Thanks to everyone who responded to my last post on the subject with suggestions of which Transformers might constitute “the good stuff.”
I’ve started to follow up on some of them via my local library, but I’ve still got a handful of the Marvel series to get through them, to help justify the time I spent reading them instead of something more productive, like helping orphans or spaying and neutering the feral cats in my neighborhood.
So tonight we take a look at 1988’s Transformers #45, featuring “Monstercon From Mars!” by writer Bob Budiansky and art by Jose Delbo and Dave Hunt.
This one stars the Decepticon Skullgrin, who belongs to a sub-set of Trasnformers known as “Pretenders.” These were Transformers who played in the popular and influential rock band fronted by Ohio’s own Chrissie Hynde and…wait a minute, wrong Wikipedia entry.
Okay, these were a subline within the Transformers toy line that was introduced in 1988. Young Caleb, then 11-years-old, thought these were bullshit.
If you weren’t of a Transformer-playing-with age in 1988, Pretenders were your standard robot-that-turns-into-a-vehicle sort of Transformer, except for the fact that they came in these big plastic shells in the form of various monsters and spacemen, which snapped apart into two pieces to reveal the Transformer inside.
From a toy designer’s perspective, I can now see the appeal of these. It looks like you’re playing with some sort of shitty plastic monster or spaceman toy, but—what’s this?—it’s actually a Transformer toy! A robot in disguise…in disguise!
But if you’re a kid who has bought into the whole Transformers mega-story, the Pretenders don’t really make a lick of sense. The giant robots disguise themselves as either gigantic humanoids wearing futuristic armor (if they’re Autobots) or hideous giant monsters (if they’re Decepticons).
Aren’t these disguises just as conspicuous as giant robots?
The subject comes up in this very issue, as Decepticon leader Scorponok orders Pretender Skullgrin to go to earth and covertly establish a fuel depot:
Yes, perhaps he will, Scroponok.
But since he looks like this, I kinda doubt it.
This issue is the tale of Skullgrin, and while it would be a stretch to call it a good comic book, it is, once again, a complete, done-in-one story that’s not all that hard to get into. And it has quite a bit of humor, including the sort of bad jokes that little kids might actually think are funny as they haven’t already heard versions of them that most adult readers have heard hundreds of times before, and, for us more sophisticated readers, completely ridiculous situations that are funny in their absurdity.
We open with a icky monster menacing a woman in 1988’s idea of futuristic fashion, while calling for a man named Brick to help here.
“No one makes lunchmeat out of the woman I love, creepazoid!” Brick shouts, running into the room and upsetting a futuristic sculpture in the process.
What is going on? Is this a Transformers comic or not?
On the next page, the monster starts to smoke and spark, and its face ultimately explodes, while a director shouts “Cut! Cut! CUT!!”
Ah ha, it simply a scene for a Hollywood sci-fi movie! Clever, Budiansky.
The director is Rollie Friendly, shown wearing a white suit with a big, white Miami Vice-style blazer over a Hawaiian shirt, gold (well, yellow) watch, gold (yellow) medallion and pink sunglasses.
He freaks out at the props manager over the short-circuiting monster, and then at actor Jake Colton, whom he refers to by his full name of “Jake Colton,” so we in the audience know that the douchey blond guy playing Brick is named Jake Colton.
Carissa, his co-star, tries to comfort his bruised ego, but he snaps at her: “I am a professional actor! If and when you become one, perhaps you’ll understand.”
In his office, Rollie is bummed out about his monster, when in walks his “public relations wizard,” who turns on the TV and says, “Imagine landing a robot for your next movie, eh?”
Speaking of robot landing, on TV is a news report about Sky Lynx landing on Earth with a cargo of missing earth children (Sky Lynx and the earth children were being kept prisoners in a space circus, as we saw in the previous issue).
A small crowd has gathered, including the media, for whom Sky Lynx is only too happy to speak to and pose for:
Look at that attention whore; his tail is wagging.
Also on site are protesters carrying signs with phrases like “Down With The Robot” and “Die Robots” on them.
And then there’s a mysterious lady in a van, wearing a giant coat and hat. Who is she? And why does she hate robots? Why she’s Circuit Breaker, the naked-ish lady on the cover.
Here, let her tell you here origin in just four short panels:
As she’s talking out loud to herself about how she wants to fuck up Sky Lynx, when the crowd gets ugly:
This is presumably the same crowd that was usually harassing the X-Men. There were far fewer X-Men comics back in the late eighties, so on slow weeks they would apparently converge in Transformers comics to harass giant space shuttle monsters that cold kill them a love tap.
The PR wizard (Tony Stark?) is undeterred, and is great at thinking on his feet:
Since the alien robot that broke down in the first scene is out of commission for three weeks anyway, Rollie decides he’s nothing to lose by traveling to North Carolina to cast Bigfoot in his next movie.
In less than two pages, they find Bigfoot, or at least the source of the recent reports:
It’s actually Skullgrin, in his perhaps less suspicion arousing Pretender shell. After attacking the Rollie and his camera crew, the Hollywood snake oil salesmen manages to strike a bargain with him.
Rollie and the PR guy, Mitch, promise to get Skullgrin safely out of the forest, where he’s being hunted by the U.S. army and various locals, and pay him for his time. Skullgrin agrees, provided he gets paid in fuel. This will make him the first Decepticon to accumulate earth’s fuel sources via labor in show business.
First, Rollie and Mitch have to smooth things over with the army.
I love this panel.
"Sure, he snapped a few trees and flattened a few outhouses…and yes, he is here from another planet, and I know what sticklers you guys are when it comes to illegal immigrants, but look at that face, the blood-red eyes, the fangs, the horns…how can you say no to that face?"
“You make a convincing argument,” the lead army guy says, and let’s them go. He actually says this, even though I did not scan the panel in which it is said.
I’m sure you can guess what happens next—
Skullgrin-mania sweeps the country!
Skullgrin is a sensation, although things go awry at his first press conference. (That’s right, this issue has two Transformers giving different press conferences in it! Is there a Transformers comic with more press conferences than Transformers #45?
When the media jackals start asking questions of Skullgrin, like if anyone can be safe around him and whether or not he eats live animals, he freaks the fuck out,
lashing out at the press, and roaring “GRARR!”
Oddly enough, those last two scans pretty much encapsulate the Republican party’s roll-out of then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin last fall, a whirlwind montage of publicity-driven stardom, followed by running in terror when she becomes confused and angry upon dealing with the press.
But enough about 2008, let’s get back to 1988. You’ll notice that Skullgrin’s co-star Carissa knows exactly what’s wrong with Skullgrin, and is able to calm him down immediately.
Writer Bob Budiansky has clearly seen King Kong before.
Rollie shoos the crowd away, saying that Skullgrin won’t be doing any more publicity until his movie, Monster From Mars opens. Carissa sees Circuit Breaker, in her trenchcoat disguise, being rudely asked to leave by a security guard and feels sorry for her.
Circuit Breaker says she’s Skullgrin’s “biggest fan” and is sorry she won’t be able to see him again, and Carissa let’s slip that they would be heading to the Grand Canyon to shoo some scenes anyway.
During a break in shooting, Carissa and Skullgrin share a moment, and Carissa reveals that she’s not really “Carissa Carr, movie actress,” but is really just Ethel Stankiewicz, trying to make it in the movie business.
"I also pretend to be something I am not,” Skullgrin says, revealing his true form, which is just another boring Transformer design.
For some reason, this seems to surprise Carissa even more than if he was a giant horned monster.
Meanwhile, Circuit Breaker sees her foe revealed, says “Costume on,” and transforms into the naked-ish glowing lady on the cover.
She attacks Skullgrin with her energy beams, while he fights back, transforming into a tank, and controlling his monster shell, which is armed with a bun and a vibro-sword.
In the middle of the battle, Carissa recognizes Circuit Breaker as “the one I told we’d be coming here,” and Skullgrin’s faith in his friend in shattered. So when an errant blast begins to crumble the cliff she’s standing on, Skullgrin hesitates…
…but ultimately saves his friend…
Aw, it’s so touching! Jake, you’ll notice is still in character in that last panel, as Rollie has been filming the battle to use as a scene in his movie.
When C.B. has Skullgrin on the ropes, Rollie starts rooting her on: “Kill him and I’ll give you double Jake’s salary! I’ll give you your own press agent! I’ll even give you top billing! I’ll make you a star!”
See, that’s why you need an agent in Hollywood. If Skullgrin had one negotiating his contract on his behalf, he might not have signed one that gave the studio the right to destroy him if so inclined.
Disgusted, Circuit Breaker blows up the camera equipment, and flies away, nobly proclaiming, “I hunt Transformers for reasons of my own…not for money!”
And so ends our tale…
...with Rollie and his camera crew dejected over the loss of their equipment, Skullgrin lying wounded and growling in the canyon, and Jake pointing and laughing at him.
Many questions remain. What will become of Monster From Mars now? Will Skullgrin continue to work with Rollie Friendly now that the director has already called for his destruction so as to make a big budget Transformers snuff film? Will Skullgrin be able to find more roles, or will he be typecast as a giant monster?
I’d say we’ll find out next issue, but then, I’ve read the next issue, and Skullgrin’s not even in it. As you can see from the “Next” above, next issue deals with bounty-hunters stalking the Autobots in a story called “Cash and Car-Nage !”
Yes, Car-Nage. I don’t know if I like the sound of that...