Continued from yesterday.
Issue #30 (July 1987) — also by Budiansky, Perlin, Akin, and Garvey — continues the story, but begins in an unorthodox fashion: by introducing the Throttlebots on Cybertron. The Throttlebots were small Transformers toys that, when pulled backwards, drove forward on their own. In fact, Goldbug was part of this line of toys. Typically, a group such as this would have been introduced all together in the comics, but Goldbug’s similarity to Bumblebee led to his introduction first. The Throttlebots would be the second group of characters whose introduction was woven into the saga of Blaster and Goldbug’s treason, and their introduction helped solve the seeminglessly hopeless cliffhanger of the previous issue.
The Throttlebots are captured on Cybertron and taken to Ratbat, who updates us about the situation in the crater. The Decepticons Ratbat sent have captured Blaster, but they’re all weakening due to the Scraplet infection. Ratbat says he’s “unwilling to risk the lives of any more Decepticons,” and so he’s sending the captured Throttlebots — to sanitize the Scraplet infection, killing all those infected.
On Earth, Charlie Fong is now pushing the dying Goldbug… but finds a gas station over a desert ridge. Charlie’s dying of thirst, so he gets a drink of water. When he spills some on Goldbug, the Scraplets where the water landed fall off. Yes, the cure is water — which invites unflattering comparisons to The Wizard of Oz. This is slightly redeemed by the fact that there’s been allusion to a cure multiple times in the story, but it’s said to be an extremely rare chemical. Implicitly, there’s no water on Cybertron — another sign that mechanical life evolved there, rather than was built by organic beings (who would have needed water). But there’s a twist: this is the desert, after all, and the gas station attendants stop Charlie’s attempt to wash his car. All the water’s “trucked in,” and given the state Goldbug’s in, they suggest junking the car instead.
The Throttlebots arrive at the crater, where the Decepticons recognize them as Autobots but are too weak to attack. In a nice little sequence, a dying Blitzwing crashes into the side of the crater, and Scraplets leap off of him, transform, and head towards the new food that’s arrived. It’s pretty cool to think of a sentient virus like this, and it’s also noteworthy that the Scraplets’ word balloons have geometric shapes, reminiscent of their alternate forms as nuts and bolts. It’s a minor touch by letterer Janice Chiang, but it was done here years before different styles of word balloons to reflect specific characters became popularized (on titles such as Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman).
The Throttlebots notice the tracks Goldbug left, when fled last issue, and send a couple of the Throttlebots after them, intent on eliminating the Scraplet infection. They find the decrepit Goldbug at the gas station, where Charlie’s been unable to secure a car wash. They fight the weakened Goldbug a bit before Charlie throws some Scraplets onto one of the Throttlebots, then cures him with some water.
Goldbug then calls G.B. Blackrock, who was seen in the previous issue, and gets him to deliver a couple tankers of water to the crater. But Blaster refuses to be cured, since this would mean the Decepticons would be cured too. He really hates Decepticons, apparently. Goldbug concedes and tells the Throttlebots to use the acid they’ve prepared, instead of the water.
But the Scraplets merge to form one giant creature. Yes, having little things combine into one giant monster (that somehow seems to have a single consciousness) is a cliché, but it’s still fun. Since Ratbat sent the Throttlebots to Earth without weapons (not wanting to arm Autobots), Goldbug’s forced to cure the armed Transformers in the crater, who then defeat the Scraplet monster. The Decepticons then fly off with the contents of the crashed ship — which are revealed in the following issue.
It’s a classic two-part story, and the Scraplets have gone on to become part of Transformers lore (even if the cool implications about Transformers evolution haven’t stuck). But as entertaining as the story is, it’s also a kind of test case for the two deserters. When they reconcile, at the end of the issue, it’s a traditional happy ending, but it’s also the proof that the schism between these deserters and the rest of the Autobots isn’t due to some personality defect in those deserters. They won’t turn against each other too. In fact, they’ve expanded, adding the Throttlebots to their group.
The next issue (#31, Aug 1987) — by Budianski and Perlin, with finished art by Jim Fern — takes a break from the Blaster and Goldbug story, but it ties into Ratbat’s plan with the crashed ship. Entitled “Buster Witwicky and the Car Wash of Doom,” it’s a charmingly hokey story, in which Ratbat uses a chain of car washes (and G.B. Blackrock, who became mind-controlled in the previous issue) to brainwash humans into letting the Decepticons siphon the human vehicles’ fuel. The story’s a nice, campy break from the Blaster and Goldbug story. Buster Witwicky was once a big part of the series (in the early issues), so it’s nice to see him (along with his girlfriend) get a starring role, and the highlight of the issue is Ratbat, especially when he attacks Buster inside a car wash.
When we rejoin the Blaster and Goldbug plot — in issue #32 (Sept 1987), by Budiansky, Perkin, Akin, and Garvey –they’re travelling with the (rest of the) Throttlebots and being menaced by both the Decepticons and R.A.A.T., a military organization tasked with eliminating the Transformers threat. While the cartoon and most later Transformers continuities had Earth quickly learn the difference between the Autobots and Decepticons, this distinction wasn’t known in any widespread way in the comic book. R.A.A.T. isn’t the most subtle of acronyms, but it worked as a paramilitary organization in line with Marvel’s S.H.I.E.L.D. or with G.I. Joe — although, of course, placed in the position of being a villain.
After the fight with R.A.A.T., we see Grimlock for the first time since Blaster and Goldbug defected. He’s just as arrogant as be was then. Having heard of Blaster’s battle with R.A.A.T., he orders the Protectobots — a team of combiners (Transformers who could unite to form a giant robot, called a “gestalt” form by many Transformers fans) organized around the “rescue” theme (a police car, a fire truck, an ambulance, etc.) — to retrieve Blaster and Goldbug. The sequence is only a page, demonstrating how truly decentered the series had become from the Autobots in the Ark, which had always been the main contingent of Autobots on Earth.
Having driven through the night after the R.A.A.T. battle, Blaster and the Throttlebots decide to lay low during the day, hiding in a used car lot. It’s just the kind of quaint plot at which Budiansky often excelled. As soon as the Autobots have settled in, the plot turns to focus on Big Steve, the proprietor of the used car lot. He’s a clichéd used car salesman, who are conventionally depicted as thoroughly unethical, but he’s a lot of fun to watch conning unsuspecting customers. When he discovers the Throttlebots, he doesn’t ask any questions and is only too glad to make plans to sell them. When the Throttlebots transform, Big Steve at first assumes they’re from the Better Business Bureau. He promises to give them fuel and stay the night, but he promptly turns them in for a reward and sabotages the fuel he gives them.
R.A.A.T. arrives, but the Throttlebots find that they can’t transform — thanks to the poisoned fuel. The Combaticons — the Decepticon opposite of the Protectobots — also arrive, as do the Protectobots. With a fight brewing, Big Steve suggests settling who gets the Throttlebots through an auction (which he’ll reap the proceeds from), instead of an conflict (which would trash his used car lot). One of the Combaticons readies a cannon to kill Big Steve, but Blaster intervenes. With conflict about to break out, R.A.A.T. hands Big Steve a check and tells him to get out of the way.
The fight that follows is pretty rote — and it’s not easy to guess that Budiansky had to shoehorn the Protectobots and Combaticons into the plot. What’s most remarkably are Big Steve’s moments, providing some side comedy during the fighting. In one panel, we see a car that’s torn to shreds but still bears the sign “Like New Only $2100.00.” Steve, hiding behind the car, says, ”M-maybe I should offer a discount on this one…” When a Transformer falls on a car, tearing it apart, Steve pounds his fists in frustration, saying, “No! I already sold that Buick — / — for triple what it was worth!”
During the fight, R.A.A.T. loads the helpless Throttlebots and flees. The battle turns when Blaster joins his fellow Autobots, and the Combaticons soon flee. The issue’s conclusion then offers two twists. First, Steve looks at his ruined used car lot, only to greedily grasp his check — which Blaster disintegrates. Blaster has saved Steve’s life, but he doesn’t think Steve should profit from Blaster losing his friends, the Throttlebots. It’s a nice conclusion to Steve’s brief arc, and a comeuppance readers can enjoy. In the second twist, Blaster prepares the Protectobots to go after R.A.A.T. — only to have the Protectobots level their guns on him.
“Grimlock didn’t send us here to rescue you,” says Hotspot, the leader of the Protectobots. “He sent us here to arrest you for rebelling against his command… / …and to bring you back to the Ark for trial and execution!”
It’s a great, pulpy cliffhanger, and it’s the first moment that the story of these deserters positions Autobot against Autobot. This wasn’t the first time any Autobot fought another Autobot. For example, the conclusion of the first year of the title (#12, Jan 1986) saw the Autobots battle a mind-controlled Optimus Prime. But this was probably the first time Autobots were consciously and deliberately taking arms against one another.
There’s an extra irony here in that the Autobots raising their weapons — and promising Blaster’s execution — are named the Protectobots. They might be rescue vehicles, but there’s not acting as rescuers. They’re acting as soldiers, following orders to take action against a deserter. And while that’s logical, it upsets the traditional notion of the Autobots as protectors and as the good guys. Are they moral heroes, or are they ultimately soldiers too? And if they’re the latter, the difference between the two factions becomes far less black and white.
From a narrative standpoint, it’s worth noting that Big Steve has just received his comeuppance from Blaster when the Protectobots raise their guns. The Protectobots only won due to Blaster’s interference, and Blaster’s intervention in the battle begins by saving Hotspot from being shot in the back. When Hotspot returns the favor by arresting Blaster, it’s hard not to feel that he’s ungrateful… even if he is following orders.
But as Big Steve asserts when he loses his check, life’s not fair. “I know,” Blaster says, sounding like a warrior accustomed to such harsh truths. It’s directly after that Blaster’s taken into custody, and it’s hard not to feel like this isn’t fair either.
In the great tradition of using simple narrative set-ups to explore moral situations, Budiansky has managed to make us thoroughly sympathize with an Autobot deserter. So too are we made to see that blindly obeying the Autobot command structure — which is essential to so many Transformers stories — as something contemptible.
Sure, it’s pulp sci-fi with cliffhangers and some very broad-stroke characterization. But what it’s doing is actually rather radical. (Especially — if it need to said — for a kids’ comic about alien robots.)
Budiansky was also writing the four-issue mini-series Transformers: Headmasters (#1-4, July 1987 – Jan 1988) at the time, and his schedule necessitated a fill-in. So — despite the promise of “Blaster’s fate revealed!” at the end of issue #32 — issues #33-34 (Oct-Nov 1987) reprinted the first original British Transformers story, “Man of Iron.” This left the dramatic cliffhanger unresolved for an extra two months, and given how dramatic that cliffhanger is, it’s hard not to imagine that figuring out how to resolve it might have played into the delay.