Comics Reading Club: Zob's Thoughts on Marvel Comics THE HEADMASTERS #1

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Nov 16, 2022, 6:18:48 PM11/16/22
THE HEADMASTERS #1 was printed on March 31, 1987, with a pull date of July 1987.  The issue is entitled "Ring of Hate!"  It was on newsstands approximately at the same time as TRANSFORMERS #29.  Bob Budiansky wrote this issue, with Frank Springer penciling the art, Ian Akin and Brian Garvey inking the art, Diana Albers providing lettering (a veteran Marvel letterer sine the 1970's), and Nel Yomtov coloring the art.  

By 1987, the monthly TRANSFORMERS comic book was in its fourth year of publication and it had steadily kept up with the ever-increasing number of characters (read: toys) almost without fail.  However, the newest toys to be introduced included the Headmasters and Targetmasters, each of them a robot partnered with an alien from Nebulos who could transform into that robot's head or weapon.  Not only was this a large toy assortment in and of itself, but it required the introduction of an entirely new planet, and each new Hasbro product was effectively two characters instead of just one.  There were five Autobot Headmasters, six Autobot Targetmasters, six Decepticon Headmasters, and six Decepticon Targetmasters, for a total of 46 characters—and that's not including the Monsterbots, Technobots, Terrorcons, etc. also introduced that year!

A new mini-series certainly made sense, and would give Budiansky an opportunity to flesh out the world of Nebulos and introduce the concept of the Headmasters and Targetmasters without disrupting the monthly TRANSFORMERS narrative.  Despite this, he would miss deadlines, which would necessitate Marvel Comics reprinting fill-in issues in the form of older Marvel UK stories, giving Budiansky time to catch up and craft the story.

However, the introduction of the Targetmasters, in particular, created a bit of a narrative snag.  Five of the characters previously created for The Transformers: the Movie (Hot Rod, Blurr, Kup, Cyclonus and Scourge) were added into the assortment.  For Hasbro, it was just a matter of taking the 1986 toys and retooling them to accept Targetmaster guns so they could resell them in 1987.  For Marvel Comics, it was a problem because the comic book took place in the present day, but these characters wouldn't be created or introduced until the far-flung future date of 2005.  (There was a solution for the Decepticon characters, eventually, but it was not a pretty one.)

It's weird to think, then, that in the Marvel Comics continuity, Hot Rod and Kup and Blurr became Targetmasters *first* and then, years later, proceeded to have adventures on planet Quintesson, planet Junkion, etc. when for their cartoon equivalents, it was the other way around.

The front cover is penciled by Bob Budianksy and inked by Akin & Garvey, and features Fortress Maximus, front and center, dramatically tearing off his own head.  It certainly makes for a shocking and provocative cover, which is of course the goal.  We also see Scorponok lurking in the background, other characters like Highbrow and Brainstorm and Cyclonus in evidence (most of them colored wrong), and an array of generic Nebulan soldiers aiming guns at all of them.  

The story begins on Cybertron.  In the absence of Megatron, Scorponok is in command and is terrorizing a group of captured Autobots, all handcuffed and being led by Decepticon troops towards the smelting pit.  Block coloring reigns supreme in this issue, and perhaps understandably so.  There's a host of new and unfamiliar characters to be had, and Nel Yomtov couldn't possibly be expected to identify every one of them on sight.  With that said, the group is most likely meant to be comprised of Autobots who will eventually become Headmasters and Targetmasters, though there are also a couple of Throttlebots in evidence (they are indeed new 1987 characters, but will show up in a different story and probably shouldn't be here) as well as a couple of Nebulans in exo-suits (who definitely don't exist yet).

As an aside, the cartoon series consistently referred to the alien race as "Nebulons" and sometimes called the planet itself "Nebulon," but the comic book used the term "Nebulan" with an "a," and called the planet Nebulos.

Fortress Maxmus leads a rescue party and gives the order for his felow Autobots to transform.  There are already so many mistakes here, partly because Frank Springer was populating scenes with characters who don't exist yet.  Cerebros is present among the Autobots that Fortress Maximus is commanding, but he won't be built until much later.  Robot-mode Crosshairs transforms into Blurr's vehicle form.  Cog is also present, despite being an unnamed character who only appears in crowd scenes but is never mentioned in narrative boxes or dialogue (he's ostensibly part of Fortress Maximus, in the same way that Wipe-Out was an auxiliary robot for Trypticon).  In the ensuing battle, we also see Fasttrack (part of Scorponok), but he's colored like Optimus Prime.  I won't point out every single artwork mistake (probably just the more egregious ones), but suffice to say, there are a lot of 'em.

Something else that doesn't seem to be a mistake, but rather a deliberate decision, is that Fortress Maximus and Scorponok are drawn as regular-sized Transformers, and not as the gigantic behemoths that they are both in the Hasbro toy line as well as the Sunbow cartoon.

Fortress Maximus' retaliation is swift and effective, forcing Scorponok and his troops to withdraw.  (Battletrap's jeep mode, and an orange Fasttrack, are among the Decepticons we see retreating.)  A Cog-colored-like-Hardhead wants to pursue, but Fortress Maximus (drawn here as Hardhead) elects to return home instead.  Vehicles retreating back to base include a Grommet colored like Chromedome, and a Gasket colored like Hardhead.  The Autobots enthusiastically celebrate their victory, but Fortress Maximus is loathe to join them.  He's sick of the fighting and the destruction, locked in an endless dance with the Decepticons that will seemingly never stop.  He suggests Nebulos as an alternative, a peaceful world he has been observing for a long time.  Others accuse him of cowardice, but the truth is that, as he says, "my joints creak from the corrosion of war without end!"  Some of you may recognize that specific turn of phrase as the title of some very excellent fan fiction by Robert Powers.

Others counter with the fact that Optimus Prime also once left Cybertron, but was never heard from again.  Nevertheless, Fortress Maximus is leaving, regardless.  He boards a starship (unnamed in this issue, but will later be christened Steelhaven) and other like-minded Autobots join him, including the Technobots (well, three of them, anyway—Afterburner and Scattershot and Nosecone are name-checked, but no sign of Strafe or Lightspeed) and the Monsterbots (in a rare moment of Marvel Comics introducing characters never seen in the cartoon).  The ship achieves orbit around Nebulos and the Autobots disembark, with the aerial Autobots (Brainstorm, Grotusque, etc.) carrying the non-aerial troops.  

It seems strange that the Autobots essentially relocated en masse without even contacting Nebulos first to see if they were okay with a large contingent of gigantic alien robots invading their planet.  Only after touching down does Fortress Maximus ask Highbrow (not Blurr, the courier?) to contact the leaders of Nebulos and present them with a message from the Autobots.  Highbrow encounters Gort and his girlfriend Marita kissing on a rock, but when Highbrow approaches, Gort stumbles and falls, knocking himself unconcious.  

Where the cartoon treated the Nebulons as being very alien in design, with green skin and blue hair and wacky costumes, the comic book treats the Nebulos population as basically human, most of whom have peach-colored skin tones and don't look like alien creatures in the slightest.  When the Council of Peers, the leadership element on Nebulos, hears of the incident, some of them wish to take up arms and fight, while others, such as the peaceful Galen, want to hear out the robots and give them a chance.  Marita tries to speak up and explain that Gort was injured accidentally, but as a non-council member she is quickly silenced.  

Obviously, I know who all the major players are here, because I've read this story before and I also know which Nebulans are eventually binary-bonded to which Transformers.  However, there are a lot of new characters to learn for first-time readers, and their pre-Transformer costumes are different than the ones from the cartoon.  Galen has a page boy haircut and looks like Prince Valiant.  Zarak has white hair, so he's easy to pick out of a crowd, but his costume is colored like Hardhead.  Had it been me, I might have colored the Nebulan costumes like their Transformer counterparts, if only for ease of identification.

Blurr arrives as an envoy to convey the Autobots' desire to live in peace, but Zarak has instructed Krunk to secretly fire on Blurr with a magnetic polarizer gun.  Blurr's arm is magnetized and swings forward, knocking a sculpture of planet Nebulos off its moorings, tumbling towards Marita.  As part of the prearranged plan, Zarak orders his personal militia to attack Blurr in response, and he is forced to retreat.  (Already, Blurr has gotten to do more in this story than he did in the 1986 movie adaptation!)  Elsewhere, Galen is forced to reopen a cache of weapons that his people had locked away for ten thousand years.  

The Nebulans attack the Autobots, forcing them into retreat.  Kup refuses Fortress Maximus' orders to withdraw, noting that he's "never run away from a fight," but Fortress Maximus boldly threatens to fight Kup himself if he doesn't obey.  They take refuge in the woods to discuss their next move.  (By this point, Nebulans in exo-suits are being drawn to represent generic Autobots as often as not, and the color schemes applied to them seem almost random—one is entirely yellow, another is colored like Optimus Prime, others are colored like Springer or Headstrong, etc.)

The Autobots want to fight their way out of the situation, but Fortress Maximus will not allow it.  He doesn't want the fight to follow them wherever they go.  "We must be brave enough to wage peace," he says.  In the capital city, Zarak and Galen, still at odds, are fortifying the place in preparation for war.  Zarak commends Galen for his strong response, but Galen has doubts about it.  Eventually, Fortress Maximus and ten of his followers (pre-Targetmasters and pre-Headmasters; no Technobots or Monsterbots in evidence) arrive and Fortress Maximus explicitly identifies himself as the leader of the Autobots.  

Zarak wants to open fire immediately, but Galen will not give the command to attack until the Autobots have made a threatening gesture.  Fortress Maximus and the others disarm, but such a gesture is still not good enough for Zarak.  In desperation, Fortress Maximus declares, "I will give you the most I have to give!" and tears his own head off, placing it on the ground.  Some of the other Autobots follow his head and do the same.  Zarak dismisses it as grotesque theatrics (which is odd, since Grotusque is nowhere to be found), but Galen accepts their offer of peace.  Zarak is left fuming as our story ends, and the narration box promises Decepticons, and the birth of the Headmasters, in the next issue.  

Fortress Maximus is one of the comic book's most compelling characters, and it's his fervent wish for peace, his primary driving motivation, that makes him such a distinctly different character from Blaster or Ratchet or others that have enjoyed the spotlight so far.  The cartoon equivalent wasn't even arguably alive (it was just an old city on Nebulos that was rebuilt into a transformable robot, but it was Spike Witwicky calling the shots the entire time) so for Fortress Maximus to be fleshed out as a fully-realized character is a welcome deviation from the cartoon.  And he's not a big pansy like the cartoon's Cerebros, who also strove for peace, so that's nice, too.

Issue #1 came out in March 1987, but issue #2 didn't see print until June. So, I won't be talking about the next issue for a few months, but rest assured I will get to it eventually!

Zob (trying the new Mountain Dew fruitcake-flavored Fruit Quake... it tastes like somebody dissolved some gumdrops into the can, honestly)
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