The Witwickys

There's something the original Transformers had that no series since has ever been able to duplicate: the human element. In the television series, the heroic Autobots' closest allies were Spike Witwicky and his father Sparkplug. They were among workers on an oil rig rescued by Optimus Prime and his Autobots after a Decepticon attack, and remained with them throughout their adventures. Sparkplug was a skilled mechanic who apparently picked up alien technology quickly, and he often assisted the Autotbots Ratchet and Wheeljack in repairing their damaged or fallen comrades.

Spike was there to give kids watching the show someone to identify with and relate to. As the series progressed he was joined by the young wheelchair-bound genius Chip Chase(one of my favorites), and the lovely and smart Carly. When the series jumped ahead to the year 2005 with the movie, Spike and Carly had gotten married and had a (very annoying) son, Daniel. Carly herself wasn't in the movie, but in the third season of the show which followed it she was revealed as Daniel's mother. Sparkplug and Chip's fates went unknown as the characters were neither seen nor mentioned again.

The Witwickys played an important role in the comic book series, although there Sparkplug's son was known as Buster. (Spike was introduced much later as Buster's older brother when his presence was required as Fortress Maximus' partner.) There was no oil rig in this continuity, nor did the father and son always appear in the same clothes, accessorized with hard hats and bright yellow boots as they bafflingly did in the cartoon. They were treated as real people. Sparkplug was struggling as a single father and mechanic in Portland Oregon while Buster was just struggling with being a teenager. He wanted to focus on school and spend time with his best friend “O” and girlfriend Jessie; his dad wanted someone to help with the family business. My own father, now retired, was a mechanic, and I remember when he had his own garage. It eventually became too much to handle, mostly because an honest mechanic who'll repair before replacing a part, and who gave discounts on labor couldn't survive. He got a job for the county repairing police cars with great hours and benefits, and stayed with them well past his retirement age. Like Buster, I had no interest in cars, and used to be very bored when he'd ask me to help him when I'd rather be watching cartoons or playing with my friends. He wanted me to learn something, but I'd barely look at what he was doing while I handed him tools. I definitely identified with the more realistic Buster portrayal over Spike's.

In the comic, Sparkplug was abducted and forced to work on the Decepticons and help them adapt to Earth's fuel. He did so, much to the Autobot's chagrin, but poisoned the Decepticon fuel supply and sabotaged their plans. He suffered a heart attack and subsequently made Buster promise not to stay involved with the extraterrestrial's war. When Buster gained the power of the Creation Matrix from Optimus Prime and found he could repair mechanical objects with his mind, that promise proved impossible to keep. He did use the ability to repair cars while his dad was in the hospital though, and Sparkplug, not yet knowing his son's secret, was overjoyed. Sometimes when I was a kid and my dad was struggling to fix a car in our yard, I'd wish I could close my eyes and use my mind to help. Today as my 74-year-old father faced the challenge of changing a water pump in my old music teacher's son's minivan, I was able to offer more practical assistance, loosening difficult bolts in hard-to-reach spots, and pointing out logical solutions like, “if we take this panel off, we'll be able to see what we're doing.” I regret that I didn't pay more attention when I was a kid and learn the valuable knowledge that he offered, but I'm glad of the things I do know.

When creating fiction in any medium, having someone the readers or viewers can identify with is key. It's why a teenage hero like Spider-man was so popular, and it's certainly why Transformers had such a big impact on my life, for twenty years now and counting. Even today there was a point where I couldn't get the right leverage to loosen a bolt, no matter how many angles I attacked it from, and wished I could turn it with my mind. There's something more rewarding about my swollen fingers and sore arms and ribs though. Goals achieved via a struggle are definitely the most rewarding.


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