|Percentage of vote:||59.8%|
Iconic. The word that comes up over and over again in the comments we received on this character, and with good reason, ask anyone who is at least vaguely aware of the original Transformers to name some characters from it and "That one who turned into a tape deck... cassettes hey, remember them? He'd probably be an MP3 player now wouldn't he lol" will usually be the third one they come up with behind Optimus Prime and Megatron.
This says a lot as Megatron and Prime have had substantial roles in the films to refresh people's memories of them. Whilst there is a Soundwave in the films him minimal role and drastically different alt modes mean people don't really associate him with Tape Guy from their childhoods. To be honest, it's only the real fans who noticed Satellite Guy and Threatened That Jason Whatsists Girlfriend With His Tentacles guy were actually the same character in different forms.
Still, before we get into the nitty gritty on the original we should at least acknowledge there's a good reason he's so well remembered that has nothing to do with his character: His toy is awesome, iconic (that word will be coming up a lot) looking with a fantastic interactive gimmick that's hugely engaging for kids of all ages. That's why anyone who tries to take the piss out of Soundwave for having an anachronistic disguise should be told to jog on.
One strange thing about Soundwave is that his most iconic (told you) and best remembered fictional portrayal is also the one there's the least to write about. Cartoon Soundwave had, in a series with a generally fantastic soundscape anyway, a hugely memorable voice, easily the best fusion between voice actor and electronic processing since the original Dalek voices. Easy to impersonate when in the playground and never equalled- even when they got Welker back for the films- it's easily the one thing everyone remembers about Soundwave after his toy.
"Because his synthesized voice makes Arcee's robo-panties DROP"
--Shakeshift (deviant bastard...)
The problem is however, the voice works against any creation of a character. It's impossible to deliver more than a couple of lines of dialogue in one go without it becoming monotonous and irritating, so the sacrifice Soundwave makes for sounding cool is him having no personality at all, unless you really start to reach (taciturn, possibly loyal as he never really objects to anything Megatron says, keeps to himself...). So other than acknowledging how awesome his voice is, I now have to rather shiftily move on from the version of the character most of you probably voted for.
Over in the Marvel comics, Soundwave's qualities as a character varied depending on which side of the Atlantic you were on. In the American stories he was generally always sort of there, providing solid background support and muscle without doing very much, but still managing to be there from first issue to last (helped that by the time Bob Budiasnky finally wrote him out with a horrible death he was soon after replaced by Simon Furman who basically seemed to have not noticed Soundwave being killed off and just carried on featuring him in his support role).
"Oh, sure, he does look cool, but that's not really much of a criteria to get here. G1 Soundwave's here for three specific stories and them alone: Spotlight Soundwave, Spotlight Megatron and that one Earthforce comic with Wildrider. Soundwave manipulates the HELL out of everyone whilst carrying a bunch of minions in his chest and pretending to be loyal to Megatron. And god forbid you should get in his way, or he'll throw an angry robot chicken with cannons at your face."
His American highlight was early on with The Next Best Thing to Being There!, which actually managed to be the basis of the bulk of his British appearances by showing him as the no-nonsense practical leader of his own small team that achieves its goal with a minimum of fuss. Even if sadly he does suffer at the hands of that greatest of all Transformers nemeses, Bomber Bill.
However, it was in the British stories he really came into his own, with one of the most complicated and interesting personalities of any Decepticon, one that took full advantage of all the interesting details in his profile that other media wound up ignoring.
It's fair to say that the majority of Decepticons in most fiction fall into one of two categories: Loyal (and usually dumb) or self serving and out to overthrow the leader. Soundwave was neither of those things, instead very much marching to his own tune, no doubt played on himself.
Soundwave was an effective second in command to the Decepticons (a position he managed to keep through several leaders), and every-time either Megatron or Shockwave were buried in mud or hanging around with Joey Slick he'd automatically take over fill-in commander duties.
"Like a lot of my choices, Soundwave gets included by virtue of his UK comics characterisation, particularly #275 Secrets in which he stitches up Wildrider and gets him executed. But he did well in most mediums particularly memorable tech spec and motto; great toy and gimmick with the cassettes, a classic Frank Welker voice, and a head sculpt with a remarkable similarity to the Decepticon logo."
This was something he'd be constantly brilliant at: rather than grandstanding world threatening plots he'd focus on achievable goals for which he'd normally succeed. In Crisis of Command he comes very close to the final defeat of Optimus Prime, and in Dinobot Hunt he actually manages a full on proper Decepticon victory, successfully taking out a whole bunch of Autobots and stealing a vast amount of energy. When it comes to cool efficiency few characters could match Soundwave, and it was clear that if he wanted to be leader full time he'd have little difficulty getting the job.
But -- and this is what made Soundwave really interesting -- it was a job that, in a sign of how media savvy he was, he didn't want at all. He'd always step aside when the duly appointed leader returned, and even in situations where Megatron and Shockwave were fighting or Megatron had gone as insane as the network executive who thought bringing Heroes back was a good idea he would work to keep one or the other in place at the expense of his own promotion. After four million years of observing the back stabbing and self serving nature of his colleagues he more than knew being in charge was a poisoned chalice, and was happy to have his own level of power without constantly having to watch his back.
However, with the Decepticons changing leaders like it was going out of fashion, by the early 21st century Soundwave was the only credible candidate for the top job left, everyone else being dead, missing or lost in time. There were only two stories where we got to see his permanent leadership (and in Time Wars his presence is almost an afterthought), but Furman smartly doesn't just write his standard take on the character. He's now much more world weary and tired, feeling the weight of both the constant fear of being usurped and being stuck fighting a war no one seems able to win.
The scene in Space Pirates (coming after the only real poor choice he ever made as leader when the promise of finally ending the war had him make an ill judged attack that led him into a Quintesson trap) where there's the very real possibility of him accepting the hand of friendship from Ultra Magnus after both sides have fought together... Only for Soundwave to, with seeming genuine sadness, declare it's far too late for that sort of thing and any sort of easy resolution will never happen is a stunningly mature bit of writing, with artist Lee Sullivan capturing just how tired of the whole thing Soundwave is perfectly.
Despite only playing a small part in Time Wars, the scene of blindly following the Autobots into the past even though he knows staying and wrecking Metroplex is the smarter move just because of how tenuous the position of any Decepticon leader is nicely shows the tightrope he's walking throughout this period. Despite its brevity it's arguably the best insight into the doublethink and mental summersaults all the baddy commanders have to go through every day of the week.
"The permanent right hand man of the Decepticon Leadership, his cassette minions and their functions of interrogators and saboteurs belies his prosaic function of Communications Officer. Soundwave impressed me by being a wily politician and eventually found himself cast as leader, being the most suitable candidate..."
--Simon Hall (Skyquake87)
Back in the 1980's (though in stories published after the ones that are set later discussed above. Don't worry, there will be a flow chart at the end) the black and white era gave us the single greatest story about Soundwave's character, Secrets. This was the first place the idea from his profile of using his mindreading skills for blackmail had ever been used, and sees Furman very smartly play on the idea that just because Soundwave is happy to be second best doesn't make him a nice person, and doesn't mean he's not as big a bastard as even the biggest and most bastardly of the overtly aggressive Decepticons.
Tasked by Megatron to find a traitor, Soundwave is unsure of what to do as he is the actual traitor. The resulting story has him use his mindreading to find the perfect scapegoat in the paranoid gullible form of Wildrider (in his fictional highlight as well). The scene of him playing on Wildrider's fears by faking his own death and then betraying him are black comedy of the finest sort and manages to put the reader on Soundwave's side despite his actions through his dry, sardonic wit. The entire story is a master-class in how to do a character stuff in five pages, and is one of the highlights of the era.
"Known for his unique voice and gang of operatives available at the touch of a button, and either for his loyalty to Megatron or his dark opportunism, Soundwave recently gained another facet with John Barber's explanation of his connection with his cassette army."
Following this we then got an interesting arc where the blackmailer becomes the victim of blackmail, forced by Starscream to do the one thing he never wanted and become leader. Sadly, the full potential of this would be unexplored due to the ending of the original British stories, though it does mean we at least got Soundwave revealing he's a Blue Peter fan (which, as far as references to contemporary British children's TV go stands up much better today than Wreck Gar quoting Jim'll Fix It does).
(It's not technically officially, but Soundwave was also one of the two really iconic (BOOM!) letters page answerers for the comic as well, and his sarcastic dry with and even his catchphrase started to inform his character in the actual strips as well.)
Come the modern comics' era, Soundwave suffered from a severe problem as a result of multiple writers with different ideas of what constituted his "character" failing to work together in a cohesive manner.
This is especially obvious in the IDW comics, where Soundwave started off under Furman as a straightforward reuse of his Marvel character. But then Eric Holmes and Shane McCarthy simply wrote him as his TV persona. Even now, with a more steady hand on the editorial wheel than has been the case in the past, we still have John Barber and Flint Dille doing drastically different takes on Soundwave in comics being published at the same time.
As iconic (aha!) as his TV persona is, it doesn't remotely work in comics, simply because trying to write someone based upon how cool their voice sounds in a print media is ultimately doomed to fail. Simply having his every line being "[Name of Cassette] eject! Operation: [Vague Descriptor]" doesn't work without Welker, and the wild swinging back and forth between personas wound up being one of the most annoying things of the entire IDW run.
Thankfully though, a late in the day case of salvation for the character came from the pen of John Barber in the second half of a two part story in issue 22 of Robots in Disguise. In a period where the comic was feeling badly padded as it dragged one day's worth of events out over several issues so it could synch up properly with More Than Meets the Eye for the Dark Cybertron crossover (the framing device for this story being a fine example, featuring two characters having a lengthy fight to the death in a room where no one can die) this little nugget of gold seemed to come out of nowhere.
Soundwave's IDW life turned out to be one of tragedy, a mystery amnesiac with a terrible condition that lets him see into the minds of others so strongly he can't drown out the sound of their thoughts, who found friendship, support and even love from the cassettes that found him alone in the wilderness, before finding a cause he could believe in thanks to Megatron's mentorship. It's a sad, sweet story that almost seems to have come from a different comic from the issues around it and helps set up Soundwave's character for the post Dark Cybertron world in a very interesting way.
Soundwave is more than just iconic (if you've been doing a drinking game over the use of that word, feel free to pass out now), at his best he's one of the most interesting and rounded characters in the entire history of the franchise. There's only one word that can be used as a final summing up: Puttup.