"Voltron" Revisited

We didn't have cable television when we were kids, so the only time I ever got to see "Voltron" was when my grandfather made my brother and I a VHS mix tape of cartoons. He'd put "Transformers" on there, some "G.I. Joe" and "Thundercats." Maybe an "Inspector Gadget" and some "He-Man." And he'd do this every week, bringing the cassette with him every Wednesday when he came over for dinner.

So I guess I did see plenty of episodes of "Voltron" after all, but not nearly all of them. And sometimes there would be space vehicles instead of robot lions, and I didn't understand those episodes much at all.

A few years ago, whenever it was that I picked up a couple of volumes of "Voltron" on DVD to watch with my kids, I flashed back to those Wednesday visits and the weekends spent getting caught up on cartoons we could only watch in bootleg format. Popping the DVD for Volume 1 into the player, and hearing Peter Cullen's narration as the blur of robot lions whooshed into view, well, it was like a pure injection of nostalgia.

We powered through the first handful of episodes before my son said, "every episode is the same. They fight as lions, form Voltron, then eventually make the sword and win. They should just form Voltron and make the sword right away."

Somehow, when I was a kid, I didn't bother to question any of this.

But my son was right. The episodes were all the same. And the characters were more annoying than I remembered. The villains were all cackling declarations and Robeasts that never stood a chance.

"Voltron" will always be a show I remember fondly, and I'll always adore the design of the robot lions and the way Voltron looks when he first forms. But "Voltron: Defender of the Universe" is a brutally laborious series to actually sit through. Watch a couple of episodes and you'll have seen enough to last a lifetime. You might want to watch more, because the show can be fun in small doses, but each successive episode will get more repetitious, and the returns diminish quickly.

And yet here's Dynamite, pumping out Voltron comics for the direct market masses. Someone must care. Someone must be reading these things, or else they are just Alex Ross completists and the non-Ross covers sit on the shelves unsold.

Actually, it turns out that Glyph award nominee Brandon Thomas is writing not one but two of these Dynamite Voltron series. And he's doing something surprisingly different with the comics: making them good.

Thomas co-created and wrote "The Many Adventures of Miranda Mercury" comic book, published by Archaia. That's a good comic too, with a strong black female lead and time travel and space adventure and tragedy.

The Miranda Mercury comics start off almost whimsical, but the first story arc ends with a dark edge, and Thomas balances both nicely. His intelligence and comic book storytelling savvy shines through, with only a minor stumble with an overreachingly ambitious time travel conundrum.

In his two series for Dynamite, the simply-titled "Voltron" and the newer series "Voltron: Year One," Thomas abandons the whimsy and writes both comics as character pieces with action/adventure spines. "Voltron" tends toward the Shakespearean with its pathos, while the "Year One" book reads like a futuristic Tom Clancy book starring a troubled commander. It's not what you might expect. It's certainly far from what I expected.

I didn't even realize Thomas was writing these Voltron comics until someone at Heroes Con mentioned it to me, almost in passing. But I was curious -- and I'd been impressed with "Miranda Mercury" -- and I checked out both series with a bit of an implicit challenge in my reading: "What could a Voltron comic possibly be about that would be interesting?" I'm sure Geof Darrow or Chris Samnee or J. H. Williams III could have made it look interesting, but what could Brandon Thomas do, a mere writer, to provide Voltron with a narrative angle worth sticking around for? I'll admit that I approached the comics almost defiantly, expecting them to be merely readable diversions, but wondering if something better were possible on something with the "Voltron" label. Something more than cool robot lions and a climactic fight scene with a big blazing sword and a Robeast sliced in twain.

Thomas delivered. He still delivers -- these two series are still going. I've only read up to "Voltron" #6 and "Voltron: Year One" #3. More may have hit the shops by the time you read these words. I suspect they are as good as the ones that came before.

The comics aren't perfect, of course. "Voltron" features the artwork of Ariel Padilla, an artist who seems to be working at a smaller page size (or a smaller digital canvas) which makes his linework weirdly blocky and inelegant. Some of the characters look unrefined, even King Zarkon, a central character in the series. He looks more like a tie-in coloring book character than a well-rendered lead. But Padilla tells the story relatively effectively, from panel-to-panel. The aren't isn't overly distracting, just unpolished at times.

And "Voltron: Year One" is a bit of a slow burn, revealing layers of deceit and character flaws that may take a while to build up to the kind of pace that's needed for what is, in essence, a story about a band of super-agents who will soon operate a super-weapon in defense of their world.

But "Voltron: Year One" is the better-looking of the two series, by far. Craig Cermak, a young artist who is just beginning to make his mark in the industry, is drawing the heck out of the series, with his early-John-Cassaday-meets-cleaner-Chris-Weston style. He's hyper-detailed where Padilla is all about open space. Cermak is really good already.

Thomas has mentioned, in various interviews, that his comics treat the "Voltron: Defender of the Universe" television series as canon and explore the unexplored corners of that universe. But he's doing more than that. In the "Voltron" series, he's providing a detailed backstory for King Zarkon that radically realigns the meaning of all previous "Voltron" stories. It's not exactly "everything you know is wrong," but it's "everything you know is only the tip of the iceberg of all the things that are different than you thought." And not only does Thomas develop Zarkon's origin and background, but he gives him a motivation that adds significant depth to a blue-faced monster who had little to do but scowl and command in the original animated series.

And, in "Voltron" #6, Thomas even throws another curve at the reader. By then, I was strapped in and ready for the next corkscrew on the "Voltron" rollercoaster, but I still almost gasped at the final scene.

"Voltron: Year One," which, three issues in, features neither robots nor lions of any substantial merit, echoes and amplifies the main series. It's tonally different -- partly due to the more detailed, more accomplished artwork, but also because Thomas frames his character exploration against a backdrop of super-science-espionage. Characters learn secrets, sneak around, take on the most dangerous missions, and learn not to trust their superiors. It's the Voltron Force team, but divorced from their metal feline vehicles, they have a chance to show their humanity, and their struggles to do what needs to be done, even when there's a price to be paid.

Brandon Thomas is so good at writing these characters in his Voltron comics, it almost makes me want to break out the DVDs and give them another spin. But not quite. Maybe I need a few more issues of softening up, but even then, I'd rather keep reading the comics than have to suffer through yet another "hilarious" cartoon scene with Hunk and Pidge.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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