Reprinting: The Transformers 31, 32, 35-37 (Marvel US)
Written By Bob Budiansky
Pencils By Don Perlin (31, 32 [Credited as Breakdowns on These Issues], 35) Jose Delbo (36-37)
Inks By: Jim Fern (31 [Credited as Finishes]), Ian Akin and Brian Garvey (32-37 [Credited as Finishes on 32])
Colours By: Nel Yomotov
Edited By: Don Daley
Editor In Chief: Jim Shooter (31, 32) Tom DeFalco (35-37)
The cracks have been showing for a while, but it's with this collection Budiansky really begins to lose his touch and quality control begins to nose dive... Which oddly coincides with the arrival of Jose Delbo. Fancy that. As for the content of the issues themselves, things take a turn for the truly bizarre as Bob seems to be writing down the first thing that comes into his head...
There's an episode of Star Trek called Spock's Brain, in which the titular Vulcan has his noggin removed and put back in without even messing up one hair. It's often held up by Trekkies as the very worst episode of that noble franchise ever, despite the fact it's not even the worst episode in that season. In fact, it's a wonderfully OTT piece of knowing camp that's infectiously fun as long as you don't think about it too hard. Now, I can hear you asking, "Dalek, you handsome chap you, this is meant to be a review of mid-to-late period Budiansky, so why the devil are you blabbering on about Star Trek?" Well, my well-spoken friend, the very first issue up for our consideration — Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom — is the Transformers equivalent of that episode.
What we have here is really the last "silly" plot Bob wrote that comes closes to working, and that's down to one factor: Ratbat. The purple cassette is the type of Decepticon leader we haven't seen before or since — not a "Bwahahahahahahaing" maniac, he's a efficient businessman with his eye on the bottom line and a nice sardonic attitude. Frankly every scene with him in sparkles, whether it's mercilessly taking the piss out of Shockwave or his charming way of calling a retreat ("It's time we searched for a healthier economic climate!").
Yes, his plan here (brainwashing humans with a dodgy carwash) is silly B-movie stuff, but that's supported by the rest of the comic from the cover onwards, making it feel like a gentle spoof of clichés rather than a story succumbing to them. It isn't perfect, by any means. Jessie, who you may remember has already appeared in skimpy leotards and bikini's, is once again used to fulfil Bob's private fantasy life — here she finds cars unbelievably sexy and snogs Buster like there's no tomorrow, and the idea of the Decepticons stealing an empty fuel tanker does undermine their credibility a bit. Still, with your brain switched off, this is a lot of harmless fun, and a fine example of a type of story Bob is shortly going to spectacularly lose the ability to write even remotely well... Oh, and as an aside, I believe that, bar flashbacks, this is the first time since issue 13 we've had no Autobots in the comic.
Next up, the strain Bob was under really begins to show as he gives us Used Autobots! This picks up where issue 30 left off, with Blaster and his whipping boy Goldbug (plus the other Throttlebots) on the run from Grimlock's increasingly OTT leadership. RAAT, never the most capable of organisations, is here shown to be utterly inept. They have to hang around gas stations on the off chance the Autobots come tootling past, seemingly oblivious to the whopping great battle between Blaster's Barmy Army and Vortex just down the road. This is compounded when Billy Dee Williams look-alike Walter Barnett refuses point blank to believe the bots and cons aren't allies even when they're virtually saying it to his face.
But that's jumping ahead... First we have to endure the Autobots hiding out in a used car lot, which lets Bob embrace every second hand car cliché you've ever seen, from knocking the milometer back to marking up prices. As satire it's about as biting as the average Chuckle Brothers episode, and we're meant to feel the imaginatively named Big Steve has got his comeuppance when his car lot is destroyed at the end, but considering the Autobots use very heavy handed intimidation techniques to get his help in the first place (and demand fuel without offering payment!) it's hard not to feel sorry for him. Not even a Protectobots/Combaticons smack down helps much as the fighters seem more interested in reminding each other of their names repeatedly, just in case the reader still doesn't know who's who at this point. Still, the cliff-hanger, where the Protectobots capture Blaster for immediate execution after his defection is actually very good, and promises great, exciting drama in the next issue...
Oh dear oh dear. We'll come to why issues 33 and 34 are missing further down the page, but number 35 Child's Play, is almost the exact moment where it all goes pear-shaped for the rest of Bob's run. He was under a lot of pressure at this time, writing the Headmasters mini simultaneously, but overwork is really is no excuse for such sloppiness... Effectively what we have here is an exercise in treading water — a rather blatant attempt to pad out the climax to the Blaster/Grimlock arc until the Headmasters can join the plot in issue 41.
The plot itself is fairly simple and direct — Blaster brings the Protectobots round to his way of thinking during a fight with Bruticus — it's the supporting cast of irritating, clichéd children (and their little bear too) that drags the whole thing down. When Blaster, who you may recall opposes Grimlock on his attitude toward the sanctity of human life, takes the kids on a joyride on a captured Blast-off you're seriously hoping Grimlock will toast his electrons.
A quick note on the art of Don Perlin who here bows out from the comic. Whilst it's never going to win any awards it suits the cartoon style of the last few issue like a glove, and is especially welcome after reviewing several volumes where Delbo is the main artist (more on him shortly.) Sadly, as always, Nel's crayons let the side down — the cover to this issue being the low point of his entire TF work. Two large robots both block-coloured (one of whom in pink!) on the cover, the thing that's meant to look great and eye-catching in the shop. No wonder the UK team found it so embarrassing they let Dan Reed (of all people) draw a near identical replacement.
And so with a heavy heart we come to issue 36's Spacehikers! and the dawn of the Delbo. Things actually start fairly promising with the debut of Sky Lynx, a nice sarky character who's a genuine drop out from the war, a relative rarity amongst the Autobots and a refreshing change. Unfortunately Delbo's trademark random character models (in unusual poses) is evident from the second page where several characters who shouldn't be there are shown on ancient Cybertron. No wonder the UK team didn't bother removing Skids from latter in the issue as they had before, his appearance actually fits the art style.
The story itself is deadly, concerning the further wacky adventure of those crazy kids and their spacesuit-wearing bear. Claims that it was Furman who made Grimlock a likeable leader are shown to be false as his cavalier attitude to the kids lives here make him my hero. The Autobots are also incredibly dumb here: Big Grim is breaking all the rules of the Autobot code, treating his troops badly and generally of the deep end but they all meekly go along with it and then pin all their hopes on Blaster, rather than, say, ganging up on him and chucking him of the Ark. The story ends with another cliff-hanger as Blaster surrenders to protect the children — a cliff-hanger that won't be resolved till issue 41 — but by this point I doubt many reading would have cared enough to get excited.
The final issue in this collection is the marvellously self referential Toy Soldiers (which should have been used as the title of this collection instead of boring old Treason) and it returns us to the fate of the Throttlebots, captured by RAAT back in issue 32. Yes, there seems to be a trend of leaving plotlines dangling long enough for the reader to have stopped caring around this time. Thankfully, and I suspect it's to do with the return of Ratbat (who wreaks revenge on Buster for interfering with his carwash of doom), this issue leans more towards good silly than bad silly, though not quite as entertainingly so as the first issue in this collection.
Our heroes are scheduled for crushing, but luckily don't have to bother with clever ruses or intelligent escape plans as Walter Barnett — who for years now has refused to believe in any difference between Autobots and Decepticons despite all the hard evidence to the contrary — takes about five minutes to come onside after a speech from Goldbug. His cunning plot involves putting the Autobots' brain chips into his son's toy cars. Which they can talk through. And drive. Utterly absurd but a fun comment on the nature of the title as a big toy advert. It also features my favourite ever (at the moment) piece of comic exposition in the classic "If just one bullet punctures a tank of that liquid nitrogen this plant will go up like the fourth of July!"
Sadly it's the last appearance of ol' Walt, and the last we see of him is handing all his problems over to poor old Buster. Actually, lets take a moment to feel sorrow for Sparkplug Witwicky... over the last 36 issues he's had a heart attack, been brainwashed, kidnapped and generally had a bad time. Here, in the ultimate indignity, his auto repair shop is brought own on top of him by a big purple bat. Some people get all the breaks, and though it does bring a much welcome element of danger in a comic that's been heading towards having it's own laughter track, I doubt that's much consolation for William. Or Irving. The issue ends with a quick tie-in to the Headmasters title that sees Goldbug sending a distress signal from the Ark's former resting place in Mt. St. Hilary and a cliffhanger where Ratbat looms over to attack... All-in-all an entertaining end to a somewhat lacking collection.
Oh my, time for a rant. As the numerically-minded amongst you may have realised, this collection skips issue 33 and 34. This is due to these issues having been reprints of the very first story originated by Marvel UK, The Man of Iron (originally presented in UK 9-12) and presenting them here would interrupt the flow of the story or some such (something Budiansky manages fairly well without help.) This wouldn't be such a huge problem if not for editor Simon Furman's decision to not do any UK collections predating issue 45, meaning that effectively this was our only chance to see this hugely important strip in book form. We do at least get an explanation and the American covers (both absent from the next trade to skip an issue) but it's a real missed opportunity. One odd note is that the cover to issue 33 is slightly different to the one I have at home- Mine has a gloriously OTT picture of Shakespeare (just to hammer home the point) in the barcode box.
As for other extras we get the obligatory cover gallery and a random introduction by Grimlock voice actor Greg Berger. At least his character plays a large role in the issues herein, but unfortunately he clearly hasn't been given a copy to read (unlike the actors who introduce Titan's James Bond) so we have to endure the old clichés about how TV casts are like one big happy family.
At this point Wildman's covers for the trades were in a real rut, and this is indeed one of the poorer ones. Though there is some amusement to be had, from the fact it looks as if Defensor should be holding the Big Issue in his outstretched hand...
Though topped and tailed by good silly fun, this collection is ultimately a very hollow one, not helped by the meagre extras. Sadly, this will be par for the course on the remaining Budiansky-written collections.
Reviewed by Inflatable Dalek