In 1984, the Transformers took over my 8-year-old world. I was consumed by the toys, cartoon, animated movie, comics and various merchandise. After the Transformers’ popularity waned in the late 80’s, the G1 comics, written by Bob Budiansky and Simon Furman, continued to hold my interest. Now, 31 years later, together with Youseph, Darryl, and Jeremy, I host the TransMissions Transformers-themed podcast where we continue to be captivated by Transformers in general, and for me, the current IDW comics in particular.
But those 80’s comics have always stuck with me. I have every comic of the original 80-issue run, plus the Headmasters and G.I. Joe crossover miniseries, the Transformers Universe miniseries, and the 1986 animated movie adaptation. Bob Budiansky is mainly responsible for building the Transformers universe from the ground up, and I treasure the stories he crafted in the comics greatly. I’m grateful to Youseph for giving me a new reason to revisit these comics as I present my picks for the top and bottom 5 issues in Bob Budiansky’s Transformers run.
Charles’ Top 5 favorite issues of Budiansky
Number 5: Issue #5 The New Order
This issue officially marks the Transformers comic’s transition from a limited series to an ongoing comic that would continue for several years and 80 issues. At the end of the Transformers miniseries in issue #4, the Autobots snatch defeat from the jaws of victory when Shockwave shows up to beat them all. So in issue #5 will we see how the Autobots recover and fight back, eventually beating the Decepticons? Nope! Shockwave is still large and in charge, and the Autobots ARE (nearly) ALL DEAD.
Shockwave is a very different character in the comics than his incarnation in the G1 cartoon. His loyalty is ultimately to logic, rather than to Megatron, and determining the best course of action that will lead to victory for the Decepticons. As such, he sees Megatron’s leadership, with all the Decepticons poisoned and near death from the tainted fuel Sparkplug Witwicky made for them, as a colossal failure, which is why he takes command.
In addition to the introduction of Shockwave and the beginning of his rivalry with Megatron for Decepticon leadership, we are also introduced to Josie Beller (AKA Circuit Breaker), and her supervillain origin story. She’s a computer genius who works for tycoon G.B. Blackrock to build defense weapons for his offshore oil rigs that are getting continually attacked by Decepticons. As she’s manning the oil rig defense systems when Shockwave and other Decepticons attack, she gets a large dose of electrical feedback, nearly completely paralyzing her. Thus her hatred for all robots, and desire for revenge, is born.
This issue had to serve as a new “Number 1” since it’s a shift to a monthly comic, and needed to draw in new readers who might not have seen the original miniseries. I think it did this brilliantly, but also continues the story from where it left off. Ratchet’s dilemma as the last surviving Autobot is also a great touch.
Number 4: Issue #27 King of the Hill!
In the aftermath of the tragic death of Optimus Prime, the Autobots are left to figure out who they should choose for their next leader. And Dinobot leader Grimlock has the perfect candidate: himself! The Dinobots have been AWOL for a few issues since they weren’t to fond of Prime’s “protect humans first” leadership style. But with Prime gone, Grimlock is ready to return to the fold. But the other Autobots swiftly reject his arrogance and declare him not fit to lead.
(cue Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer music) Then when Decepticon Trypticon shows up, the Autobots came to say, “Grimlock with your flaming breath so bright, save us from this citybot tonight!” Then how the Autobots loved him… Well, you get the idea. Despite being rejected, Grimlock still leads the Dinobots to rescue the Autobots from being pinned down in the Ark by Trypticon’s attack. After the battle, the Autobots are ready to gladly hand him leadership. And here’s the twist- Grimlock refuses! He’s learned humility and recognizes that his arrogance was why the Autobots originally rejected him. Of course, this only makes the Autobots more certain that he’s worthy.
It was a great story that showed real growth of Grimlock as a character. It’s unfortunate that he seemed to regress almost immediately in the next issue, when he’s barking orders at everyone, and seems more interested in trying on different crowns as King Grimlock than in actually fighting the Decepticons. But for one moment in this issue, Grimlock was worthy of the title he got.
Number 3: Issue #41 Totaled!
When there’s an Autobot Civil War, the Decepticons win! After finishing the Headmasters miniseries that introduced the 1987 Transformers toyline into the comic universe, Budiansky was faced with the task of integrating all these new bots and cons into a comic already filled to the brim with established characters and ongoing storylines. In this issue, the Earth-based and Nebulan-based Autobot groups finally meet, but it’s not exactly a party.
Grimlock is still leading the Earth-based Autobots, and he sees Fortress Maximus’ plan to rebuild Optimus Prime (from a copy of his mind stored on a floppy disk) as a challenge to his rulership of the Autobots. He invokes an ancient Autobot rite to resolve disputes by single combat (I thought the Autobots were the peace-loving good guys?) and since Fortress Maximus had been recently banged up fighting the Decepticons’ flying island/spaceship, Blaster steps up to settle the score.
What’s great about this story is how the Autobots are so wrapped up in their own internal drama, they’re caught completely by surprise when the Decepticons attack, damaging many Autobots, rescuing Decepticon prisoners, and completely wrecking the Ark, stranding the Autobots on the Moon. And we have another rare moment of character growth from Grimlock, after he’s been a terrible Autobot leader since he got the gig, as he realizes that his desire to dominate the Autobots has blinded him to the fact that they’re supposed to be fighting the Decepticons, not each other.
Number 2: Issue #25 Gone But Not Forgotten!
While I was not impressed with the circumstances of Optimus Prime’s death in issue #24 (see my Bottom 5 list), seeing Megatron’s reaction in the aftermath was a great character study. Megatron’s depression and descent into madness (with a little push from Shockwave and the Predacons) was a great insight into his relationship with (and co-dependency on) the late Optimus Prime.
On top of that, the issue was completely focused on the Decepticons and their internal politics. Not a single Autobot featured in the story. Contrary to the cartoon, in the comics, it was always Shockwave, rather than Starscream (who didn’t get much focus in the early comics), who plotted against Megatron for control of the Decepticons, and he did a much better job for the most part. Here he finally bests Megatron, not with an epic one-on-one battle, but by using Megatron’s paranoia and insecurities against him.
And in the midst of this great story, Budiansky still manages to satisfy the Hasbro suits and introduce a new set of toys, the Predacons, and their gimmi– combined form, Predaking, into the comic!
Number 1: Issue #17 The Smelting Pool!
After sixteen issues of Transformers adventures on Earth, Budiansky finally returns us to Cybertron, and the situation is bleak. This issue shows us a Cybertron that has fallen into complete ruin in the 50,000 vorn (4 million Earth years) absence of Optimus Prime and Megatron. The Decepticons have all but conquered what’s left of the planet, and the Autobots are reduced to a small resistance cell that can barely stay alive, let alone help all the bots struggling and dying under Decepticon rule.
In this backdrop, Budiansky expertly weaves the tragic tale of the Autobots Blaster and Scrounge. Blaster has been hardened by the war to the point where he lives more to kill Decepticons than to help his fellow bots, while Scrounge’s desire to prove himself as a useful member of the Autobot resistance causes him to take risks that ultimately get him killed. And despite the fact that Blaster and Scrounge only share space on the page at the very end of the story, their friendship and devotion to each other and the Autobot cause shows through.
Budiansky was under constant pressure in the to continue to introduce new toys into the Transformers comic, and sometimes the story suffered for it. But The Smelting Pool! is Budiansky at his best, using the mandate to introduce new characters as a driving force to bring us to a new setting and tell an amazing story.
Charles’ 5 lest favorite issues of Budiansky
We love Bob Budiansky for breathing life into the Transformers, but no writer is perfect. And the demand by Hasbro to continually introduce new toys into the comic sometimes took its toll on the story. That leads me to my least-favorite Bob Budiansky stories from the G1 comics run.
Number 5: Issue #20 Showdown!
In my opinion, some of Budiansky’s weakest stories were the ones featuring single human/Transformer pairings that tried to focus on a particular character, but ultimately didn’t go anywhere regarding the overall Autobot/Decepticon struggle. Issue #20, Showdown! is a good example.
After Skids (following orders from Optimus Prime to keep up with the convoy) cut him off on the road in issue #19, Jake Dalrymple had a bout of road rage and ran Skids off the road in retaliation. Laserbeak also fired a couple of shots to knock him offline, while the other Autobots left him for dead. But fear not, Skids is later rescued by human hottie Charlene, who gets him fixed up by a mechanic and uses him as her car, unaware that he’s actually a giant robot.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jake Dalrymple uses the same mechanic as Charlene and spots her driving Skids. Dalrymple’s road rage has not subsided so he’s still on a vendetta against Skids. He tries to run down Charlene, and Skids is forced to take control and reveal his true Autobot nature to her. But Skids doesn’t want to go back to the Autobots, he just wants to be Charlene’s car. Awww.
Skids shares a few happy days with Charlene, including a weirdly sexual carwashing scene (this is a comic meant for kids, right?), but ultimately he realizes (with some prodding from former Robot Master Donny Finkleberg) he can’t escape the war and his responsibility to help the Autobots protect Earth from the Decepticons.
This story just felt pointless to me, with the focus on Skids (and Ravage a little bit) being a wasted issue. His story doesn’t really advance the overall plot, and Skids himself is a bit boring (love triangle with Charlene and her human suitor Wendell notwithstanding). But on the bright side, it does heavily feature Lamborghini-driving Jake Dalrymple!
Number 4: Issue #15 I, Robot Master!
In the Marvel G1 comic I don’t think there was any human character more annoying than Donny Finkleberg. A washed-up comic writer is recruited by government bureaucrat Walter Barnett to create a cover story about the giant robots tearing up the Pacific Northwest. Somehow, it’s more comforting to the American public that a cartoonish supervillain is actually the one controlling the giant robots to steal our natural resources, rather than that the robots themselves are aliens from another planet here to steal our natural resources. Of course, this doesn’t actually solve the problem of stopping the robots from stealing our natural resources. But hey, the I.I.I. (Intelligence and Information Institute, the agency tasked with handling the “Robot Problem”) is on a budget! And it’s during the cold war, so the military is too busy with the Soviets to worry about giant robots rampaging on American soil. Pointless propaganda is about the best they can do.
The absurdity is turned up to eleven when the government uses the opportunity of a disabled, frozen Megatron, not to lock him up a thousand feet underground in Area 51 or wherever, but to shoot more live propaganda video with Donny as Robot Master. Of course the Decepticons see this and immediately come to free and re-energize Megatron, who is not too happy at being used as a prop. But somehow Mr. Finkleberg manages to convince Megatron that the Decepticons can use the Robot Master gimmick to their advantage too, and Megatron lets Donny live. Come on, Megatron, you should’ve done us all a favor and just stepped on him.
Number 3: Issue #45 Monstercon from Mars!
The introduction and initial portrayal of the Pretenders in the comic was pretty confusing. The Autobots’ Pretender shells looked like giant humans in armor, but is that supposed to fool anyone? We all know normal adult humans are around 5-6 feet in height, not 20 feet tall. It’s even worse with the Decepticons. Their shells are all weird monsters. I guess that would work if you’re taking them to other alien worlds with similar looking and sized alien species, but on Earth they stick out just as much as giant robots.
And this is what kills the story for me in issue #45. Skullgrin stays in his Pretender shell for most of the issue, and since he’s the rare Decepticon who likes hanging out with humans, he goes to Hollywood and becomes a monster movie star and gets a human girlfriend. Hey, since he’s just a giant skull monster-thing, and not one of those giant robots tearing up the countryside, the humans are totally okay with him hanging out, and he saves them a bunch in the movie special effects budget! Oh, and can you pay him in gasoline instead of dollars?
One human who is not fooled is Circuit Breaker, who returns to her relentless quest to kill all robots. Once Skullgrin reveals that he’s a robot inside his Pretender shell, she takes the opportunity to attack. At least Circuit Breaker is targeting a Decepticon this time (of course, it’s also the nicest, human-loving Decepticon). I know Budiansky was under pressure to keep introducing the increasingly absurd gimmicky Transformers in the later years of the G1 run, but the outlandish Pretenders on Earth just didn’t make any sense at all, and this story highlights why. See issues #52 and #53 for a slightly better use of the Pretender concept in an off-world alien setting.
This issue was the last G1 Transformers comic written by Budiansky, and unfortunately it’s not a great way to go out. In the previous issue Budiansky introduced yet another new group of Transformers, the down-sized, energy-efficient Micromasters (who still transform into normal human-sized cars and planes somehow). Prime brought the Autobot Micromasters to Earth to help bolster his ranks after the disastrous Underbase Saga where Starscream killed off the ‘84-’86 toylines. But the Micromasters are rebellious young punks and are more interested in hanging out with humans and helping fight crime.
Also, since their main human friend is a lady with a TV talk show, the Micromasters become wrestlers after being challenged to a match by another wrestler live on the air. Right. It’s cool though, because wrestling is fake, and they put on a good show. They even get a fan club. But the Decepticons can’t let the Autobots become too popular with the humans, so they have to come and spoil all the fun. Roadhandler and the Autobot Micromasters realize they’re putting their human friends in danger since they’ll always be targeted by the Decepticons, so they rejoin the main Autobot forces again. Hmmm, that plot sounds kinda familiar…
Number 1: Issue #24 Afterdeath!
Anyone who has the original 1986 Transformers Animated Movie remembers Optimus Prime’s climactic battle with Megatron, and his ultimate sacrifice and death scene. It was an epic, albeit traumatic moment for many 80’s kids. Suffice it to say, Prime’s death scene in the comics doesn’t hold a candle to it.
The premise is interesting; Optimus Prime and Megatron agree to a “virtual” battle in a video game world so that they don’t damage the energy doohickey of the month (here it’s a device called a hydrothermocline) that they’re fighting over. Of course, since he’s a huge jerk, Megatron throws in the added caveat that the leader of whichever side loses the virtual battle will be killed in real life.
In the end Optimus Prime wins the virtual battle (after some underhanded cheating by Megatron), but he compromises his principles to do it because he sacrifices the “lives” of some of the virtual inhabitants to “kill” Megatron. So because of Prime’s impeccable moral character (or abject stupidity) he declares that he lost, and tells human game master Ethan Zachary to destroy him and not Megatron. Compared to Prime’s heroic sacrifice in the movie, this is an empty, meaningless, pointless death.
But even that could be forgiven, if not for the fact that the plot turns on Megatron cheating by using the ‘afterdeath’ code (that Ethan Zachary used at the very beginning of the comic when Vortex was spying on him) to come back to life in the game after he is killed the first time. It should have been immediately recognized by Zachary, but somehow it never occurs to him that maybe Megatron cheated before Prime killed some of the virtual inhabitants. Finally, the idea that you can save the entire mind of alien robot Optimus Prime on a five-and-a-quarter inch floppy disk breaks my brain. That’s some damn good data compression!