As a tie-in product, Robotech: Prelude to the Shadow Chronicles has a tough job. First of all, it is a prequel to Harmony Gold’s DVD release of the Robotech: the Shadow Chronicles, which was the first new original animation to continue the Robotech storyline since the 1980s. Secondly, the individual issues were was produced before the DVD was released, but only published in collected form about five years later, after the DVD had already been out. Which brings up the third, and possibly main, goal: To tie the DVD’s storyline more firmly into the plot of everything that had come before.
Confused yet? It’s hard not to be. But then Robotech as a property has been confusing almost since day one. Originally a syndicated TV series in the 1980s by Harmony Gold, the generations-spanning space opera was created by altering and fusing together three completely separate series from the Japanese animation studio Tatsunoko Productions. The series was popular enough that a new original series, called the Sentinels, was commissioned by Harmony Gold to continue the storyline. But it was never finished as animation, only to be continued in comics, roleplaying games, and paperback novels. Prelude to Shadow Chronicles picks up where the Sentinels left off, retconning some of the story elements from the last Sentinels novel to set up the movie..
The main question is, do you need to know this history to enjoy the book? Unfortunately the answer might be yes. While there is an extremely short synopsis of what has come before, it doesn’t come close to explaining all the settings and the multitudes of characters in the story. While it is ostensibly the story of the Robotech troops, led by Admiral Rick Hunter as they pilot their transforming mecha all over space against threats to humankind, we quickly get detoured into minute details. Even fans of the old series (as I admittedly am) will have a hard time keeping up, as all the characters have gone through a heavy stylistic revision to appeal to modern audiences. As quickly as page four we are surprised by the sudden appearance of Kyle, Minmei’s cousin. Who is Minmei you might ask? It’s not explained in the book, and only fans of the old 1980’s show would know the character’s significance.
And that’s the main problem with the storytelling. As it stands, Prelude to Shadow Chronicles doesn’t help gain the franchise fans at all. Sure the story of the main villain, General T.R. Edwards, co-opting the enemies’ shadow technology to set himself up as the leader of humanity develops logically, and draws to a nice conclusion. But the constant need to keep tabs on the various characters from the series and set them up for the start of the DVD’s story leads to nearly no characterization and a mishmash that makes no real sense. Readers will see characters, like the aforementioned Kyle, that are meant to harken back to the old series, but the half-page or so devoted to each do nothing other than introduce another strange name and face. Rather than attempt to serve the needs of making sure each fan favorite gets ‘screen time’, the writers would have done both newcomers and fans a favor by concentrating on the main conflict without so many segues to see ‘familiar’ characters’ reactions. Especially as the new character design of each makes it hard to recognize those very characters in the first place.
Which brings us to the art. It’s actually very well executed, with a slick style that reminds one of animation cels. There are a couple of pages in the first chapter that for some reason are pixelated to a high degree, ruining what should be sharp, clean lines, as if they were enlarged for coloring and not sharpened, but overall this is not a problem. There is a general darkness to the color palette that I felt could have used brightening in places. However, if the purpose was to emphasize the theme of shadows then the mission is certainly accomplished. We do see the evolution of Rick Hunter from the fresh-faced kid he was in the 1980’s series into the older, greying commander who is in the DVD. Over all, the artwork is in line with the movie it is a prequel for, though I have to admit I found it a guilty pleasure to match up a character’s new design with who they were in the old series.
Robotech: Prelude to the Shadow Chronicles presents libraries with a challenge. Not with shelving, as it would be perfectly suitable in most any young adult collection. It has some zap-zap sorts of almost bloodless fight scenes, but nothing more extreme. Rather the challenge is whether it will find an audience. On a promising note, one teen asked me if he could read it based on the cover alone – as he saw me with it for this review. But it may be hard to follow for anyone who is not already a fan of either the new DVD or the very, very old series.