Die-cast small cast – Did Transformers comic book writer Bob Budiansky ever get the chance to write the Transformers stories he actually wanted?

Imagine, if you please, two types of comic book writer. 

On the one hand there’s Comic Book Writer “A”. Comic Book Writer “A” spends their days (and nights when deadlines are looming) crafting their stories around their own characters, free to choose their fates, free to determine the size of the cast, and free to decide their adventures. 

Comic Book Writer “A” sounds happy enough, churning out the stories they want to tell. Everything’s going their way.

And on the other hand, there’s Comic Book Writer “B”. Or, more appropriately: Comic Book Writer “Uncle Bobby B”. 

It seems like every month The Toy Company are shepherding in dozens of new lifeless toys ready for him to work his magic and bring them to life. 

But these toys are only going to be available for sale for a short while before another batch rolls off the production line. Poor Comic Book Writer “B”. He has no real control over what stories he can tell and which characters he can use. He’s got to do what he’s told.

After months and months of visits from The Toy Company, “B” finds it harder and harder to do his job properly. Characters come and go, and all the while the fictional world he’s created becomes more and more crowded.

While “A” goes from strength to strength, “B” struggles to keep his creativity alight. 

Poor “B”.

Of course, that’s not to say a fictional universe with a large, expanded cast is necessarily a bad thing if dealt with correctly. Consider popular fictional worlds like “The Lord of the Rings”, “Star Wars”, “Harry Potter” and even “The Simpsons”; they each have huge casts, like the Transformers, allowing for a myriad of story possibilities.

The difference between the Transformers and those other worlds, unfortunately, is that the Transformers universe is more to do with product marketing than storytelling.

So, our Comic Book Writer “B”—Bob Budiansky if you’ve not yet guessed—had the unenviable task, month after month, of chopping and changing the cast, creating and killing characters at the whims of Hasbro’s executives.

Bob endured this Writer’s Hell for over 50 monthly issues. Surely a feat worthy of an industry recognised achievement award, or at the very least, a book token.

But things weren’t always this way. Every once in a while an opportunity presented itself, a gap in the marketing window, where Bob seemed to have space to breathe. There were times where he had the chance to take an issue of Transformers and use it to develop an existing character. Among the endless large-cast battles and contractually-obliged roll-calls, self-contained vignettes emerged from time to time focused on just one or two characters. It is this type of story, in order of publication, that will be explored here, today.

The Lone Surgeon

During its opening issues, Marvel USA’s Transformers comic introduced well over thirty Cybertronian cast members. At the time, the kids didn’t mind as they were quite keen for whichever new Transformer they’d received for their birthday to get a “shout out”, but looking back, it was a lot to take in. There were too many characters running around with too little panel time. It was hard to keep up. And Nelson Yomtov’s erratic colouring never helped.

After the opening salvo, it was as though Bob Budiansky wanted to tone things down and trim down the cast. While not the script writer for the first four issues, he was the editor and steered the closing moments of “The Last Stand” towards the ideas he had for the fifth issue onwards, where he would be taking over the writing reins.

Without spoiling the plot of a thirty-five year old story too much all that will be revealed is that Shockwave, an extremely powerful Decepticon (maybe more so than Megatron), showed up and obliterated the entire Autobot cast. Except one, the Autobot’s chief medical surgeon, Ratchet.

In one fell swoop Bob tipped the balanced dynamic of the Transformers universe on its side. The Decepticon had won and only one Autobot (a medic, no less) had survived. It was one man against the world. Ratchet would have been belching more than just greenhouse gases from his tailpipe, that’s for sure.

With the new dynamic set, Bob had his first chance to tell his story. “Warrior School”, first published in Transformers 7, really delved into Ratchet’s character. His fears and insecurities were played out deftly for all to see. 

Ratchet was not the typical gung-ho freedom-fighting Autobot readers were used to rooting for. But that was part of the charm. Even moments like Ratchet comtemplating the function of a sausage, while whimsical, really played on the alien nature of the Transformers and the plight of them being stranded on Earth.

As the story’s title suggested, Ratchet soon learned to become a warrior. Though he went down fighting, he came back up thinking, defeating Megatron with brains, not brawn.

The consequences of Megatron’s defeat soon led to the liberation of the Autobots and Ratchet, the unlikely hero, emerged as one of the richest Transformers characters ever written.

Oil Slick

Bob Budiansky’s next narrow-focus tale was “Shooting Star” from Transformers 13. Perhaps Bob felt like a change of pace after the breath-taking events of the previous issues… and here he certainly provided one! In fact, after so many Transformers appearing in the preceeding twelve issues, practically none at all appear in this story!

With Megatron jammed in weapon mode, the story follows down-and-out Joey Slick as his discovery of the deposed Decepticon leader changes his fortunes for the better. Well, at least until Megatron is unjammed.

It’s not a terrible story, just baffling. Here Bob has another opportunity to focus on a Transformer… even a character piece on Optimus Prime as he comes to term with recent events (though Marvel UK did fill that gap) or Prowl wondering if Prime is really fit to resume leadership or, heck, Starscream’s chance to become Decepticon leader with both Megatron and Shockwave gone.

Bad, Bob, bad. “Shooting Star” is a wasted opportunity and, pun intended, fires a blank.

Soapdown Showdown

Transformers 14–19 rushed by, each featuring all-new characters some memorable, some forgettable. One character, Skids, was almost going to be forgettable, but in issue 20, Bob took the opportunity to showcase this little Autobot.

Skids is an interesting case. In the Transformers cartoon he was barely used, and, his toy version wasn’t produced in as high quantities as the other Autobot Cars from 1985. Maybe Hasbro didn’t think Skids’s alternate mode of a Honda City compact car would be particularly popular with the gas-guzzling target market. They were probably right as even in the comic, Skids’s vehicle mode was erroneously depicted as a van, not a compact car.

Much like Ratchet before him, Skids was not a warrior and probably therefore an attractive choice for Bob. Presumed dead, Skids decides to leave the Autobots and their war with the Decepticons and try to enjoy some time as a human’s car. This particular human, a fiesty red-head called Charlene, falls head over spurred heels for Skids and the feeling seems mutual.

“Showdown”, beneath the superficial layer of a girl and her van, provides an interesting commentary on not just the Autobot/Decepticon war but conflict in general. Skids laments his old life of war and desires peace.

But this being Transformers, the war does catch up with Skids in the form of Ravage and his keen sense of smell. With his “platonic human companion” in danger, Skids rises to his responsibilities and takes Ravage down. Down a mine shaft in actual fact.

“Showdown” illustrates the heroic nature of the Autobots without the need of intergalatic, star smashing battles as the backdrop. Bob’s talent as a writer depicts drama and personal conflict very effectively without the need of special effects.

Mechanic and Medic

After introducing the Aerialbots, Stunticons, Battle-Chargers, Protectobots, Combaticons, and Predacons (and killing off both Optimus Prime and Megatron) across the last six issues, Transformers 26’s “Funeral for a Friend” is a quick break in the proceedings for Bob to reflect on things with an old friend. Ratchet is back!

Ratchet was not able to revive Optimus Prime and his failure weighs heavily. While it seemed like the circumstances of Prime’s death were completely absurd, the fall out of that event becomes a creative gem that Bob can mine. Forget the A-story of the ridiculous “Mechanic” and his moustached migrant side-kick, the real story here is Ratchet coming to terms with his loss.

Loss of friends and comrades is rarely dealt with in (pre-IDW) Transformers. Scores of characters can be deactivated without so much as a thought from the survivors. But here, the story shines on Ratchet. Timing wise, with this issue coming out at the tail end of 1986 when Ratchet toys were no longer being produced, it’s an odd story for Hasbro to approve.

Ratchet’s despair is palpable and Bob handles the darkness without melodrama. And, again, the personal conflicts of the characters contain more drama than all that noisy, flashy fighting.

After two years of Transformers, and despite all the new toys/characters that have come and gone, Ratchet is still the Autobot to root for.

Hollywood Pretender

Nearly twenty issues and two years pass before Bob snatches at another chance for a single-character showcase. And in that time the Marvel USA Transformers universe has taken a turn for the worse. In 1987 and 1988, the toyline’s most prolific years, over a hundred more characters are introduced into the comic. The strain is unbearable, the staples can barely hold on. Things are bad.

Long gone are the “classic” characters both from the toy shelves and the comic’s pages. Things are really bad.

With “Monstercon from Mars” the spotlight falls on Skullgrin, a Decepticon Pretender. On one hand Bob at least focuses on a Decepticon for once, but on the other, the story is merely a replication of “King Kong”. Okay, so it’s not a giant ape that the actress falls for, but giant skeletal bull-monster is close enough.

A look into the inner workings of a Decepticon is a curious diversion, but at this point in Bob’s Transformers career it’s clear he’s lost his spark for all things robot. It’s such a shame.

The Last Stand

With fresh ideas drying up and his own realisation that the end of the road is upon him, Bob makes ready to hand his job over to someone else. (It’s Simon Furman, writer of the Marvel UK Transformers stories. You may not have been aware.)

Hasbro were still squeezing new characters into Bob’s brain right up until the end; Powermasters, Seacons, Triggerbots/cons, Sparkabots, Firecons, Pretender Beasts, Micromasters… It’s a wonder that the poor man wasn’t driven insane.

Bob’s last story, the asinine “Interplanetary Wrestling Competition”, did try for a focus on the Micromaster Roadhandler, but it was lost among the sheer suspension of disbelief required to accept a human and a Transformer actually wrestling.

It goes without saying that Bob Budiansky’s contributions to the Transformers legacy can never be overstated, and it’s nice to remember that he handled the small things as well as the big ones.

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

— Graham (@grhmthmsn)

Published by Graham Thomson

Blogger, photographer, worrier.

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