A Retrospective Review of Transformers UK 146-151: “The Legacy of Unicron”

Without a doubt, Transformers The Movie was the best thing to have ever happened to Transformers The Comic. It seemed to have inspired and excited the editorial and creative teams at Marvel UK far, far more than the task of “filling in between the American stories” ever did.

Revisiting Marvel UK’s “post-Movie” stories (as they affectionately became known) some thirty years later is an absolute treat for someone like me; someone who was there then and still likes to re-visit now.

“Target: 2006” is thought by many as the quintessential British Transformers story but, for me, it was just the start of the comic’s most creative and exciting upward trajectory and “The Legacy of Unicron” was its apogee.

“The Legacy of Unicron”

Written by Simon Furman
Illustrated by Geoff Senior (Parts 1-2), Dan Reed (Parts 3-4), Jeff Anderson/Stephen Baskerville (Part 5), Bryan Hitch/Geoff Senior (Part 6)
Coloured by Steve White (Parts 1-6)
Lettered by Annie Halfacree (Parts 1-5), Richard Starkings (Part 6)
Originally published in Transformers 146-151 (January, 1988) | 66 pages

Unicron, to my mind, is not a character but a force of nature and as such, too massive and unfeasible to be used in a comic book too often. While he was the “Big Bad” of Transformers The Movie, there wasn’t much information about Unicron or his background. Nor was it explained why he was so terrified of the Matrix of Leadership. (Unless that was all detailed in one of the verses of the soundtrack’s songs and I missed it.)

Although he did kind of appear as a background voice in “Target: 2006” I never, at the time, expected Unicron to properly appear in the comic. So, yeah, that fateful Saturday morning during the Christmas holidays of 1987/88 his arrival in the first part of “Legacy” was a shock to say the least! A good shock, of course, in a those maniacs, they did it! kind of way. How everyone at Marvel UK kept it a secret up until that moment on page 11 of the first part of the story is a testament to their steely resolve and integrity.

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Unicron is literally the biggest Transformer and, were he to be introduced in a 2018 Transformers comic, it would be announced months and months in advance and the marketing opportunity would be milked dry. (Yes, I know he’s coming to IDW’s series this year!) These days, there’s no such thing as a surprise.

But back then, there was no mention of Unicron until his shocking appearance. Even Transformers 146’s editorial kept it a secret; to the point of blocking out his name on the contents list!

The Legacy six-parter is set in the then-future of 2008 following on from Transformers The Movie and reveals the fate of Unicron’s head after his body was blown apart by the Matrix at the end of the film. It finds its way to the Planet of Junk and Unicron enslaves the Junkions in attempt to have his body fully rebuilt. I imagine that in order to do that, all the junk on the planet, if not the entire planet itself would be needed. That’s one heck of a recycling project!

Even without Unicron, the first part of “The Legacy of Unicron” is a ball-bearings to the wall, all-action introduction. Death’s Head is back! Cyclonus and Scourge (two of my favourite Decepticons) are back, and as entertaining as ever! And, of course, with Geoff Senior handling the artwork, the 11 pages are a perfect storm of adrenaline and excitement. Geoff Senior is an amazing artists as it is, but give him a script that features Death’s Head and his talents go into overdrive. Geoff’s style is perfectly suited to the nigh apocalyptic setting of future Cybertron (and Junk). Every building is a blade and every landscape is a vista of sharp edges.

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Not that readers knew it at the time but Geoff’s opening two-parter for Legacy would be his last Transformers work for some 20 months (a lifetime back then!) and even then he would only draw a 20 further pages for the British comic. We didn’t know how good we had it back then.

Geoff is the kind of artist whose work leaves a lasting impression, none more so than his depiction of Shockwave’s death in issue 147. As if to accelerate the pace of the introductory chapter, part 2 is even more thrilling. An extremely tense sequence culminates in the absolutely harrowing and traumatising demise of the Decepticon’s leader. Shockwave doesn’t just die. No. His body is utterly shattered and, like the detached freelance peace keeping agent he his, Death’s Head coolly reaches into the remains of Shockwave’s head and crushes the Decepticon’s brain module. 30 years later I still shudder at it.

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As utterly distressing as this moment is for Shockwave (and fans of Shockwave, like me), it is a defining moment for Death’s Head. Up until now, he’s been shown as a witty bounty hunter (banter hunter?) whose only interest is money and not much else. But up against Unicron, Death’s Head finds himself becoming something of an anti-hero. Simon Furman truly has shaped one of the most compelling characters I’ve read in a (Transformers) comic.

Legacy doesn’t pause for breath with parts 3 and 4, further ramping up the action ready for the forthcoming 150th issue of Transformers. I can still remember sitting at school on a Friday, with my mind whirring in anticipation for the next part that I knew would be delivered on the Saturday morning. While my class-mates were putting up their hands to answer our teacher’s questions I was there in body only like a cardboard cutout in the classroom.

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Dan Reed takes on the artwork duties for Transformers 148 and 149 and gives readers one of the most memorable all-out battles ever seen in the entire comic’s history, the highlight of which is an breathless double-page spread showing an almighty brutal clash between the Autobots and Decepticons.

Dan’s work gives an unnervingly expressive and demonic look to his Decepticons and Unicron. They all ooze evil. His landscapes, too, have a hellish quality that really sell the state of future Cybertron. Everything is weird and twisted, which you might not think suits a robot comic; but it does serve to show emotions (and pain, in particular) incredibly well.

Cyclonus and Scourge, as Unicron’s mind-controlled puppets, are particularly Hadean-looking and are just as terrifying as Will Simpson’s mind-controlled Jazz from “Target: 2006”!

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Transformers 148’s double-page spread, now infamous as the only one ever done for a British story, is a scene I stared at for hours as a kid. Even now I can only sit back in awe at the effort and talent that went into it both by Dan Reed and (colourist) Steve White. You may notice “Grapple” in the thick of the action and it’s been said that the Autobots’ construction engineer looks out of place. But look closely at Panel 2 at the top. That’s not Grapple, it’s Inferno who’s been coloured yellow (and whose “head wings” have been hidden by block colouring). Had it been left as Inferno it would have caused a massive continuity error! Poor Inferno. His previous appearance (way, way back in issue 30) was apparently an art error too!

It’s also interesting to see the Protectobot Blades depicted as part of the Autobots’ Special Units. I get the feeling he was a favourite of Simon Furman’s, having been showcased in “Ancient Relics” and the American Generation 2 series as one of the Firestormers getting in on all the murderin’ action.

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As for the real Inferno, he and Smokescreen make a brief but poignant appearance in Legacy. Friendships in Transformers between Transformers are rarely shown, but Simon here uses Inferno’s and Smokescreen’s bond to great emotional effect. Even in amongst the breakneck pace of the story as a whole and its ongoing battle scenes, the script makes time to give us a fleeting but very powerful personal scene as Inferno heroically gives his life to save his friend, Smokescreen.

Another heart-wrenching moment is when Wreck-Gar outright kills one of his fellow (though mind-controlled) Junkions.

If you’re keeping count, that’s Inferno to be avenged by Smokescreen and Shockwave to be avenged by Death’s Head!

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Transformers 150 must surely rank as one of the most famous issues of the British series. For the comic’s several hundred thousand strong readership it provided, for the first time ever, the origin of the Transformers. I read and re-read the issue so much that the pages just about disintegrated! I did manage to replace then in the mid-1990s thanks to a comic shop on Park Street in Bristol (hence the “50p” price tags on the above picture), but even now those replacement issues are getting tatty due to re-reads!

At the time, I had no real concept of how audacious the act of including the “definitive” Transformers’ origin in the comic was; I was just riveted and enthralled by it all. It really did redefine everything about the Transformers, from their past to their ultimate destiny. It was on an entirely new level for me. Genuinely cosmic. Entheogenic, even. It blew  my mind wide open and I remember heading into the local library to ask if there were any books about the “Astral Plane”.

I’ve never known anything since to be so psychotropic!

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Speaking of bad trips, Jeff Anderson’s and Stephen Baskerville’s depiction of Death’s Head’s journey into Unicron’s mind is nothing short of psychedelic! Even Steve White’s colours (though limited by the “mechanic” colouring process) add to the surreal effect. As  otherworldly as Unicron’s mindscape is, I can only wonder how nightmarish it could have been if Dan Reed had rendered it.

Over the course of the five weeks since Christmas, Legacy carried me along so rapidly and I was engrossed so completely that I was crushed with disappointment when I read the “In fact–to be concluded!” box at the end of issue 150’s lead strip. (The Rodimus Prime AtoZ did soften the blow, however!)

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The final part of Legacy did not disappoint. At all. The entire six-part story is so perfectly plotted and paced and its climax is one of Simon Furman’s best endings.

Issue 151 sees the introduction of artist Bryan Hitch, who is more than up to the task of making sure “The Legacy of Unicron” ends on a high. His opening splash page of a furious Unicron using his “freaky” eye beams on the Autobot shuttle makes for an extremely memorable debut! There’s an amazing sense of motion both of the Autobot shuttle vs Unicron’s head and, back on Cybertron, Cyclonus and Scourge making their retreat. There is a great range of emotion depicted on the robot’s faces, too. (Even Death’s “Eyebrows” Head.)

Again, Steve White really excels with his colours in the “Astral Plane” scenes. Letterers Annie Halfacree and Richard Starkings deserve much appreciation too for giving Unicron his own unique speech bubble style.

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Death’s Head, who we say goodbye to this issue as far as Transformers is concerned, completes his anti-hero’s journey and saves the day, and possibly the entire universe as well, without getting a single penny for his troubles! Most importantly his actions solve a little continuity conundrum and makes sure Cyclonus and Scourge are where and when they should be for the American Headmasters series(!)

Death’s Head was too big a character for Transformers (a little bit like Unicron) and actually deserved to be written out so he could star in other stories, and not least of all his own series.

As big as Death’s Head and Unicron are as characters, Legacy is a big story and certainly big enough to accommodate them both.

Considering that Legacy is so far removed from the first Transformers stories–it is set in 2008, on alien worlds, with a cast of characters (aside from Shockwave and Soundwave) who bear very little resemblance to the “originals”; one of whom isn’t even a Transformer at all–it shows that confident and sophisticated comic book storytelling can exemplify how elastic the general Transformers concept is and how a well-conceived story can have a lasting impact on its readers.

“The Legacy of Unicron” is the pinnacle of British Transformers storytelling. It’s an exciting story in of itself and, when reading it, you can feel the excitement of everyone involved in creating it. It works equally well as a stand-alone tale, as a sequel to Transformers The Movie, and as part of the ongoing, long-running comic saga.

From start to end Legacy one of Simon Furman’s punchiest scripts (it’s half the length of a modern-day TPB!), with action, tension and personality–and sheer scope–on every page. It grips hard and doesn’t let go. Even thirty years on, some scenes still haven’t let go. For a children’s toyline tie-in comic, that’s some legacy.

May your luster never dull, and your wires never cross.

–Graham (@grhmthmsn)


Transformers AtoZ: Death’s Head

Illustrated by Ed Pirrie.

DeathsHead

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