Continued from yesterday.
You might think that, after issue #32, Blaster would reconnect with the Throttlebots. But that never happens — at least not on-panel. When the story picks up again in issue #35 (Dec 1987), it remains focused on Blaster, and this continues into issue #36 (Jan 1988), which is effectively the culmination of the storyline. Goldbug and the other Throttlebots would return in issue #37 (Feb 1988), which is a kind of denouement to the storyline that also sets up the one that follows.
Issue #35 — by Budiansky, Perlin, Akin, and Garvey — is entitled “Child’s Play,” and it opens with a splash page of a kid being shot. Or so it seems. At the time, kids with toy guns being shot by police was a major news story, and legislation was passed to require that toy guns had a bright strip of color on them to help policemen identify them as toys. Of course, the image is all the more dramatic because it has nothing to do with Blaster — and is thus more surprising.
The child is actually faking. He’s part of a group of four who’s playing, with no adult supervision, on a section of railroad tracks. Sadly, the boy who’s symbolically killed is the only black child of the bunch, perpetuating the old cliché of the black teammate dying (implicitly because he’s more expendable). In addition to the black boy, there’s a white girl, who spends most of her time insecurely gripping her teddy bear. The other two kids are white boys. But at least an attempt is made to make the group of four children more diverse (an attempt not out of line with the inclusion of Asian character Charlie Fong in issues #29-30).
The Protectobots soon arrive with the captive Blaster, and they contact Grimlock. Grimlock, who’s only been shown on a single page since Blaster and Goldbug defected, is again seen here, and he’s just as arrogant as before. Here, the story increases his negative depiction and answers the question about how the rest of the Autobots feel about him. After Grimlock pushes Wheeljack aside in order to rant about Blaster, Wheeljack thinks:
Seems the only thing out simple-circuited commander’s interested in is getting even, not stopping our enemies, the Decepticons!
Can’t hardly blame Blaster for going his own way… maybe I should help him…
It’s a little heavy-handed, like most comics of the time, but it works. Implicitly, the other Autobots aren’t so dumb as to think Grimlock’s a fine leader, but their loyalty to the Autobot command structure is so great that they don’t take action. Blaster and Goldbug may have defected, rather than return to face Grimlock’s wrath for something they didn’t do wrong. But no Autobot at the Ark has defied Grimlock in a way that might coalesce the others into open rebellion.
In this sequence, Grimlock also mentions that the Ark has been repaired, and we see it being refueled in preparation for take-off. This development is handled rather quickly, but it’s a major one. In the early days of the comic, the fact that the Ark was buried and incapable of flying was important to the premise of the series, since it effectively stranded the Transformers on Earth. Now, it seems that all the Ark needed was a leader who made its repairs a priority.
Since Grimlock hasn’t been shown often, we may assume this has been his focus — and that this focus contrasts with that of Optimus Prime, who was more concerned with other things, such as fighting Decepticons and saving threatened humans. And although we haven’t seen much of the Decepticons either, it’s not as if they haven’t been up to anything. Indeed, we may see Buster Witwicky’s starring role in issue #31 as an illustration of Grimlock’s lack of concern, when it comes to the Decepticons. Had Optimus Prime still been alive, that could have been a more conventional Transformers tale, with Autobots versus Decepticons. Instead, the Autobots were absent, yielding the starring role to Buster.
Later in the story, we get another, slightly shorter sequence with Grimlock, in which he’s shown overseeing the construction of a chair designed to torture Blaster, upon his return to the Ark. It’s another way this story ups the ante, in preparation for Grimlock’s larger role in the following issue. When Grimlock hears that Blaster’s position isn’t moving, he orders the Ark to prepare for take off.
Returning to the present issue, the Protectobots spot signs of the Combaticons, so they stow Blaster, in his tape deck mode and with a lock on him that prevents him from transforming, in a pipe. The Protectobots soon find the Combaticons, who combine into their gestalt form, Bruticus. The Protectobots follow suit, combining to form Defensor. This smacks of an editorial dictum to feature these combined forms, which was a major (and popular) feature of these toys — and which wasn’t seen when the two teams fought in issue #32. Their rematch here, despite featuring these combined forms and being granted more space, feels rather like a a retread of the previous battle — right down to Blaster’s timely intervention, which we’ll get to in a moment. The one stand-out element of the fight is when the giant robots pick up abandoned trains from the nearby tracks and swing them at one another — a dramatic image also chosen for the cover (although the effect of that image, on the cover, is severely lessened by the coloring; Bruticus and Defensor are each depicted as a single color).
More satisfying is the emphasis on Blaster, since he’s the focus of the larger storyline, and on the kids. Budiansky often excelled at these human stories, and the entire storyline can be read as a series of episodes in which various humans encounter the Transformers: Charlie Fong (in issues #29-30), Buster Witwicky and his girlfriend (in issue #31), Big Steve (in issue #32), and now these kids. While none of these humans stick around too long, the strategy of using them helps to ground stories about alien robots in recognizable human characters.
The kids find Blaster in the pipe and remove the lock on him, allowing him to transform. Almost immediately, a high-tension tower collapses, due to the fight between Defensor and Bruticus, and Blaster has to dive to shield the kids from it. Budiansky, who’s characterized Blaster as a tough-minded warrior who saved Big Steve despite that human’s actions, continues Blaster’s characterization here. After he’s saved the kids, fulfilling his promise to protect them if they agree to listen to them, Blaster gripes about how he’s had to save them: “Pretty lousy one-sided deal I made with you, huh?” It’s a small touch — Blaster still does what’s right, and it’s only a single line of dialogue. But it’s something that it’s hard to imagine most of the Autobots uttering — and it does wonders for making Blaster distinct and interesting as a character (which is important, since he’s the focus of this storyline).
Bruticus apparently defeats Defensor, then turns to Blaster. Knowing he’s outmatched, Blaster claims that he was the Protectobots’ prisoner and has “no loyalty for them or any of the Autobots!” It’s a clever little twist, because it demonstrates Blaster’s military thinking and his willingness to take strategies (like this one) that the other Autobots probably wouldn’t. But it also plays into the continuing themes of loyalty and treason. Of course, we know that Blaster’s still loyal to the Autobots’ values, even if he’s not loyal to the Autobots’ government.
Grimlock doesn’t understand this distinction. Interestingly, Bruticus does. He orders Blaster to prove his defection by killing one of the human children. This, too, is a cliché; we’ve all seen far too many movies in which the bad guys make such a demand, as if just because someone’s a villain should mean they have no compunction against killing civilians. This cliché makes a bit more sense here, where it’s less akin to killing a civilian and more akin to killing an animal — given that the Transformers are of another (probably superior) species. But there’s no reason for Bruticus to think that disloyalty to the Autobots should require such a complete and total abandonment of Blaster’s previous values. Bruticus is probably only entertaining himself by seeing Blaster struggle with the conundrum, but it’s quite a conundrum.
Essentially, Blaster has to choose between killing a human child and being killed himself. All along, Budiansky’s characterized Blaster as a warrior, capable of tough choices, but he’s also characterized Blaster as valuing human life. This entire storyline revolves around Blaster’s decision to desert the other Autobots — another tough decision. Now, Blaster is being morally tested — an apt situation for a deserter who’s the protagonist of a moral story. If we take Bruticus at his word (a questionable assumption), logic would seem to dictate that Blaster kill the kid, since someone’s going to die anyway and Blaster’s far more capable of waging war against the Decepticons. But of course, this feels wrong to us, since a terrorist threat feels like no excuse for executing an innocent child. Essentially, Blaster’s being put into a situation in which he has to decide whether he’s ultimately the tough-minded warrior Budiansky has characterized him as being or whether he’s a human-loving Autobot, with moral values we’d recognize.
With Bruticus’s gun to him, Blaster raises his gun at the kids. The story really sells the point, and not only through Blaster’s earlier grumbling about how protecting them is a “lousy one-sided deal.” “I’ve got to go through with this or I’m dead!” he thinks, and we’re all familiar with how thought balloons grant a view into a character’s interior space. He says what he thinks Bruticus wants to hear, about using these “little runts” as “target practice.”
Sammy — the black boy seen “dying” on the first page — bravely steps forward. These kids have only known Blaster for a few minutes, so it’s not surprising that they’d believe Blaster would kill one of them, especially since he’s saying that he will.
And then Blaster fires. And Sammy falls.
That first page now appears to be a bit of foreshadowing, underlining the horror of Sammy’s actual death at Blaster’s hands, later in the story.
As Sammy’s friends mourn him, Bruticus complements Blaster for being so “brave.” And while Bruticus is distracted, Blaster conveniently makes short work of Bruticus by toppling an electrical tower into the Decepticon.
And then Sammy sits up. It was all an act. That first page wasn’t foreshadowing of Sammy’s actual death; it was an indicator of how good Sammy is at faking his own death in toy-gun fights — a skill he later uses when it really counts.
Later, after the Protectobots have revived, Blaster prepares to surrender himself again, provided the children are allowed to leave safely. It’s a little odd that Blaster didn’t try to sneak off before the Protectobots recovered, but this allows for the story’s twist endings. Blaster explains that helping humans was what first got him into hot water with Grimlock (back in issue #28). In the first twist ending, Hotspot decides to let Blaster go. It’s essentially the reverse of issue #32′s ending, where the twist was Hotspot turning on Blaster. The Protectobots watch as Blaster takes off with the kids in Blast Off, one of the Combaticons whose alternate form is a space shuttle — to which is now affixed the mode-lock device, previously used on Blaster.
There’s no reason for Blaster to escape in this way, except to fulfill the kids’ dream of going into space. Outer space is obviously an essential element to the Transformers stories, and it’s also something that fascinates children. That childhood joy is on full display here, as the kids get to experience weightlessness, and this comes off very successfully. But then comes the final twist: through a window, the kids spot a craft in pursuit, firing at them.
It’s the Ark, having been restored, after 34 issues, to space-worthy status. Grimlock’s taking things into his own hands, and the final conflict with Blaster — in which Grimlock has by far the superior forces — can’t be long off.