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Small Time Wars
by Cliffjumper

It was billed as the epics to end all epics, so why was Time Wars so underwhelming? The story, especially the final three installments, seem to be in an ungodly hurry to finish things off, so we have the almost off-hand death of Ultra Magnus, we have the Cybertronian forces simply disappearing, we have an ever-increasing number of inexplicable disappearances and general disconnection between the little groups, we have the terrible Optimus Prime versus Galvatron fist-fight, we have the story's own rules being broken... We have mediocrity. Things are technically tidied up but by the last chapter it's as if a checklist is being worked through.

The ambitious Simon Furman hadn't taken long to strike out on his own with the British Transformers strips, striving to make his stories simply not conflict with the American material rather than being outright subservient to the work of Transatlantic equivalent Bob Budiansky. After couple of status quo-affirming episodic stories Furman flexed his muscles when the Dinobots inexplicably dropped off the face of the US book shortly after their debut. Firstly, he fashioned the Dinobot Hunt — which, as a bonus, gave plausible reasons for several of the original cast also switching to a lower profile and had a bit of fun with the Decepticon leadership vacuum into the bargain (the story might also be the first example of a Decepticon victory in Transformers media).

It took a little while for this to be the norm — the next cycle of British material, from "Robot Buster" through to "Second Generation", is as much about hyping the new Special Teams figures to the sky in line with the toys reaching British shelves as anything else — there is a little fun to be had and it does cover a few points the American stories don't, but it lacks a central drive. However, the Dinobots' brief return and instant departure in Budiansky's "Command Performances" allowed Furman to fashion the basically independent "In the National Interest", which itself led on to the genuine gamechanger of "Target 2006".

Within a hundred more issues there'd be
plenty of toy characters to kill off instead.

Featuring a mish-mash of new toys the American comic would bypass, already-forgotten existing cast members and made-up misfits, "Target 2006" was more intent on tying in with Transformers The Movie (though the 12-week story comfortably outlasted TF:TM's cinematic run...) than the American comic. There were still punches pulled — the only casualties of various brutal beatdowns are Furman creations Fang, Impactor and Macabre — but the story generally played little heed to the US material, in effect turning it into the run-of-the-mill page filler between the real epics, quite a reversal little more than a year after "Raiders of the Last Ark".

Featuring a mish-mash of new toys the American comic would bypass, already-forgotten existing cast members and made-up misfits, "Target 2006" was more intent on tying in with Transformers The Movie (though the 12-week story comfortably outlasted TF:TM's cinematic run...) than the American comic. There were still punches pulled — the only casualties of various brutal beatdowns are Furman creations Fang, Impactor and Macabre — but the story generally played little heed to the US material, in effect turning it into the run-of-the-mill page filler between the real epics, quite a reversal little more than a year after "Raiders of the Last Ark".

The next British cycle ran from "Prey" through to "Resurrection", writing out Optimus Prime and Megatron, bringing the popular villain Galvatron back into the mix and introducing the Predacons all in outright contradiction of the American book before somewhat contemptuously hand-waving things back to normal so the financially-crucial Budiansky pages could still be used. You can almost feel Furman rattling the cage bars at this point.

Wimpy like a toaster.

It is little surprise, then, that from this point on the British material exists in near-total disconnect to the American comic — they don't contradict each other (all that often) but the focal points are generally radically different. Furman began concentrating on the Transformers a rolling twenty years in the future and playing with toys Budiansky either ignored or only gave lip-service to (such as the Sparkler Minibots), meaning the weekly comic effectively had two parallel stories taking turns in the spotlight. It's difficult to imagine Furman's Xaaron getting on the sub-space transmitter and asking Budiansky's Grimlock whether he'd like to lend a hand with the rogue future Decepticon leader wandering Earth; the conceit is this question rarely enters your head while reading the comics themselves. Similarly, Ratbat's Decepticons are ignored for the most part by Furman (which must have been a wrench, as Furman clearly likes the character); instead Shockwave's weak American death was happily retconned into a simple return to Earth, where he assembled a group of discontinued toys as followers.

Action Force Monthly didn't last long either.

The first group were innocent enough — "Ancient Relics", a crossover with the floundering Action Force, and "Grudge Match" worked on Grimlock with Furman defiantly writing him as he had done before in flat contradiction of Captain Caveman in the American material; "Worlds Apart" was a Hasbro-mandated headlining gig for the shiny new Headmasters (except the suspiciously absent Fortress Maximus, who — by an odd cosmic coincidence — could not be found on many British toyshelves) theoretically slotted between pages of the original limited series; "Headhunt" was a future piece bringing Death's Head back into play. "Kup's Story" was a prequel. "Ladies Night", while superficially a 'between issues' adventure for Blaster and the Throttlebots was really just a sneaky follow-up to the "Wanted: Galvatron" arc. Christmas special "Stargazing" randomly revived Starscream. "Legacy of Unicron" was a quasi-sequel to the events of Transformers The Movie, simultaneously building up Death's Head for his own solo series and — almost as an afterthought — taking advantage of a gap in the American cast to send Scourge and Cyclonus back in time. It was also the first British story to unequivocally kill off Hasbro-created characters (Shockwave and later Inferno), though the future setting did give a safety net — the 'present' versions of both would continue to appear in the comic.

Multiple Megatrons (and Galvatrons)
became a recurrent theme for Furman.

Then, from "Enemy Action" onwards, the UK material started to become even more focused on one thing — the problems Galvatron was causing pretty much everyone. The Autobots want to keep tabs on him and send a recce team, while his challenge to Shockwave put himself on the bad side of the Decepticons too. It's the first real link in the chain reaction leading towards "Time Wars". "Salvage" saw Shockwave hit upon the idea of using Megatron as a weapon; this would lead to the events of "Dry Run"and then "Altered Image", paving the way to the fearsome Megatron/Galvatron alliance. "Salvage" also ended with Ultra Magnus grandly billing a final confrontation with would-be nemesis Galvatron.

The Flame Cycle didn't do a lot plot-wise and neither did "Deadly Games", but both touched base characters in anticipation of the next epic, namely the latest iteration of the Wreckers, Magnus and the Sparkabots. "Wrecking Havoc" was a more explicit drawing together of characters as the Wreckers, Galvatron and Scourge & Cyclonus were tied together in a rather foreboding scrap. Shortly after the American material — at Hasbro's behest, naturally — revived Optimus Prime, Furman revisited the future Autobots for "Space Pirates" — a six-part epic that was as concerned with the growing space/time rift caused by the rogue future Decepticons as it was with the story of the Quintessons trying to wipe out the Transformers of 2009.

Next came a pair of one-issue strips — "Firebug", while superficially a filler silly, put the catspaw of the Cybertronian Autobots on the board. "Dry Run" really ramped up the gears, however, bringing a fully-functioning Megatron back into the mix (at this point, despite his British guest appearances in "Ancient Relics" and "Salvage", dead as far as anyone in America was concerned, and there was no threat of the abysmal duplicate retcon coming into play) and killing off Cyclonus, making the connection between the time-travelling antics of the future Decepticons and universal cataclysm explicit. Even the traditional Christmas story, "Cold Comfort and Joy", was a sombre affair with the Ark crew and Cybertronian contigent making contact ahead of the gathering storm.

Which brings us to "Time Wars". It's actually quite easy to pin down the change in the story. The first five parts are reasonably paced, before the story is hurriedly finished off in the next two. This isn't to say the start of the story is without problems — the biggest elephant in the room being that all of the present-day Autobots should recognise the future ones, even if unlike Goldbug (or Ironhide and Wheeljack, featured but inexplicably stupid) they haven't seen the direct effects of time-travel — but it does unfold carefully. Great set-ups and poor conclusions have long been a problem for Furman, but this feels different — the Autobot/Autobot scuffle takes up an entire issue and doles out lines or bits to the likes of Scattershot and Misfire, whereas the fizzling beating of Galvatron by Optimus Prime lasts three pages. Rodimus Prime is swatted aside by Galvatron in a fashion that makes you wonder why he bothered time-travelling, and yet is suddenly so irretrievably insane that a couple of pages later Optimus is able to effortlessly box him to the ground. Ultra Magnus is present in only his future incarnation (rarely seen in the 21st century-set material, presumably to avoid confusion with the prevalent 20th century incarnation knocking around on Earth) and then killed by a misecellany of Decepticon Headmasters in such a fashion that it only clicks he's dead when the character fails to show in any subsequent issues. Springer and Carnivac, having been major players in the first half of the story, simply disappear — both would be small fry compared to the titans slugging out the conclusion, admittedly, but they both simply fall off the frame. Having been thumped around briefly, Scorponok, Fortress Maximus and the rest of the present-day alliance do the same. Soundwave and his Decepticons simply return to 2009 having done nothing but ensure both factions had present and future representatives for some of the panel layouts. That the conclusion with Megatron, Shockwave, Scourge and the time winds works so well is a testament to Furman having a good plan lined up; the likely already-written concluding issue simply seems to have been moved up the order, with the penultimate part being the most rushed and troublesome.

Considering the ego and hubris of Transformers UK in general and Furman in particular it seems likely that "Time Wars", even excluding the various satellite stories such as "Dry Run", was intended to at least match the page count of "Target 2006", something born out by the rhythm of what we do have — up until the arrival of the alliance to battle Galvatron and Megatron. However, it is something of an open secret that the comic came very close to cancellation at this point — difficult to imagine after the bravado of the 200th issue, containing the second installment of "Time Wars". While Transformers' sales were healthy they had reached something of a plateau; the big problem seems to have been that Marvel UK did what any comic company do when they attain a modicum of success and flooded the market with titles — the American-format Dragon's Claws and Death's Head books were in the process of tanking while various licenced books such as Action Force, The Real Ghostbusters and Thundercats had largely failed to replicate Transformers' success despite heavy investment.

Transformers was saved at the 11th hour by a move to the unpopular "triple feature" format several issues after the conclusion which halved the amount of new in-house material needed. Between the end of "Time Wars" and this switch the comic featured American reprints but this doesn't mean the decision wasn't made some time earlier — the American material cost nothing to print and would break the change to readers slowly, allowing time to prepare one of the more popular British stories to lead off the new format. With this in mind, however, it's possible to read the final part of "Time Wars" as a planned farewell for the British comics, with most of the plot threads of the previous year concluded, if occasionally very bluntly.

The British material would continue, but always under the threat of cancellation and Marvel UK were hesitant to start any epics that might end up unfinished; besides which it was down to five pages a week and Furman's head was already being turned by the bright lights of America. He continued to write and while a few dangling ends — such as the Wrecker/Mayhem survivors and Megatron — were chased up the material lost its drive. While there are undeniable high points the later British stories suffer as a body of work, unsure of whether to pick up scraps from the American book, rejoin the altered future or just plain head off in their own direction, a stark comparison to the forthright manner displayed only a couple of years before.

It seems more than certain this change caused "Time Wars" to be radically compacted. The most obvious absence from the story is the present day Ultra Magnus; while his long-promised team-up with the Wreckers was already void it's not impossible to see him (probably with Sizzle, Guzzle and Fizzle thrown in) flying in as last-minute cavalry to tip the balance of the fight. Certainly "Deadly Games" and "Wrecking Havoc" serve as something of a tease, knowingly postponing the climactic fight promised in "Salvage" to build anticipation. Similarly, a straight fight between Galvatron and the revived Powermaster Optimus Prime had been clamoured for by readers since the Autobot leader had returned, something coyly alluded to in the free booklet with the 200th issue, and it seems unlikely Furman would have intentionally frustrated them with the dazed fistfight which was published; similarly, while the UK comic had largely portrayed Rodimus as no physical match for Galvatron the future leader was most likely pencilled in for a better showing.

Another curious possibility — and this is more of a reach, I'll admit — is that the initial issues give both Ironhide and Wheeljack their first appearances anywhere for quite some time. In the UK comic "Time Wars" was straddled by reprints of Bob Budiansky's own epic Underbase Saga (rudely split into two batches so a British story could be ran in the anniversary issue), meaning Marvel UK would have copies of the American material to hand as Time Wars was made. The Underbase Saga wiped out many of the established Autobots, but also missed a large number who would be treated in a similar fashion to the on-page casualties, including Wheeljack and Ironhide. It's interesting to ponder whether Furman was planning to ramp up the bodycount by throwing more present-day Autobots into the mix to be wiped out by Galvatron.

The plot overall of these theoretical missing five issues would probably have been much the same as the hard-pressed sixth part, but with more space given to each of the rushed set-pieces. As it was, what should have been a triumphant capstone ended up being something much more frustrating and flawed — a beginning, an end, but not enough middle.

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