COMICS REVIEW: "Robotech: Prelude to The Shadow Chronicles" (2005)

By... Kevin Long (7/19/2013)

I don’t claim to have our finger on the pulse of the comics industry, I barely even read 'em anymore, and really it’s only fair to mention that the vast majority of comics are simply outside my areas of interest because they’re superhero tales or fantasy or True Tales of Lovelorn Manga, or what have you. Even so, Comics as a concept and a format are something I'm pretty interested in; something that keeps poking in around the corners of my consciousness, even though I don’t have the resources to really give the medium the attention it really deserves – that’s a huge task, and frankly I'm not up to it at present – but despite all that, I'm a big, dumb geek who do like to talk about ‘em.

Though few in number, there are such things as Science Fiction comics. Generally these are media tie-ins: Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Star Blazers, and maybe a few that don’t have “Star” in their titles as well. In general, these are every bit as bad as you remember them being when you were twelve – hackneyed stories, mediocre art, functioning mainly as commercials-in-print for the shows/movies they represent, and generally just cashing in on the willingness of their fanbase to blow money on anything with a ‘Trek’ name on it. (“Wow! It’s a Star Trek/Madballs crossover! I’ll take six copies, please!”) Though low in quality, they are at least generally better than the seemingly infinite numbers of potboiler novels that are cranked out every year to tie in to these same shows (“Wow! A hardback, limited-edition, 300 page novelization of the Star Trek/Madballs crossover signed by John Vornhort!”).  There are also standalone science fiction comics, such as “American Flagg,” “Dan Dare,” “Judge Dredd” and others, though there are far fewer of these than there are of the Media Tie In variety. Curiously, there are more standalones in England than in the US. Why? I don’t know, but I suspect it’s simply because Tie-Ins appeal to an established market, whereas Standalones don’t, and hence are somewhat less of a sure thing, and hence less commercially viable.

I’ll mostly limit myself to Science Fiction comics here, and at present I’ll limit myself even further to a curious phenomenon in the genre: Comics that had everything going for them, and really should have been great, but for whatever reason ended up being “Comics That No One Gives A Crap About.”

For my first installment, I’ll be discussing

ROBOTECH: PRELUDE TO THE SHADOW CHRONICLES

Once upon a time – 1985 actually – there was a syndicated cartoon series called “Robotech.” Though unjustly dismissed by critics as yet another mighty-fightey robots cartoon, and justly dismissed by wags as a bastardization of original Japanese shows, the fact remains that the series was unlike anything else on TV at the time – the story was epic and soaring, people died in numbers large enough to make World War II look like a bedtime story, the robots were interesting looking, and the central theme of music linking all the eras of the story was unprecedented, iconic, and enchantingly naïve and weird. Its ending was rather abrupt, but not unsatisfying enough to prevent the show from being a big fish in the small pond of first-run syndicated cartoons in the 80s (It totally kicked the ass of “Spiral Zone,” let me tell you!)

The producers decided to make a sequel series called “Robotech II: The Sentinels,” which was to continue the story, and also fill in the substantial gaps in between the ‘eras’ or ‘generations’ of the original Robotech. Unfortunately, this project fell apart after only three-and-a-half episodes had been completed. It’s unfair to judge a project based solely on fragmentary bits of episodes, but what they completed was entirely lacking in the magic and swashbuckling adventure of the original Robotech. Even though “The Sentinels” never made it to air, the producers hired “Jack McKinney” to write “novelizations” of the show based on the roughly-fleshed-out scripts and rough overviews of the series, so there’s a spate of these books out there. The producers then attempted several revivals which even never got as far as “Sentinels” did – Robotech III, IV, and V; and the universally reviled-yet-intriguingly-connected-in-a-behind-the-scenes-way-to-Babylon-5 concept, Robotech 3000 – the franchise appeared to be dead. However, just as a blind chicken will eventually strike corn if he keeps pecking long enough, eventually the producers managed to launch a revival in the form of a straight-to-DVD move called “Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles,” which picks up about fifteen minutes before the original series ends, and goes on from there.

“Prelude to the Shadow Chronicles,” was part of the semi-nonexistent (or “Viral”) media blitz leading up to the release of the Shadow Chronicles DVD back in 2006. A five-issue miniseries, it was supposed to bridge the gap between the end of the first ‘era’ of Robotech (Which ended around 2014 or so), and the start of the movie (About 2044 or so). That’s an awful lot of ‘offstage’ time to fill us in on in only a hundred or so pages, including adds. Predictably and disappointingly, “Prelude” doesn’t even try, and instead it just concentrates on a period of about a year immediately prior to the start of the movie.

Now, on the face of it, this makes a degree of sense as that whole period had already been chronicled by the “Jack McKiney” novelizations of a series that never aired to begin with, right? Well, kinda: but Robotech II was supposed to be a multi-generational story just like the original Robotech was, and the “Sentinels” part was only supposed to be one of the three generations there, starting out about halfway between the first and second ‘eras’ of the original Robotech series, and ending a few years later, so even with those crappy novels (Which I’ve been unable to plow through) we’re still missing 20 years or so intervening time between when we last saw Rick and Lisa, and the time we meet them again in the DVD movie. More frustrating still is the fact that screenwriter Tommy Yune and others have bristled (Quite rightly) at the thought of being hamstrung by the cannon of a series that was never even filmed in the first place. Thus they’ve made changes to the already-fragmentary “Sentinels” story. Thus: “Prelude” is a coda to a story we never heard nor saw, which is substantially different than the story everyone had been told was coming up.

That’s a bit hard to follow, so let me put it another way: Let’s say that Star Trek: The Next Generation were suddenly removed in it’s entirety from the Trek Cannon, and replaced with a very similar, but fundamentally different show which we’ll call “Star Trek: Retcon” – and this “Retcon” show has some of the same characters, and some of the same events, but also a lot of people you’ve never heard of, and a lot of events that you’ve never heard of. 

"Well, that's not all that different than JJ Abrams new TOS reboot movie series," you say. Ok, fair enough. But here’s the kicker: although it may actually be a thousand times better and altogether-less-lame than TNG was, you don’t get to actually see it! That’s right: We’d just jump from the Star Trek movies of the 80s to Deep Space 9, with no explanation of what you missed aside from occasional vague references to people you’ve never heard of doing things you never heard about on a show you’ll never be allowed to see, mentioned in dialog now and again on DS9. And then someone decides to make a comic book wrapping up the story you know nothing about.

It’s damn frustrating.

Even so, the 92 and-a-half episodes set in the Robotech Universe make it out to be a fascinating place, and despite the massively awkward requirements of segueing from an unfamiliar retconned story to a new movie, the fact is that it still should have been fascinating. It really should have. Just the chance to rejoin beloved friends again alone should be worth the price of admission. Alas…

Issue 1 begins with General Edwards (A “Sentinels” character) murdering the supremely self-righteous Lin Kyle (Hooray!) and kidnapping the supremely irritating Lin Minmei (Uhm…Hooray? Frankly, I don’t know how to feel about that…) on the Robotech Master’s homeworld of Tirol. He then escapes in the REF Icarus, an experimental new battlecruiser. Fighter pilots from the SDF-3 give chase, but Edwards is now apparently allied with the hated alien Invid, and escapes. In the process, he cripples the SDF-3, breaking both of Lisa Hayes’ legs, and causes her to miscarry Rick’s baby. The story then jumps forward a year, to when the Expeditionary Council decides to have Captain Vince Grant (Also a “Sentinels” character, and the brother of Claudia Grant from the original Robotech), give chase on the REF Tokugawa. (Which is an undeniably cool, but nonsensical name in the same line with naming a ship “The USS Victorian” or the “HMS Jacobian”)  A couple minor “Sentinels” characters like Karen Penn and Dr. Zand show up, as well as several of the alien Sentinels themselves: Ambasador Veidt of the Haydonites, and the dog-bear thing with the scientological name of “L’Ron.” (And BTW, in the few episodes of “The Sentinels” that made it to film before the project fell apart, Rick and Lisa end up getting married in front of a large Scientology cross. What’s up with that? If anyone knows, please post it in the comments, ok?) In an awkward bit of time-passage, Rick goes from having a full head of wild new-wave 80s spikey black hair and grey sideburns in most of the book, to a full head of wild new-wave 80s spikey grey hair in the ‘one year later’ sections. I’m not convinced a person could even grow that much hair in a year to make it all grey like that, but I digress.

Issue 2 has the Tokugawa (With Bretai inexplicably aboard) catching up with the Icarus. Back at the fleet Admiral Rick, Herr Doktor Lang, and Janice the smokin’-hot gynoid babe (Another sentinels character) are preparing for the invasion of earth that we saw at the end of era 3 of the Robotech series. Louie Nichols, from the 2nd era of Robotech, is also re-introduced. A knock-down drag-out space battle takes place between Edwards’s renegade ship, their Invid allies, and the Tokugawa, in which Edwards betrays the Invid Regent and kills him and Bretai with the same shot. The crippled Tokugawa careens into the atmosphere of the planet, out of control and about to crash.

Issue 3 picks up with a panicked evacuation of the crashing ship, and an admittedly pretty damn cool scene involving Captain Grant being the last person to leave his ship (He motorcycle-jumps from it in to an open cargo bay on one of the evacuating shuttles!) and once on the ground, the crew are immediately captured by Edwards. Back at Tirol, Lisa is still recovering from her injuries, and Janice discovers that Herr Doktor Lang is building her an even-hotter body. In an amazingly talky-talky scene that goes on for six or eight pages, Edwards explains that he’s taken over the Invid Regent’s brain-machine (Don’t ask) and now controls all the Invid forces excepting those on Earth under the control of the Regis, and will use them to attack the Regis’ forces, thus freeing earth. Grant admits this is a pretty good plan. Meanwhile, Admiral Rick leads the ground forces in an attack on Optera.

Issue 4 covers the whole poorly-illustrated battle, including the rescue of Minmei, and Janice sacrificing herself to push Edwards in to one of the Invid “Genesis Pits.” (I’ve watched the whole of Robotech like 5 times through, and re-read this comic several times, and they never quite explain exactly what that is. Suffice to say all kinds of big mojo doubletalk evolutionary research takes place in ‘em)

Issue 5 has Edwards, transformed by the pit in to a big giant boogey-monster thing, snarling out of the pit and doing the old “You can’t defeat me, I have powers nigh unto a god” riff so popular in Marvel Comics and so popularly avoided in DC Comics. The newly-resurrected Janice sacrifices herself again so the SDF-3 in orbit can blow hell out of him with their Reflex Cannon, which kills Edwards, and scorches much of the surrounding continent. Janice, meanwhile, downloads in to the newer, even hotter body that Herr Doktor Lang was building for her earlier. In the thrilling deneument, Lisa Hayes puts on a purple robe thing in a gesture that is obviously pregnant with meaning, but which I flat out don’t get. General Reinhart (From the last couple episodes of Robotech) convinces Rick to use the Neutron-S missiles Edwards left behind, but Rick insists on trying them out first to see what they’re capable of. Cabel and Rem – also-rans from “The Sentinels” – make a cameo and run-in with Dana Sterling from the 2nd Robotech Era, (who’s evidently living on the SDF-3 now) and she makes the sad goo-goo eyes at Rem (Because, you see, Rem is a clone of Zor Prime, whom Dana was in love with back on the show in the 80s, but who died in an act of tragic heroism), then wanders off while Maia Sterling, from the Shadow Chronicles movie is introduced, along with the two other main fighter jocks from that movie. Captain Grant is given command of the Icarus, which they took after General Edwards died, and Louie is given the job as Science officer. While the rest of the REF Fleet heads off to invade earth with their new Shadow Technology (Which they got from Edwards), the SDF-3 and the Ducaleon (A science vessel) head off to test a Neutron-S missile, which goes off while Rick is talking to General Reinhardt and Captain Grant on the videophone (About 45 minutes in to the movie), and cripples the SDF-3 and evidently kills Exidore over on the Ducaleon.

The End.

Criticism:

Firstly, the art is weak. The characters have all been substantially redesigned, so they don’t look much like their original forms in either Robotech or the filmed bits of “Sentinels.” We know who they are because we’re told who they are, not because they actually look like the people they’re supposed to look like. Every single external scene is very dark, mostly in shades of black and blue, making it hard to tell what’s going on in the action scenes. The action in said scenes isn’t fluid, looking more like it’s grabbed off a storyboard than intended for a comic – there’s not a strong feeling of connection from one frame to the next in some sequences that should really be exciting (Such as the motorcycle escape). All the spacecraft in the comic are clearly CGI-drawn, and not ink-and-pen. This is clearly a budgetary move, as they obviously didn’t have much money to blow on this, and the problems get worse as we go along. In issue 4, there are entire battle scenes which are just dark, poorly-illustrated pictures of fighters with word-bubbles of characters saying things coming from them by way of identification. There’s nothing cinematic about it.

Secondly, the story is weak even before it descends into the “Giant Monster” silliness of the last issue. It exists mainly to tie up some loose ends from Robotech and the unfilmed Sentinels that, for the most part, weren’t noticeable enough to warrant explanations. “Where did the Neutron-S missiles come from?” “Who Cares?” Leftover characters from Robotech and the various iterations of the Sentinels show up for no real reason other than to let us know they still exist (Which, given the intense offscreen retconning, was a bit questionable in some cases). Many characters die ignominiously and anticlimactically for no real reason other than to explain their absence in “The Shadow Chronicles” movie itself.  Furthermore, the agenda of the comic is to put forth Captain Vince Grant as a serviceable action-hero who takes Captain Kirk-like Risks.

Ok, fine, but the whole Shadow Chronicles movie itself is about Captain Grant being introduced to us as just that, so wouldn’t all that space in the comic have been better served by telling us a story about a character we actually give a damn about? Also, robbing Rick and Lisa of their kid seems pointless unnaturally harsh, even in a comic based on cartoon in which 5.2 BILLION humans died in just one episode.

Thus, while it had a lot of potential, in the end it just became yet another Comic That No One Gives A Crap About. And for good reason.

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...at 8:20:24 AM 7/19/2013
Category: Comic Reviews
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