Motormaster effortlessly proving he's the king of the road by running down just about all the pursuing Autobots. At least until Bumblebee gets the better of him that is. Unfortunately it's all too bitty and inconsequential. The complete absence of Grimlock makes this a very odd ending to the Earthforce as well.
The final twist — that Irwin has been taken over by Bombshell to write a anti-Autobot story — doesn't feel particularly shocking (as it seems to want to be) mainly because it's hard to care about Irwin. Perhaps if it had been Susan Hoffman? Peter Knifton and Staz do some good work on the art over the three issues, but it's hard not to want Geoff Senior seeing out the British strip. It's also nice to have a downbeat ending for a change, but the UK strips deserved something of better quality.
There isn't a great deal to say here, the reproduction quality is mostly fantastic; though the art was clearly drawn with a larger layout in mind, it stands up well. Bar an advert for the other manga-sized collections there's nothing in the way of extras, but for the price this is a bargain. One gripe though, they've gone for the rather bland Andrew Wildman cover to issue #259, when the piece of art crying out to be used is the gorgeous Geoff Senior cover to this issue. The only reason I can think they didn't use it is to keep Galvatron's presence a surprise twist. Which is silly, if you've been following this review...
For your money you get three top draw, absolutely fantastic story arcs. Plus one daft but fun one and one awful but important one (as in if you're a fan of the UK comic you're going to want a copy of its last ever strip even if it's not very good.) All for an RRP of under six pounds. You really can't say fairer than that, so this is highly recommended. As someone once sang, sweet dreams are made of these.
Reviewed by Inflatable Dalek