One of my favourite childhood Christmas traditions, as far back as I can remember, was receiving comic book annuals. In Germany, finding British and American comic books was nigh on impossible, except at Christmas when annuals (similar in presentation to the local comic “albums” that were available) were readily imported. I grew up reading a lot of beautiful and colourful hardback German- and French-language comic albums, so to receive the likes of Scooby Doo, Cor!, Jackpot, Whizzer and Chips, Superman, and Batman in all their hardback glory on Christmas Day was an exceptional treat!
But none of that came even close to the excitement I had when, at 9 years old, I received the second Transformers annual on Christmas Day in 1986. For that whole year I was utterly absorbed in a Transformers “universe” of my own making with just a handful of the toys themselves, having only a very limited and sporadic exposure to the comic from Marvel UK. The only version of the Transformers story I really knew of at that point was from the Ladybird books and tapes. Reading that Transformers annual during the evening of Christmas Day changed everything.
Transformers-wise I was very lucky to receive the Stunticons/Menasor giftset (five–or six!–Decepticons in one box), the mini-Autobot Pipes, a Transformers/Cadbury’s chocolate Selection Box (including a card game) and, of course, the annual. I think if my mum had paid a bit more attention to the contents of the book itself, instead of just the Transformers branding, she would never had given it to me on account of the graphic violence contained within!
What immediately hit me upon opening the book was the breathtaking double-page spread of the Dinobots, painted by John Higgins. It was so surreal and otherworldly, with the imposing mix of robots and robotic dinosaurs slowly marching across an alien landscape like giant metal menaces. It had almost every element of science-fiction that my young imagination craved at the time. Even today it remains one my absolute favourite pieces of Transformers artwork.
The Transformers Annual 1986/87 was my proper introduction to the Marvel UK storyline. While Transformers issue 29 (published in the autumn of 1985) was my first exposure, actually finding copies on a regular basis was almost impossible. By Christmas of 1986 I had read just a handful of parts of stories, “Target: 2006” being one of the more recent. The annual’s first feature, “In the Beginning – The Story of the Transformers… So Far,” was the perfect introduction!
The annual’s first comic strip, the 11-page “To a Power Unknown”, isn’t very well regarded nowadays but I found it compelling back then. It was nice to see a Transformers story set in the UK (and feature nods to, of all things, BBC Radio 1, Doctor Who, and Coronation Street) and I loved, and still love, Will Simpson’s artwork. I was struck by how mean-spirited the Autobots were being to each other (the complete opposite of what I’d been used to reading in the Ladybird books) and the death of a human character by “heroic” Jazz was utterly shocking at the time. Being a military brat at the time, it was also nice to see a few RAF nods in the form of the free Red Arrows show scene and the appearance of a couple of RAF Tornado jets. Most tantalising, though, was the mention of an Autobot “UK base” at the end of the story that was never spoken of again…
The annual’s first text story, “The Return of the Transformers” by James Hill, featured a young boy who was something of a loner, and who was so obsessed with Transformers that he kept a scrapbook on them. Yeah, that was so close to the mark with my own childhood I’m going to leave that aspect of it well alone! Saying that, it featured the Aerialbots (which I got for my 9th birthday that year) and Jetfire (which I desperately wanted at the time) in starring roles and that was enough to keep me happy.
As someone who, at that point, had very little knowledge of the Marvel UK stories, the “Transformers Threeplay Quiz” was upsettingly difficult. I had no clue. At all. What kind of sadist was coming up with these three-part “Threeplay” questions? Difficulty aside, I think we can all be relieved that the questions weren’t four-part. I returned to this quiz decades later, having read all 332 issues of the Marvel UK comic, and, I can tell you with all confidence that I f**king destroyed it!
“State Games”, the second of James Hill’s text stories, was (is!) an absolute masterpiece. In fact, I still take the time to re-read it every so often. For a text piece it laid down so many foundations for not just the Marvel Transformers storyline but also some of IDW’s as well. “State Games” was gripping from start to finish, featuring a rich and well considered history of Cybertron, oh and casual kids’ stuff like politics, terrorism, environmental and over-population issues, loyalism… far, far too sophisticated than it had any right to be for a tie-in annual for a range of toy robots. It also featured some stunning painted illustrations by (an uncredited) John Stokes.
And so to the highlight of the Transformers Annual 1986/87: the comic strip, “Victory!” In fact, this particular story could well be the highlight of Marvel UK’s entire 10 year Transformers run! It’s that good. “Victory!” was not my first exposure to Geoff Senior’s work but it was certainly the most impactful.
Imagine a 9 year old boy, already excited by Christmas Day itself, all those new Transformers toys, all that chocolate, suddenly thrilled and horrified all at once by a full-colour title/splash page of Grimlock graphically slashing downwards through Megatron’s face, neck and upper body in one almighty, dual-handed sword strike. To see a “good guy” kill (actually kill!) a “bad guy” so mercilessly, so gratuitously was–wow. Just… wow.
It was this moment, this jaw-dropping, crystallised, indelible memory that I still have some 30 years later, that made me promise myself that I would somehow get that elusive Transformers comic every week from then on, forever. Like, proper forever; either until it was cancelled or I died, whichever would happen first. In my over-excited, sugared-up haze I knew then I wanted all the comics, all the Transformers.
All 11 pages of “Victory!” were a treat for the senses. Geoff Senior’s artwork, along with Gina Hart’s colours painted an energetic, violent and undeniably memorable and affecting story. Simon Furman’s script gave each of the Dinobot characters a spotlight that highlighted their fears and fantasies and laid them bare and exposed for the reader’s imagination to feed upon. The sequence of Sludge and his love for the human Joy Meadows still haunts me to this day. The panel of Joy tearing the skin from her face to reveal a robot underneath utterly terrified me. Come on, guys. Terrifying a young boy on Christmas Day? Not cool.
“Victory!” was one of the very few annual stories that explicitly tied in with the events of the weekly Transformers comic. Most other annual stories either kind of fitted or didn’t fit at all. In fact, looking at the oddly proportioned margins of both this strip and “To a Power Unknown” along with the title of the story featuring at the top of every page, it almost looks like these two strips were originally meant for publication in the weekly comic before ultimately being used for the (slightly taller, pagesize-wise) annual.
I must have re-read “Victory!” (and the rest of the annual) over and over again that Christmas holiday. (And, yes, I did manage to secure a regular delivery order of the weekly Transformers comics at the start of 1987.) Never before, or since, had I been so influenced by something. Thinking back on how much power a media tie-on product for a children’s toy had over me is really quite unnerving.
The annual’s third and final text story, “The Mission” (written by Jamie Delano), was actually a very tense and mysterious thriller. The prose itself was extremely vivid and mature for its target audience and, while its plot was simple, it painted a very cruel and frightening story for its heroes, Jazz and Hoist. The villains of the story, the Constructicons, were given no dialogue or even characterisation, but their ever present threat was no less chilling. Even now, it’s one of the more psychologically disturbing Transformers stories I’ve read. If “State Games” and “Victory!” were the sharp edge of the book, then “The Mission” was a twist of the knife.
The annual closed with a colourful 3-page “Who’s Who” chart of the then-current ranks of the Autobots and Decepticons. It featured Transformers I was familiar and a few I’d never heard of before. During the rest of the Christmas holiday I set about re-creating it on graph paper but instead featuring my own collection of Transformers toys and their tech specs information. (At the time, Motormaster was my highest-ranking Decepticon, for example.) While I’d always been a artsy-crafty-scrapbooky type of kid, I think it was this particular project that became the nucleus of a life-long career in graphic design!
Even today I cannot appreciate how much was packed into this Transformers annual. The entire editorial and creative team made great efforts to make the book as much of a gift as possible. The scope and depth of what it offers is unparalleled and unbeaten even now. At the time, it was my key to the Marvel UK Transformers universe and now, over 30 years later, I still treasure all that it contains and all the wonderful memories it evokes.