Whether you grew up with it in the 1980s or you’ve discovered it since, you will no doubt have noticed the fiction supporting the original Transformers line varied wildly depending on whether you watched the Sunbow cartoon or read the Marvel comic. In fact, as the main two sources of storyline at the time, it’s incredible to see how different they were!
However, it’s not just the stories themselves – very often a lot of the characters are poles apart depending on the interpretation you go for, which is strange considering they were both cribbing off the toys’ original packaging tech specs (at least in theory!), including a bio detailing their personality traits.
So today, we’re going to take a look at some of the names that vary the most between the ’80s cartoon and comic (including the UK-exclusive extended stories but not the Regeneration One continuation), and which interpretation was closest to the tech spec in each case!
NB – all of the tech specs originate from Botch The Crab’s fantastic site.
#5: Ultra Magnus
THE TECH SPEC: Ultra Magnus’ 1986 tech spec paints him as the ultimate soldier and a very loyal second-in-command; a courageous fighter who is always willing to sacrifice himself, but one who is more comfortable taking orders than he is in a position of leadership.
THE CARTOON: This interpretation of Magnus certainly picked up on some of that, as he was immediately introduced as the capable (if somewhat impatient) Autobot City commander during the 1986 movie. When he was tasked to lead the Autobots by Optimus Prime, he was reluctant about the idea and even said he wasn’t worthy for the position. His brief command suggested he didn’t necessarily have the temperament for it either, although it was a pretty bad situation all round at the time, so perhaps it’s unfair to judge! Still, he showed he was certainly willing to sacrifice himself, steering his troops to safety before facing Galvatron’s forces alone. After being repaired, he later went on to become a trusted lieutenant, advisor and confidant to Rodimus Prime, who leant on Magnus a fair bit as he struggled with his own feelings of insecurity at being in charge. He’s typically portrayed as stoic, although prone to bouts of impatience at times, but very caring and steadfast.
#171, artwork credit: Paris
THE COMIC: By comparison, the Marvel comic’s portrayal plays up the ‘magnificent fighting skills’ mentioned in the tech spec much more than the cartoon, as this Ultra Magnus is a total bruiser at times! Proving to be a fair match even for the likes of Galvatron on more than one occasion (or at least just about), he’s exceptionally battle-hardened and not afraid to pitch in whenever needed. However, despite being such a capable warrior, Magnus is often shown to have various insecurities at his core. After his Autobot comrade, Impactor is killed on a mission that Magnus was supposed to be part of but missed, he feels guilty and ends up making various rash decisions before eventually taking an extended period of time away from conflict altogether to spend on his own on Earth. However, he’s certainly happy to sacrifice himself when the moment comes, even allowing a volcano to explode around him in the hope of stopping Galvatron at one stage.
In the potential future timeline, we see that Magnus has gone on to become the stalwart commander more familiar to us after the 1986 movie, leading the Autobot troops into battle under Rodimus’ command. He is eventually destroyed during the Time Wars saga.
THE VERDICT: Overall, it seems like the cartoon maybe swings a bit closer towards the letter of the original tech spec here, although the comic version is more interesting in a lot of ways, especially given how much extra story and character development he receives!
THE TECH SPEC: Starscream’s 1984 tech spec showcases a Decepticon warrior who is exceptionally cunning, cold-blooded and capable, although equally deceitful. The key trait of wanting to replace Megatron as leader is perhaps the most infamous part of the character presented here, although there’s a nuanced suggestion that this is because he disagrees with Decepticon tactics more than anything. Still, he’s clearly very conceited and arrogant all the same, despite his apparent prowess.
THE CARTOON: Without a doubt, one of the most memorable characters from the original Transformers animation, Starscream’s treacherous nature is about as iconic as Chris Latta’s vocal portrayal of him. There was rarely an episode of the first two seasons where Starscream wasn’t shown to be trying to undermine Megatron in one way or another, although a key difference to his tech spec is that he was frequently presented as a bit of an arrogant, bungling buffoon. His schemes rarely came to anything, often erring on the more ridiculous side, and he regularly found himself in hot water with either his leader or the Autobots as a result. However, there are moments where he’s presented as being rather intelligent (even more than Megatron at times) and of course, he does manage to manipulate events to his advantage in the 1986 movie, where he’s finally crowned as Decepticon leader. For a few minutes, anyway.
#249, artwork credit: Delbo / Hunt
THE COMIC: The Marvel comics’ interpretation of Starscream is every bit as treacherous but with one key difference – he’s a stone-cold killer! Presented as distinctly more ruthless here, he will happily betray Autobot and Decepticon alike to achieve his desires, and whilst he starts as a relatively low-level schemer, not unlike his cartoon counterpart, he later cements his reputation by going on a murderous rampage after becoming imbued with God-like powers from the Underbase. When he eventually returns as a Pretender, he is once again shown to be a capable warrior who now genuinely strikes fear into his opponents, although we do also get hints of self-doubt thrown in the mix. There are some moments of actual humility and growth peppered in at times but in the grand scheme, he remains a character who would just as soon screw you over as look at you.
THE VERDICT: There’s little doubt that the cartoon take is the one everyone thinks of when it comes to the character, although his incompetent nature stops him from being a dead ringer for the tech spec as it’s written. In that regard, the ‘ruthless, cold-blooded, cruel’ killer from the comics is arguably more accurate.
THE TECH SPEC: His 1985 bio presents Blaster as a loud, brash, fun-loving rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast in keeping with this boombox alternate form. Not a lot of detail is provided for his personality besides, although it does mention that he is ‘in the forefront of any situation he’s involved in’.
THE CARTOON: Blaster is presented as one of the coolest Autobots in the cartoon, and immediately stands out versus a number of his more ‘serious’ comrades. Extremely fun-loving and jovial, he has an obvious love for Earthern culture and often finds ways of entertaining his fellow Autobots and humans alike. However, he does have his serious side when the moment calls and is presented as being more than capable in battle, stepping up to be a valuable member of the team in various episodes. He maintains his sense of humour, however, with his memorable scene during the grim Autobot City battle of the 1986 movie being the best evidence. He later goes on to become a trusted part of Rodimus Prime’s leadership team, even being appointed as Autobot City commander.
#127, artwork credit: Perlin / Akin / Garvey / Yomtov
THE COMIC: The comic version of Blaster is wildly different! We first meet him on Cybertron where he is one of the Autobot’s best and most battle-hardened warriors, although he is an intensely serious, brooding sole who doesn’t play all that well with his comrades either. He can be very prickly and quite surly, often wasting no time in putting others in their place if he disagrees with them. He is shown to possess an intense hatred for the Decepticons and will do whatever is necessary to defeat them, even sacrificing himself or indeed his fellow Autobots should the moment call for it. However, he is also a bit of a loose cannon at times, preferring to trust his own judgement rather than blindly follow orders. He eventually comes under the command of Grimlock during his stint as Autobot leader, before going AWOL alongside Goldbug. He later challenges the Dinobot to a leadership duel and although he ultimately has to fold, it is clear that Blaster has the respect and support of many of his comrades.
He is eventually killed by Starscream during the Underbase Saga only to later be brought back by his former rival, Grimlock, using Nucleon. In the future timeline, he is shown as being deactivated during a Quintesson attack on Autobot City, before he briefly appears again in Time Wars.
THE VERDICT: Given what a relatively blank slate Blaster’s tech spec is, it’s hard to say that either of these portrayals is entirely accurate to the source, although it does feel like the cartoon captures the rock ‘n’ roll vibe of it all a lot more than the grim loner presented in the comics. That said, both interpretations are extremely memorable and very interesting for how they choose to portray this unique Autobot!
THE TECH SPEC: Ratbat’s tech spec presents a self-serving, cold outsider whose only interest is refuelling. There’s also a mention of business partners, implying how the character likes to work with others, although ultimately his only allegiance is to himself.
THE CARTOON: Ratbat first pops up in the 1986 movie and then again semi-frequently through the third season of the cartoon. However, he’s given no obvious personality of any kind and is entirely devoid of a speaking role. The character is relegated to being a mere minion of Soundwave for the most part.
#128, artwork credit: Perlin / Fern
THE COMIC: In an unusual twist, the Ratbat of the comics was given a major role for a decent portion of the overall storyline, even leading one faction of the Decepticons for a good while and coming closer to defeating the Autobots than most. He begins his arc as a fuel auditor on Cybertron, initially under Straxus’ command, before overseeing Shockwave’s operations on Earth where he is increasingly displeased with how they are wasting resources. From there he takes matters into his own hands (wings?), initiating several crazy (and rather goofy) schemes, including a car wash designed to hypnotise humans and Club Con, a holiday resort that masked the Decepticons’ secret underwater base. He’s highly ambitious and sets his sights on achieving more and more power as his arc continues, culminating in his uncovering the location of the Underbase for his own use. However, he underestimates Starscream’s scheming and is ultimately killed by Scorponok in the resulting chaos. Still, he remains an unforgettable part of the comic storyline, not least for being one of the more capable and cunning Decepticon commanders.
THE VERDICT: Again, neither is especially accurate to the tech spec although the comic iteration takes the cues about being a business-driven loner only interested in fuel and runs with it! It’s also by far the better developed of the two.
#1: Fortress Maximus
THE TECH SPEC: The largest Transformers toy of the time, the tech spec for Fortress Maximus describes the ultimate warrior, except one whose biggest desire is to never fight again. He believes violence is counter-productive and pointless but still, he fights out of necessity.
THE CARTOON: Introduced at the very end of the three-part season four caper, The Rebirth, Fort Max himself doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time and even less character development, as he’s presented simply as a large, hulking war machine to throw down against Scorponok. However, more time is given to his head unit, Cerebros, and for that character, it’s quite clear a fair bit of inspiration was taken from the tech spec. Cerebros is a pacifist by nature and extremely disillusioned with the ongoing war, even refusing to fight on several occasions. He teams up with Spike to become part of Fort Max only because he realises the human cannot do it without him but even then, he agrees purely on the basis that he will never have to fight again.
#174, artwork credit: Delbo / Bulanadi
THE COMIC: The Fort Max of the comic storyline is very different to his cartoon counterpart and significantly smaller! Instead of being a giant city-scale robot, he’s initially presented as more in-line with his fellow Autobot Headmasters in terms of stature, although he later undergoes a procedure to double his size (and fighting power). It is at this point that the Cerebros component of his make-up is added, although Cerebros is purely a non-sentient robot more in line with the Japanese Headmasters portrayal if anything. Max himself is given quite the personality though, and some of that has hints towards the peace-loving soul presented in the tech spec. However, what’s also clear is that Max is very able and willing to muck in on the battlefield, regularly putting himself in a position of potential harm for the good of others. Ultimately, much of his portrayal concerns his compatibility with Spike, his human partner, and how they learn to work together throughout the story. Max would ultimately spend much of the latter part of the run tucked away in storage aboard the Ark, before being killed off during a battle with Megatron in the Generation 2 comic.
THE VERDICT: You could argue that from a pure personality perspective, the cartoon’s take on Cerebros is the closest thing to the Fort Max tech spec. However, just looking at Max, it’s no doubt the comic that is the more interesting portrayal of the two and does a better job at fleshing out the character (even if lots of fans like the giant interpretation seen on-screen!).
So that’s our list for today! What other characters should we consider next time?