I was flipping channels one Sunday morning in the spring of 1985 when I stumbled across something unexpected on Channel 68, a newcomer to the Boston TV market. As the established UHF players had already had a lock on the the cream of the syndicated crop, Channel 68 had to make do with older or more exotic programming choices — reruns of Make Room for Daddy and Arch Oboler’s One Step Beyond alongside British imports like the 1980′s Celto-pagan Robin Hood series and the Hammer Horror anthology show. It might sound a bit sad in hindsight, but the oddness of the station’s fare made it a welcome alternative to the repeats of Gimme a Break or One Day at a Time looped endlessly by 68′s more successful competitors.
My unexpected find that particular morning was a dubbed anime series (back in the days when we just called such things “Japanese cartoons”) featuring jet planes which transformed into giant robots and set against the backdrop of an epic space opera far more sophisticated than any of the other local or domestic efforts to cash in on the Transformers-inspired robo-craze. Intrigued, I stopped channel surfing and wondered what exactly it was that I was watching. The mecha designs seemed vaguely familiar, but the toy and hobby stores of the time were full of unlicensed bootleg giant robo merchandise drawn from scores of unrelated anime series (and, oh, how I wish I bought more of it when I had the opportunity).
It wasn’t until the commercial break that I discovered the cartoon’s name, which only confused me further. The show was titled Robotech, yet it bore no resemblance to what I had already been conditioned by DC Comics to associate with the name…
As previously stated, the runaway success of Hasbro’s Transformers toys led to a mad rush among its competitors (both dubious and legit) to hop onto the giant robot gravy train. Even Revell, primarily a manufacturer of model car and airplane sets, got in on the deal with a line of build-it-yourself mecha kits licensed from various Japanese sources (Macross, Dougram, Orguss), given a quickie localization job with the “Robotech” brand, and heavily advertised on the back covers of contemporary comic books.
This was also an era when comic publishers, hoping to repeat the success of Marvel’s G.I. Joe and Transformers titles, were looking for the next “hot” (and good luck trying to qualify that set of criteria) toy license to transform into a sales powerhouse. That the majority of said titles were received with as much enthusiasm as a damp turd tossed into the readers’ laps did nothing to deter the onslaught of these comics…and so DC partnered up with Revell to bring Robotech Defenders to the masses in the latter half of 1984.
DC never managed to replicate Marvel’s successes with licensed properties, and their efforts were chronically hobbled by both a lack of viable properties and the talent needed to sell them in the form of a miniseries or monthly comic. Though they did manage to land one big fish in the form of the Masters of the Universe franchise, they squandered the opportunity through bland writing, mediocre art, and the pathological need to bring Superman into the mix. (Atari Force was a notable exception, but it also had only the remotest links to the original properties. Besides, that’s a story for another post and another recurring feature.)
Truth to tell, DC’s powers-that-be never got over the agony of Marvel’s successes with its Conan and Star Wars books — the twin grandsires of the licensed toy comics of the 1980s — and expended a staggering amount or ink, paper, and reader goodwill in its efforts to foist truckloads of derivative fantasy and space opera nonsense on the comic-buying public. From that unhappy mix of circumstances came Robotech Defenders – a bottom tier franchise married to yet another stock DC sci-fi template.
Okay, so there’s this evil reptillian race called the Grelons, right? And they are kicking fifteen kinds of shit out of the outmatched worlds of the United Worlds Confederation? And there’s the ETT (motto: “Anywhere, Anytime”), a polyglot team of mercenaries representing the whole spectrum of genre cliches…
…led by a sexy butch blond woman named Malek?
And just when things appear hopeless for the team, they discover the locations of some kick-ass giant robots that will allow them to take the fight to the Grelons? (Oh, and it was printed using the notorious “flexographic” process, which means the pages look like they were pulled from the discard bin of a factory that makes black light posters?)
Also, because the American audience hadn’t yet grasped the distinction between the “real robot” and “super robot” subgenres, these “Robotech Defender” mechs are sentient creatures capable of speech and casual body language.
Though originally slated for a three issue run, the second issue of Robotech Defenders featured an editoral note inside the front cover…
…regretting the premature conclusion of the minseries, which would make it the Turn On (or perhaps The Montefuscos) of the comic book realm. While it would be tempting (and somewhat justified) to chalk up this early cancellation to the fact that Robotech Defenders was a steaming pile of shit in comic book form, keep in mind that DC was willing to let Conquerors of the Barren Earth and Lords of the Ultra Realm to run their full, godawful courses.
It is more likely that Robotech Defenders’ premature demise stemmed from the strategic partnership formed between Revell and Harmony Gold, a firm working on localizing one of the anime series featuring the Revell model line’s mecha. This alliance paved the way for the localized anime mash-up Robotech franchise — which retains a strong and devoted fan following twenty-five years later — while consigning the aborted mess that was Robotech Defenders to the dim purgatory of Nobody’s Favorites.
(Even so, reading Robotech Defenders is infinitely preferable that sitting through the official Robotech: Shadow Chronicles movie from a few years back for any length of time. Of course, falling asleep on a live hot plate is preferable to watching Shadow Chronicles, so don’t take this as an unqualified endorsement.)