There are a lot of pop culture touchstones in my childhood that had a huge influence on the person I’d eventually become. Most entertained or thrilled me, opening up new worlds of fantasy or sci-fi adventures, but some drilled right down into my core and either disturbed or frightened me to an extent that decades later I’d still be haunted by certain images or sounds. The dreadful “Have you seeeeen my baaaaaaaby?!” from the Halloween Horrors story on vinyl, Emil the Melting Man from the end of Robocop (hell, 75% of Robocop for that matter), or Peter Jackson as a zombie eating brains in his first feature Bad Taste (which I saw at the ripe age of eleven) spring to mind. But not every life changing experience came from seeing more adult material at a young age. There was one instance where a short one-issue story arc in the Transformers Marvel comic that sort of shook me to my soul.
Two months before the Transformers would warp the brains of an entire generation of kids (when Optimus Prime and most of the first series characters were killed off violently in the ’86 animated movie), issue number 17 of the Marvel comics series was released back in June of 1986. The issue was titled The Smelting Pool and it was part one of a series that diverted away from the story of the Autobots on Earth and instead took a look at what was happening on Cybertron concurrently. The issue focuses on the character of Blaster, who is leading the battle against the Decepticons on Cybertron, and his chief spy, an unassuming little guy known as Scrounge.
I picked up this issue on a whim before I was really bitten by the comics collecting bug. I found it on the magazine rack at my local 7-Eleven in Castleberry, Florida. I’m pretty sure I bought it, a coke Slurpee and a couple packs of Watermelon Bonkers on a Saturday afternoon before biking over to my elementary school so that I could hang out on the playground and fill my belly with sugar as I read the comic on the dome-shaped jungle gym (as pastime I had for years when I lived in Orlando.)
Scrounge was a weird character, one that was invented for the comics series and didn’t have an official Hasbro toy released until this past decade. He was awkward, bumbling, skinny and had one of the simplest alt-modes, a metal wheel. It’s because he’s such a simple character that he makes for one of the best spies in the Autobot ranks as no Decepticon considered him a threat.
In the story that unfolds over this issue (written by Bob Budiansky, illustrated by Don Perlin, and inked by Keith Williams), Scrounge slinks his way into the Decepticon temple base and utilizing a camera/microphone system that protrude from two of his fingers, he intercepts and records a valuable enemy transmission. Of course, built up as a character that bungles most operations, he trips an alarm as he retreats out of the stronghold and is captured by the Insecticon leader Shrapnel. Scrounge is tortured in an attempt to get him to reveal what he’s learned about the communique, including having the imposing lord high governor of the Decepticons on Cybertron, Straxus, rip off his special recon arm at the shoulder. He’s then ordered thrown into the Smelting Pool, an enormous vat of molten metal that the Decepticons dispose of their captives when they are through with them.
The imagery that cover artist Herb Trimpe evokes of the Smelting Pool is truly frightening, and it’s these scenes, especially the cover for that issue, that tore a hole right into my soul as a kid. I mean just look at the robot at the bottom of the cover. That bulging eye, the gaze of half terror, half acceptance, the melting hand half-grasping. Chilling. CHILLING!
Ultimately Scrounge is half-melted before Blaster makes his way to the pol to attempt a rescue, and it’s revealed that he is too far gone to be saved. He hands off a copy of the recording to Blaster before dropping back down into the pool and melting into oblivion. Jesus Christ. This still gives me chills almost 35 years later. I don’t think I’d really witnessed characters being killed off like that before. I mean this was before Batman: A Death in the Family and the Death of Superman, though sure there was death in comics before. I just hadn’t read anything like that, and not in a comic that is so specifically geared towards kids (pun fully intended.) This issue was so disturbing to me that it kept me from picking up any other issues of the Transformers comic for years after that for fear I’d be exposed to other extinguished sparks. The one-two punch of that and then the death of Optimus Prime is one hell of a deep scar that really has shaped who I am as a person to this day.
As an added bonus, here’s another take on that fateful cover art. The issue was collected in a digest compilation a year or so after it originally debuted and the striking cover was reused, though it was also recolored, I believe to tone down the disturbing imagery. Personally I prefer the monochromatic original even though it still makes the hair on the back of my neck raise whenever I scope it. One last side note, if you look carefully at the top of the cover, right under the logo by the Decepticon temple, you can see the shadowy figures of a few Decepticons, in particular a seeker (most likely Starscream) and Soundwave. This is weirdly misleading as those characters are both not in the issue and not even on Cybertron at this point.