ROBOTECH #1 – Do you remember?
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Marco Turini
Colors by Marco Lesko
Published by Titan Comics
It’s hard for me to express just how vitally important Robotech was during its initial broadcast run. Return of the Jedi, released in 1983, drew the great Star Wars epic to a close (or so we thought) and with it my main science fiction mythological Axis Mundi also came to an end. Robotech, two years later would roar onto our TVs and for me it would fill the void left in the wake of the destruction of the second Death Star.
At ten years old I was the perfect age for this bold animated science fiction epic. Robotech was created by taking several unrelated anime series, rewriting them into one multi-generational story with fairly limited editing (for the time) of the violence. It resonated perfectly with my pre-teen psyche that had been craving something more sophisticated than Lucas’s morally simplistic update of the pulp serials he grew up with.
Growing up in the late 70s and early 80s most of my generation had already been primed for anime and I was no exception. Badly dubbed and severely edited versions of Space Battleship Yamato (as “Star Blazers”) and Science Team Gatchaman (as “Battle of the Planets”) had made an indelible impression on our young minds. Don’t believe me? Walk up to any vaguely geeky Gen X-er and start singing the Star Blazers theme song and see what happens…
My father, the owner of Quality Comics in Somerville NJ, always had a keen eye for the cutting edge and for sorting through all the cultural detritus to find the good stuff. He began taping the show and showing it to me. I was spellbound and immediately obsessed – never missing new episodes as they aired (before school at 6:00 AM in my area) and endlessly rewatching the episodes on VHS.
Unlike popular shows of the time like G.I. Joe, Robotech had a depth of characterization that made it stand out. Focusing on a poignant anti-war message but still providing entertaining action made it unlike any show I had ever seen at that point. Robotech inhabited a wonderfully vivid science fiction universe and the deep emotion of the story telling that still included kid friendly elements like transforming jets and motorcycles was clearly superior in my eyes to all the other shows that my peers were into at the time. The Transformers, to me, seemed condescending and silly by comparison.
Through the run of the show I got the toys, collected a complete run of the Comico comic adaptation and had a complete set of the Palladium Press RPG books – even though I had no one to play with I would obsessively pour over the technical stats of the the mechs and the various character classes. Yes, Robotech did become a safe haven for this lonely little boy.
Two of my most prized possessions at time were the first two Robotech Art books edited by Kay Reynolds and published by StarBlaze Editions. They are still available through Amazon and I highly recommend them for further exploration of the Robotech universe.
Somewhere around this time I also went to an undubbed and unsubtitled screening of Macross: Do you Remember Love? at some comic convention in NYC. Back when cons were held on one random floor of a random hotel isolated away from all the nice normal folks. By that point, I was aware that Robotech was a Franken-anime of sorts; a new being comprised of other separate entities. I still loved that movie, but for me the core of the experience was the three generations of characters, the Robotech universe and its mythology.
I continued my fandom into the Robotech II The Sentinels comic book, reading every issue of the anime fanzine Protoculture Addicts as well as all the Del Rey novelizations out at the time. So yes, I’m a fan. Through the years, I have kept my ears open for continuations of the franchise, nearly all of which failed to get off the ground. Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles, a lackluster sequel came out in 2006. And several comic series and one shots were released through the years including a fairly good Tommy Yune and Jay Faerber written Roy Fokker prequel comic in 2003. But none of these ever really succeeded in satiating my Invid-like hunger for more stories set in this world.
I had given up hope on ever seeing a quality addition to this beloved bit of my childhood. Until I heard the rumors of a new comic book series being released by Titan Comics, who had done an outstanding job in recent years with Doctor Who comics, and would be written by Brian Wood no less. A perfect choice, in my opinion. Wood’s work with both the Star Wars and Alien universes has shown he can do great things with a legendary shared science fiction franchises. And his breakout Vertigo hit, DMZ showcased Wood’s ability to write compelling and intricate war based dramas. Other projects like Rebels, The Massive and Briggs Land easily brings Wood to the top of the list of great comic writers working today. I couldn’t have been happier with the news of his involvement.
So ready for this book
So with great anticipation I opened the first issue of Wood and artist Marco Turini’s Robotech and see…
Literally, the last thing I want. This is not a sequel, prequel or side story. Not even a reboot or re-imagining along the lines of Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica. This is a retelling of the original story, starting at exactly the same point. And while we get a new glimpse of the immediate aftermath of the crashing of Zor’s battle fortress (something not in the original episode) we do not get a retelling or even a mention (so far) of the events from Mike Baron and Neil Voke’s Robotech The Graphic Novel – which filled in the gaps between the crash landing of the battle fortress and the first Zentraedi attack ten years later. As my heart sank, I sat back and continued reading what I was sure was going to be the George Lucas “Special Edition” treatment of Robotech.
While reading this I had to continuously fight my immediate knee-jerk reactions based on my own love of the source material towards the changes and omissions in this “bold new vision”. But it also made me confront the reality of the original show. As I read along, I not only began to enjoy what Wood and Turini have done here but I had to admit to myself why it NEEDED to be done. There is an embarrassing truth about Robotech that us fans seldom talk about – the original show just doesn’t hold up well…at all.
What Wood and Turini have done here isn’t just re-imagine this story for a new generation, they might have ended up saving it from being completely forgotten and discarded. Maybe I spoke too soon and this is the Galactica-like re-imagining the franchise needs.
Dealing with my own prejudices is harder than running the SDF-1 Pinpoint Barrier System
The story of Robotech is a stunning piece of work but there are numerous problems involved with shoehorning three shows into one, with the translations and with the dubbing. The show is often crippled by glaring canonical inconsistencies, confusing plot lines, goofy dialog and a schizophrenic story tone that can never really commit to either being mature or for little kids. This was after all still in the era when the English dubbing of anime was compelled to put dialog into a character’s mouth even when they were just standing silently with their mouth open.
These are all things an audience, not having the same nostalgic biases that I do, would scoff at and ridicule. Robotech deserves better than that. In my own life, I have shown my significant other virtually every piece of media that is important to me; Babylon 5, Twin Peaks, X-Files and countless movies. Yet, despite how large Robotech looms in my mind and personal history I have never sat down with them and watched it and those issues are the reason.
Legend has it that the turn around from acquiring the rights of the three shows (Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber Mospeada) to the writing and dubbing was incredibly short, about a year. With the entire voice over sessions taking just three months. Robotech Master himself Carl Macek (story editor, producer) has said that this limited amount of production time left them with little time for rewrites and corrections. Mostly, they didn’t even notice them at the time.
When watching the show in recent years when it comes to any of these continuity and production issues I just stick my fingers in my ears and pretend they aren’t there. Why is the fuel source of “protoculture”, which is so crucially important to the overall storyline not even mentioned until the end of the second series? What is that whole micronized Zentraedi vs clones debate that freaks out Dana? Why is Zor when seen in flashback wearing an Earth officer’s uniform? Why do all the ships in the Robotech Expeditionary Force in the third series have planetary designations based on a solar system they’ve never been to? Some of these questions are addressed in the Del Rey books and obviously come from the fact that these shows were self contained and unrelated to one another but that awareness does little for a new viewer of the series.
Wood now has the opportunity to possibly fix much of this. From the opening panels of this issue we can see he is interested in cutting some of that fat. The overbearing narration that compulsively explains everything that opened the original episode of “Booby Trap” is gone in favor of a tight and lean story flow throughout the issue. This issue moves incredibly quickly and manages to deliver a surprising amount of action and plot.
For what’s on the page, this is top notch. If you’ve never seen the show then you should pick this up. It is a tense and action packed introduction into what could become one of your favorite franchises, provided this comic series continues long enough to tell the entire saga.
What is sadly missing from this issue are some crucial establishing character moments. The brotherly banter between Rick and Roy. Gone. The pre-flight antagonism between Lisa and Claudia which sets up Lisa as rigid and neurotic. Gone. Elements that show Captain Gloval as simultaneously war-weary and lovingly goofy. Gone. Also gone are anything about the Zentraedi, excluding what we see of the ships and battlepods and the final tantalizing panels that end the issue. This last omission ends up being a great choice as the invading aliens, their appearance and their motivations are completely unknown.
A character Wood does decide to give some attention to is Lynn Minmei. A choice that shows solid story telling instincts as Minmei is the thing that could sink the ship if not done correctly. Not because she’s an especially beloved character. Quite the opposite. Minmei is possibly one of the most annoying characters you will ever have to endure. I’m talking Jar Jar Binks levels here. And if she was depicted here as she was in the series I am sure most readers wouldn’t make it far.
There is a certain scene in Do You Remember Love? where Hikaru (original name of the Rick Hunter character in Macross) finally and fully expresses his, and the audience’s, annoyance towards this unbelievably shallow simpleton. It’s a scene which is in hindsight shocking for all the wrong reasons, in bad taste and decidedly sexist. But this was the 80s and we had heard quite enough of “To be in love…” thank you very much. Regardless, during the screening I was at, the entire audience stood up and applauded.
Here, Minmei is presented as take-no-prisoners ball of energy, yelling AT main protagonist Rick Hunter instead of FOR him to rescue her, all while holding a baseball bat. She is seemingly ignored by the SDF-1 bridge officers earlier in the story which gives her later declaration of her family having been some of the first to come and live on the island an air of civilian resentment towards the military. Here we have the potential for some interesting dynamics involving tensions between the civilians and the military. A potential class and ideological struggle.
Robotech for all its action and despite being a military based story is staunchly anti-war and much of the epic, especially in the first series, focuses on the gray moral areas in times of war and the struggles and tensions that develop. Something I hope Wood continues to develop in this version.
I am willing to give Wood the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the characterizations that are not present in this opening chapter. Opting for an action heavy opening to the series is probably for the best. There is only so much space in a standard comic and I think that with the pacing Wood normally works at with his stories, a gradual unfolding of character could work well.
Reading Robotech made me think of how Kevin Eastman returning to write TMNT for IDW said something about how retelling some of these stories years later afforded the opportunity to clean things up and tell them with better craft. A better comparison might be the IDW Star Trek books. When it launched in 2011, set in the Abrams reboot timeline, they had the chance to recreate some classic Trek stories with the aid of modern story telling conventions with a fresh new take that still allowed some creative wiggle room. In both cases we ended up with some outstanding comics. Wood and co. are now in a similar position with Robotech.
Artist Marco Turini does a phenomenal job here. He presents a combination of visual aesthetics that primarily honors the anime style of the original source material, but never tries to copy it, combined with some elements of European scifi design. His talent as a visual story teller is immediately apparent. Every panel is wonderfully intricate and detailed and never at the expense of characterization or story. While I might have been overly harsh towards Wood’s script when it comes to lack of characterization I think he’s leaning on Turini’s art to be vehicle for that in this issue. Personalities are immediately obvious with most of the characters simply by their facial expressions. Turini in particular really seems to have gotten inside the head of Roy Fokker – presented here as a battle hardened soldier carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.
My one main criticism of the art has to do with the depiction of Lisa Hayes. I always thought of her as fairly typical looking. I never thought she was meant to come across as some sort of bombshell. She’s an ambitious but emotionally guarded military brat who since she doesn’t stand out presents a contrast to the obvious attractive nymph quality of Minmei. But here she looks like at any moment she’s ready to walk down a modeling runway or pop up in a music video. It’s an odd choice that seems out of place.
For new readers not familiar with Robotech, maybe you’ve heard of this legendary series but never sat down to watch it, I say start with this version. Wood and Turini have crafted a striking new take here without all the baggage and it seems geared towards a more sophisticated audience than what the original series intended. For old fans of the show, if you can come at this with an open mind and give this a chance I think we might be in store for something wonderful.