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! Be sure to check out part 1 if you missed it.
NB – all of the tech specs originate from Botch The Crab’s fantastic site.
THE TECH SPEC: Soundwave’s 1984 tech spec paints a very unpretty picture of a character so unpleasant that even his fellow Decepticons despise him. He’s written to be a ruthless opportunist and apparent blackmailer, overhearing conversations and reading minds to gain information to help advance his status. His motto is, er, quite something, too!
THE CARTOON: Without a doubt one of the most iconic portrayals of a Transformers character of all time, the cartoon Soundwave is perhaps more well-known for his vocoder-style vocals than anything. Considering he is the Decepticon with the longest tenure on the show, clocking up regular appearances throughout the first three seasons and the accompanying movie, it’s surprising how little personality actually shines through. There are hints of it, although not much to suggest any real acknowledgement of the tech spec at all. If anything, Soundwave seems to be quite steadfastly loyal to Megatron throughout seasons one and two and is later the one to rescue his leader from the battle of Autobot City. However, he then appears only too happy for Megatron to be jettisoned into space with the rest of the damaged Decepticons before suddenly making a bid for leadership himself, so this suggests he is a lot more power-hungry than we maybe suspected! Still, come season three, he’s back following orders and appears to be devoted to Galvatron once more. Or is he?
#187, artwork credit: Sullivan / White
THE COMIC: Whereas the cartoon version of Soundwave was typically a bit cold and emotionless, the Marvel comic interpretation hammed it up a bit! He is also one of the most complicated characters of the entire epic. A lot more vocal than his on-screen representation, Soundwave spends much of the very early run obediently taking orders from Megatron and then Shockwave, following the latter’s takeover as Decepticon leader. However, when Shockwave is temporarily dispatched during a battle with Optimus Prime, Soundwave steps up to the plate as commander himself and it’s here we see some of that ambition in action. Despite only a brief turn in the role, he led several key missions and even managed to strike a key victory against the Autobots during Dinobot Hunt!
When Megatron and Shockwave returned in quick succession, Soundwave easily relinquished the role, though always with an eye on what was best for him. He would go on to manipulate both of them to achieve that which he saw as the most desirable outcome for the Decepticons, typically working in more subtle ways but even once calling them both out publicly and forcing them to agree to a truce. In this way, Soundwave proved he wasn’t entirely loyal to either leader (especially as he betrayed them both in favour of the other at different times!) but he was far too patient and clever to make a simple outright bid for the position himself either, despite the odd moment of impatience when he would let his true feelings boil to the surface. He later went on to serve under Ratbat, Scorponok and finally, Bludgeon.
In the possible future timeline, Soundwave is again under Shockwave’s command, although once the one-eyed Decepticon is killed (and Cyclonus and Scourge are sent back to the past), he happily picks up the mantle of leadership. Eager to make a name for himself, Soundwave rather blindly leads his troops into a full-scale Quintesson ambush and is only saved by a timely truce with the Autobots. At this point, he very briefly ponders the idea of the two factions finding a more permanent harmony before just as quickly deciding it would never work… but at least this gives us an insight into his ability to consider the bigger picture. He is last seen leading the future Decepticons back to the 1980s during Time Wars, though again, only because it suits his purposes in keeping his troops loyal as opposed to believing it is the right thing for them to do, before withdrawing them from the battle due to similar motivation.
NOTE: Soundwave was also the face of the UK comic’s letters page for some fifty issues, which does give further insight into his character (particularly his tendency for manipulation and blackmail), though it’s up for debate if this is considered canonical at all. Soundwave’s comic appearance varied quite wildly too, often being coloured purple in the Marvel US strips and even featuring a mouth on occasion!
THE VERDICT: In terms of the original tech spec, one would have to argue the comic comes a lot closer here, giving far more evidence of Soundwave being a master manipulator who subtly works all concerned in a manner that suits him best. We do get far more personality beyond this though, making for a really rounded and surprisingly nuanced portrayal overall. By comparison, the popular cartoon depiction is memorable for the voice performance but only provides hints at the actual character behind it.
THE TECH SPEC: Scorponok was one of the biggest and most memorable toys of 1987 and his tech spec certainly paints a grim picture to go alongside it. He believes the poor should be exploited, the weak oppressed and the noble corrupted, leaving nothing but despair and isolation in his wake. Charming. It’s a fairly nondescript if appropriately horrific description for a toy of this kind.
THE CARTOON: As with Fortress Maximus last time, Scorponok isn’t given a lot of personality in the Sunbow cartoon, especially as he only really appears right at the end for one battle scene on Cybertron. There he’s presented more as a lumbering monster than anything, with his one line of dialogue (“Autobot diiiieee!“) not allowing for much evidence of characterisation either. One could argue his Nebulon partner, Zarak is the real persona here then and in that regard, he fits the letter of the tech spec pretty well. He’s shown to be more than happy to tread over everyone and everything to get what he wants, having enslaved the population of Nebulos in his dictatorial role as leader of the Hive. There also seemed to be no limit to his ambition or lust for power, as he easily subdued the powerful Decepticons into doing his bidding.
#321, artwork credit: Senior / Yomtov
THE COMIC: In stark contrast to his cartoon counterpart, the comic depiction of Scorponok (and Zarak) is one of the more involved and developed characters throughout the entire Marvel run. He’s a definite fan favourite and for good reason, as the once one-note tyrant is significantly evolved towards the end of his story to the point where you can’t help but feel a genuine sadness come his passing. It’s also worth noting that, like Fortress Maximus, this take on Scorponok is significantly smaller than his cartoon portrayal, often shown as standing roughly in line with the likes of Optimus Prime (although it varies a bit!).
His tale began on Nebulos, with Zarak being a rather petty, arrogant councillor who seemed more interested in advancing his own interests than anything. When the Autobots came to his homeworld, it was he who tried to convince his peers not to trust them and manipulate events in his favour despite all the evidence to the contrary. He even went as far as contacting the Decepticons to inform them of their enemies’ whereabouts, thus sealing Nebulos’ fate in the process. He ended up binary-bonding with Scorponok, forever changing the lives of both characters, and led the charge against the Autobots on his homeworld, causing utter destruction. as he went. Zarak has a brief moment of clarity where he realises the chaos he has wrought, releasing the Autobots from his clutches so that Nebulos might be spared, although afterwards, it seems as though his mind became forever intertwined with the corrupting influence of Scorponok’s.
Except there was evidence of change in the character over the subsequent years. Whilst he initially maintained his evil ways, establishing himself as the Earthern Decepticon leader after destroying Ratbat during the Underbase Saga, the first signs of evolution came through his willingness to work with Optimus Prime towards a common goal. Despite being initially mistrustful of the Autobot leader’s motives, over time he began to see Optimus really was working with everyone’s best interests at heart and especially once they were warned of the impending arrival of Unicron. When the Autobots surrendered to Scorponok’s troops in an attempt to broker an alliance, he was initially tempted to take advantage of the situation but quickly realised working in the spirit of unity was the way forward. To that end, he became the Decepticon leader who built the most common ground with the Autobots and eventually led his troops in a joint grand battle against the Chaos Bringer. It had become clear over time that Zarak had been influencing Scorponok as much as the opposite was true and this culminated in a fair dose of insecurity for them both towards the end, especially fearing their doom. Sadly, this came to pass during the Unicron battle but not without Scorponok sharing a tender moment with Optimus, the two now having found a mutual respect for one another.
THE VERDICT: This is a tough one. As with Fort Max, I think you could argue it’s the flesh & blood component of Scorponok’s cartoon portrayal that most closely matches the original tech spec, as the robot character himself is little beyond a hulking brute, whilst the comic is even more of a departure. I suppose it’s fair to say Marvel Scorponok started in that place but through his binary bonding with Zarak, he was taken on a long but rewarding journey towards being something entirely different and he ended up as one of the most fascinating characters from the comic as a result.
THE TECH SPEC: Grimlock’s tech spec describes all of the traits most associated with the Dinobot leader fans have loved since 1985. He’s strong, fearsome and powerful but notably arrogant and resents authority, despite his dedication to the Autobot cause. He also has contempt for the weak, including all humans, as indicated by his motto.
THE CARTOON: Alongside the likes of Optimus Prime and Soundwave, Grimlock is without a doubt one of the most iconic characters from the original Transformers cartoon. His idiosyncratic way of speaking and lumbering oafishness is remembered fondly even today and has informed just about every take on the Dinobot leader ever since. Exceptionally strong but unfathomably dim, Grimlock (and the other Dinobots) frequently created more problems than he solved in some of his earlier adventures, often turning on the Autobots or simply refusing to help out of sheer stubbornness. They were created this way by Wheeljack and Ratchet, which really begs the question of why they chose to give such physically adept warriors rather simple brains… although there is plenty of evidence of Grimlock evolving through the cartoon’s story. He eventually comes to accept Optimus Prime’s leadership, for one thing, more easily falling in line and taking orders towards the second season of adventures. He also accepts that the Dinobots require training to hone their skills and after a fashion, leads them to become valuable members of the Autobot ranks. By the time the future timeline of the 1986 movie rolls around, one could even describe Grimlock as being a bit of a team player, for the most part, regularly contributing to missions and even day-to-day Cybertronian life throughout season three. Perhaps his greatest achievement comes in the episode Grimlock’s New Brain, where he is accidentally imbued with super intelligence and goes on to create the Technobots. He then gifts his new exceptional smarts to Computron as he realises it will be the only way for his creation to stop Abominus, showing the kind of ‘bot Grimlock truly is at heart, no matter his IQ.
#142, artwork credit: Perlin / Akin / Garvey / Yomtov
THE COMIC: There are several notable aspects of Grimlock’s portrayal in the Marvel comic which vary wildly from his cartoon depiction. Firstly, none of the Dinobots originated on Earth and instead, all came from Cybertron like the rest of the Autobots. They were aboard the Ark when it crashlanded upon prehistoric Earth and given their dinosaur alternate forms by the malfunctioning main computer to help fight off Shockwave, long before the rest of the Autobots came back online. Secondly, the other major difference is their speech pattern, as they don’t typically talk with the more ‘primitive’ stylings of the cartoon portrayal, but rather are written to sound just like any other Autobot for a fair portion of the comic run. It’s only once Grimlock is appointed as leader of the Autobots that a change is evident, with a mix of the cartoon’s vocal tics creeping in alongside more traditional speech, all coinciding with increasingly brutish behaviour as well. This change in mannerisms was rather abrupt, especially as Grimlock earned his place as leader with a surprising amount of grace, even initially turning it down and considering himself not worthy. Still, it wouldn’t be long before he was prancing about in a gold crown, barking orders like a tyrant and making outrageous demands of the Autobots, to say nothing of his vendetta against Blaster and Goldbug for going AWOL (due to his temperament, no less!).
Things came to a head when Grimlock and Blaster ended up duelling for the leadership role, although it didn’t take too long for the pair to put aside their differences once they realised the Decepticons were on the attack, before subsequently coming back under the command of a resurrected Optimus Prime once more. By this point, Grimlock was fully immersed in speaking exactly like his cartoon persona although was somewhat back to being the more likeable, if still rather gruff and arrogant blowhard we knew before the whole leadership debacle.
Grimlock and the Dinobots were then destroyed by Starscream during the Underbase Saga, and although the group’s leader would be later resurrected as a Pretender, his loyalty to his fallen team gave him some palpable feelings of guilt and loss. He spent much of the rest of the run experiencing a fair dose of anxiety at not being able to bring them back online, leading him to rash actions such as defying Optimus’ orders, stealing an Autobot shuttle and going off in pursuit of an untested substance known as Nucleon, all in the hope of giving them life once more. Ultimately his gambit was successful and led to a lot of deactivated Autobots being restored, except at the cost of their ability to transform. This wouldn’t be the only hasty decision Grimlock would make, as after he was appointed Autobot leader once more, he then led his troops into one of the worst Decepticon ambushes imaginable, to the point where they were almost wiped out entirely.
Still, despite his headstrong, arrogant and often foolhardy nature, Grimlock had become an altogether well-rounded character by the end of the comic’s run, as well as a steadfastly loyal Autobot, all things considered. He retained the sense of bucking authority and throwing temper tantrums but now with a feeling that at his core, his heart was always in the right place.
THE VERDICT: Theoretically, you could say both versions of the character stick to the letter of the original tech spec pretty closely here, despite being very different. The cartoon portrayal is notably more dim-witted than his Marvel comic counterpart (despite that version’s speech pattern changing over time), which is something the toy’s bio never indicates, so arguably that’s a bit of an embellishment on Sunbow’s part. However, both takes have their merit and manage to make the Dinobot leader a bit of a favourite amongst fans, even if I imagine the on-screen characterisation will be the most beloved overall.
So that’s our list for today! What other characters should we consider next time?