Continued from yesterday.
The following American issue — #37 (Feb 1988), also by Budiansky, Delbo, Akin, and Garvey — follows up on the Throttlebots plot. It also features Ratbat and the Earth-bound Decepticons, who haven’t been seen for a few issues (outside of the Combaticons). The story focuses on another human character, a government agent named Barnett who’s been put in charge of the Throttlebots. (As with Charlie Fong, there’s a nice bit of diversity at work here, because Barnett is black.) He comes to believe in the distinction between the Autobots and the Decepticons, but it’s a distinction lost on his superiors. After another Decepticon attack, the government publicly orders the destruction of the six robots it has in custody. To the horror of many child readers, we watch as the six Throttlebots are crushed and turned into cubes, with Goldbug (which whom we most identify) crushed last for dramatic effect.
But of course there’s a twist: Barnett removed the Autobots’ “brain modules” and connected them to six of his son’s battery-powered toy cars. It’s a cool twist, in part because of the Transformers’ existence as a toy line.
With Barnett at a loss, the Throttlebots suggest visiting Buster Witwicky. The Autobots’ plan is to return to the Ark, which they don’t know has been repaired and left the Earth, and they believe that Buster is the only human who would be allowed to approach it. Buster leaves with Barnett.
But Ratbat and the Predacons, having already attacked the R.A.A.T. base and found the Throttlebots absent, find the Witwicky auto repair business. Ratbat menaces Buster’s dad — a character who made his debut in the very first issue (Sept 1984). After a cut between panels, we see Ratbat do something that causes debris to fly out of the Witwicky garage, implying that he may have killed Buster’s dad.
When Buster and Barnett stop at a mall for batteries for the toy cars, Ratbat and the Predacons arrive. The idea of putting the Throttlebots into toy cars thus allows for a fun chase sequence, as they flee through the mall from the Decepticons. Extreme points of view, necessary to put the toy cars large and in the foreground, enhance the sequence. Buster and Ratbat, having battled in issue #31, get a rematch here, ending in a victory for Buster when Barnett sends one of the steel doors common in shopping malls crashing down onto Ratbat’s head, pinning him. Batnett stays with the other Throttlebots, while Buster flees to the Ark with the toy inhabited by Goldbug’s consciousness.
But Ratbat has apparently escaped the mall, after we last left him. Somehow, he’s stowed away in Buster’s tape player — from which he earlier retrieved batteries to save Goldbug’s toy form, when it ran out of energy. Ratbat enters the Ark, and in the final two panels of the story, picks up Goldbug’s toy form and crushes it, while menacing a scared Buster.
It’s an excellent cliffhanger in a series that excelled at them. Goldbug seems dead. Buster is at Ratbat’s mercy. Buster’s father may be dead. The fate of Barnett and the other Throttlebots remains unknown. Meanwhile, the Autobots are in space, apparently still under the control of Grimlock, to whom Blaster has surrendered. In other words, all seems lost.
Normally, one might expect that this would be followed by a return to space and to the Blaster plot. But the Headmasters mini-series had concluded, and its characters needed to be added to the main title. It’s unclear whether this was a result of editorial fiat or not; Budiansky seems to have enjoyed writing the Headmasters, if the quality of that mini-series is any indication, and he may not have wanted to directly continue the Blaster cliffhanger. In the final issue of the Headmasters mini-series (#4, Jan 1988), the Autobot Headmasters receive an S.O.S. from Earth. It’s the same signal sent in this issue.
So instead of the main title returning to the Blaster plot, the Headmasters arrive in issue #38 (Mar 1988), in which the Headmasters basically take over the title. The issue reveals that Buster Witwicky’s father survived and introduces Buster’s brother, Spike Witwicky. In that issue, the former home of the Ark is trashed, and Galen — who formed the head of Fortress Maximus, leader of the Autobot Headmasters — dies. Spike takes Galen’s place. (Essentially, Spike and Buster were the same character, but the comic used the name Buster and the cartoon the name Spike. The sudden introduction of Spike in the comic was almost certainly done to comply with the specs of the toy, which listed Spike Witwicky instead of Galen.)
Issue #39 (Apr 1988) reveals Buster’s fate; Ratbat took him prisoner at the end of issue #37. Barnett and the Throttlebots also return. The main arc of the issue belongs to Spike, who’s adjusting to essentially being in charge of the Autobot Headmasters. Still, despite much of the important action taking place in Earth orbit (where the Autobot Headmasters’ ship is located), there’s no word from the Ark.
Issue #40 (May 1988) sees Goldbug getting his body rebuilt, introduces the Pretenders (robots within organic shells), and follows up on Optimus Prime death in issue #24. That issue ended with a characteristic Budiansky twist by revealing that Optimus Prime survived, his personality recorded on a computer disc. He doesn’t get a new body in issue #40, but the Autobot Headmasters discover his continued existence as a disembodied computer program.
It’s not until issue #41 (June 1988) that the Ark (including Blaster and Grimlock) is seen again. Even then, we essentially see them from the point of view of the Autobot Headmasters, who finally notice the Ark’s presence nearby. Grimlock, who’s still ruling the Autobots like a self-obsessed tyrannical king (complete with crown), doesn’t take kindly to the news that Spike Witwicky, a human, is in charge of these other Autobots. Nor does he like that they’re harboring Goldbug, whom Grimlock regards as a traitor. When we finally see Blaster, he’s on that torture seat seen in issue #35. Blaster’s not shown screaming, but the seat seems to hold him in a permanent stress position, as well as electrocuting him when his captors will it. All the Autobots of both camps assemble on the Moon, letting us see many characters who hadn’t been seen for some time. Because Fortress Maximus is injured, Blaster substitutes for him in a fight with Grimlock, with the winner to become Autobot leader. So we finally get to see the two fight one another — which perhaps ought to have been the conclusion of the Blaster storyline — even if this story is submerged within a tale that’s really about the Headmasters. If the scene on the Moon didn’t feature enough Transformers, the Decepticons arrive, seizing the opportunity to rescue their captured comrades. In the resulting chaos, Blaster and Grimlock actually give up their feud and chase off the Decepticons. But the Ark’s damaged, incapable of flight, and energy’s running low.
To make matters worse, Steelhaven, the Autobot Headmasters’ ship, has left during the conflict, under the orders of Fortress Maximus, who himself has remained on the Moon. In the end, Fortress Maximus explains that he’s ordered Goldbug to take the ship to Nebulos, the planet that was the setting of the Headmasters mini-series, in order to construct a new body for Optimus Prime. And that’s just what happens in the next issue (#42, July 1988). Not coincidentally, a new Optimus Prime toy had come out, as part of the Powermaster sub-line, in which humanoids transformed not into robot heads or guns but into engines.
Issue #43 (Aug 1988) was another fill-in, adapting an episode of the cartoon that didn’t fit into the comic’s continuity. Issue #44 (Sept 1988) finally reconnected with Sky Lynx and the children whom Blaster took into space — whose parents (who sadly are never seen) must have assumed them to be dead after all this time. Sky Lynx is shown returning the children to early in issue #45 (Oct 1988).
You’d think, after all this tumult, that we’d be shown Optimus Prime returning to the Moon and uniting the various Autobot factions under him. Yet that happens between issues. Instead, the series focused on increasingly silly stories, and it’s widely acknowledged that the series declined in quality, if not went off the proverbial rails, during this period. The Headmasters were the beginning of a series of gimmicky toys — like the Targetmasters, Powermasters, and Pretenders — that seemed to overtake the series. Before long, Optimus Prime was operating on Earth, and the conflict between Grimlock, Blaster, and Fortress Maximus was essentially forgotten in favor of new — and less successful — stories.
During the extended Blaster storyline, Budiansky had managed fairly masterfully to introduce new characters, weaving them into the continuing story in ways that often solved narrative problems, rather than distracting too much from the main story. He managed to keep the plates spinning from issues #28-37 (although issues #33-34 were fill-ins) — the title’s only single, coherent story that could rival that of issues #5-12 (June 1985 – Jan 1986), which focused on the Autobots’ slow recovery after their total defeat in issue #4 (Mar 1985). In this comparison, the Blaster storyline had the advantage of being a lot more artistically consistent — thanks to Don Perlin, Ian Akin, and Brian Garvey. But with issue #38, the title went in a very different direction, only reconnecting with the Blaster storyline’s plot threads in #41 and #44. By the time the title had established a new status quo, with Optimus Prime back in charge of the Autobots, the kind of narrative dislocations that had served so successfully in earlier issues seemed to have taken over and alienated many regular readers, who couldn’t count on plots being adequately followed through and who often didn’t know which characters were where at any given time. Surely, some of this wasn’t Budiansky’s fault, but rather a side effect of the constant introduction of whole lines of new Transformers, who needed explanations for how they came to exist as well as something to do. But the Blaster storyline was in many ways the end of a simpler era for the comic.
The return of Optimus Prime also underlined the authoritarian nature of the Autobots. Sure, Optimus Prime was a great leader and a great character. But Blaster had been characterized well, and issue #36 seemed to set up the possibility that all of his trials were logically leading him to (literally) dethrone Grimlock — whose rule could then be regarded as a temporary one, while the Autobots figured out how to go on without Optimus Prime.
Even in this, the Autobots seemed especially helpless without a leader to fall behind. No one but Blaster — and to a lesser extent, Wheeljack and Goldbug — dared to challenge Grimlock’s commands, even though they knew he was in the wrong. The Autobots have pretty consistently been depicted as an authoritarian bunch, and they’re perfectly willing — in the absence of a rival for the throne — to continue executing the orders of a megalomaniac tyrant. They only dare rally behind Blaster when he’s in front of them and Grimlock’s away. And when Grimlock returns with Blaster as a captive, the Autobots apparently fall right back to executing Grimlock’s orders.
“What can be done?” goes the thinking. “He’s our leader.”
Of course, all that’s necessary for the rise of a tyrant is for people who know better to do nothing. The Blaster storyline is a perfect illustration of this, but it’s also an exploration of the Autobots’ authoritarian impulses.
In this sense, Optimus Prime’s solution is no solution at all. Sure, he’s a good leader, and it’s easy as a Transformers fan to see him as the rightful leader, since we like him and he was the first Autobot leader. But a benevolent dictator, even one as good as Optimus Prime, isn’t a solution to the lack of any recognizable political instinct in the Autobot ranks. Essentially, the Autobots are sheep — perhaps even programmed to be sheep. And after Optimus Prime’s return, we can’t pretend this isn’t so. Even Grimlock and Blaster are only too glad to defer to the returned and rightful king. What the Autobots need is a good political education. And for all of Optimus Prime’s goodness, this is the one thing he never provides.
The arrival of the Headmasters might have sidetracked the Blaster storyline. But Optimus Prime’s return did so in a deeper, spiritual way, forcing all of the issues invoked by the storyline to be swept under the rug. Is it any surprise that Optimus Prime often seemed tired and listless, for the remainder of the series?
If the Blaster storyline is an interrogation of power — and of the Autobots’ authoritarian impulses — the genie can’t go back in the bottle. Grimlock’s not the problem. The Autobots’ political nature is.
That nature isn’t something invented by this story. But this story is the fullest exploration of it.
And that’s a vital, noble task — which, not coincidentally, also happened to produce many of the best issues in Transformers history.