When the Headmasters toys debuted, Marvel’s Transformers comic was selling well, in part due to the excitement surrounding 1986′s Transformers: The Movie. And so the Headmasters got to debut not in the monthly Transformers comic but in their own four-issue, bimonthly mini-series, titled Transformers: Headmasters (#1-4, July 1987 – Jan 1988). It was written by regular series writer Bob Budiansky, penciled by Frank Springer (who’d illustrated several Transformers stories), and inked by regular series inkers Ian Akin and Brian Garvey.
Usually, new characters were introduced either by their being built on Earth or their coming to Earth from Cybertron. Headmasters took a very different route by avoiding Earth altogether, in the process telling what amounted to an alternate version of the Transformers’ arrival on Earth, except set on the planet Nebulos.
It’s a fascinating idea, really. When the Transfomers began, their time on Cybertron before their departure was glossed over relatively quickly. The needs of the story demanded this, because there was an awful lot to explain, including the very concept of alien robots that transformed into vehicles. The idea that these robots were engaged in a civil war also had to be dramatized, as did how they acquired their forms resembling Earth vehicles, not to mention their adjustment to organic life that drove these vehicles rather than being the vehicles. That’s an awful lot to do and still have the requisite action set on Earth.
Headmasters was freed from much of this. Knowing Cybertron was successful with readers, the story could dwell there a bit more. The first issue’s opening splash page began with Decepticon leader Scorponok torturing captured Autobot slaves. The following Autobot-Decepticon battle is depicted as a scene of carnage, and Budiansky’s captions emphasize the dead and the wounded, as if he’s describing a battlefield of the American Civil War, rather than sci-fi robots duking it out.
Freed from the need to follow the existing story for how Optimus Prime and Megatron wound up on Earth, Budiansky imagined another reason: that Autobot leader Fortress Maximus was tired of war without end and saw no alternative. While his soldiers celebrate, Fortress Maximus broods and angrily corrects them. Optimus Prime took the Ark away from Cybertron to stop a meteor shower, was attacked by Decepticons, and inadvertently crashed on Earth. But Fortress Maximus targeted Nebulos as a planet where they could start a new life, freed from almost half a million years of war that he felt had gotten him and his comrades nothing.
Finally, freed from needing to adhere to Earth, Headmasters was free to imagine its own planet. Nebulos is a sci-fi utopia, straight out of planetary romance stories — right down to the skin-tight sci-fi clothing. One of the Autobots, while landing, calls it a paradise. We soon learn this isn’t entirely right — there’s certainly political strife on the planet. But it’s a beautiful place that’s a peace.
You knew the Transformers weren’t going to change Earth too radically, but all bets were off when it came to Nebulos.
In a sequence recalling the Frankenstein monster inadvertently drowning a little girl, the Autobot Chromedome stumbled upon a couple making out. Gort, the male of the couple, tries to defend the female, but he stumbles and falls into a ravine, hitting his head. The injury looks severe, and the female is upset. Chromedome stutters, “My apologies, carbon-based life form.” He adds, “I… I hope you companion can be… repaired…” The sequence might be slightly heavy-handed, but it’s a classic illustration of a cultural misunderstanding. Chromedome’s awkwardness, in encountering organic life, is the kind of stuff you expect more from good science fiction than Transformers stories.
The incident spurs a debate in the Council of Peers, the planet’s governing body. The debate seems led by Lord Zarak, who argues for preemptive action, and Galen, who argues for restraint. But after another incident, caused by one of Zarak’s men, the planet — which has experienced 10,000 years of peace — prepares for war.
In a marvelously theatrical sequence, Galen goes to open the planet’s armory, aware that his “life is no longer his to control.” While we could nitpick and say that it’s unlikely such an armory would survive 10,000 years, the image is a powerful symbol for the savagery innate in the human condition. On Nebulos, this has been buried beneath a civilized, even utopian veneer. But it’s still there, waiting to be unlocked and released.
Nebulos soon mounts an assault on the Autobots, and it’s rich with poetic resonance. War has come to Nebulos, and there’s no mistaking the savagery of what we’re seeing. Many of the Autobots want to fight back — they’re soldiers, after all — but Fortress Maximus forbids it. He came to Nebulos to escape war, not to spread it.
One of the most basic aspects of the Transformers is embodied in the “their war, our world” slogan, from the 2007 movie. Essentially, this means that the war between the Autobots and Decepticons has come to Earth — which is uninvolved in the war but happens to become a beachhead in it. As the factions adopt different strategies, only the question is how the humans will react to this war, of unfathomable technology, on our shores. The stories that result might explore human nature or Transformer nature, and they might explore the politics or morality of either or both. But no one can pretend our world isn’t always at war.
This isn’t the case with Nebulos. It would be easy to see this as a case of upping the ante by portraying the “our world” part of the equation in the most prosaic light possible, in order to add to the drama. That’s not wrong. But there’s depth to the depiction in Headmasters, which is shot through with the agony of war and the inability of brave and moral people to stop it. Implicit in this depiction is that idea that the Transformers are a virus, that by coming to Nebulos, Fortress Maximus has infected it somehow. It’s hard for me not to put myself in Fortress Maximus’s position and feel that everything I touch is contaminated.
There’s a powerful sense of inevitability, that trait common to so much great literature, to this story. Of course, there would be misunderstandings between the aliens and the natives. Of course, some will be more trusting than others, and some will see the benefits to be gained from war. Nebulos was never going to remain the same, after the Transformers arrived. And of course, Fortress Maximus, who was brave enough to abandon his beloved Cybertron because he couldn’t see an end to the cycle of violence, isn’t going to accept that Nebulos has to descend so quickly into war.
And so Fortress Maximus leads a contingent of his Autobots to a native fortress, where he effectively surrenders. He and a few other prominent Autobots in his camp deactivate themselves in the most dramatic way possible: by removing their heads. Of course, this particular dramatic gesture isn’t inevitable, but it’s successful in shutting down Lord Zarak and his drive to war.
To its credit, this issue doesn’t even feature the Decepticons arriving on Nebulos. It’s entirely a sort of parable about war itself — and about the dramatic gestures that may be required, if one wishes to escape it.
As the story continues, we see Galen talking with Fortress Maximus’s severed head, learning about the alien culture of the Transformers. This represents cultural reletivism or the willingness to try to understand cultures different from one’s own. Lord Zarak represents the opposite possibility, and he soon contacts the Decepticons on Cybertron. Scorponok is only too eager to represent the Autobots as the bad guys, and he soon comes to Nebulos and assaults its cities.
There’s a certain poetry to Nebulos having invited the Decepticons. They don’t simply follow the Autobots, as in the story of the Transformers’ arrival on Earth. The Decepticons’ arrival isn’t inevitable. They’re summoned.
It’s in response to this that Galen perfects the Headmasters process. Unwilling to reactivate the decapitated Autobots but knowing that the Decepticons need to be stopped, Galen and his colleagues become the Autobots’ heads, allowing him to control the technology necessary to stop the Decepticons.
When you consider that the idea behind the Headmasters stems from a pretty silly variation on the Transformers concept invented to sell toys, this is a pretty impressive origin story. It’s quite remarkable for its cleverness.
Galen is successful in repelling the Decepticons. But part of the price he pays is alienating his girlfriend, the lovely Llyra, who’s also Lord Zarak’s daughter. The two clearly love one another, but Llyra loves Galen because he’s a man of peace — unlike her father. Galen commanding Transformers in battle might please the people, but it spurs Llyra to say he’s not the man she fell in love with.
If the rest of the series retained this level of quality, it would be a top-notch sci-fi story, as well as one of the best Transformers stories ever told. One of the most successful elements of the first two issues is that their stories feel so controlled. But the next two issues strain a bit under the weight of introducing new characters.
For example, issue #3 begins by introducing the previously unseen Terrorcons and Technobots, new teams of Decepticons and Autobots who combine to form Abominus and Computron, respectively. These characters weren’t seen earlier, and their ability to combine into larger robots contradicts the comic’s continuity, in which this feature first appeared on Earth. The sequence introduces these characters, but it has no effect on the plot.
The rest of issue #3 largely focuses on establishing the Decepticon Headmasters, commanded by Lord Zarak, who forms the head of Scorponok. The issue ends, much as Transformers #4 (Mar 1985) did: with the Decepticons’ total victory. The Autobot Headmasters are defeated, Galen and his comrades are unconscious, and Llyra, having misunderstood the fight in which she was endangered, blaming Galen and not her father.
Issue #4 rushes through the creation of another class of Transformers: the Targetmasters. As with the Headmasters, the Autobot versions are created first, then the Decepticon versions. If the parallel to an arms race wasn’t clear, in the case of the Headmasters, it’s certainly clear with the Targetmasters, which features Nebulans transforming into the Transformers’ guns.
The final issue also, by necessity, has Galen and the other Nebulans who become the Autobot heads escape. Having received an S.O.S. from Earth (shown being sent in Transformers #37, Feb 1988), Galen prepares to depart, knowing the Decepticons will follow. Galen’s now in the position that Fortress Maximus was, at the beginning of the mini-series: leaving the planet he loves. In Fortress Maximus’s case, his departure was to escape the war that seemed to go inexorably with his planet. In Galen’s case, his departure is to liberate his planet from war.
Fortress Maximus tried to escape the cycle of violence and failed. Galen can’t escape it, but he might be able to take it with him, sparing the world he loves.
But the ending really belongs to Llyra. She’s learned that her father was lying about Galen. She asks her lover for the truth, and we know she’ll believe it. But Galen lies.
We may presume this is because he knows it wouldn’t be safe for her to go with him, or that he loves her enough to want to spare her along with his planet. His own explanation, to his fellows, is less satisfying: he wouldn’t be able to leave, knowing she still loved him, and he knows he has to leave for Nebulos’s sake. This doesn’t really make sense; of course, she loves him. But it’s how Galen understands it, and their love is the final casualty of the war brought to Nebulos.
On the final page, we see the Autobots leaving for Earth — where they’d basically take over the monthly Transformers comic. In the final panel, we see Nebulos beginning to rebuild, while Llyra’s shown crying. It’s a little melodramatic, but it’s a reminder that damage has been done to this planet. And there can be no pretending that this Transformers story ends happily, or with anything but a Pyrrhic victory for the good guys.
There’s no doubt that Headmasters is pulpy stuff, and its final two issues aren’t nearly as good as the first two. But it manages to weave an alternate version of the Transformers origin into a powerful parable for war — and the difficulty of escaping patterns of escalating force and violence, once they’ve begun. Partly because it was separate from the regular series, it’s able to achieve an epic feeling. It’s a good Transformers story, but it’s also just good science fiction.