In 1986′s Transformers: The Movie, set in 2005, both the Autobots and Decepticons got new leaders. Marvel Comics adapted the movie as a three-issue mini-series, but the main comic book didn’t leap forward to 2006, the way the cartoon show did, when it returned after the movie. Instead, the Marvel series, written by Bob Budiansky, continued in the present, basically ignoring the new characters introduced in the movie.
Despite this, the ongoing Marvel comic oddly mirrored the movie by killing off (in issue #24, Jan 1987) the Autobots’ leader, Optimus Prime — and in the very next issue (#25, Feb 1987), the Decepticons’ leader, Megatron. Both died in very different circumstances from their movie deaths — circumstances that were fascinatingly low-key, compared to the movie’s epic battles. Both issues are now considered classics.
Perhaps even more amazing, the story depicting Megatron’s death didn’t feature the Autobots; it was an all-Decepticon issue, an idea far ahead of its time in 1986. The next issue (#26, Mar 1987) reversed this formula, focusing on the Autobots and centered around Optimus Prime’s funeral. The next issue (#27, Apr 1987) occurred while the Autobots struggled to choose a new leader. Grimlock, the leader of the Dinobots known for his mix of stupidity and braggadocio, demanded to be chosen. It seemed — to the Autobots, as well as to readers — like an absurd suggestion. But by the end of the story, Grimlock proved himself, even acting humble in the aftermath, and was indeed chosen to lead the Autobots.
It’s hard to describe just how shocking these four issues were. They proceeded methodically, totally upending the status quo of the series. That was Bob Budiansky’s intent; he later explained that many of his decisions on the title during this period were based on making choices that would be unexpected or shocking. And he certainly succeeded with these four issues.
While those four issues are best thought of as a unit, they did continue some plots left over from previous issues. And they occurred concurrently with the four-issue G.I. Joe and the Transformers mini-series, written by Michael Higgins. The four issues of that mini-series make explicit references to the events of these four issues of the regular Transformers series, and the eight issues really work together as a block — that systematically changes the status quo of the Transformers series while weaving in and out of an extended story featuring G.I. Joe and Cobra.
Of course, such radical changes to the status quo, while exciting, also present narrative challenges. Shocking developments are one thing, but turning them into compelling stories is quite another. And that’s the mark of a real writer.
That’s also where Budiansky succeeded, crafting a saga that was among the very best in the original comic’s history.
Transformers stories tend to feature an ensemble cast. That’s true of many series featuring teams. But the Transformers comic (and the G.I. Joe one), new toys were being introduced all the time, and the comic had to incorporate them. This meant that the title’s ensemble cast was perpetually growing, and the need to focus on new characters made it difficult to develop any characters in any depth or to tell extended storylines.
To address this, Budiansky would focus on two Autobots — Blaster and Goldbug — who fled the rest of the Autobots, now ruled by Grimlock. New characters would still be introduced, but they would be woven into the ongoing story of Blaster and Goldbug. (Goldbug was actually the same Autobot as Bumblebee, who had been destroyed and rebuilt during G.I. Joe and the Transformers — and given a new name for the occasion. This reflected the fact that the Goldbug toy was a car that looked very much like a gold Volkswagen beetle, which was very similar to Bumblebee’s original design as a yellow beetle.) The emphasis on Blaster and Goldbug let the comic tell an ongoing story, focused on a few characters. But the effect of this was to decentralize the Autobots at large from what used to be their comic. Blaster and Goldbug were now the stars, and the Autobots were now recast as the villains — or one set of villains, since the more overtly evil Decepticons were still present as antagonists.
There’s probably no more central conceit to the Transformers than that the Autobots are the good guys and the Decepticons the bad guys. Budiansky was about to upend that too.
Many Transformers stories have focused on crises of leadership. The Decepticons have often been depicted as having multiple characters interested in seizing command. With the Autobots, story after story has focused on the burden of command, as characters — usually Optimus Prime, though not always — struggle with the casualties and other consequences of their decisions. To the credit of Transformers stories, this kind of moral wrestling and self-doubt is usually depicted as the sign of a good leader who takes his job seriously. But most stories depict Autobot leaders, especially Optimus Prime, as unquestionably right and noble. Optimus Prime might rule the Autobots like an authoritarian monarch, but he’s consistently a benevolent one, who makes mistakes but takes accountability for them.
While this provides a positive example of what good leadership means, it’s not without its problems. Because a king is still a king. Optimus Prime might be an excellent leader, but the underlying structure of Autobot authority is a dangerous one. The problem with benevolent dictators, no matter how efficient or how seductive an idea, is that such a government is ultimately responsible to the dictator’s whims. And there’s always a next guy. Even the best emperor can be followed by a bad one, who can use the same structure of unchecked authority to take whole societies down catastrophic and self-destructive paths.
That’s what the saga Budiansky crafted explored. He may have intended simply to write a surprising story, or to take the Transformers in a new direction. But the result was an interrogation of power… and of why loyalty is owed when you think your nation is still the good guys, relatively speaking, but is doing terribly misguided and even wrong things.
The new storyline began with the very next issue, following Grimlock becoming the Autobots’ leader. When we first see him in issue #28 (May 1987) — penciled by Don Perlin and inked by Ian Akin & Brian Garvey — he’s fitting himself for a crown to reflect his new status. The humility Grimlock found, at the end of the previous issue, seems to have been a passing fancy, and it’s clear that things are very, very wrong. Blaster and Goldbug appear scared to tell Grimlock displeasing news, and they have reason to seem intimidated: Grimlock smashes things in frustration, then asks angrily why Blaster and Goldbug didn’t simply kill the humans who interfered with their mission, rather than abort that mission.
Grimlock soon sends Blaster and Goldbug back out on a mission, promising punishment if they fail. That mission occupies most of the issue, and it’s not particularly memorable. What is remarkable is how miserable Blaster and Goldbug are. Instead of killing the humans, they cooperate, and they’re victorious. But they haven’t achieved the mission’s goals, and they know Grimlock — whom they don’t respect — won’t be happy. So in the final panels, they decide to drive away from the Ark, the Autobots’ base.
If the Transformers are soldiers in a civil war, Blaster and Goldbug have gone AWOL — absent without leave. They’re deserters.
Moreover, they’ve disobeyed orders. Yes, those were immoral orders — to kill any humans who got in their way. If Blaster and Goldbug were human soldiers, this would be the an illegal order, under international law. But it’s still disobeying the orders of a military superior.
But in the great tradition of morality tales, we identify with them.
The Transformers comic routinely featured dangling plotlines, and there was no guarantee that Blaster and Goldbug would be the focus of the following issues. But they were. And although one would expect that this would be difficult to write, the result was a two-part story that’s considered one of the best in Transformers history.
“Crater Critters” (issue #29, June 1987) — also illustrated by Perlin, Akin, and Garvey — begins dramatically, with what might be a meteor crashing into the American Southwest. But it’s not a meteor; it’s a spacecraft. Out of the crater, a battered, dying Transformer’s hand reaches out, but he can’t lift himself free, and he slides back inside.
Blaster and Goldbug check in on oil baron G.B. Blackrock, who’d been shown in previous issues. Hearing their story, Blackrock is the first to call them “deserters.” The two Autobots are interested in news of Decepticon activity. Apparently, despite their desertion, they’re eager to continue the war with the Decepticons. Blackrock informs them of the apparent spacecraft crash, and the two Autobots head toward the site.
On Cybertron, we learn that the ship that crashed was sent by the Decepticon Ratbat. Making Ratbat one of the Decepticon leaders was another one of Budiansky’s surprising moves: Ratbat was one of the Decepticon cassettes and therefore one of the most minor of all the Transformers toys. Essentially, he was an accessory to Soundwave, the Decepticon who transformed into a cassette tape player. (Remember, this was the 1980s.) Ratbat didn’t even have a proper robot form; he was a mechanical bat who transformed into a cassette tape. His toy wasn’t even sold on its own; instead, it was packaged with another Decepticon cassette. Making him the apparent leader of the Decepticons on Cybertron was more than unexpected. It went against how the largest and most expensive toys were supposed to be the most important, but it also suggested that size needn’t matter quite so much. After all, these were mechanical life forms, and there was no need for the best brains (or the best programming?) to be in the physically largest bodies.
Ratbat sends the three Decepticon triple-changes (Astrotrain, Blitzwing, and Octane) to investigate. (Remember when I said that, even during this storyline, the comic would have to introduce new characters?) They arrive at the crash site, chase some human scientists away, and begin their investigation with typical Decepticon arrogance. The survivor seen earlier warns them to stay away, but they don’t listen, and they’re soon infected by what took down the craft.
Blaster and Goldbug enlist a scientist named Charlie Fong to help them get past the site’s military guards. Fong’s a typical Autobot-helping human character, but it’s notable that he’s Asian. The story plays this with a pretty soft touch; his ethnicity isn’t a huge point. But an army lieutenant does get a panel of thought balloons, remarking on Fong’s bravery: “That little guy must be the bravest man I ever met,” the soldier thinks, adding, “Who’d have guessed?” As a kid, I wouldn’t have picked up on the fact that this soldier’s thoughts were racial. But as an adult, I can appreciate the fact that the comic was trying to be diverse and to portray an Asian character in a positive light — without being too overt or preachy about it.
As Blaster engages the three Decepticon triple-changers, Goldbug and Fong question the ship’s pilot. The infection that downed the ship is caused by tiny Transformers — so small that they transform into nuts and bolts — called Scraplets. It’s a fascinating idea, rooted in the fact that the Transformers turn into metal objects. What kind of Transformer might transform into into something as small as a screw? A Transformers virus — another fascinating idea. A lot of the best Transformers stories revolve around exploring implications of them being mechanical life, such as their religion or origins or diseases, and this story is no exception.
Hearing about the Scraplets, Blaster explains that he’s heard of them: “They evolved the ability to resemble harmless nuts, bolts, screws[,] and the like… but they’re supposed to be the deadliest disease known to mechanical life forms in the entire galaxy!” It’s a slightly ham-fisted bit of dialogue, but it does its job of selling both the idea of the Scraplets and their threat. It also suggests that the Scraplets, though not necessarily all Transformers, evolved, and it further alludes to the idea that the Transformers are aware of other forms of “mechanical life” in the universe (something the opening of Transformers: The Movie suggests).
As the story nears its conclusion, Blaster radios Goldbug for help, but Goldbug — convinced that finding a cure must be the top priority — abandons Blaster. Goldbug wrestles with the decision, and Blaster rages angrily at what he considers Goldbug’s cowardice. But Goldbug’s situation reflects the need for tough decisions, in times of war or outbreak — something Blaster’s referenced earlier in the story. Goldbug’s choice to abandon Blaster also echoes their decision, at the end of the previous issue, to abandon the other Autobots. I don’t think readers could suspect that Blaster’s correct and that Goldbug’s a coward, but it’s hard to miss that these two deserters seem to have deserted one another in the very next episode. Without making this too obvious, the story puts Blaster and Goldbug under extreme circumstances in order to test whether these two deserters can remain loyal to one another… or whether their splinter group of two will rapidly fall apart.
Goldbug drives away from the crash site, but not before he’s infected by a single, stray Scraplet. It soon reproduces in Goldbug’s “skin,” and Fong is unable to remove it. As Goldbug drives, he deteriorates rapidly. Don Perlin and his inkers depict this rather brilliantly, and it’s amazing how unsettling it is to see Goldbug with holes in his hood and his bumper falling off. Goldbug seems on the verge of death — a situation made all the more dramatic because he seems to have abandoned Blaster for nothing. Goldbug pleads: “Charlie… you can’t let me die here… not with Blaster needing me… thinking I betrayed him… you can’t…!”
It’s a great cliffhanger, but it gets a great deal of its dramatic tension from the way it tests these two deserters in that context.