DAY THIRTY-ONE: Return to Macross #1 - Shadow of Zor (1993)
(10) I remember the first time I read this comic book. It was during one of the usual weekend shopping expeditions to Joplin, MO, that my family did; they used to be weekly when I was in grade school, but the frequency of them had dropped to maybe once or twice a month by the time I was in high school. I was often cajoling my folks into swinging us by the Book Barn, a used books/comic books/trading cards/records/toys shop, which is where I got most of my ROBOTECH back issues from the Comico, Eternity, and Academy days; I'm not sure if I'd started the ROBOTECH comic site yet in those days, but at that point I was already building my continuity database for my own obsessive purposes. I sort of remember finding this one in the back issue bin, in one of the long boxes under the table -- the ROBOTECH stuff was never on the table, it was always under, in the more "undesirable" indy/manga/kids' books long boxes. But moreover, I remember reading it over, and over, and over again during the car ride across town to the mall, and then a few more times on the forty-five minute ride home.
I liked it a lot. Still do, in fact.
Part of it is that Bill Spangler is incapable of writing a dull ROBOTECH comic. He makes the caption boxes sing, he's got the character voices down, and his plotting is second to none. Even when he's making me tear my hair out with continuity gaffes, or simply doing a story I find utterly wrongheaded (I'm looking at you, MECHANGEL) there's a sense of dramatic logic behind every move he makes and the end result is always well put together, when his artists aren't letting him down.
In this case, his artist was far from letting him down; to this day I adore Mujib Rahiman's artwork, and it's a shame he didn't stick around through the entirety of issue two -- Tim Eldred took over after a handful of pages, and while I usually enjoy Eldred's work, it was better when he was adding a layer of gritty realism to the Third Robotech War; even when you're throwing them into a tense military action thriller setup, these are still brightly colored, iconic characters and they need an artist who makes them pop. Rahiman does that. I've said before that Breetai and Roy Fokker are two of my absolute favorite Macross Saga characters, and he draws both of those characters to perfection. He's also one of those artists who takes the Japanese style of the original animation -- complete with such anime and manga conventions as super deformed characters and speed lines, the whole nine yards -- and gives his own spin to the art, doesn't let a certain conception of what constitutes anime or manga-style art work straightjacket his art style. The result is something interesting, cool, and unique.
The solution? Throw off the straightjacket of continuity and go to town. You know who'd be fun to play off of Breetai? Khyron. That would be a ton of fun. Never mind that the two obviously haven't met before "Bye Bye Mars"; Breetai knows he gets results, but hasn't heard of his reputation for chaos and collateral damage. Veritechs are classified top secret? Whatever. Readers expect to see robots and planes that turn INTO robots, so deploy 'em as necessary. It makes the continuity a mess, and while I'm sure there are ways Spangler could have tiptoed through that minefield, when you're writing a setting based on The Macross Saga, there are certain toys you want to play with, and likewise toys that your readers probably want to see you play with. For a lot of fans, Khyron is a guy they want to see more of, and naturally they want to see Veritechs and Destroids stomping about as well.
This take on Breetai has always bugged me, using him as a mere infantryman guarding Zor when the SDF-1 is lost. Again, it's a matter of shrinking the universe, narrowing future story potential and possibilities, making everyone important related -- and also making the quest for the SDF-1 his first command mission, having him lose his eye so soon before that mission, and so on and so forth. It's one thing to say that the events we saw on TV were the most important events in the characters' lives; it's another thing to say that almost nothing happened to them before it. Despite this distaste for the idea, which originated in the novel GENESIS, I believe it is at least well-handled here; Spangler and Rahiman make the material work, even if I think the ideas behind it are utterly wrongheaded.
Rahiman draws Zor in a Bioroid pilot's uniform, like Zor Prime wears, rather than the fancy caped outfit Neil Vokes drew in the Comico Graphic Novel. Come to think of it, I wonder if Vokes designed that outfit or if someone internally at Harmony Gold or Tatsunoko did; it's the same design we saw, more or less consistently, in LEGEND OF ZOR and all of Zor's appearances by the Waltrips' hands in SENTINELS and the WORLDS OF ROBOTECH books -- yes, I'm pondering the look Rahiman DOESN'T give Zor here.
Also, the SDF-1 is drawn identical to its appearance after being rebuilt by mankind, not as the pseudo-Zentraedi ship -- identical to the SDF-3 -- it's depicted as in the Waltrips' LEGEND OF ZOR or the Comico Graphic Novel. Considering that would go hand-in-hand with Zor's uniform design, that's not too shocking, though it really doesn't jibe with Exedore's remark in "Boobytrap" that "it appears to have been completely remodeled."
On the flip-side of that, watching Breetai and his men go hand-to-hand and toe-to-toe with the Invid Scouts is really cool and awesome-looking. It makes me wish that more of the pre-Macross Saga Zentraedi stories were just Breetai's forces taking on Invid on various worlds rather than the psuedo-STAR TREK alien encounters and Breetai vs. Khyron mind games that Spangler served up for the rest of the original Eternity RETURN TO MACROSS run. (His later WARRIORS miniseries through Academy Comics, with Byron Peneranda, would be more along these lines, albeit with a sort of kaiju/tokusatsu bent.)
When he arrives, he's greeted by Captain Gloval, with whom he has some history in this version of events -- prior to the post-Robotech.com reboot, Gloval had captained the Kenosha, the aircraft carrier Fokker served aboard as a Western Alliance or Internationalist (depending on which source you read) fighter pilot. While the two barely interacted in the TV series, the way those limited interactions played and the way Gloval always leaned on Roy and the Skull Squadron to save the SDF-1 during the more desperate fights in the first half of the Macross Saga always, to me, suggested some kind of history between the two men, though that history could just as easily have been built during the years serving together on Macross Island leading up to the space fortress's launch in 2009.
One of the more interesting contrasts between RETURN TO MACROSS and the more TV-series hewing FROM THE STARS is the level of secrecy surrounding the SDF-1, Macross Island, and the Robotech project at large. When Roy arrives via chartered flight on Macross Island, he's already familiar with the project to some extent; Gloval tells him that there's constant video coverage of the Robotech project, and we are later shown that MBS is already up and running as a cable outlet providing 24/7 TV coverage of what's happening on the island. On the other hand, Yune, Faerber, and Vo's series, written and drawn about ten years later, gives us a Roy Fokker completely unaware that anything's happening on the island -- he's utterly shocked when he sees the island, the ship, and the city around it from his fighter canopy -- a public that's been told that the SDF-1 is a ship derived from the alien artifact's technology and NOT the original ship reconstructed, and a Veritech prototype with tape over the transformation controls so its pilot can't see them, so classified are the fighter's secrets. Within an issue's time RETURN TO MACROSS's Fokker will have the Veritech completely explained to him; two more issues later, he'll be piloting a Battloid to save some people trapped in a burning building, right in view of the general public. So much for "classified top secret," the words Fokker specifically uses to Rick in "Countdown."
That feeling of looking forward to a better world and standing on the stage of history continues through the first story arc -- the first four issues -- and resumes when the series becomes a little more freeform and freewheeling, less Zentraedi and Edwards-centric, at Academy Comics.
I could have sworn that the Faithful were an invention of Daley and/or Luceno, something seeded in GENESIS, but according to my research this evening they're first mentioned in the novels in Luceno's THE ZENTRAEDI REBELLION, which first appeared in bookstores in March 1994. Of course, book publishing being what it is, and that book being the SIZE it is, the idea still could have originated with Luceno -- unless I've forgotten a reference in an earlier Spangler-written ROBOTECH comic. In any case, religion versus science is always an interesting conflict to play with, especially when you've got someone like Gloval assuring Roy (and the reader) that these aren't stupid or evil people -- they're just scared. And when you're scared, you do stupid things, like listen to opportunistic backstabbers like T.R. Edwards ...
The big problem I have with the first three four-issue arcs of RETURN TO MACROSS is that they're more like six two-issue arcs. They don't have room for fuller exploration, room to breathe. Worse, while Spangler's usually pretty good with the Zentraedi, unfortunately the Zentraedi material in issues two through twelve is some of the weakest Zentraedi stuff he's ever done -- I think I get where he was going with the final four issues, having Breetai bottled up in Khyron's cyberspace simulation in contrast to Roy being bottled up in the Lemurian submarine courtesy of T.R. Edwards, but the end result is still just the typical and familiar "trapped in a computerized fantasy world" story that just happens to star Breetai and Khyron. In short, I think he wound up constrained by his own format, and when he tossed that yoke aside when the ROBOTECH license moved over to Academy, the book got a lot better.
Roy's reaction to all this, of course, is frustration with a bit of anger. Like he says, things were supposed to be different here. And as I said above, the whole arc is about that faith and optimism being restored, not only in Fokker, but in Dr. Conrad Wilbur as well. It's easily the best of the three arcs that Eternity published, though I do have a soft spot for the mystery of the "Knight of Knives" killer in the second Macross Island arc, with its clever little red herrings and the mysterious alien figure that escapes from the SDF-1. This, however, is founded on such a strong thematic core, and as a bonus it's got Rahiman on the first issue and about half of the second, and the rest of the four-issue arc is penciled by the ever-reliable Tim "Man, do I love me some VOTOMS" Eldred, whose clean, solid work suffers only by comparison to Rahiman's eye-popping, highly stylized art on the first one-and-a-half issues. (Well, and also by comparison to his own work on INVID WAR, which was brilliantly inked first by Fred Perry, who used some lovely ink washes for shading, and then by Anthony Carpenter, who did some nifty textured hatching effects for shading.)
NEXT TIME: Well, what else? We're jumping over those eleven building blocks and taking a quick look at RETURN TO MACROSS #13, "High Strangeness," the first issue published by the short-lived Academy Comics, Ltd., and the first issue to feature the fantastic and under-appreciated cartooning of one Wes Abbott. Be forewarned, I will be talking about the start of one of my favorite ROBOTECH comic runs ever, so there may be excessive amounts of hyperbole. Brace yourself.