A comic series in its prime

Bob Budiansky was really the first victim of the Transformers’ massive success. Within 18 months of hitting toy shelves, newsstand racks, and television channels, the Transformers franchise had gone from zero to phenomenon. Hasbro was even sourcing and assimilating as many transforming robot toys as it could into its own range. Sadly, for the writer of the Transformers tie-in comic, more toys meant more characters to squeeze in.

After just 8 issues, the cast of Transformers stood at over 30 with more on the way! Quite cleverly, Bob Budiansky devised an expedient way of introducing new characters befitting of their robotic nature. He had in place the means to create their software/minds (the Creation Matrix) and their hardware/bodies (a Decepticon-controlled aerospace factory) in a finely tuned production line of new characters.

Introducing characters doesn’t take as much thought as successfully maintaining them, however. Take the Dinobots: They were introduced just last issue (if you’re following just the American series) and already they have completely disappeared from the narrative!

It seemed that Bob had little interest and/or a good enough reason to keep them around. (At this point, anyway). In the meantime, Bob introduced us to not only 8 new Transformers characters but also the humans Circuit Breaker, Bomber Bill, and GB Blackrock’s woefully under appreciated and underpaid chief of staff, Ames.

Marvel Transformers 09 10

Issue 9 – “Dis-Integrated Circuits”

Written by Bob Budiansky, illustrated by Mike Manley with inks by “M. Hands” and colours by Nelson Yomtov and letters by Rick Parker. 22 pages. Originally published in Transformers (US) 9, June 1985.

When you consider a character such as Circuit Breaker, it makes you realise just how much of a “Marvel” comic Transformers (US) actually was. It’s not just that Transformers (US) was created and published by Marvel. It followed all sorts of Marvel conventions, too, from the way it looked, to the way it was scripted, and they way it handled its stories and characters. Circuit Breaker was a Marvel super-villain through and through. Yep, she was just about every Marvel villain cliche of the time all wrapped in the minimum amount of aluminium foil.

(Sidenote: Could you imagine what Transformers would have been like if handled by a different comic book publisher, like DC Comics? I’m not saying it would necessarily be better, or worse, but, you know, could you imagine.)

Anyway, Circuit Breaker. When she wasn’t explaining questionable tan lines to her physiotherapist, she was out there attacking Transformers–both the Autobot kind and Decepticon kind. Well mainly Autobot, actually. As per any standard villain, she couldn’t (or, more accurately, wouldn’t) tell them apart.

For all that I disliked the character for being prejudiced, bigoted, pig-headed, and motivated by hatred, it was something of a joy to see Circuit Breaker completely and utterly emasculate GB Blackrock. There he was with his Anti-Robot Photonic Multi-Cannon, which very publicly suffered from an embarrassing dysfunction and therefore allowed Circuit Breaker to smugly take over the situation. Perhaps if the thing had a better acronym? ARPMC doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

Apart from all the Blackrock/Beller Freudian coaction this issue, writer Bob Budiansky flavours his script with all kinds of very welcome Transformers moments. First of all, almost all of the Autobots (previously held captive by Shockwave on the Ark) are back to fully functional status. All except Optimus’s head, poor Sunstreaker, and the missing Dinobots.

The focus on Jazz is the real highlight of this issue. His love of human culture (he’s a big Madonna fan) plays nicely into the plot as he persuades acting commander Prowl to fully embrace American capitalism to help them with their fuel problem. Hey, it’s a better way than the Decepticons have so far employed! The back and forth between Jazz and his new business partner, GB Backrock, is a joy to read.

Wheeljack also shares some of the spotlight and Frenzy, too, with his adorable tantrums. In a way, I’m glad Bob dropped the Dinobots so quickly to continue to give more paneltime to the original characters.

Buster continues his personal journey, juggling the guilt he has for secretly helping the Autobots against his father’s wishes with his newfound powers. Having humans in Transformers stories is often contentious and maligned, but Bob writes both Buster and Sparkplug very well, giving them both naturally developed and affecting storylines.

Mike Manley’s artwork is certainly functional but it’s a shame that the script doesn’t want to give it the space it needs to breathe. One page clocks in at a painful 16 panels!

“Dis-Integrated Circuits” was the chapter of Transformers (US)’s first full 12-issue arc that stopped to take stock, to pause for breath. While it was really all about Circuit Breaker’s full introduction, for me, looking back, it was more about getting to know some of the Transformers (Jazz, in particular) that little bit more.

Issue 10 – “The Next Best Thing to Being There”

Written by Bob Budiansky, illustrated by Ricardo Villamonte with inks by Brad Joyce and colours by Nelson Yomtov and letters by Janice Chiang. 22 pages. Originally published in Transformers (US) 10, July 1985.

Before the war, I imagine Cybertron to have been some massive factory where “naturally occurring levers and pulleys” spend their time assembling wave upon wave of autonomous robots ready to have the Creation Matrix inputted into their brain modules.

In this issue, Shockwave, using an airplane factory and a whole bunch of “naturally occurring” human beings (and Optimus Prime’s head), mimics that assembly process. His first creations are the Constructicons. Which makes perfect logical sense: make the guys who can continue and expand the process.

In fact, the first four pages of this issue showed, in great detail, this assembly line of new characters. It’s almost like Bob Budiansky had seen what Hasbro had planned and included this as a metaphor of the comic’s path. “Yep, we’re just gonna keep on churning out these Transformers for the foreseeable future.”

Although name-checked by the narrative captions, the Constructicons don’t really get to show any of their individual characteristics. Perhaps, given their uniform colour scheme, Shockwave doesn’t want them to exhibit any individualism so they can just get on with their jobs. Oddly, their combining ability isn’t made much of at all. Devastator just isn’t painted large enough. Ah, well. Much like the Dinobots, you won’t see much of them in near-future (American) issues.

Much like the previous issue, Bob’s script shone a light on a few more of the original Autobots. Despite the requirement to keep adding new characters to the comic, existing ones were at least getting a turn in the spotlight.

Prowl here is kind and compassionate. (Really, he is!) Huffer is homesick–making him very relatable. It’s actually quite moving that Huffer cannot go home and it’s a justifiable dilemma he faces at the story’s climax.

Bomber Bill is this issue’s Guest Human. (He’s very fond of his truck.)

It’s a disappointment that artist Ricardo Villamonte treats Devastator as just another robot. There’s no effort to show him off as the super-robot he was, which is odd as, in 1985, he was Hasbro’s most expensive toy in the range.

“The Next Best Thing to Being There” had a lot of fascinating Transformers science to learn and a new group of Decepticons to meet, but the highlight of this issue was Huffer’s yearning to return home.

This issue was really the first one to show that the Transformers have heart. In what was essentially a war story that was being told, it was nice to see that some Transformers were more than just emotionless robots and that they had genuine feelings for things like home, and each other. Yes, even Prowl.

Marvel Transformers 11 12

Issue 11 – “Brainstorm”

Written by Bob Budiansky, illustrated by Herb Trimpe with inks by Tom Palmer and colours by Nelson Yomtov and letters by Diana Albers. 22 pages. Originally published in Transformers (US) 11, August 1985.

This issue brought Buster/Sparkplug’s difficult relationship to the fore and resolved their plot line with such a satisfying conclusion that it’s easy to forget that Bob Budiansky was supposed to be writing a comic that existed to advertise Hasbro’s transforming robot toys.

Bob really was an expert at organising plots, subplots, and characters–human, Transformer, or otherwise! He was a master of his craft. His finished scripts were always carefully considered and excellently crafted. It’s clear he put a lot of thought into his pacing; each issue served as its own chapter of an ongoing storyline… perfect for a monthly comic. I don’t know how he did it! (Probably did a lot of brainstorming.)

Herb Trimpe’s artwork here is loose and relaxed compared to his contemporaries’, but certainly the most expressive and artful of what has been seen so far in the American series. In terms of pure storytelling, I think he’s the best the title has seen so far.

Despite this issue being about Jetfire’s introduction, older characters are still getting the limelight. (Last issue’s Constructicons are nowhere to be seen!) Bluestreak and Bumblebee make for a humorous double-act, especially Bluestreak’s talkative nature. During the issue’s climax, it’s a nice touch to see him freezing with fear.

While Prowl isn’t really being shown as an A-List Autobot at this point, he’s there where he’s needed being a patient and logical and otherwise damn good Autobot commander.

If you look closely you can see that Dirge, Thrust, and Ramjet make an appearance of sorts… would they have joined the likes of Jetfire and the Constructicons as new Decepticons? In terms of selling Hasbro’s toys it’s interesting to see Jetfire start out here as a Decepticon; surely that was going to confuse the kids when they got to the toyshop.

While issues 9 and 10 slowed down the pace somewhat, issue 11 sped it back up again. “Brainstorm” was a very strong story in its own right, full of drama, humour and action in the right places. It also built up to a wonderful cliff hanger, ready for the final issue of this first arc.

Transformers Digest 05 06

Issue 12 – “Prime Time”

Written by Bob Budiansky, illustrated by Herb Trimpe with inks by Al Gordon and colours by Nelson Yomtov and letters by Janice Chiang. 22 pages. Originally published in Transformers (US) 12, September 1985. 

The twelfth issue of Transformers (US) was, in my opinion, the pinnacle of Bob Budiansky’s work on the series. It would never get to be this great again. Certainly it did approach this level again on the odd occasion, but in terms of consistently being as good as issues 1-12 had been then, no. “Prime Time” was indeed the last issue of Transformers (US) being in its, you know, prime.

Optimus Prime, having been incapacitated (decapitated no less!) since issue 5, is finally back! But as you’ll see from the spoiler-heavy cover, all is not as it seems! The “evil” Optimus twist is brutal and adds so much to an already fast-paced, high-stakes issue. Of course, it’s put right at the last minute, but it’s a bitter and cruel victory for the Autobots with a lot of them deactivated (in the American issues-only storyline, at least) by their own commander.

It’s interesting that Bob had effectively written out both Optimus Prime and Megatron for so much of this first story arc. While it’s true they were the main characters of the franchise so far, this arc had been told across 1985 and the big toys on the shelves (in America) at that time were Jetfire, the Constructicons, and Shockwave.

Shockwave has been an absolute highlight of these last few issues and, as Decepticon leader and a character is his own right, overshadowed Megatron at every opportunity. Just as the series itself will never be as good again, neither will Shockwave.

Not every Transformer had their moment to shine in this arc. The likes of Trailbreaker, Mirage, Thundercracker and Skywarp, among others, were hardly featured. (And let’s take a moment to reflect on poor Sunstreaker’s demise, the first proper casualty.) But those that were featured were an absolute joy to get to know: Ratchet, in particular. (Though he did kinda fade away after issue 9.)

Herb Trimpe’s artwork, as inked by Al Gordon, is very confident with its Transformers now. His pages paint the action very well and he really knows how to arrange his panels to show just how huge Jetfire is.

“Prime Time” was a fantastic conclusion to the first arc of the (American) series. It was a fast paced and tense issue where the drama and stakes were high. For the end of an arc everything was suitably climactic and satisfying.

I would certainly love to see the first twelve issues of Transformers (US) collected in a hardcover treasury edition along with the Universe character profiles of its cast.

While there are other Transformers comic book stories that are far more exciting and certainly creatively more daring in terms of both writing and artwork, this first arc holds a certain charm for me. It featured everything that “clicked” with me when I was first introduced to Transformers–its alien cast stranded and hidden on Earth, fighting for fuel, coming to terms with the nature of (organic) humans and their society and culture.

Issues 1-12 tell, for me, the definitive Transformers story. 

May your luster never dull, and your wires never cross!

–Graham (@grhmthmsn)

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