Friday, October 2, 2009

Review: Marvel Headmasters #1: Ring of Hate!

Ring of Hate! is the first issue in the four-issue limited Headmasters series, from Marvel comics. It ran concurrent with the main line, though it caused delays necessitating the insertion of some pre-made British comics to keep up with a monthly schedule. It was written by Bob Budiansky, so unlike the G.I. Joe crossover it integrates extremely well with the ongoing comic. Frank Springer returns to the book to pencil it. The team of Akin and Garvey provide inks, Diana Albers provides letters, and Yomtov provides colors. Budiansky also draws the cover.

The cover is terrific. Fortress Maximus dominates it, violently ripping off his own head before a cadre of armed human-looking fellows, outfitted in sci-fi jumpsuits. Autobot warriors have their weapons at the ready to his right, while Scorponok and some flying Decepticons are on the left. Behind him, a series of futuristic spires burn. The message is clear - Fortress Maximus is besieged, surrounded on all sides by the forces of war. He's caught between the Autobots and the Decepticons, with metaphoric flames at his back. His response to this is apparently self-destructive, though it's actually self-sacrifice. "Introducing an all-powerful, all-new generation of Transformers!" the cover tells us, thematically undercutting the drama a bit. Interestingly, Optimus Prime occupies the Marvel pricing box rather than the current Grimlock or someone from the Headmasters. This helps to instantly tie the book into the main continuity; in effect, Optimus is giving the book his blessings.

This issue itself is no less strong. It openes with a wordy splash, a line of Autobots trudging along while being herded and indeed blasted by Decepticons. Yomtov's coloring makes the guards stand out well from the prisoners; the miserable Autobot prisoners are block-colored in blue, while the Decepticon overseers get their full colors. Scorponok is the visual focus of the series, blasting a hapless prisoner in the face. Springer does flub some of the models, including headmaster heads instead of robots, but it's forgivable. He had literally dozens of models to work with, and they were not all clearly labeled. Despite these flubs, it's a powerful opening image, enhanced by Bob's prose. "The planet Cybertron is a wound that will not heal," he opens with. His bleak language compliments the horrors that we witness. Even the obligatory introductions aren't too bad, and Bob manages to call-back to his earlier Cybertronian tale by having Skullcruncher say that when he's through with the prisoners, they'll be "begging for a swim in the [[smelting]] pool." One gets the sense that he is excited by this new blank canvas. It must be a relief to get to tell a whole new story with new characters, rather than try to shoe-horn these 40 or so bots into his existing monthly run. But I get ahead of myself.

The audience isn't the only one witnessing this trail of tears. Fortress Maximus and a band of Autobots observe this procession and disrupt it with a massive attack. Notice Cog, Grommet and Fasttrack among the combatants. The Decepticons quickly retreat, though not before some more excellent Springer art. A Hardhead-colored Cog urges pursuit, but a Fort Max colored Hardhead declares that there has been enough destruction.

After leading the survivors back to their remote base in the Manganese Mountains, Fort Max puts a damper on the celebrations. The war has been raging for 50,000 Vorns, and they are no better off than they were when it started. He pessimistically observes that Autobots and Decepticons are partners in a circle of war and hate and death, unable to trust the other side enough to break the circle. Even more tragically, he sees no way to break it ... but he CAN remove himself from it. He's been observing Nebulos for a few centuries, a world without war. Hardhead calls abandoning the war cowardice, and Maximus doesn't argue the point. His decision is final, though, and most of his troops mutely agree with his assessment. They prepare a great ship and prepare to blast off. Fortress Maximus is the last to enter. He hopes that, should he ever see its silvered plains again, they will "gleam unmarred by the ravages of war." Sadly, he never will, though Bob couldn't know that for sure when he wrote it.

Having a new set of characters and a new circumstance to play with seems to be sitting well with the creative team in general and Budiansky in particular. His prose is some of the strongest in his entire run. He rightly points out the cowardice of abandoning one's duty and one's homeland, but Maximus' weariness comes through, both in his words and in his facial expressions. I also love the design of the as-yet-unnamed Steelhaven, the vessel that takes Maximus and crew to Nebulos. I liked the name and design so much that I reused it for the name of the Elite Guard flagship in The AllSpark Almanac.

The Autobots arrive at Nebulose and park their ship in orbit. They fly down (standing on the alt modes of their flying brethren or hanging onto their wings and tails, which is pretty silly really) and start to examine their new environment. In the process, we get a bit of characterization and names for the Autobot future-Headmasters. Highbrow is tasked with making peaceful contact with the natives and delivering a message. He interrupts two Nebulons, Gort and Marita, kissing, and in a panic Gort backs off of a small incline and hits his head. Highbrow awkwardly delivers the message-device and hopes that Gort can be 'repaired.'

Inside Koraja, Nebulon capital, the Council of Peers debates what to do. Lord Zarak wants to crush this new threat, and he has some support on the council. The leader of the world-watchers, a fellow named Galen, disagrees. He wants to give peace a chance. Soon his oration holds sway, and the council decides to hear out the envoy. Springer outfits the Nebulons in a mish-mash of futuristic gear, vaguely Greco-Roman apparel and, for the ladies, revealing sci-fi outfits. It helps set the tone for an advanced society, living in a world without war. One gets the sense that this is an Eden, albeit one that the natives fought hard to construct and maintain.

The envoy, Blurr, arrives, but Zarak and Krunk have a plan to disrupt the proceedings. Krunk fires a magnetic polarizer rifle at the Autobot and forces him to attack a fountain, throwing the crowd into a panic. The panicked Nebulons attempt flight, though with varying degrees of success. Poor Marita, still wearing the same outfit, is trampled and seriously injured. Zarak's personal militia assaults Blurr and drives him off, "his audio sensors ringing with the cries of the injured and the curses of the betrayed."

Blurr can't figure out what happened, though some of the Autobots want to give the Nebulons a real fight. Maximus, of course, refuses. His opposite number, Galen, doesn't have the same courage for his similar convictions. He opens an ancient armory in the Arvassian Range and prepares for war. Soon the Autobots are facing a full-scale assault and driven back into a dense swamp. Kup and Hardhead are willing, perhaps eager, for a fight, but Maximus will not have it. He threatens to fight them himself if they won't pull back, then covers their retreat with his body. Injured Autobots sit, dejected, in the corrosive environment. Fortress Maximus won't hear talk of a counterattack, and instead prepares for another diplomatic exchange. "We must be brave enough to wage peace."

Zarak and Galen are among those manning (Nebuloning?) the ramparts. Zarak assures Galen that history will remember him kindly, but Galen is having second thoughts. When eleven Autobots (in fact, the future Headmasters and Targetmasters) stride boldly towards the fortified position, Galen orders his troops to hold their fire. Fortress Maximus gives an impassioned speech, one which fails to convince Zarak. Sensing disbelief, Maximus orders the Autobots to disarm. Zarak still has doubts, so Maximus gives him the most he has to give ... his very head. He offers his head and now-inanimate body as a gesture of peace. When Zarak, half mad, urges Galen not to be fooled by such "grotesque theatrics," Highbrow, Hardhead, Brainstorm and Chromedome follow in Fort Max's lead. Galen orders the weapons lowered - there will be no war today.

This issue manages to be greater than the sum of its many parts, a feat that many Transformers comics in the 80's failed to do. The mini-series approach to this radical departure from what went before works very well. New themes are explored; the toll of millions of years of war, the courage to fight hard for peace. Though there are tons of new characters, they don't always introduce themselves in their very first appearance, which allows them to more organically come to our attention when appropriate to the story. The prose is top-notch, from the dialogue of the Autobots and the Nebulons to the captions describing what is going on.

As well-written as the captions were, they were hardly necessary given Springer's art. He manages to convey both the devastation of Cybertron and the paradise that is Nebulos with equal aplomb. His robots and his humans are nicely expressive, important to a story with such deep emotions as this. Despite, or perhaps even because of, the cheesecake, I actually like the silly Nebulon designs. It would have been easy to put everyone in jumpsuits and be done with it. Instead, the Nebulons have a wide variety of fashions, from Zarak's tunic to Galen's symbolic garb to Krunk and the other soldier's uniforms. I also rather like their war machines. They are clearly instruments of destruction, but are different enough from both Earth weaponry and Cybertronian alt modes to stand out.

Ring of Hate! is available from Titan books in the anthology Transformers: Trial By Fire. Check it out at!


Mark Baker-Wright said...

I don't think I was aware that Headmasters came out at the same time as "Man of Iron." While I was getting Transformers by subscription every month, I had to go to the local comics shop (although grocery stores still had comics back then, they never carried the TF-related mini-series!), and that meant a trip to the opposite side of town in a day before I could drive. So I was often several months behind by the time I actually DID manage to snag these issues!

Thanks for that extra note of perspective!

Jimtron said...

Well, I'm fudging my review order just a little bit. Headmasters was bimonthly, so issue 1 came out at around the same time as #30, The Cure!. The last issue came out at around the same time as #36, and the two storylines were integrated together by #38.

US #30: March 1987
HM #1: March 1987
US #31: April 1987
US #32: May 1987
HM #2: May 1987
US #33: June 1987
US #34: July 1987
HM #3: July 1987
US #35: August 1987
US #36: September 1987
HM #4: September 1987
US #37: October 1987

Mark Baker-Wright said...

Even so, it's clear in retrospect that this is part of why that unannounced "Man of Iron" fill-in was used (and right after we were promised something else, as has been noted in the appropriate entry), which I'd not really considered before.

Jimtron said...

Oh yes, Headmasters was definitely at least partially responsible for the delay. I believe Budiansky has said so in an interview somewhere.

LBD 'Nytetrayn' said...

Ah, I remember this. They had a commercial for it, which drew me back to the comics. Problem was, this wasn't available where my dad was picking up the comic for me, and I wound up with the first part of the Scraplets two-parter instead.

It worked out in the long run, of course, especially once the Headmasters went to Earth. But it was years before I managed to get and read this series.

--LBD "Nytetrayn"

Chuffer said...

For the UK comic, the Headmasters mini-series really worked within its usual structure of main story / back-up strip – allowing the series to run for 16 issues, then merge seamlessly into the main narrative.

At least, it would have been seamless, except the same issue that began the back-up strip also led with a fairly redundant two-parter about the Headmasters (presumably at Hasbro’s insistence) that pretty much gave away the events that would unfold over the next four months.

Hans said...

Headmasters was also released in Holland.... by Hasbro itself! (although the team translating the usual Transformers comics also did this series, so the same people did work on it).

You got Headmasters for free in the toystore, when you purchased a Transformer. All four issues were combined into one strip (with added character models and plenty of ads for the "new generation of Transformers"). Obviously, this Budiansky cover was used for the entire collection.

I remember getting it for free. I didn't have any money to buy a new Transformer at the time, but the lady behind the counter knew me well, as I had spend all my birthday money on Transformers a few weeks earlier :)

Good memories. And yes, I enjoyed this "issue"/series a lot.

Salt-Man Z said...

This was either the third or fourth TF comic that I read. (After 7/8, and concurrently with 26.) Unlike those issues, though, I never did replace this one with a more recent copy, and it is completely falling apart on account of how much it was read.

I absolutely loved (and still love) Springer's art in this issue. For some reason, though, the later three issues don't maintain the same quality, and I've always wondered why that was.

Hans said...

One word: deadlines! :)

I remember being baffled as a kid that Fort Max's head kept changing. We didn't get the toy in Holland, so I had no idea they were having problems deciding if he should have the Cerebros head or or the larger Fort Max head! :)