Mecha, Minmei, and a decade-long fight for the future

While I have extensive experience with superhero comic books, my experience with manga is relatively small.  I know that my local Barnes & Noble has a significant amount of shelf space devoted to manga, and that quite a number of my students are often seen walking around with Tokyopop trade paperbacks.  I once flirted with anime a little bit, but going so far as to dive head-first into that particular world of fandom was never something I even attempted.

That being said, I am sure that I’m not alone in my generation by mentioning that as a kid I had exposure to Japanese comics and cartoons through Voltron and Robotech.  I suppose I’ll get around to talking about Voltron some other time, but Robotech seemed to have far greater reach, at least in terms of manga/anime as a whole.  Of course, I think that “true” fans of the genre and the work refer to it (or at least part of it) as Macross, but considering I have spent my life being nothing but mainstream, I’ll just go with Robotech.

My first exposure to Robotech was when  the animated series ran on WPIX 11 every afternoon when I was in elementary school.  It was an enormous show that had more episodes and storylines than I could count, but to be quite honest I wasn’t interested in the plots or character development when I was eight years old.  I just thought it was awesome because the character flew around in planes that transformed into robots that looked exactly like the Autobot named Jetfire (or was it Skyfire?  There was an enormous debate between my friend Evan and myself about this when I was a kid.  Evan, at one point, even claimed that there were two separate toys and he had the other one … but never produced it).  There was a comic book series put out by Comico that retold the television series verbatim (it even had a little “As seen on TV!” box in the middle), which you can probably pick up in a dollar bin somewhere; and a toy line put out by Matchbox which was compatible with G.I. Joe (I had the motorcycle).

However, Robotech was for the most part forgotten after it went off TV and toys were relegated to that “aisle of random and forgotten toys” in Toys R Us.  None of my friends ever really got that into it and so I was kind of alone in my love of the mecha series and gave it up to concentrate on the Joes, movies like Aliens, and baseball. 

Then, when I was in the ninth or tenth grade, a new store called Bassett Book Club opened up next to K-Mart on Sunrise Highway.  The place was huge, several times bigger than the B.Dalton and Waldenbooks I used to frequent at the mall, and the first time my mom took me there, I went straight for the science fiction section to check out their selection of graphic novels and Star Trek books.  After marveling at the fact that the store had the novelization of just about every movie as well as books that I’d only seen listed in my Star Trek Fan Club magazine, the spine of several books with “Robotech” written on the side caught my eye.

I have to admit that I was drawn in by artwork on the books’ covers.  I mean, it looked really cool.  Then, I began reading the descriptions on the back of the books and not only did it seem that these were all the stories that I remembered from when I was a little kid, there were more than I remembered.  I bought the first book, Genesis, and devoured it once I got home, reading most of its 200 pages over the course of one evening.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Robotech saga as told in the old cartoon, it begins when a giant spaceship, the SDF-1, or “Super-Dimensional Fortress” crash lands on earth near a city named Macross in the late 20th Century, soon after World War III has ended.  The military is able to outfit the ship and a few years later, it sets off with a new crew, but not before being attacked by the Zentradi, a race of giant aliens who have come to Earth to claim the ship.  The crew of the ship winds up making an accidental hyperspace jump, is stranded out near Pluto, and has to more or less fight its way back to Earth against the Zentradi. 

That’s the gist of what the author, Jack McKinney (a pseudonym for two writers, James Luceno and Brian Daley), calls the “First Generation,” which is probably the story most people are familiar with when they think of Robotech.  That’s the one with Rick Hunter, who’s kind of like Maverick, if his F-14 turned into a giant robot.  Hunter is the hotshot kid who eventually becomes the hero of the entire war and falls for Lisa Hayes, the kind-of-stuck-up admiral’s daughter, even though he is dating model and future pop star Lynn Minmei (the Lana Lang to Lisa’s Lois Lane … in the context of Smallville … aaaaaaaaand we’re geeking out).

The “Second Generation” is the story of the part of the television series known as the “Robotech Masters,” where the daughter of two supporting characters from the first generation–Dana Sterling–has to help defend earth against the Robotech Masters, the people who were the big bosses of the Zentradi and created all of the technology that earth now uses.  Toward the end of that particular generation, the Masters’ sworn enemies, The Invid (an insect-like race of aliens) approach earth and invade.  The “Third Generation,” therefore, is the story of Scott Bernard and how he helps lead humanity’s struggle to rebel against the Invid and save the world.

That’s the first twelve books of the series in a nutshell, and they are basically novelizations of what was on the television series, complete with the lyrics to songs that were used on the episodes of the shows.  From what I understand, the authors changed some elements around; for instance, the fuel behind all of this technology was called “protoculture” and it was actually more like a drug that really affected a person’s mind.  Pilots could control Robotechnology with “thinking caps” where they literally flew using their minds.  It was kind of like The Force in that way.  One character, Dr. Zola, got so obsessed with protoculture that he went completely mad scientist … something that I’m not sure happened in the television series.

But anyway, that small section of Robotech books was the part of Bassett that I always visited, even after it became known as what it is now — Borders.  It took me the better part of high school to track down all twelve of the novelizations of the television series and I read the entire third generation in February of 1995 on a visit to Loyola College in Maryland, finishing book #12, Symphony of Light, shortly before we arrived back in Sayville after a 4-1/2 hour drive from Baltimore.

This was not the type of thing an honors student should have been reading, as when I actually did start college, most of the students I was in Honors Program classes with were way more well-read than I was.  The Robotech novels were literary candy, a retelling of stories I had been more or less familiar with since watching the television show when I was nine.  But to be honest, I never had any pretense that it was anything but candy.  The books were way more interesting than my Star Trek novels because they were more action-packed.  Space dogfights, giant aliens, and stories about how people fall in love in unlikely ways during the height of an intergalactic war were really exciting to someone who was living on a steady diet of comic books.

And I guess here is where I talk about how reading so much of this sci-fi and action stuff proved to be my gateway to what I would read in college:  The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aneid.  Except, not.  I floundered when it came to The Iliad and The Aneid, and didn’t read The Odyssey until five years ago when I was teaching it to remedial-level freshmen (and I will admit, The Odyssey?  Kicks SO MUCH ASS!). 

Still, it reinforced my love of a “universe” in a story.  The Robotech novels were all-encompassing, not just telling the stories of Rick Hunter, Dana Sterling, and Scott Bernard, but giving the “history” behind the events and how they affected society as a whole.  It’s something I’d grown up liking because of how closely I followed the continuity of DC Comics and how all of the titles were interconnected, or at least related to one another (no matter how weak that may have been).  The fact that these were novelizations all written by (what I thought at the time was) one person and it was not only so complete but it was a bit more … well, complex than what I remember watching as a kid.

The novels went beyond just those twelve, too.  A five-part series called The Sentinels, which was supposed to be the novelization of a second Robotech series (but wound up being a half-assed 90-minute “feature film”) told the story of the further adventures of Rick Hunter and Lisa Hayes, who left Earth in the SDF-3 to find the homeworld of the Robotech Masters and basically end the Robotech War once and for all.  I picked up the first three in a “three-in-one” book when I was 19 and read them mostly while working the checkpoint station at Robert Moses State Park between my freshman and sophomore years of college.  I wouldn’t read the next two until I found them cheap on eBay back in 2002.  Those particular books had a Star Trek-type of vibe to them, where the mission of the SDF-3 was definitely more “boldly go where no one has gone before” than “defend humanity from alien invaders.”  I didn’t like them as much, but I didn’t care because I was gearing up for book #18 in the series, the one that finished everything.

The End of the Circle, a double-sized novel and the last of the McKinney novels written by both Luceno and Daley (Daley died a few years later), attempts to wrap up their version of Robotech.  Basically, the second television series–The Sentinels–had fallen through, so they were given license to run with what they had.  This winds up being an “all-in” type of story, where every loose end is tied up and just about every character gets a happy ending.  Since I read it about eight years ago and no longer have my copy (I sold my entire set of 18 novels on eBay), I’m fuzzy on the details, but I do remember that every single character, good or bad, got some sort of ending, and a mystery from the very first novel was solved at the very end of this.  It’s kind of an “everything’s wrapped up in a nice little package” story and I remember feeling pretty satisfied and happy that even though it had basically taken an entire decade for me to track down and read every single book in the series from the time I first spotted them in Bassett Book Club to getting that last eBayed book in the mail, it was all worth the wait.

It was never really a die-hard fandom of Robotech that motivated me to read all of the books, but more of an annoying habit of finishing what I started and an ongoing curiosity to know as much as I can about the most random stuff.

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