Annuals have always been a hugely significant part of my reading life. I grew up in Germany, where at the time, comics as we know them in the UK and US were pretty much non-existent. I read beautiful hardcover comic “albums” such as Asterix, Tintin, and the Smurfs. They were mostly in French or German, but the language of the words didn’t necessarily matter to me, I was captivated by the beauty of them… the colours, the illustrations, the way the stories unfolded through the flow of their panels, and even the hardcover binding!
My first English-language annuals (all imported from the UK and received as Christmas gifts) were the likes of Scooby Doo, Cor!, Jackpot, Whizzer and Chips, Superman, and Batman. Despite only being available at Christmas-time, annuals were easier to find than the comics themselves, and so, in the early 1980s, my bookcase was filled with them. Maybe it was because they were just like those comic albums, colourful and hardback-bound that they found their place in continental Europe.
After moving to the UK I soon discovered the Transformers toys and Ladybird books. I had no idea that the British Transformers comic had a tie-in annual until I received the second one for Christmas in 1986. For years I looked for the elusive first one, eventually happening upon it at a charity shop some ten years after it was published.
A Marvellous Voyage, Part 6 – And There Shall Come… An Annual
Transformers Annual 1985/86
The first Transformers annual, published some time in the latter half of 1985, is a curious oddity. It doesn’t exactly tie-in with the comic itself, even though it’s created by much of the same team. Edited by Sheila Cranna, the 1985/86 annual really does epitomise Marvel UK’s early approach to the comic: using character designs that look more like the toys than the character models, and setting the stories in a narrative that doesn’t really fit with the regular (American) series’ storyline. In fact, apart from one, all of this annual’s stories are entirely incompatible with the comic’s main storyline.
Transformers Annual 1985/86 – Cover illustrated by John Higgins
I imagine that when the material for this annual was created and compiled (early 1985, maybe even late 1984) the creative team were as in the dark about what was coming in the American series as when the likes of “Man of Iron” and “The Enemy Within” were written. The stories in the annual fit nicely with those early British stories, certainly in terms of style and approach if nothing else.
This annual, naturally, features a lot of the 1985 characters: Inferno, Tracks, the Insecticons, the Jumpstarters… again making the stories they appear in absolutely irreconcilable with the UK/US shared narrative that the current comic editor, Ian Rimmer, has been working so hard to cultivate. (Indeed, there is no explicit mention of any of this annual’s stories in the Robot War guides that were printed in the weekly comic during Ian’s tenure.)
I’ve always treated this annual (with the exception of “And There Shall Come… A Leader”) as more of a peripheral tie-in, much like many of the Transformers storybooks that were available at the time that may have used familiar characters and settings but didn’t adhere to the same actual storyline.
“Plague of the Insecticons”: Written by Simon Furman, illustrated by Mike Collins with inks by Jeff Anderson, and colours by Gina Hart and letters by Richard Starkings. 20 pages. Originally published in Transformers Annual 1985/86, late 1985.
In “Plague of the Insecticons”, Optimus Prime, Prowl and Warpath attempt to forge an alliance with the president of the USA, but the plan is sabotaged by the Decepticons when they unleash their plague of Insecticons! Side-note A: Three Insecticons is apparently a plague. Side-note B: I just love the fact that the Autobots include a tank-based Autobot called Warpath as part of a peace-seeking envoy!
Much like his writing in “The Enemy Within” and “Raiders of the Last Ark”, Simon Furman makes full use of the Transformers toys’ “bio and tech specs” information with both the characters here and with helping moving the plot along. These unique little details include Shrapnel’s splinter grenade, Bombshell’s cerebro-shell, and for one of the rare times in a comic story, Optimus Prime’s “Roller” component!
The story itself is competent enough and there’s some nice characterisation, especially for Prowl. If you want to see Prowl at his most selfless and heroic, this is the story for you!
The artwork by Mike Collins and Jeff Anderson continues the toy-etic style from their early comic stories. This story, in fact, sits nicely alongside “Raiders of the Last Ark” and “The Enemy Within” as a kind of out-of-continuity trilogy in terms of both artwork style and writing.
An interesting thing to note with the colours used on the Insecticons here is that they use the same colour scheme as shown in Hasbro UK’s print advert for their toys. Perhaps this was their preliminary colour scheme; different from their original Diaclone colours but not quite their final Transformers colours? Or maybe the illustrator for the advert used some artistic licence on the colours and that’s what Gina Hart based her colours on? We may never know…
“Plague of the Insecticons”, while not essential, is an ideal story for the likes of a Transformers annual. It’s stand-alone, it features plenty of action and heroics (and violence… poor Prowl), and showcases interesting new characters that Hasbro will hope children will spend their Christmas money on!
“Missing in Action”: Written by James Hill (uncredited), illustrated by John Stokes (uncredited). ~3,500 words. Originally published in Transformers Annual 1985/86, late 1985.
This text story by James Hill is well written but quite mundane, featuring an injured Tracks being used as a getaway car in a series of robberies. It’s over before it begins and lacks any lasting impact.
Following on from the using new characters and paying attention to their biographies mandate, there’s a apt choice of using Inferno to rescue the victims of a burning bank!
It is, of course, beautifully illustrated.
“Hunted”: Written by James Hill (uncredited), illustrated by John Stokes (uncredited). ~3,500 words. Originally published in Transformers Annual 1985/86, late 1985.
“Hunted”, the second of the annual’s text stories, again features more new characters from the 1985 toy range. This time: the Jumpstarters Topspin and Twin Twist, and also the new Decepticon Strike Planes, Dirge and Thrust. Their tech specs abilities are all present and correct!
(Spoiler Alert: Prowl was seemingly killed earlier in the annual, so how these stories fit together with each other let alone in the wider scheme of things is anyone’s guess.)
Again, beautifully illustrated.
“And There Shall Come… A Leader”: Written by Simon Furman, illustrated by John Stokes with colours by Gina Hart and letters by Richard Starkings. 10 pages. Originally published in Transformers Annual 1985/86, late 1985.
The highlight of the Transformers Annual 1985/86 is, without a doubt, “And There Shall Come… A Leader”. Unrestrained by any notion of continuity (it is set “millions of years before the Transformers awoke to their exile on Earth”), this story is a “Tale of Cybertron” and features, quite boldy, the first meeting between Optimus Prime and Megatron.
The rest of the stories in this annual have felt inessential but this tale from Simon Furman is anything but. In terms of the wider picture, “And There” introduces the likes of Emirate Xaaron who will become a major character in both British and American upcoming stories.
It also features a lot of world-building for the early days (centuries?) of the Transformers’ war on Cybertron and gives a lot of detail to the vagueness of the first issue of the American series.
Again, the characters featured (those that have toys) are true to their tech specs.
John Stokes’s artwork, his first Transformers work, is bold and expressive. His knack for robotic facial expressions, particularly with Megatron, shines through. I don’t think I’ve seen a grin as maniacal as Megatron’s!
John’s inking style gives a beautiful metallic/reflective sheen to his robots.
Keen-eyed readers will notice that the artwork is peppered with recognisable nods to the Cybertron-set scenes from both the first American comic issue and the first television episode! It all helps bring the planet to life.
This story, and “Victory” from 1986’s annual, were the only two annual stories reprinted by Marvel UK. If you’re looking to track down “And There” to read, I’d recommend finding a copy of the annual; it’s far easier (and cheaper!) to find than the 1994 Holiday Special it was reprinted in.
Despite the rest of the Transformers Annual 1985/86 being almost “throwaway”, it’s worth tracking down if only to read “And There Shall Come… A Leader.”
This annual is certainly of its time, and it eschews continuity with the comic it’s based on in favour of promoting the then-current Transformers toy range. But, much like the very early comics themselves, it’s worth the trip back in time to see another “first” if only to appreciate how much Transformers evolved over its first year.
What did you think of the first Transformers annual? I’d love to read your thoughts so please leave a comment below!
May your luster never dull, and your wires never cross.
— Graham (@inkybauds)