Skin deep – how Marvel comics handled the Transformers Pretenders toy range

Introduced as the ultimate robots in disguise, Hasbro’s Pretenders hit our toy shelves in 1988. With their humanoid/monster shells, these toys were designed to not bear any resemblance whatsoever to the Transformers. Mind you, the robots inside the shells bore no resemblance to the original Transformers either. Once again it fell to Marvel to introduce the Pretenders to the Transformers storyline, and here we’ll have a look at the impact the Pretenders made to the overall storyline and which of the main characters came out of their shells. So to speak.

Isn’t it funny how, when the time is right, the ranks of the Autobots and Decepticons have just the right number of volunteers hidden away in the depths of their spacecruisers, eager to volunteer for the latest maniacal or counter-maniacal scheme?

In Transformers 162/163 that’s exactly what happened in the then latest American import story. Which is weird on many levels. First of all, it had become a tradition of sorts for the British stories to get in there first with the introduction of characters. Think back. The Special Teams, New Leaders, Triple-Changers, the Predacons, Ratbat, the Headmasters, the Targetmasters, the Seacons, the Sparkabots and Firecons; all introduced in British stories first. Maybe Marvel UK wanted the scoop with the new characters?

But with the introduction of the Pretenders, they steered clear. The American series introduced and developed the original Pretenders and the UK stories simply ignored them. (Well, that’s not entirely true… there were a couple of dire annual stories with the Pretenders and the Pretender Beasts were seen in the “Time Wars” first.)

The circumstances in which the Pretenders were introduced were unbelievable. And I mean that in a bad way. Picture the scene: Optimus Prime is currently in existence as a computer generated character, and what’s more he believes himself to be a computer generated character. Goldbug has travelled to Earth to try and help Prime come to his senses. And his plan to do this is to somehow copy Scorponok’s current scheme of coating his warriors in flesh-and-metal suits that look like monsters. Scorponok’s plan is to disguise his warriors in such a way that will make it easier for them to steal fuel. Yes, of course. So obvious: the military will shoot at giant robots, but not giant fleshy monsters, no. Good one, Scorponok. So the Autobots copy the process and create their own Pretenders, disguised as humans… giant 40-feet tall humans.

Goldbug’s hope is that by leading this new group of Autobots, then Optimus Prime will snap out of his delusions and return to the land of the fuel burning. And it’s a good thing, too, as without Optimus Prime’s guidance, these new Autobots are positively useless. At one point, there is a communications glitch and Prime is unable to relay orders. So what do the Autobot Pretenders do? Nothing. They allow the Decepticons to shoot them down, and actually stand there wondering what to do in response. Luckily communications are resumed and they are told to shoot back. So obvious, and yet still so obvious.

In their original outing, twelve Pretenders are introduced to the Transformers mythos and not one has a single personality trait. I can forgive writer Bob Budiansky for many things, but not this. And colourist Yomtov does no better. The Autobot Pretenders are coloured blue, and the Decepticons red. You wouldn’t be able to tell them apart at a line up.

For many issues, the Pretenders are sidelined. In fact, around 30 issues passed before we get another Pretenders storyline. Skullgrin is, quite literally, the star of this story. I’ll set the scene: Decepticon leader Scorponok sends Skullgrin (remembering that giant monsters don’t attract attention like giant robots) to Earth to get fuel. But Skullgrin stumbles upon a film crew and ends up becoming a film star. I wish I was joking. Suffice to say, the story is wrapped up conveniently in 22 pages. Lessons are learned and Skullgrin comes away from the whole experience a better monster. Or at least with beautifully manicured nails.

The Pretenders are sidelined once more, but it seems that Hasbro are quite keen to have them feature more prominently. So much so in fact, that only Transformers with “organic parts” survive Underbase-powered Starscream’s rampage on Earth, thus promoting the Headmasters, Powermasters and Pretenders as the lead characters of the Transformers comic. At this point it was clear that both the creative team and the readers were losing interest fast.

Meanwhile, in the British stories, the Pretender Beasts were introduced as a sub-plot to the “Time Wars” and then became the focus of the Survivors storyline. It’s a cliched defection story and wholly forgettable.

The next two Pretenders to be given the spotlight are Cloudburst and Landmine, and at last we have two characters with character! Landmine, a typical tough-talking thug is paired with the very reserved and respectable Cloudburst. It’s all very good cop/bad cop. But fun all the same. “Better watch where you poke that finger, smiley—if you want it to stay on your hand!” says Landmine.

With that partnership set up, it’s a mere case of Landmine and Cloudburst jetting off into deep space to buy new computer chips for their deactivated comrades, running into a group robot-eating aliens, making a deal with giant women in purple underwear, and returning home safely.

Wait. Did somebody mention size-changing abilities? Let’s not go there, but it is true that Cloudburst can enlarge in spacecruiser mode to accomodate both Landmine and his own Pretender shell in his cockpit. He can do that, but the other Autobot Pretenders can’t actually shrink to the size of real humans when in “human” mode? No, that would be too imaginitive.

It’s a shame that the Masterforce cartoons weren’t available to Bob Budiansky. But it was clear he wanted to write a  Transformer/human romance scene. So what did he come up with? That’s right: giant buxom ladies who just happened to be the size of a Transformer. I am sure the particular lady who took a shine to Cloudburst would have been in for a shock when he took off his clothes to reveal his Action Man style moulded green pants. Of his almost-girlfriend, the two Autobots had this  to say: Landmine: “Y’know, for a human she’s not bad.” Cloudburst: “Yes, she is a very compassionate, caring woman.” Landmine: “No, I mean anyone who can lop your head off with one blow is okay by me!”

Sadly, despite being the only two Autobot Pretenders with any kind of development whatsoever (Waverider, who was almost shish-kebabed by Grimlock, doesn’t count), Landmine and Cloudburst were killed later on.

By this time, Simon Furman took over from Bob Budiansky as writer of the US Transformers series. He may have avoided the Pretenders back home, but here, Hasbro were keen to jam the little plastic terrors into the nib of his writing pen.

Grimlock, Bumblebee, Jazz, and Starscream became Pretenders in 1989, and luckily allowed Furman to write about some of the original Transformers again. He churned out some altogether excellent material featuring these guys. The three Autobots even got to witness a retelling of the Transformers origin story. A real treat, that.

It was two new characters that piqued Furman’s interest at this time: Bludgeon and Thunderwing. In fact, he seemed to like them so much that he continues to feature them in recent material such as The War Within and Armada. Both Decepticons, and both leaders (funny how the only Decepticons with any meat to their characters became leaders at one time or another) took lives of their own. 

I do wonder if Furman thought it neat to experiment with two atrocious Transformers toys and turn them into two of the most memorable characters. Toywise, Bludgeon was clearly a blatant rip-off of Skeletor from Mattel’s Masters of the Universe.

As Decepticon leaders go, Bludgeon had a lot going for him in the charisma department. Plus he managed to get a lot done in the short time he was in charge. It was clear from the beginning that he had big plans for the Decepticons. Initially leader of one of the Mayhem Attack Squads, he seemed to be a favourite of Thunderwing. (But not of Megatron, as one of the short UK black-and-white stories showed us!)

After the Unicron War, Bludgeon took charge, faked his role in the Autobot-Decepticon alliance, duped Prowl and left Cybertron with his troops in a fleet of Autobot spaceships. Between the original Transformers series and Transformers: Generation 2, Bludgeon’s forces had built a moon-sized dreadnought called the Warworld. How did he manage this? By staging a retreat and fleeing from the Autobots.

No other Decepticon leader had the ambition (or conviction, I would imagine) to do such a thing. His next plan was to use the Warworld to attack the Earth and lure out Optimus Prime and steal the Creation Matrix to bolster his army. Unfortunately for Bludeon, his glory was all too fleeting and Megatron, rebuilt by Cobra, waded in and murdered him. I guess no matter how good (or should that be bad?) a Decepticon leader gets, he just can’t out-do the original.

In some ways Thunderwing was the most original and interesting of the Pretenders. He had a full character arc and we got to watch his rise and fall in great detail. But in other ways, he was a retread of a typical evil leader. Looking at Thunderwing’s personality, motivations and obsessions, he reminds me a lot of Galvatron. Did Furman long for a Galvatron to be back in the Transformers series to have fun with? Did Hasbro push him instead to use a current toy? I think if Galvatron was used in place of Thunderwing in stories such as Matrix Quest, events would have played out in much the same way.

Thunderwing began his role as a kind of junior officer in the Decepticon ranks, given a series of tests to see if he was true leader material. Unfortunately, these stories were told in the 5-page format, and so there was no real depth. Most of the details were just hints and it was up to the reader to fill in the gaps. 

He also had his spotlight as the typical Decepticon leader/supergenius when he created the Decepticon Micromasters.

By the time Thunderwing appeared in the American series, he was a fully fledged leader on Cybertron, a replacement for Megatron with no questions asked. He became the primary antagonist in the Matrix Quest, ultimately going mad and craving limitless power (just like Galvatron). In a delicious twist, however, it is the Matrix now that seeks the power and Thunderwing is used as a vessel to be tossed aside when finished with.

In a way it is a shame that the Pretenders discussed here were killed off (even Skullgrin traded in his shell for a coffin in Transformers: Generation 2), when they still had so much potential to explore. Nevertheless, their deaths (at least in the cases of Bludgeon and Thunderwing) provided a certain amount of closure and their lives can be looked back on as discrete and full chapters in the ongoing Transformers saga.

Much like the original group of Transformers, only a handful of the Pretenders made the spotlight and elevated themselves into memorable characters, while the rest remained as anonymous fodder. And even then, after all these years, opinion is… split.

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

— Graham (@grhmthmsn)

Published by Graham Thomson

Blogger, photographer, worrier.

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