DAY THIRTY-ONE: Return to Macross #1 - Shadow of Zor (1993)

By Bill Spangler (Writer) & Mujib Rahiman (Artist)

(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.

(9) Spangler's big idea behind RETURN TO MACROSS was to split time between Breetai's search for the SDF-1 and Roy Fokker, Gloval, and the rest on Macross Island's adventures dealing with the new wonders of Robotechnology, terrorist threats, politics, and life in Macross City. Unfortunately, the way the original TV series set things up makes this difficult to deal with dramatically. Breetai only really has Exedore to play off of, and those two get along like two peas in a pod. Meanwhile, you've got Roy as a test pilot trying out a classified top secret fighter jet that turns into a robot, but you can't have the robot out and about because, obviously based on the people's reactions in "Countdown," nobody's seen any of the giant robots as of 2009.

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.

(8) The first issue starts with the scene the Comico Graphic Novel opened with and LEGEND OF ZOR ended on, Zor's ill fated final seeding mission. Spangler's take plays a lot more like the version of events Daley & Luceno chronicled in the first novel, GENESIS, and is mostly written from Breetai's perspective, given that he's the character we'll be following in this half of the series month-in and month-out. He loses his eye in far more dramatic fashion here, and Rahiman makes that moment awesome and painful in equal measure.

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."

(7) It's a little weird that Spangler calls the Zentraedi and Invid "ancient" enemies when the Waltrips' comics suggested that as of this encounter the Invid and Zentraedi -- or at least the Invid and THESE Zentraedi -- had never fought before. As I said when I was looking at LEGEND OF ZOR, that was a tidy solution to the problem of the size of the Zentraedi fleet versus the scale of the Invid's forces -- or at least, it would be if the Waltrips hadn't had the Masters realize immediately that their new foes were coming from Optera. But Spangler is working from the Daley & Luceno playbook -- which itself is extrapolated from Macek's playbook -- which posits that the Invid have been a thorn in the Zentraedi's sides for a while. It makes me wonder if Spangler even looked at what his fellow ROBOTECH creators were doing at Eternity, or just assumed that they were hewing to what the novels did, more or less, as he was doing.

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.)

(6) After we see the SDF-1 crash, we jump ahead to Roy Fokker's arrival on Macross Island -- not his first arrival there, which was depicted in the Comico Graphic Novel and Daley & Luceno's GENESIS (and was later retconned away in Yune, Faerber, and Vo's FROM THE STARS (2002-2003)), but his arrival five years after the SDF-1's crash, as he joins the Robotech project as a Veritech test pilot.

When he arrives, he's greeted by Captain Gloval, with whom he has some history in this version of events -- prior to the 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."

(5) One thing I think RETURN TO MACROSS really gets across, despite all the terrorist threats, despite the fact that all our heroes are members of the military, despite misguided folks like the Faithful and outright scummy folks like T.R. Edwards and Anatole Leonard (per Spangler, Daley, and -- most of all -- Luceno) getting in their way -- despite all this, there is a feeling and sense of optimism and wonder that permeates the series. These characters are living in an age of change and opportunity, similar to, say, the dot-com boom of the late 1990s here in the real world; something that makes the world smaller, something that brings people together, and something that everybody wants a piece of. Only in this case there's the additional knowledge that we're not alone in the universe that operates as a rallying point, something that carries with it the feeling that human history has really begun a new chapter, a chapter that really anyone could be a major player in if they're smart, clever, or lucky enough. Fokker says it himself: "The technology inside the Visitor is going to change the entire world! Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?" ("The Visitor" is sort of the "ASS-1" ["Alien Star Ship One"], the thing people called the SDF-1 before it was the SDF-1, of the Daley & Luceno-driven version of the ROBOTECH universe -- albeit not as unintentionally funny as its MACROSS counterpart.)

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.

(4) Conrad Wilbur and the Faithful, a group who believe the SDF-1 was sent from the heavens by God as a test for humanity -- the new forbidden Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil -- are the "bad guy" for the Macross Island side of the first four-issue story arc. Wilbur's wife was killed during the shockwaves that resulted from the arrival of the SDF-1. He came to Macross Island as a doctor, but soon formed the Faithful and began holding his rallies, gathering a larger and larger following as fear and stress began to take their toll on the people working in and around the space fortress. They represent the flip-side of the optimism represented by our heroes. Fear of the future, fear of the unknown -- these are honest feelings. But once you wrap them up in beliefs people have carried with them since birth, beliefs they carry in their hearts, then they become dangerous. And when the ringleader is himself a true believer, well -- then you get the endgame of this arc in issue #4, where he stands with his finger on a trigger that could kill Roy Fokker and destroy the last remaining Veritech Fighter prototype.

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 ...

(3) During a rally, someone pelts Dr. Wilbur with a big rock that knocks him unconscious and Roy gets the blame. I have to wonder, if we took a look around, would we see T.R. Edwards standing just off-stage with a bag full of rocks?

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.

(2) This is one of Spangler's more interesting conceits -- that the Global Military Police is already a functioning organization. It's one I have no problem with, since it's not like there's anything that outright says otherwise. Okay, the fact that they're stomping about with gas gun-wielding Destroid Defenders is a bit of a stretch, but we do see Destroids used for civil defense in the Reconstruction era, so it's only a short stretch. Yeah, you'd think a Destroid would be terrible for crowd control, given how slow and lumbering they are and how likely it would be that one would accidentally step on the crowd, but I suppose that's what the gas is for, and "off-camera" there's a small team of GMP officers in body armor with fancy nightsticks to work their way through the crowd, right?

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.)

(1) If I seem like I'm being a little dismissive of the Eternity Comics incarnation of RETURN TO MACROSS, perhaps I am. When I read this first issue, I figured it would just go from here to full on "adventures on Macross Island" stories, and the next several issues I came across were all Academy Comics issues, stuff from the brilliant Spangler/Abbott run and a stint from the final run, where Spangler was alternating with Robert W. Gibson on writing and a very young, raw, just-out-of-high school Dusty Griffin was on art. And guess what? That was all Fokker, Gloval, Claudia, Dr. Lang, and the rest on Macross Island. Also, no sign of T.R. Edwards, who in RETURN TO MACROSS has a terrible Errol Flynn ZORRO mustache. Past this fantastic first issue, I just see those next eleven issues as building blocks towards the thirteen issues that follow that. I freely admit that perception could be the result of a bias caused by the wacky out-of-order way I read the series, but I think it's more likely that the more focused Spangler/Abbott run (and the Robert Gibson/Sean Bishop issues that briefly interrupt it) really is just that much of an improvement over the twelve-issue Eternity Comics run.

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.

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  • It's good to see another "day" show up. I suppose there's not a lot I can say about "Return to Macross," though; I'm not even sure I was aware of it the way I was aware of comics like "Legend of Zor" and "Invid War" when they were coming out, and then I fell in with the old Robotech Mailing List and I suppose I inherited a lot of opinions from that, and even my coming to reassess some of those feelings means I still may not have had a chance to form my own opinions on a lot of the Robotech comics... Still, your comment about ambiguities about "this take on Breetai" do sort of crystallise feelings I've had myself. Of course, I can see it as being a matter of "there are events alluded to that can be developed, and we already have characters to toss into them," and "just leave it for each person to imagine" is an all-encompassing but somehow not quite satisfying objection.

    By Blogger Keith Palmer, at 13 August, 2010 17:41  

  • I literally haven't read the Earth-based segments of "Return to Macross"--I skimmed over them when reading the Zentraedi parts; I guess I'm just that much of a Zentard.

    Less so, or perhaps so much so, because I really, really dislike the portrayal of the Zentreadi here. Spangler always seems to be trying to make them vaguely Klingon-ish, an attempt which sours many of the things that made the Zentreadi appealing.

    They are not a "proud warrior race" because they never chose to be warriors to start with. Some might take personal pride in their combat experience, but there is no glory, honor, or over-reaching ethos of psuedo-Samurai/Spartan/Klingon malarkey. I actually prefer it that way, because it makes the Zentraedi seem more "human", even before Micronian contact. Any attempts, by writers or fans, to make the Zentreadi "edgier" or more alien is missing the greatness of the SDFM storyline, IMO, in which the Zentraedi are "real" characters rather than generic Warrior Aliens.

    The farce with Khyron trapping Breetai in a virtual-reality nightmare only make things more painful. It doesn't only mangle continuity, it's a completely out-of-left field, out-of-character nightmare that needs to meet the paper shredder.

    Yes, as you said, there's not much that could be done with Breetai here if we want to keep the prequel consistent with the TV series. But surely there was *something* better than what we got, or alternatively, we could leave the Zentraedi out of RTM entirely. I love the Zentreadi, but they don't really need prequel stories.

    (Though I still would have liked Legend of Zor or *something* to delve more explicitly into their origins).

    I also think that the idea of all the major characters, either in the Zentreadi segment or the Macross segment, knowing each other right off makes the allegedly epic story seem narrow and confined. In the Zentraedi case, I'd prefer it if none of the major Zentraedi characters knew or met Zor directly, being that he was before their time. Such things add greater scope to the story.

    (Which would necessitate the loss of a lot of the novels' conceits about the ages and origins of Exedore, Breetai, and Dolza, but I'm not in support of those conceits anymore)

    Nothing more to say, I guess.

    By Blogger A.J. Wells, at 13 August, 2010 19:12  

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