If ever a “golden age” of Transformers comics should be defined, then issue 29 should be considered its first light. Transformers 29-30 feature the comic’s first UK-original strip story since the title’s ascension to its new, streamlined weekly full-colour format.
Of course you could consider issue 27 (the first weekly, full-colour issue) as the dawn of Transformers UK’s golden age but, ew, it featured an American reprint and how rude would that be?
As you’ll have read in the introduction of this Marvellous Voyage blog series, Transformers 29 was the first issue of the comic I ever happened upon. And, in an odd twist of fate, its first reprint in Collected Comics 5 was the first holiday special I read. While it wasn’t until issue 97 that I was finally able to subscribe to the comic, issue 29 was the one that started it all for me. And so it’s the issue that, for me, started the title’s golden age.
A Marvellous Voyage, Part 7 – The Spark of the Golden Age
So what constitutes a “golden age”? In Transformers UK’s case it’s the following: weekly schedule, full-colour format, near-seamless integration between US reprints and UK-original stories, adherence (mostly) to official character models, beautiful fully painted artwork (for the UK material), and all the attention on the “original” characters before the title’s cast became bloated and unmanageable. I think that covers it.
The way I see it, Transformers UK’s golden age spans from issue 29 through to the end of “Target: 2006” (the last painted strip) in issue 88.
There’s another reason why Transformers 29 onwards feel like a golden age to me. I didn’t get to read the comic on a regular basis until the beginning of 1987. The (British) stories published prior to that were, in my mind, the stuff of legend which I was gratefully able to revisit through the Collected Comics reprints. As exciting as it was to read about the Transformers every week, when the school holidays came around and I was treated to the latest edition of Collected Comics I basked in the opportunity to mix with the pantheon of some of the greatest Transformers stories ever told!
Transformers 29 – Cover by John Ridgway
For the first time, the UK-original stories are intended to, and actually do, fit in with the American reprints. The first three British stories (and those found in the first annual) are all, in varying degrees, incompatible with the comic’s core storyline.
Transformers 29-32 prints “Decepticon Dam-Busters” and “The Wrath of Guardian/Grimlock” and if you read the story’s credits you’ll see that the identity of the comic’s new editor finally revealed! It’s Ian Rimmer. Ian, thanks for your stewardship of Transformers. I really like what you’ve done.
“Decepticon Dam-Busters”: Written by Simon Furman, illustrated by John Stokes with colours by Steve Whitaker and letters by Richard Starkings. 22 pages. Originally published in Transformers 29-30, October 1985.
I didn’t see the Transformers cartoon when it first appeared on British television screens in the summer of 1985 when it was featured on the Roland Rat programme. But apparently a lot of kids did and that’s why (and when) the Transformers toy range became a massive hit in the UK. Hasbro and Marvel UK capitalised on this and ran television adverts to promote the comic’s new weekly, full-colour format.
In a fit of cross-promotional, brand awareness corporate synergy (and other 1980s’ business-speak), “Decepticon Dam-Busters” was born: a kind of gestalt story/experiment that tries to unify the comic with the cartoon to give the kids the best of both worlds.
Transformers 30 – Cover by Mike Collins
“Decepticon Dam-Busters” borrows heavily from the Transformers cartoon in more ways than one. Despite the previous cache of British Transformers stories basing the looks of their characters heavily on the toys themselves, “Decepticon Dam-Busters” evolves the designs from toy-based to animation model-based.
The difference in storytelling that using the “proper” character models makes is astounding. While it was charming to a point, drawing the characters exactly as their toys was awkward and stilted. Most all of the Transformers characters now look and feel more realistic, more animated, and more energetic.
Interestingly, the Dinobots are very much drawn like their toys. (Perhaps, being later additions to the first season of the cartoon, their character models weren’t yet available.) The oddities to the art don’t stop with the character designs, as John Stokes fills battle scenes with unknown characters. The lack of detail in the colouring confuses matters all the more.
Script-wise, Simon Furman adapts an entire chunk of the middle act* of the hour-long “Arrival From Cybertron” video. (*Or the second episode of the three-part “More Than Meets The Eye” episode if you watched Transformers on American television.)
Needless to say, the cartoon isn’t copied verbatim. Indeed, several pages are devoted to the story’s framing sequence, and a couple of pages serve to remind readers of the ongoing “American” storyline, all part of new editor Ian Rimmer’s mandate to make sure the comic itself reads like one seamless storyline.
“Decepticon Dam-Busters” is far from perfect, but does redeem itself with one small scene of conflict at the end. While the Transformers cartoon rarely veered from its Saturday morning mentality, here Simon shows layers of tension between the Autobots and the humans they’re trying to save. Mirage in particular is painted in shades of grey and becomes a much richer character for it.
What this tale essentially shows is that all of the episodes of the Transformers cartoon could potentially have been the product of Ratchet’s imagination (at least as far at the comic was concerned). The Dinobots love stories and I can well imagine Ratchet spending time regaling them with tale after tale of Megatron’s master plans, of Prime’s problems and the girl who loved Powerglide. He’d probably do well to gloss over the fact that the Dinobots are often kept locked in a cupboard until they’re needed by the Autobots, however.
Although the comic went to great lengths to later distance itself from the cartoon, even at points insulting it, having it kept as a story within a story (you know, unreliable narrator and all that) would have worked perfectly. Maybe it would even have pre-emptively healed the rift between cartoon fans and comic fans when the internet became popular some 20 years hence. Or even heralded an era of peace in our lifetime. I know, I know, I’m being silly.
A simple, almost throwaway comment from Ratchet, “[the humans] think different equals evil,” sums up humanity so succinctly and eloquently that it’s hard to believe it appears in a children’s “toy” comic from 1985.
For anyone coming to the comic for the very first time, “Decepticon Dam-Busters” makes for an excellent “jumping on” point, with lots of bright and bold action and adventure for all concerned. It feels familiar and expands on those scenes from the cartoon to show that the Marvel US/UK storyline, while already in progress, is rich and layered and full of interesting characters.
“The Wrath of Guardian/Grimlock”: Written by Simon Furman, illustrated by Barry Kitson (Part 2 inks by Farmer) with colours by Gina Hart and Steve Whitaker, and letters by Annie Halfacree and Mike Scott. 22 pages. Originally published in Transformers 31-32, October 1985.
With its plot expertly woven among the title’s reprinted material from Marvel US’s Transformers, “The Wrath of Guardian/Grimlock” follows the story of the displaced Dinobots and Ratchet as they arrive back home to the Ark to see what can be done with the scores of deactivated Autobots inside. The ever-impulsive Swoop has already flown ahead only to find that the vacating Decepticons have reprogrammed an Autobot Omega-class Battle Droid known as “Guardian” into an Autobot killer.
Transformers 31 – Cover by Will Simpson
Over the course of “Wrath” and “Dam-Busters” you can clearly see how writer Simon Furman has found his voice for writing Transformers. The characters of his early stories felt like toy packaging blurb writ large, but here each character is a joy to read (especially the Dinobots… I wonder if they and especially Grimlock will become favourites?) and the dialogue is a lot more natural and conversational.
The action comes thick (well, these are the Dinobots) and fast as they respond to the threat with brute force as Ratchet hangs back to find a more cerebral solution. Already the Dinobots are becoming favourites among the Transformers characters, and with the way they are written here, you can see why: The Dinobots are a close team, fiercely loyal and not afraid to share a joke.
Transformers 32 – Cover by Will Simpson
The back-and-forth of philosophy and resolve between Grimlock and Ratchet is a joy to watch unfold. Furman’s portrayal of the Autobots and Dinobots through dialogue and deed rewards the reader with layered characterisation. Even the interplay between the likes of Prowl, Wheeljack, and Ratchet feels genuine and compelling.
Barry Kitson’s line art, coupled with Gina Hart’s painted colours, stands head and shoulders above what has so far been seen in the comic. The fight scenes are fluid, the robots are superbly rendered and emotions and body language are conveyed flawlessly.
Barry absolutely nails the tension in Simon’s script. The second part of the story is essentially a countdown to a ticking time bomb, and carries the reader along at a frenetic pace. The way the pages and panels flow to create a sense of drama and urgency and skin-of-the-teeth timing is done with true craftsmanship.
The only cracks in this otherwise highly polished piece are the brief interludes when the narrative stops somewhat jarringly to remind the reader what has been happening in previous issues. I guess trying really hard to fit the British and American stories together does have its disadvantages on occasion.
“The Wrath of Guardian/Grimlock” is the first genuine masterpiece (marvelpiece?) amongst the early Transformers stories; the plot furthers only from the decisions of its cast and its characters are warm and captivating. There is a skilled balance between action and drama, and there’s hardly a moment wasted.
The golden age of Transformers has started… and how! These issues are the reason why and how the comic went from strength over the years to achieve it’s deserved legendary status. (And, why, in 2017 I… and you if you’re enjoying this Marvellous Voyage… are having such fun re-visiting the comic.)
What did you think of the “Decepticon Dam-Busters” and “The Wrath of Guardian/Grimlock”? 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)