After Transformers, there was Robotech.
The glorious, epic space opera full of humans piloting transforming robots against an evil alien armada was a huge success in 1980s American animation, quickly capitalising on the runaway success of the Transformers franchise to an audience hungry for mecha shenanigans.
Sharing elements of its Western backstory (a compiled adaptation of different Japanese properties, in this instance three unrelated but visually similar anime, also overseen by a single creative lead in Steve Kramer), recognisable technology (Autobot scientist Jetfire is a ‘redeco’ or new paint job version of a Macross Super Valkyrie toy) and now, a co-writer in Simon Furman, the most prolific and well-known of all Transformers scribes, this all-new Robotech ongoing series boasts an impressive production pedigree.
With Furman on script duties alongside veteran Brian Wood (X-Men, DMZ, Northlanders), Robotech serves as a Battlestar Galactica-style reimagining of the classic series, rebooting characters and storylines to act as both a condensed retelling of the first 60 episodes of the US cartoon series, and a fresh start for new audiences. Marco Turini’s art is deliberately Westernised rather than the faux manga style many of these adaptations favour, and is the stronger for it – clean lines and colours, a good sense of scale and plenty of big, open panels to give the battles room to breathe.
Volume 2’s opening recap does a fine job of getting us up to speed, but for clarity’s sake – reverse-engineered technology from a crashed alien ship has sent a space-faring fortress, the SDF-1, out into the unknown. Encountering a hostile alien race, the SDF warped deep into uncharted space and was pursued every step of the way home by warlike aliens the Zentraedi. We follow an ensemble cast that includes eager rookie Rick Hunter, reluctant SDF Captain Lisa Hayes and ace pilot Roy Fokker.
Collecting issues 5 through 8 of the current ongoing series, we follow the crew of the SDF-1, including its civilian contingent (trapped on board as part of the fortress’ physics-defying jump through space), as they take respite from the constant onslaught on a Mars base. First Officer Hayes has been promoted to Captain following the untimely death of original chief Henry Gloval, and Rick is experiencing a strange visual malady that has him grounded from active combat.
Meanwhile, Zentraedi big boss Breetai dispatches arrogant Warlord Khyron to dispose of the humans (or ‘Micronians’ as they call them, in reference to the gigantic physical size of Zentraedi) and reclaim the SDF-1.
The comic doesn’t betray its all-ages, Saturday morning cartoon roots, and despite his penchant for darkness Furman has always been adept at writing within such guidelines. For every pitched space battle, evoking Star Wars as every galactic dogfight that ignores the rules of physics must, there’s a sub-plot around Rick’s love interest Minmei attempting to win a ‘Macross Has Talent’ singing contest. This may feel tonally detached but is actually well within the bounds of the original anime, which alongside its glacial pace of story and character development (the Cell Sagas of Dragonball Z took over 50 episodes, remember) would constantly break the flow with comedic and daft side stories to ease off the main narrative.
Lisa makes a grim discovery on Mars Base, when a phantom of her deceased lover Karl leads her to notebooks suggesting science experiments into warp technology had gone horribly awry. Khyron springs his trap as the SDF parks on the planet’s surface, and after a frenetic battle the fortress slips away by detonating the base and fleeing in the explosive aftermath. Khyron even gets to shake a fist to the heavens while screaming for vengeance, because that’s the kind of story this is.
A newly-promoted Rick gets another taste of battle as Khyron disobeys Breetai’s orders and attacks the SDF directly, only to be dragged out of combat by Breetai’s mothership so he can jolly well get himself a good spanked bottom. As with the previous battles, it’s high of visual spectacle but low on emotional impact.
You know the sort – to create a sense of balance we see plenty of Earth ships get blasted to scrap, yet they miraculously always have more ships and pilots ready to jump into action. It’s a narrative device we can forgive due to the overall tone, because despite the structural similarities this swerves sharply away from Battlestar Galactica‘s adherence to realism and survivalism.
Minmei uses a lavish birthday party to ‘go viral’ ad convince the talent show to give her a shot, but not before rejecting Rick’s advances. The lovesick pilot heads out on a lowly escort run for his sins, encountering an enemy craft and sparking off another round of space combat.
This time, however, he narrowly misses capturing a Zentraedi ship carrying three recently downsized spies, now able to blend in with the SDF’s human population. Rick’s three-man squadron smashes into the Zentraedi mothership and comes face to face with Breetai – the same size in person as their Valkyrie craft are in robot mode. Breetai sends the kids packing, his distraction allowing the spies to board the SDF in a neatly visceral sequence, demonstrating the power advantage of the Zentraedi in easily-understandable terms.
As Lisa sends teams out to continue exploring the mysterious SDF-1 (shades of Stargate Atlantis‘ gradual reveals of the home base’s capabilities), bridge officer Claudia makes a shocking discovery – video footage from a vending machine witnesses Captain Gloval’s murder, seemingly at the hands of Roy!
While the repetitive nature of the space combat sequences is just about alleviated by differing the setting and deployment of technology on both sides, it was a failing of the original anime that its very nature necessitated easily-repeatable sequences of animation. Volume 2 does what it can to get around this, and hopefully acts as a good indication that Furman and Wood understand those limitations and will work hard to find inventive ways around them.
The Robotech saga has a long, long way to go with plenty of drama still to unfold, but already the changes made in this reboot are opening up fresh avenues for stories and twists that should stop the old school fans from getting bored. For many US audiences, Robotech was their first taste of anime and as such it still has a huge, devoted fanbase ready to nitpick and criticise any attempt to retell ‘their’ version of the story.
Robotech is in safe hands with Furman and Wood at the helm, and Turini is a great fit art-wise for this retelling. If you can forgive the all-ages tone and somewhat repetitious nature of the plotting, there will be plenty to enjoy as this rolls on.
Robotech Vol. 2 is now available from Titan Comics.