Calling Manga Island: Issue #33

Thu, March 2nd, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Tony Salvaggio, Columnist

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This week on Manga Island we visit the world of 80s mech action with one of my favorite series; "Armored Trooper Votoms." "Votoms" is one of the few series that has had an American writer work on adaptations for it and in conjunction with the new DVD, CPM has released Tim Eldred's "Armored Trooper Votoms: Supreme Survivor" adaptation as a pre-order incentive. This past week, I was able to get an interview with Mr. Eldred, who has been working in the OEL (Original English Language) or "manga influenced comics" field since before there was a term for it. Having worked on adaptations and original titles based on anime and manga properties for years, in addition to his own original work, Tim Eldred brings his unique American comics and manga influenced style to the comics world, and (as you can see in the interview) beyond.

The "Votoms" series revolves around the aftermath of a one hundred year war between the warring systems of Gilgamesh and Balarant in the Astragius Galaxy, and a dangerous soldier, Chirico Cuvie. Chirico is somewhat of a typical '80s anti-hero and stoic cipher thrown into an extremely harsh world of never ending warfare. His destiny seems to be to fight without end, the fact that he cannot remember his early past only adds to his alienation and his sense of losing himself in battle. At the end of this hundred-year war Chirico finds himself on the wrong side of the military (thanks to a botched secret mission) and it seems his fate has become linked to a mysterious woman known to him at first only as Proto-1. This epic 52 episode series spans multiple galaxies and far off locales as Chirico tries to flee his brutal past in an attempt to survive and find peace.

The main characters in "Armored Trooper Votoms" are the title suits also known as "AT's." These 12-foot tall, mechanized armors are the standard issue for soldiers on both sides of the conflict. "Votoms" took a cue from shows like "Dougram" and "Mobile Suit Gundam" and upped the realism factor even more. The AT suits were meant to be utilitarian much like our modern day military jeeps, and this separates them from most of the heroic robot shows of the time. The attention to detail and the level of plausibility that went into the design of the AT's set the tone for the series and has influenced mech design even up to today's mech action shows.

Tim Eldred's "Armored Trooper Votoms: Supreme Survivor" is an adaptation of the Original Video Animation "The Roots of Ambition" and the novel "The First Red Shoulder" detailing the early days of Chirico Cuvie's induction into the Red Shoulder Battalion. This Battalion would become the most feared group of soldiers in the Hundred Years War and Chirico's involvement with them is a major part of the mythology of the "Votoms" series. Planned as a possible series, the book also covers the first episode of the "Votoms" TV series and is a perfect introduction to this gritty military drama. The book shows off Eldred's signature style and his love for drawing the people and mechs that inhabit the world of "Votoms." Eldred has been refining and adapting his style over the years, and Supreme Survivor is Tim Eldred at his best.

But perhaps I should let Mr. Eldred speak about his work on "Votoms" himself.

Tony Salvaggio: I've been a fan of your "Harlock" series for quite a while. When those comics were coming out, most American anime fans only had the Robotech comics, some of the new Speed Racer comics, Antarctic Press stuff, a few Viz titles, and a smattering of Dark Horse titles. While Harlock and the like always had a distinctly American side to them, it was inspirational to me to see that comics could be created in these worlds with reverence to the originals characters and stories. Seeing you and Ben Dun and others forge ahead certainly fueled my passion for what I do today.

Tim Eldred: I'm really glad to hear that. Getting to do those comics was definitely a right place/right time deal. When I look back at them now, I'm pretty hard on myself because I can see how unpolished my techniques were. (All serious artists are hard on their early work; we just can't help it.) I also remember what a struggle it was to make enough money to live on, since I was working for a very select audience and those comics seemed to always be in a "countdown-to-cancellation" mode (except for "Robotech")…but that was balanced out by the fact that some of my very first professional comic book work was stuff that I personally loved and aspired to. It means a lot to know that someone could recognize that and take inspiration from it.

TS: What inspired you to take on doing new tales in existing anime properties?

TE: Prior to anime, "Star Wars" pretty much ruled my world. I did a lot of original "Star Wars" comics for amateur press fanzines (the kind that were usually devoted solely to fanfic) and that gave me a sense of how to play in someone else's sandbox, following their rules, while also presenting something fresh and original. When the opportunity came up to do the same with the anime shows I liked, it was a comfortable fit.

TS: As one of the few American artists that have worked consistently on licensed properties over the years, what has it been like? Is it harder developing new stories within these worlds and dealing with licenses, pre-conceived fan expectations, and the like?

TE: I've always solved this issue by asking myself what I would want to see as a fan of the same material, and as an artist myself I've always had a huge respect for the efforts of the original creators. Whenever I saw those efforts undermined in other adaptations, it made me even more determined to pay proper homage in my own work. (For example, it drove me crazy to see that someone could draw a Star Wars comic for Marvel without bothering to properly reference an X-Wing fighter.) That being said, it's never been particularly hard for me to find new stories to tell. Once you get into a game and learn the rules, you begin to see how you can make them work for your own purposes.

TS: Getting back to the topic at hand: How did your work on the "Votoms" comic come about? (BTW, I was happy to find it because I was able to use it as a translation for the OVA a friend of mine from Japan gave me years ago, so thanks!). How has the partnership with CPM worked out?

A "Votoms" comic was something I wanted to do from the moment I first got hooked on the anime series. It had everything I liked about sci-fi all in one story, and it's open-ended enough to accommodate almost any new scenario. In fact, I conceived and started drawing my own "Votoms" "side story" way back in 1986. When it seemed like I would never get the chance to legitimately publish it, I redesigned several aspects and turned it into an original black & white comic called "Chaser Platoon." (6 issues, Malibu/Aircel 1991.)

My relationship with Central Park Media came up separately. I wrote and assembled a huge fanzine about Votoms called the "Votoms Viewer's Guide" and passed it around to other fans. This had a number of unexpected benefits. CPM got hold of a copy and it inspired them to acquire the anime series for US home video. Another company called Ianus Publications got hold of a copy and attempted to acquire the RPG rights. When this didn't work out, they reworked their concepts into a very successful series called "Heavy Gear."

Now, remember what I said before about right place/right time? CPM was also able to land publishing rights for "Votoms" and so they hired me to create a comic. Then, much later, Columbia/Tri-Star television licensed "Heavy Gear" as a CG animated series and I got to direct several episodes. All this happened because of my devotion to the "Votoms" anime series. That devotion is still paying off to this day.

TS: With CPM releasing the "Votoms" series, adding the "Supreme Survivor" trade paperback as a pre-order premium, Is there any chance you will be doing more Votoms related books, or perhaps a re-release of the book? If so, where would you like to take the story?

TE: I'd jump at the chance, but unfortunately, CPM's license to create new Votoms products for the US is about to expire, so I very much doubt that chance will come. But if it did, there are obvious places to go with it. The last episode of the anime has a one-year break between the main story and the epilogue, in which any number of tales could be told about the main characters.

TS: Any chance you could do something related to the "Mellowlink" OVA series?

TE: If I'd had the opportunity to write another story after "Supreme Survivor," "Mellowlink" definitely would have been in it. I worked out an elaborate plot in which he would meet Chirico Cuvie (from the TV series) and they would sort of spin each others' lives in the directions they eventually take in their respective programs. Alas…

TS: You've said in the past that "Votoms" is your all time favorite series, and you definitely seem to have a love for "Star Blazers" and "Harlock." (I'm an old school fan myself, and I'm always a little sad that older animation hasn't really broken through sales-wise in the US since the anime DVD boom.) What is it personally that draws you to these older animation series? What is your take on why it's so hard for them to penetrate the market?

TS: "Star Blazers" was the first thing I watched on TV (in 1980) that I could identify as anime. "Speed Racer" and "Battle of the Planets" came earlier, but I had no idea where they had come from. Slowly but surely, the magic of "Star Blazers" began to supplant "Star Wars" for me, and made me want to tell stories that would invoke the same kind of emotion. "Votoms" came along four years later and blew my mind open. After that, I was hopelessly in love with the artform.

I think my continued devotion to the shows of the late '70s and early '80s comes from the fact that they were the ones that made the first major impact on me. The animation techniques look more and more primitive these days next to the super-high-tech anime of today (which I also love), but the quality of the writing and the dramatic presentation are timeless. They will always be as good as they've ever been. It's just hard for those shows to compete on a visual level with the deluge of flashier stuff that fills the shelves these days. But anyone who does the math will realize that the anime creators of today were the anime viewers of 20 years ago. Naturally, their creative choices are informed by what inspired them. Anyone who is willing to look back over the history of the artform has a lot of treasures to discover.

TS: Do you have any new favorite manga or anime, now that both art forms are so much more readily accessible than before?

TE: The best anime I've seen lately is Leiji Matsumoto's "Galaxy Railways," which for me equals the emotional punch of "Star Blazers." I'm also very devoted to the "Planetes" anime and manga, which I think provides the best "hard SF" writing that's ever come out of Japan. I've also been a "Gundam" maniac since the early days, and I really enjoyed the two newest shows, "Seed" and "Seed Destiny." As far as pure manga goes, "Battle Angel Alita" and "Berserk" are amazing rides, and for goofy Japanese comedy nothing beats "Dr. Slump."

TS: Have you read any of the new crop of what is now being termed OEL (or Original English Language) books from Tokyopop, Seven Seas, and of course the vets at Antarctic Press? If so, do you have any favorites?

TE: I must confess I have not yet tapped into this particular vein.

TS: You and a few pioneers were kind of "OEL before OEL was cool." What is your take on this next generation of artists and writers? Any veteran words of wisdom?

TE: I've always cautioned new artists against limiting their freedoms. Ten years ago I would look at portfolios and see endless copies of Image-style superheroes drawn by kids who thought they had to imitate that style to get work. These days, the manga influences are taking over and I sometimes fret that the same destiny awaits; it could all turn out to be a fad and become obsolete. (Or worse, a clich.)

Manga and anime appeal to us because they provide an alternative visual vocabulary to a lot of techniques that have grown stale, and that's a good thing. I just don't think it's wise to get so caught up in that technique that you forget to develop your own. Remember, it's the original visions that shape an artform, not the knockoffs.

TS: Any speculation on the future of these comics that are influenced by Japan, and how you would like to see the market grow?

The very best thing manga has done for us is to open up new markets and help make comics respectable. By the mid-90s it looked to me like we were incapable of doing this for ourselves because we had become imprisoned by our own limitations. The fact that manga had so much more to offer than super-hero comics gave us the boost we needed to get out of the basement. I love the fact that everyone knows what the words "manga" and "anime" mean now without a lot of explanation.

That being said, I hope the economy of this particular artform doesn't overbalance in favor of manga because it could become harder then to do non-manga, if you get my meaning. Personally, I'd like to be able to continue using my American and European influences right along with my Japanese ones.

TS: Do you have any major projects (comics, TV, film) you are working on now?

TE: There are two current projects I'd love to plug: "Star Blazers: Rebirth" is a webcomic I'm doing that revisits the characters from the famed anime series 25 years after they first appeared. It can be found at www.Star Blazers.com, at which a new chapter goes online every 60 days. Eventually I hope to see it all in print.

Secondly, my own pet project, a sci-fi comedy strip called "Grease Monkey," is finally appearing this June in an omnibus-sized graphic novel from Tor Books. It will be available in bookstores and comic shops everywhere. If you want to see what a healthy mix of influences can lead to, this is it.

Other than that, I'm always doing storyboards for some TV cartoon or other. I've had the honor of working on such recent shows as "Spider-Man" (CG series), "Teen Titans" and "Xiaolin Showdown."

TS: On that note, are there any dream projects that you would want to work on, in the near future?

TE: It's funny, I look back at my career, which started in 1989 (the very same year my daughter was born), and it seems like I've had a long string of dream projects. There was a time when I never thought I'd get to draw Captain Harlock, Star Blazers or Votoms in a million years and they all came to me one by one. "Grease Monkey" is in that same category because it's the most personal thing I've ever worked on and says a lot about what I believe as an individual. I guess if I get the chance to do more of what I've already done and continue to express what I feel strongly about, it's all the dream I could ask for.

TS: Thanks a ton for the interview and for all the entertainment and inspiration you've provided over the years! Best wishes and many thanks for all your support of these old school series, and in all your future work.

Central Park Media's release of the "Votoms" series marks the second time the series has been released on DVD in the US. The first series was through Nu-Tech and was spread over 16 discs in 4 boxes covering the each of the 13 episode story arcs. This release was panned by some because the subtitles were burned into the image or "hard subbed" so that they could not be turned off. That release did contain some great extras in the form of specials that were themed for each box and some cool production sketches and episode guides, as well as neat DVD menus that mimicked the HUD of an AT. I was able to get an advanced preview of the check disk version of the upcoming release and I have to say that this is a release worth double dipping on, if you're a hardcore mech fan and well worth picking up for the first time if you are into sci0fi and don't mind old school animation. My side by side comparison (totally not scientific on my PC where I could compare screen shots) showed the image to be a cleaner and with less interlacing than the Nu-Tech version. The subtitles seemed pretty similar in both releases, the CPM version having more straight forward menus. The shining part of this new release has to be the subtitled Director's commentary for the episodes with Ryousuke Takahashi. He provides a wealth of information on the conception of the "Votoms" universe and how the show came together. For fans this is a real high point. In addition to this, Central Park media will be offering an incentive program to get a collector's box and extras disc for those who purchase the whole series as it is released (there was an incentive for pre-ordering but sadly even I missed the pre-order date). I look forward to re-watching the series with the commentary and the cleaner video (it also gives me a perfect excuse to watch all 52 episodes again, cool!). As an added bonus the DVD Rom portion of the discs I received had a .PDF copy of Tim Eldred's Votoms episode guide, a treat unto itself.

If you are looking for a dark and realistic take on military action and mechanized assaults, "Armored Trooper Votoms" should be on your must buy list. This is a series devoid of angsty teens and pretty boys and is all about war and the ravages of war, the toll it takes on the people and the soldiers, with a huge dose of mech daring-do, a splash of romance, and a mystery that is well worth the watching until the very end. Casual anime or Sci-Fi fans who enjoy pseudo-realistic war tales such as Heinlein's original star ship troopers owe it to themselves to pick up this release as well. While the animation may seem a bit dated at times, the original design and gritty presence adds tot eh charm of the show. If you are able to find "Supreme Survivor" (please CPM reprint it if you can!), you will also have a great primer to the "Votoms" series and it makes a great translation if you can track down a copy of the "Roots of Ambition" OVA (I actually used it when a friend of mine from Japan sent me the OVA on VHS). I'm looking forward to a full year of "Votoms" here on Manga Island; I hope that you'll join me there.

Armored Trooper Votoms
Publisher: Central Park Media


Rating: Teen + for violence and some nudity

Links of interest:


Central Park Media's Votoms site

Tony Salvaggio has been a fan of anime and manga from an early age. He has been an animator in the video games industry and is currently co-writing an original graphic novel for Tokyopop, PSY-COMM Volume 1 is out RIGHT NOW!!. He regularly hosts anime and Japanese related shows in Austin and his passion for all things anime and manga related is only excelled by his quest to become King of the Monsters.

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