Just as Voltron was assembled from other robots, the original Voltron television series was put together from several different Japanese anime — and it benefited in part from a happy accident.
Debuting in September 1984, the hugely popular cartoon was developed by World Events Productions, a small television production company based in St. Louis, Missouri. Several WEP executives had gone to a licensing convention and saw three Japanese shows they thought would do well in the United States. They requested the master tapes of all three, but Toei Company sent the wrong tapes for one of them, interpreting the request for the "one with the lion" as Beast King GoLion, although the WEP team had actually meant a different show. Ted Koplar, president and CEO of WEP, liked what he saw, recalling, "There was a human side that grabbed me." Indeed, it became the most popular Voltron cartoon, Lion Force Voltron.
Last month, Viz Media released Voltron: From Days of Long Ago, a 30th anniversary commemorative book that includes a behind-the-scenes history of the show, photos of the many Voltron toys, and a guidebook to the characters and storylines. I spoke with Traci Todd, senior editor for children's publishing at Viz and a huge Voltron fan herself, and Beth Kawasaki, senior editorial director, about went into the making of the book.
Robot 6: Can you briefly tell us the origin story of Voltron?
Traci Todd: Japan was making a lot of similar shows about combining robots, and [WEP] cobbled together a couple of shows to make Vehicle Voltron, the first Voltron that aired.* It had 15 different pilots and so many parts that people had trouble relating to the pilots and knowing who is who. Then they launched Lion Force Voltron, which became iconic and the favorite, with only five pilots. The book focuses on Lion Force Voltron; that's the main one that everybody knows. We dedicated a chapter to Vehicle Voltron, largely because even though it was the first one that aired, it was the secondary Voltron in pop culture.
And what's the origin story of the book?
Todd: This came together in less than a year. We were talking about it at New York Comic Con last year. We found a spot backstage in the panel area, and I had an outline based on the opening dialogue — all the chapter titles are taken from the beginning dialogue of the show. We sat down with Brian Smith and Jeremy Corray, who at that time was still at World Events Productions; he was the creative director, and he wrote the foreword of the book. We just sat and hashed it out and tried to figure out how we would put together this book, knowing there isn't a lot of archival material. That's why we focused on expanding the narrative, explaining the holes in the mythology: There really was not a lot of the old production stuff. Some that we had access to we included in the book, but nobody really thought to save that stuff.
Beth Kawasaki: Our intent was to be the one and only history and the one and only look at Voltron. It was a series of accidents, almost, that started the TV show here in America, then it became this whole cultural phenomenon you see on T-shirts and toys, but there has never been anything like this done before. It was our goal and intent to make this special commemorative edition that never existed before: What we as fans wanted to see and what World Event Productions had been hearing from fans [about] what they wanted to know, what secrets revealed, what material collected, in this beautiful publication you couldn't find anywhere else. It took a lot of digging and research, pretty high intensity investigative work given that these resources have been lost.
Who did that research?
Todd: It was a crack team. Everyone who has a credit on the cover was very involved in the research. Mark Morrell, who is the host of the Voltron podcast, had access to the producers and voice actors he had interviewed for the podcast. I talked to the folks at World Events Productions. Ted Koplar is still there and very active; he is responsible for bringing Voltron to the U.S. in 1984, and even though his son Bob Koplar does more of the day-to-day stuff, he is still very involved.
I spent maybe four days in a row scrubbing all the DVDs for images I knew we were going to use for the book. I went to St. Louis to look through the warehouse of materials and comb through what they had there. There wasn't a lot of original production material. And Brian Smith, who wrote the bulk of the book having to do with mythology, watched all the Voltron shows and all the original GoLion and Dairugger, the original Japanese show that Vehicle Force Voltron was based on. It was a group effort.
I think the reason Voltron has sustained all these years is they have such a devoted fanbase, and we had to rely on them for a direction to go in. We didn't use any fan resources, but I had to go to fan databases to see what I was missing. All those images of weaponry, I had to figure out which shows to pull them from, and they were all well cataloged on the fan sites.
In the first part of the book, everyone is racing to put the pilot together in time, sort of cobbling it together with chewing gum and chicken wire. How do you think the way it was put together affected the popularity of the show? Would it have been less popular if it was slicker?
Todd: I think that it probably seemed pretty slick at the time. It's one of those shows that nowadays looks a little punkier than it did originally. It was put together with chewing gum and chicken wire, as you said, but the instincts everyone had went to putting together a great show. With the dialogue written to [match the] mouth movements, you couldn't tell it wasn't in English. It was one of first shows to use stereo sound, and the fact that they used a full orchestra to play the score, those are really, really high end details that I think went into making a really unique show. Just the fact it was from Japan — the sensibilities were a little bit different, a little bit darker, like a space opera. I think it had a lot going for it that made it unique.
Viz published the Voltron Force graphic novels, but it's not the only publisher that has been involved with Voltron. Why is Viz the logical home for this book?
Todd: I am a fan. I have been a fan since I was a kid. Once I was working at Viz and realized the potential for doing projects beyond manga, Voltron was one of the first licenses I tracked down. I had no sense at all of the scope of the fandom; I just was going on a whim. I had no idea there was so much love for the brand, that there were so many other people out there like me, and I am probably not nearly as devoted as many of the Voltron fans are. We were lucky they were just gearing up for the launch of the Voltron Force cartoon, which is how we got the Voltron Force series from a few years ago. It is a good partnership, with mutual respect, and when the 30th anniversary came around, it was a no brainer that we were going to propose something.
Kawasaki: As Traci said, we had a relationship with World Events Productions to do Voltron comics. It was so great to work on that. They really care about Voltron, and they made sure they had a partner who cared about it not just there to make a buck. It makes our job that much easier when they are fans and we are fans ourselves. Once you start talking to people you realize this really made an imprint on people when they were growing up, watching the show, getting the toys, acting out their own scenarios. It has held up as they were growing up, and they want to pass on their passion for this awesome tale of teamwork. Voltron doesn't work if all five parts are not together. It's the universal theme of teamwork, but it really resonates with everyone who has seen it or played with the toys or watched the show.
Todd: I just want to be sure that it is super clear all this crazy Voltron madness came from a small production studio in St. Louis. It's not a grand studio somewhere in Hollywood. We call the first chapter "Mom and Pop Robot Shop," and it really was just one guy calling a bunch of people and putting the show together. Dreamworks is the licensing agent for Voltron, but all the final decisions are made in a small office in St. Louis.
Do you have any plans for more Voltron books?
Todd: We are so happy to have this book out. It was a labor of love, but it was labor; I think we are going to watch this and ride these coattails for a while.
Kawasaki: The comics that we did are for Voltron Force, which was a reboot of the classic Voltron with new characters. Dynamite does a classic Voltron comic, and those still continue. The Voltron Force show has not continued on, so we wrapped up some of that with an original comic in the back of the book. If there are other opportunities for Voltron, we will definitely keep talking about them, but there isn't anything we can say at this point. We love the property and love working with the group behind Voltron.
* The first episodes to air, in September 1984, were Vehicle Force Voltron (based on Dairugger). The Lion Force Voltron episodes began in October and made up the bulk of the first season. The second season was more Vehicle Force Voltron, and the third season was based on Lion Force Voltron but written by a U.S. team and produced in Korea and Japan.
All images ™, ® and © WEP, LLC.