It can be all too easy to dismiss Bob Budiansky’s contributions to the Transformers mythos, but I will always remember his work fondly. The first story of Bob’s that I ever read was “The Smelting Pool” in the summer of 1986. The pure horror of the Decepticon-controlled Cybertron he described haunted me for months. But I never got a chance to read his very early Transformers work until the mid-1990s when I tracked down the early issues that I’d missed.
I managed to catch up on a lot of early Transformers stories via the Marvel UK Collected Comics holiday specials as they were released. But after the first two editions, they exclusively featured only the Marvel UK-original stories and all of Bob’s stories were ignored. I was in my late teens when I finally read those early stories; far, far older than the intended target audience of Bob’s stories.
Issue 5 – “The New Order”
Written by Bob Budiansky, illustrated by Alan Kupperberg with colours by Nelson Yomtov and letters by Rick Parker. 22 pages. Originally published in Transformers (US) 5, February 1985.
It’s not entirely accurate to describe “The New Order” as Bob Budiansky’s first Transformers story. After all, he did serve as editor for the original four-issue (American) mini-series and, as legend has it, is responsible for the conception and development of nigh on the entire cast of Transformers characters. With that in mind, Bob was hardly what you’d call a newcomer when it came to his first script.
“The New Order” was the beginning of Bob’s strongest and most consistent run on Transformers. His script is full of drama and tension, contains a small but excellently rounded cast of characters and, while it is very, very dark for a children’s comic, full of flourishes of charm and humour.
At the start of the issue, Shockwave–learning the nature of humanity through the medium of daytime American television–quickly dismisses us all as idiots. Smart guy. After such a light-hearted introduction, the story hits the reader square in the chest with a double-page spread of dead Autobots hanging from the ceiling. That’s how you start a Transformers story!
Bob knows his Transformers very well indeed and, as this issue shows, the focus on Megatron and Shockwave and their rivalry is a compelling read. Unlike Megatron, Shockwave knows how to get things done. He is as brutal as he is logical. He has a plan for his troops, the deactivated bodies of the Autobots, and even planet Earth itself!
This issue is not kind to the good guys. There is only one surviving Autobot, Ratchet. The rest are deactivated and strung up, a-bot-toir like! And Optimus Prime, not seen until the very last page, has been decapitated! As for poor Sunstreaker, he is coldly blasted apart by Shockwave just to punctuate his point to Megatron about taking over Decepticon leadership. Hey kid, hope the yellow Lamborghini you just got for your birthday wasn’t your favourite!
When it comes to Shockwave, I don’t think there’s ever been a better first impression left by a Transformer since.
It looks like only Buster Witwicky and Ratchet are the Autobots’ only hope! There is a touching scene in the hospital between Buster and his father which further adds to the dilemma he faces as the Autobots’ burgeoning saviour.
Buster’s and Ratchet’s scenes are a joy to read. One of Bob’s favourite things to do, right from the start, is to highlight the differences in nature and culture between Transformers and humans, often to humorous effect. It’s a great way to endear the reader to the characters.
I first read this story as an adult and it surprised me how dark it actually is. Bob seemed to have a very matter-of-fact approach to the actual robot horror he was writing and, for me, that made this story all the darker and all the better. Future stories may not approach the quality here, but for now, Bob Budiansky was at his best and even three decades later, “A New Order” is worth reading.
Issue 6 – “The Worse of Two Evils”
Written by Bob Budiansky, illustrated by Alan Kupperberg with colours by Nelson Yomtov and letters by Rick Parker. 22 pages. Originally published in Transformers (US) 6, March 1985.
“The Worse of Two Evils” really cemented Shockwave’s position as one the greatest Decepticons ever written. Megatron was already yesterday’s news, here reduced to a rash-acting, tantrum-throwing imbecile by Shockwave’s cold and brilliant logic.
The two are at each other’s throat modules for almost the entire issue with Megatron getting owned by Shockwave at every turn. It’s magnificent to watch!
Alan Kupperberg’s artwork is loose but functional, and, in places, awkward. But he does a good job at showing just how larger than life the Transformers are compared to the rest of us and there is plenty of action and violence in the fight scenes.
This issue properly introduces G.B. Blackrock and Josie Beller, two new additions to the human cast. Blackrock is kind of like a Wayne/Stark hybrid, a billionaire who likes to build weapons and gadgets for the purpose of making even more money. Josie will turn out to be–well, I won’t go into that just yet.
What I will go into, though, is the Creation Matrix. This was mentioned almost in passing last issue and the concept will become one of the most fascinating bits of world-building that Bob Budiansky ever came up with for the Transformers universe. To quote Megatron, “The Creation Matrix is the computer program that allows its possessor to construct new Transformer life! Its power is the stuff of legends!”
Essentially this means that Optimus Prime is the only Transformer that can grant new life to other Transformers. It’s an utterly fascinating concept that really puts a unique spin on the Transformers. Imagine that only one person in the world has the power to create new life. What an immense responsibility and what an immense burden! Transformers do not procreate the way we do, but nor is their sentience mass produced on an assembly line.
What if the Prime (whether Optimus himself, or a past or future Prime) him or herself starts deciding what can or can’t become a new life? For a children’s comic book, this is deep stuff. In fact, I’m perhaps not sure even Bob himself appreciated the implications of the concept of the Creation Matrix.
(But! Haha! Optimus gives the Matrix to a schoolboy!)
“The Worse of Two Evil” ended on a dark note, not quite as shocking as the decapitated Autobot leader reveal last issue, but with a sombre sinking feeling nonetheless. Shockwave has seized leadership of the Decepticons. Ratchet, Buster and even Optimus Prime are helpless. The rest of the Autobots are still dead. This was genuinely gripping stuff and some of Bob Budiansky’s finest work on Transformers.
Issue 7 – “Warrior School”
Written by Bob Budiansky, illustrated by William Johnson with inks by Kyle Baker and colours by Nelson Yomtov and letters by Rick Parker. 22 pages. Originally published in Transformers (US) 7, April 1985.
Since taking over writing for Transformers (US), Bob Budiansky had really only focused on just one Autobot: Ratchet. Considering that the comic was supposed to be promoting a range of toys, this fact really highlights that Bob was more interested in story and character than marketing.
Ironically, the hero of these toys comics is probably the least exciting of the range… not a sleek sports car, not a mighty truck, just a humble ambulance.
With all of his comrades either deactivated or decapitated, it’s up to Ratchet to save his fellow Autobots from Megatron. Ratchet is one of the weakest Autobots and Megatron is one of the most dangerous Decepticons, so you can see the pickle he’s in.
“Warrior School” is a tense read. The Decepticons are making great gains and still the Autobots–the underdogs–are at their weakest. Soundwave gets something of a showcase this issue as he takes over a heavily armed(!) aircraft factory almost singlehandedly. I absolutely love his contempt for humans, or “fleshlings” as he calls them.
There are two human subplots: more hints as to exactly what Optimus Prime installed into Buster Witwicky’s brain, and more of Josie Beller’s descent into supervillainhood.
But it’s Ratchet who is the star of “Warrior School”. It’s only by sheer good luck that he’s avoided Shockwave’s massacre and, at least initially, he’s reluctant to do anything about it. In fact, he’d rather be at a party! They apparently do (or did) have parties back on Cybertron and they are Ratchet’s favourite pastime.
Bob writes Ratchet in such an endearing and relatable (or “human”, if you will) way that you can’t help but take his side and can’t help but wince when he tries to physically take down Megatron. The end of the story calls back to events of the original four-issue mini-series and Ratchet, thinking rather than fighting, makes a deal with Megatron.
Aside from the parties that Ratchet is so fond of, this issue offers up another glimpse into Cybertronian culture: The “Rite of Oneness” whereby two Transformers make a deal and are morally obligated to see it through. This is done by mixing a portion of their “most precious bodily substance” (fuel) together and burning it. For an Autobot and a Decepticon to do this I imagine it’s pretty serious stuff! (Wait until issue 70 and you’ll see that sharing a bit of fuel is the least of Megatron and Ratchet’s worries!)
Penciller William Johnson and inker Kyle Baker provide the artwork for “Warrior School” and the comic has never looked so good! The Transformers themselves are rendered competently and consistently. The characters are on-model, expressive, and animated.
The ongoing Transformers storyline is developing brilliantly. It’s compelling and focused, with future hints, callbacks, and subplots tying in nicely and excellent paced. “Warrior School” highlights just how sophisticated Bob Budiansky’s early work is.
Issue 8 – “Repeat Performance”
Written by Bob Budiansky, illustrated by William Johnson with inks by Kyle Baker and colours by Nelson Yomtov and letters by Rick Parker. 22 pages. Originally published in Transformers (US) 8, May 1985.
“Repeat Performance” really underscores why Ratchet is one of my favourite Transformers characters. He’s charming, curious, courageous, and cunning. His solo plight against Megatron, and his development from party-loving doctor to reluctant warrior, has been a joy to read as it unfolds.
Megatron, too, has been given some wonderful characterisation. Utterly humiliated by Shockwave, he sits in the Ark sulking. His frame of mind has always been portrayed as volatile and Ratchet uses this to his advantage.
Bob Budiansky’s writing here really is under-rated. This storyline has been tense and exciting, but also cerebral. He plays his characters against one another on a psychological level to great effect.
The climax of Ratchet’s story is over all too quickly, but it is a satisfying conclusion nonetheless. And, despite what tends to happen to many of the original Autobots in Bob Budiansky’s stories, the focus will return to Ratchet again eventually.
This issue properly introduces the Dinobot sub-group. Only Slag gets any sort of focus and the team is generally used as Ratchet’s blunt instruments against Megatron.
Keeping the visual momentum from last issue, William Johnson and Kyle Baker continue their spot-on rendering of the Transformers. The fight scene between Megatron and the Dinobots, while brief, is fluid and kinetic. And I just love the designs for the Autobot shuttle and all of Ratchet’s gadgets.
At long last, the Autobots are given a victory of sorts this issue. Megatron is out of the picture but Shockwave–a far more dangerous foe for Autobot and human alike–is still at large. The stakes are still high and our hero Ratchet still has much to do!
When revisiting these early stories, I am always taken aback by the quality of Bob Budiansky’s writing. His Transformers cast is tiny compared to later stories and it’s a cast that he’s actually invested in. His characters are well-rounded and easy to like, whether or not they are “heroic” or “evil”.
If you were to ask me who was the true hero of the Marvel Transformers comics and who was Megatron’s actual archenemy, you might be surprised at my answer. My answer wouldn’t be Optimus Prime, it would be Ratchet. Ratchet was the doctor who defeated Megatron on more than one occasion, after all!
These issues are a showcase of the American series’ finest early work… writing and artwork. It’s all because of the focus on Ratchet, one of Bob Budiansky’s best characters. The artwork in these stories is some of the best from the early issues of the American series.
Bob Budiansky’s first four Transformers stories are worth revisiting, without a doubt. At this stage he’s not just writing a focused handful of fantastic Transformers characters, but also building an exciting and compelling world for them to inhabit. These stories are the reason, I think, that the Transformers comic took off so spectacularly in its early years. Yes, the toys were amazing, but these characters and stories only serve to augment them.
Ironically, the popularity of the Transformers will eventually become a thorn in Bob Budiansky’s side as more and more characters are introduced into the story. But for now, as he concentrates on just a handful of characters and has fun with them, it’s very much worth joining him.
May your luster never dull, and your wires never cross!