DAY THIRTY-TWO: Return to Macross #13 - High Strangeness (1994)

By Bill Spangler (Writer) & Wes Abbott (Artist)

(10) A few years ago, I interviewed Bruce "Invid War: Aftermath" Lewis about his days working at Eternity Comics, the folks who published ROBOTECH comics in the early 1990s. My strongest recollection of that interview is an anecdote he offered about the guy who ran Eternity's parent company, Malibu Graphics, strutting around the office, looking over pages in progress -- specifically, looking at one of Lewis's ROBOTECH pages -- and going, "We're still publishing this crap?" by which he meant Japanese-influenced anime/manga-style comics. Well, after approximately April 1994, they no longer were. Malibu Graphics was already helping to publish the Image line of books, and now was reorganizing to get their cut of the new superhero universe game with the Ultraverse. With Malibu's Eternity imprint shuttered, the ROBOTECH license moved to a small independent publisher that originally went by the name Acid Rain Press; under that name, they had been publishers of sexy vampire comics. Starting in September 1994, they rebranded themselves Academy Comics, a name more befitting a publisher whose primary -- almost sole -- output was ROBOTECH comics.

Yeah, think about that one for a moment. From September 1994 through December 1996 there was a small press publisher whose ENTIRE REASON FOR BEING was publishing ROBOTECH comic books. Even more amazing, for about the first year or so they were sharp, nice looking, well-made books; save Bruce Lewis's final issue of AFTERMATH, most of the work up to about September 1995 was quite good from a craft perspective, even if some -- especially today -- might quibble with the stories. As the months wore on from there, though, only the Waltrips' SENTINELS comics and their related spin-offs held the line; their other top talent (Wes Abbott, Tavisha Wolfgarth-Simons, Sean Bishop) spread to the four winds and they were left with lesser talent, or in at least one case talent that wouldn't fully blossom for years to come.

(9) But today we're talking about one of the first issues to come out of Academy Comics Ltd. of South Bend, Indiana -- one of the four issues they put out at launch. In that first month, with the exception of their ROBOTECH #0 issue -- an introduction to the current line, cleverly written by Bill Spangler as an epilogue of sorts for John Carpenter, the Expeditionary Force officer who commanded the ship that returned to Earth in the Robotech Masters episode "Outsiders" who Spangler put through his paces in his earlier INVID WAR at Eternity -- the books they published were basically the "next issue" of the titles that went silent when the Eternity imprint shut its doors. ROBOTECH II: THE SENTINELS just trudged right along with business as usual, having left its original writers behind a few issues into BOOK III; Jason & John Waltrip just kept on doing their thing month-in and month-out. INVID WAR: AFTERMATH now had a totally new creative team with their own agenda, but boy, that was a pretty book; Tavisha Wolfgarth-Simons can draw the hell out of anything she puts her mind to, even if the issues of AFTERMATH leading up to the launch of the new title centering on the characters she and husband Rikki Simons introduced in their three-issue run read like the worst kind of fanfic. And in the middle was RETURN TO MACROSS, picking up where it left off at Eternity except without the "Zentraedi quest for the SDF-1" stories and blessed with a new artist who would stick around more-or-less consistently through issue #26, one Wes Abbott.

(8) Today, Wes Abbott's better known as a comic book letterer, having done lettering work for the last decade-plus for Image, Marvel, and DC Comics -- lately, mostly for DC's WildStorm imprint, oddly enough the folks who currently hold the license to publish ROBOTECH comics. Midway through the last decade, though, he did throw his hat into the ring of TokyoPop's "Rising Stars of Manga" competition and consequently got to flex his artistic muscles again on two books he wrote and drew, DOGBY WALKS ALONE (2006) and DOGBY WALKS TALL (2008), two volumes of a somewhat absurd revenge/wandering loner adventure story centering on a silent big-headed costumed character of the sort you see at theme parks like Disneyland.

His RETURN TO MACROSS work is a little more raw, obviously the work of a younger and less experienced hand operating on stricter deadlines, but it's obvious from his first issue that with the right vehicle for his talents Abbott could go far. There's a couple false moves here and there, but his character style is slick, emotive, and distinctive, the guy can draw the hell out of a Veritech, and he ratchets up the tension nicely with expressions and effects borrowed from the manga playbook.

(7) The story for this first Academy Comics issue of RETURN TO MACROSS is pretty straightforward. Roy Fokker arrives at Armor-1 with his Vertiech to put it through its paces in the vacuum of space. Doctor Lang is on-board the space platform to monitor the test results personally. No sooner has Fokker arrived, though, when a report comes in from Moon Base ALuCE of an unidentified object coming from outside the solar system putting out some kind of weird signal. Lang worries that it might be from the aliens that created the SDF-1, and Roy volunteers his Veritech for the job of going out and taking a closer look at the object. Oddly, Armor-1's chief researcher Dr. Sunderlin gets all edgy and nervous about Roy going after it. He's been a jerk all along -- he couldn't be some kind of mole for an anti-unificationist faction, could he?

(6) While en route to the original mark, Roy spots another, closer bogey coming in. He identifies it as a Pegasus-class long range shuttle, a spacecraft that was pretty common during the Global Civil War. It tries to shoot him down, but the far more maneuverable and versatile Veritech avoids its missile barrage and takes it out.

While Roy's taking care of the shuttle, Sunderlin shows his true colors, threatens to toast Dr. Lang with a taser, and explains that the object returning to the solar system is actually full of bio-warfare agents cooked up by the Neo-Tsarists during the Global Civil War, launched into space right before they lost to the Internationalists and discovered by Sunderlin's Exclusionist allies. (Leave Spangler to his own devices and he starts spinning out these factions like crazy; you need only look at his big long list of Malcontent groups in THE MALCONTENT UPRISINGS and the names dropped in INVID WAR for further proof of that.)

(5) Roy snags the capsule, but then radios back to Armor-1 that it's pock-marked with meteor holes and there's something green oozing out of it. Suddenly his transmission breaks up. Lang suggests that years of being exposed to deep space radiation might have mutated those bio-agents into something that can survive in the vacuum of space. Sunderlin thinks this is nonsense, but nonetheless when one of Armor-1's bridge techs insists she can't get Fokker back on the line, Sunderlin starts to freak out and flees the bridge. Armor-1 commanding officer Captain Mayhew quickly gets to a control panel and releases gas into the elevator to knock him out, and Roy reveals that was just a bluff -- the capsule is intact. Lang gives the go-ahead to destroy it, and Roy does so, another crisis averted.

(4) Funny, it's not a far cry from the crisis in FROM THE STARS; in fact, rereading this little done-in-one adventure, one in a series of continuing crises, I find myself making the comparison that RETURN TO MACROSS feels like the syndicated TV version of FROM THE STARS's slick big-budget feature film. In fact, the stable supporting cast of characters in RETURN TO MACROSS and the way they become a close-knit group is somewhat reminiscent of modern day CBS procedurals like the CSI franchise shows or NCIS -- or, I guess, similar to the main Macross Saga cast in the Reconstruction era, which I guess makes a kind of sense, given that they're sort of building a new world here as well, albeit one that will never reach the heights they're reaching for. Robotechnology will certainly change the world, but for the better? Well, I'll get back to you if Tommy & Co. ever finish their SHADOW CHRONICLES cycle, and we'll see where planet Earth and humanity stand when they're done ...

(3) In the Eternity run we saw Spangler seed in the Global Military Police early on, even complete with their gladiatorial-style Masters-era armors as early as the Knight of Knives affair running through #5-8. No reason not to stir those contents in vigorously, I suppose. This time he decides that Moon Base ALuCE should be in service in the pre-Macross Saga era, which I suppose makes sense given that we've got Mars Base Sara out there -- why have a presence on Mars before the moon, eh? I have a soft spot for decisions like this, instances where authors tie the disparate parts of the ROBOTECH saga together a little tighter, make the whole more cohesive even if clearly the places and organizations in question are, err, "off-camera" afterwards until we reach their original first appearance, so long as it's something like this that broadens the universe rather than the unfortunate tendency authors of licensed works have to make everyone somehow distantly related or old friends or what-have-you.

(2) There's something about this issue that seems deliberately small-scale and introductory; it really does have the feel of a soft reboot of the series, a statement of the sort of story you'll be seeing in these pages month-in and month-out, a bit of action and adventure in the years prior to the Zentraedi's arrival. When I was a teenager, I used to sweat the details -- everything needed to "fit," everything needed to make sense. T's needed to be crossed, I's needed to be dotted. You still see me sweat these kinds of details in the TV episode breakdowns, but I realize I'm looking at this stuff with a quarter-century of hindsight, proper translations of the Japanese material available to review courtesy of the internet and commercially available DVDs, half-remembered bits of the McKinney novels and Comico comic adaptations clogging my brains -- and to be honest, I'm sort of making my final statement on this stuff. I'm not saying, "How dare this twenty-five year old English dub of an even older Japanese cartoon not make sense!" And likewise, I used to take offense to the fact that RETURN TO MACROSS featured Battloids stomping around Macross Island a good four and five years before "Boobytrap." Today? Heck, I wouldn't mind it if Bill Spangler or Robert Gibson or whoever might be writing it today managed to stretch those four, five, whatever years of time out to a hundred -- heck, let's go whole hog, let's say TWO hundred issues. If they were as well written and drawn as this, I'd read 'em if they were still being published today. If they were interesting stories and the characters were consistent with the folks we know from the TV series, well, to hell with the finer points of continuity. Let's have some fun and blow some crap up with big robots.

(1) The series moves from this minor episode to a tie-in to Rikki Simons and Tavisha Wolfgarth's run on INVID WAR: AFTERMATH, where an operative for the Isle of the IHE hacks into Dr. Lang's files and gets his brain fried for his trouble. That same issue introduces a new major character, Dr. Lang's sister Nina Lang, a rock singer for the band Absolute Zero. Eleven years later, the Waltrips and Tommy Yune would introduce another sister for Dr. Lang bearing a more familiar name, who would be retroactively killed off at Alaska Base. More on her a few days from now.

Issue fifteen starts things really rolling by introducing Shane Gleason, a former wingman of Fokker's aboard the Kenosha. Unbeknownst to Fokker, Gleason's been having bad flashbacks to a period when he was tortured by the Exclusionists. He winds up hallucinating that he's still being held prisoner, steals a Destroid, kills some people while making his "escape," and is ultimately stopped -- and killed himself -- by Civil Defense forces. This enables the new, charismatic leader of the Faithful, Geoff Davies, to get a foothold in Macross City politics -- and turn Nina Lang to his side, to do some anti-Robotech commercials for the group. Meanwhile, Anatole Leonard's militant splinter cell of the Faithful seeks a less peaceful means of ending the Robotech project, like firing missiles at Roy's Veritech in-flight, in hopes of downing it in the middle of the city.

Spangler obviously realized that the Faithful is the most interesting "foe" he set up in the early issues of the series, and Anatole Leonard's association with them -- set up by James Luceno in THE ZENTRAEDI REBELLION -- was ripe for the picking given the woeful mischaracterization that was going on with that guy since day one. (Given that the official licensing guide called him "a pathetic bigot," Harmony Gold basically gave the authors of the licensed works carte blanche to do it, too.) These threads would culminate in a four-issue arc entitled "War of the Believers," which Academy would ultimately release in trade paperback. Those four issues are going to be the subject of the next handful of "comic book weekend" posts for two reasons: first, as I said, I really do like the Spangler/Abbott run on RETURN TO MACROSS, and this is the best of that work; and second, otherwise at this point I'd be shining a light on material that's contemporary with The Macross Saga, and most of that ranges from mediocre to awful. (Does anyone want to be reminded that WINGS OF GIBRALTAR exists? Anyone?)

But next up, it's back to the TV series:

"Stay tuned for 'Showdown,' the next chapter in the continuing drama of ROBOTECH!"

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  • This wasn't a Zentraedi issue, so I didn't read it: I don't even know if it was included with the comics I torrented.

    However, I did rather enjoy the Wolfgarth-Simonses Robotech stories once they were fully disconnected from the canon cast (Rikki Simons expressed his relief at this disconnection in the interview, seeming ambivalent about his abilities to write said characters).

    The only thing I could really fault their stories for was that they had no reason to be Robotech stories at all, their references to the actual series being largely superficial, except for the Zentraedi featured in one of the issues. Otherwise, "Clone" and the rest was a pretty cool story, with a surreal, dreamlike take on standard sci-fi tropes. I almost wish it was sold as something original, but then I likely would never have heard of it, disdainful of "manga-style" comics as I tend to be.

    By Blogger A.J. Wells, at 17 August, 2010 12:03  

  • these are actually really good layouts and use of space... particularly the outer space shots.

    i found it impossible to find RTM interesting unfortuneatly.. though i still bought it cause i felt it was my duty as a robotech comic collector.. to keep robotech alive! i've got issues of RTM i havent even opened or read

    By Blogger James, at 31 August, 2010 12:14  

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