When Transformers debuted from Marvel Comics in the U.S., it was originally a bimonthly four-issue mini-series, but it was so successful that it got extended. After a three-month pause between issues #4 (Mar 1985) and #5 (June 1985), the title continued monthly.
Meanwhile, Marvel’s U.K. imprint brought out a British version of the title. In the U.K., comics have traditionally been weekly anthology titles. Initially, the U.K. version of the Transformers comic was biweekly and published mostly in black-and-white. It reprinted the U.S. stories, splitting each U.S. issue into two halves, so that each U.S. story would run over two U.K. issues. The first eight U.K. issues thus reprinted the first four U.S. issues.
After this, the U.K. series would have to generate new content, exclusive to the U.K. The British series wouldn’t begin reprinting U.S. issue #5 until U.K. issue #22, meaning that the first eight reprint issues were followed by 13 issues featuring new material unique to the U.K. These 13 issues were divided into three separate stories: “Man of Iron” (U.K. #9-12), “The Enemy Within!” (U.K. #13-17), and “Raiders of the Last Ark” (#18-21).
Because the U.S. mini-series ended with a cliffhanger, in which almost all the Autobots were defeated, these three British serials had to be set during the first four U.S. issues. Exactly when they occur isn’t always clear.
This is especially true of the first U.K. story, “Man of Iron.” Like the first U.S. issue, it featured illustrations that hewed closely to the toys, thus departing from how many characters would eventually be depicted. This situation would persist — although it would gradually improve — throughout this first batch of new U.K. stories. “Man of Iron” also departed from established Transformers lore in several key respects, which we’ll explore later.
In retrospect, “Man of Iron” was very much an orphan. “The Enemy Within!” was the first U.K. story written by Simon Furman, who would go on to write the vast majority of the new U.K. stories. Although “The Enemy Within!” loosely occurred towards the end of U.S. issue #3 and the beginning of U.S. issue #4, it was far better tied to the U.S. comic, picking up on how a couple characters seemed dissatisfied with their factions and spinning this dissatisfaction into a story. It continued directly into “Raiders of the Last Ark,” also written by Furman. This story established one of the oddities of the original U.K. material, which was that very similar events would occur twice, in slightly different forms, with the U.K. version preceding the U.S. one. Thus, the Decepticons raided the Autobots’ craft, the Ark, in “Raiders of the Last Ark,” but retreated at the end — only to return in U.S. issue #4, where they were victorious over the Autobots.
Typically, new British stories ran 11 pages per issue, often continuing over many issues. To help stretch this first batch of original material, the story intended to run in U.K. issue #16 (the conclusion to “The Enemy Within!”) was split over two issues, and this situation persisted through the rest of this batch of new material. (“Raiders of the Last Ark” was scripted as two 11-page chapters, but was run as four chapters of 5 or 6 pages.) For many years thereafter, 11 pages remained the standard in the U.K. title — which proved popular enough that it soon shifted to weekly publication and to full color. After this initial batch of new stories, most U.K. stories clearly took place between U.S. stories and were printed between those U.S. reprints, so that the confusion of when these earliest U.K. stories took place would generally be avoided.
Eventually, the U.K. series would change format several more times. But for most of its run, it was a weekly color title that published all-new 11-page stories between reprints of U.S. issues, which were each split into two segments. Because the monthly U.S. title was reprinted over two weeks, this meant that the British series (augmented by annuals) produced roughly as much new material as the American series for several years. Since the U.S. series ignored the U.K. one, continuity problems kept resulting, which the U.K. series attempted to solve or to avoid in different ways as it continued. Eventually, Simon Furman, the U.K. title’s main writer, took over the U.S. series, writing it through its conclusion (#80, July 1991).
Throughout the U.S. title’s run, American readers (such as myself) had no access to the original U.K. material. In the late 1990s, Transformers fans (some of the most hardcore fans around) scanned the U.K. (and U.S.) material, making it available online. Later, after Transformers comics experienced a wildly successful revival at Dreamwave, the original U.S. material would get trade paperback collections, after which much of the original U.K. material would was collected too. Once the Transformers comics license moved to IDW, it reprinted the original U.K. material over several mini-series and collected editions. But back in the 1980s, the only way most American comics readers knew the U.K. comic even existed was that it was listed in mail-order back-issue catalogs.
The great exception to this was “Man of Iron.” In 1987, the U.S. series was doing very well, both creatively and commercially. Many of the most fondly remembered issues of that title were published in 1987. Transformers: The Movie had been released the year before — and gotten its own three-issue adaptation from Marvel. Marvel also released the mini-series G.I. Joe and the Transformers at the end of 1986. Marvel also published Transformers Universe, a four-issue mini-series featuring profile pages. And in 1987, the new Headmasters line of toys debuted in their own four-issue, bimonthly mini-series, Transformers: Headmasters, which was written by Bob Budiansky, writer of the main U.S. title. But the workload proved too much for him, and the U.S. title needed a fill-in issue or two at short notice.
As a result, issue #32 (Sept 1987) ended with a “next issue” blurb advertising the continuation of the then-running storyline. But instead of this appearing next, issues #33-34 (Oct-Nov 1987) reprinted “Man of Iron.” What was originally going to run in issue #33 ran instead in issue #35 (Dec 1987). The two-month break was enough to get Budiansky back on track.
Running a British story as a U.S. fill-in was an inspired idea. It was cheaper and faster than commissioning a couple new fill-in issues. But it also gave U.S. readers a glimpse of this British material. In the Marvel tradition, issue #33 played this up, spinning what might rightly have been an embarrassment as if Marvel was doing its readers a favor. The cover to issue #33 even placed a Union Jack behind Grimlock in the corner of the cover.
You might wonder why the U.S. series didn’t reprint a more recent U.K. story. After all, they were just as available and were designed to slip between U.S. stories. But the U.K. series had developed its own continuity, largely consistent with U.S. continuity but to its side. U.K. stories weren’t side stories of little long-term consequence; they had their own continuing plots, which could have been wildly confusing to those who had only read the U.S. material. So why not go back to the beginning, before this continuity accumulated?
Some Transformers fans have mocked the two-issue reprint. And it’s true that the two covers bore no resemblance to what was inside. Also, “Man of Iron” was originally printed mostly in black-and-white (with a few colored pages), but it had since been colored for British reprints. Instead of using these nicely colored pages, Marvel recolored the issue, which seems to have been done hastily and contained several errors. Also, the U.S. comic was printed on cheap paper, using Ben-Day dots, whereas the U.K. series used better printing methods. As a result, there’s no comparing the quality of the two-issue reprint to its British equivalents.
But Americans hadn’t seen this material. And as a ten-year-old boy, it blew my mind.
Sure, I was annoyed that the ongoing storyline (which was really good) was delayed. And it was certainly odd, to say the least, to have two entire issues, published three years into a title, that took place during the very first issues.
But once I got into the story, I realized very quickly that it was the most sophisticated Transformers story I’d ever read.
“Man of Iron” was written by Steve Parkhouse, who’s mostly known for his work in British comics, including 2000AD and on Doctor Who comics. He also illustrated The Bojeffries Saga, which was written by Alan Moore, and worked on the Night Raven character with David Lloyd. “Man of Iron” might have been written in the early days of Transformers comics, but its literary bent was immediately apparent.
Right from the story’s start, it’s infused with a sense of history. The very first panel asks us to imagine this way in which the castle depicted is located at a specific place within a long timeline: “Who knows how many feet had trodden these paths in its nine hundred year history… or how many had been broken on its bleak stone walls?” This sense of being surrounded by history is something unknown to Americans, although it’s common in Europe. And for the Americans gobbling up this story as a representative of British Transformers comics, this sense helped identify the story as uniquely European. Right off the start, this isn’t a story that could have happened in America.
What American readers didn’t know was that this was totally exceptional, in terms of British Transformers comics — most of which took place in America, since that’s where the Transformers usually operated. Even in most European fantasy and science fiction, Europe is often little more than a backdrop. The castle, seen at the beginning of “Man of Iron,” could easily have been simply a spooky setting in which to have a Decepticon skulking around. Instead, what’s relevant about the castle is its historical depth, and the story wisely begins by setting the tone and creating an ambiance that gives an added depth to all that follows.
And this is key to the story, in which a Transformer has been lurking beneath the hills, not unlike a slumbering King Arthur.
While I’ve praised Steve Parkhouse, I haven’t yet mentioned the story’s artists. The first two 11-page chapters of “Man of Iron” were illustrated by the brilliant John Ridgway. Ridgeway has worked on many titles over the years, including 2000AD (where he illustrated some of the most important Judge Dredd stories). He’s perhaps best known to American readers as the inaugural artist on Hellblazer. His work is incredibly realistic, and it has a classical style, especially in terms of his shading, that worked perfectly with Parkhouse’s more literary script.
The final two chapters were illustrated by Mike Collins, who’s also done extensive work for British comics but who’s had a career in the states as well (including Uncanny X-Men #266, featuring the first appearance of Gambit). Collins’s style isn’t quite as well-suited to “Man of Iron” as Ridgway, but he did a good job adapting to the material, and he produced some truly stunning panels.
In the story’s first chapter, the three (original) Decepticon jets fly by Stansham Castle, which has been reduced to a small-town tourist attraction. One of the bombs buries itself into the ground. In a series in which planes and tanks explode all the time, this is hardly especially dramatic stuff. Yet Parkhouse and Ridgway do a fantastic job of selling the events. After building up how quiet the castle is these days, we watch the castle’s guard react in alarm as the bombs are dropped, and we feel his alarm. We then watch the small town respond, as if seeing wheels set into motion that usually sit still.
The second half of the first chapter focuses on Sammy Harker, the young son of the castle’s curator. He’s playing with bows and arrows in the local forest. Pursuing an arrow up a tree, he finds himself face to face with Jazz. Illustrated by Ridgway, Jazz had never looked more like a real, three-dimensional, giant being. And it wasn’t hard to imagine how frightening seeing his face staring at you might be, especially when high in a tree, where one would least expect such an encounter.
In response, Sammy drops to the ground and flees. Jazz says nothing throughout the sequence, but we see him stepping on Sammy’s discarded bow, cementing his menacing nature. Accenting this, Sammy finds Jazz following him out of the forest. Sammy runs, and Ridgway’s art brilliantly conveys a child’s breathless fear. He runs all the way home. Then, menacingly, we see Jazz pull up in car mode — and in the chapter’s final panel, see that it has no driver.
It’s hard to imagine a toy manufacturer okaying this depiction of one of its good guys scaring and stalking a little boy. It’s totally out of sync with how the Autobots are generally portrayed. And that’s why it works so remarkably well. The Autobots are, like all Transformers, giant alien robots. They’re potentially frightening, especially to a young boy. But they’re also alien, unfamiliar how frightening they may seem — or how to reassure young boys.
Continued this Wednesday.