Five By Five: Jolley, Hilinski & Norton talk 'Voltron,' the vehicle team and Power Rangers?

Tue, June 24th, 2003 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Arune Singh, Staff Writer

"Voltron" #4 Cover
Devil's Due Publishing wants you to know one thing: they aren't in the business of publishing nostalgia comics. As the creators behind the hit "Voltron" series say, they're out to create great comics, regardless of any labels people want to attach to them.

With the first two issues of the series behind them, Dan Jolley ("JSA: The Unholy Three"), Mike Norton ("Jason & The Argobots") and Clint Hilinski ("JLA"), -which is most of the creative team- are ready to surprise fans more with further issues of "Voltron: Defender of The Universe." The trio spoke with CBR News about the popular series and offered an introduction to the world of Voltron for curious readers

"Roughly five hundred years in the future, known space is ruled by two intergalactic superpowers: the Earth-centered Galactic Union, and the vast Drule Supremacy. Political tensions between the two have reached a new high, and some members of the GU believe they're about to erupt into full-scale interstellar war; these people also believe the Drules stand a very good chance of winning," explains writer Dan Jolley of the re-worked version of the cartoon's plot. "In an effort to explore every possible avenue to avoid that situation, a Galactic Union military officer recruits five maverick pilots for a super-secret mission: they're sent to a small, remote planet called Arus, to search for clues to a lost, legendary war machine called Voltron, a huge construct that could tip the balance of the war in favor of the Galactic Union. The story centers on these five explorers as they uncover the legend, resurrect the near-unstoppable Voltron, and try to avert the catastrophic war."

But for some, brevity is the word of the day and co-penciller Clint Hilinski offers his version of the "Voltron" saga- "come on, it's a giant damn robot kicking ass in space. Who's not going to show up to see that? I think comics have been missing Giant Robots for too long!"

Having it's origins in Japanese animation, it should come as no surprise that the Voltron team of characters- the "Lion Force" as some fans call them- is comprised of five characters in differently brightly colored uniforms, though Devil's Due has made it quite clear that it all won't be as campy as it sounds. "Well, the inspiration for each as they are now came from a bunch of us here at Devil's Due remembering the show from our youth, rewatching those shows and then talking about what we liked and didn't like about them," reveals the other co-penciller, Mike Norton. "There's a lot of stuff that you don't remember about those shows sometimes, y'know? You have this ideal memory in your head of what something is and then you go back to it and go, 'WHOA! What was the deal with that?' When our ideas met Dan's he managed to subtly create characters that were new and original, yet still very much in line with who they were originally in the anime."

Being the series writer, Jolley relished the chance to explain his ideas for the characters and show critics of so called "nostalgia" comics that there's a lot of depth to what's being done with "Voltron." "Keith Kogane, the leader of the team, would be a true renaissance man if he weren't plagued by a lifetime of tragedy. As it is Keith is fearless, always composed, and an excellent commander, but he has serious difficulty expressing his emotions. I often think of Jet Li when I'm writing Keith.

"Lance Mcclain, the team's primary pilot, is a hot-dogging thrill-seeker of the first order; so much so that his rebellious antics landed him in a military prison. Lance is by far the most free-spirited member of what will come to be known as the Voltron Force, and shares more than one similarity with Tom Cruise's character in 'Top Gun.'

"Voltron" #5 Cover
"Hunk Garrett, chief mechanic of the team, is a genius with any type of hardware. He's also a gigantic individual, topping out at six feet six inches and 325 pounds; and yet Hunk has never actively used his size to cause trouble. He's much more interested in taking apart and putting together intricate mechanisms and systems; in fact, in general he's more comfortable with machines than with people.

"Sven Holgersson, the gunner, is by far the darkest member of the team, with a temper problem and a somewhat shady past. The least amount of information is known about him out of the whole team, and Sven likes it that way; he's intensely private about himself and his history. Look for some unexpected things to happen with Sven in the future.

"Pidge Stoker, the youngest member of the team, is also considered the most potentially valuable by the military brass who organized the Voltron mission. Apparently born with an uncanny knack for systems analysis, there's never been a software program or computer system that Pidge couldn't master in a matter of hours (including those of alien origin). An orphan, raised a ward of the state, Pidge was eager to take part in something that promised him not only appreciation but also a real challenge."

Comic readers are aware that the "Voltron" creative team is adamant about the fact that this is not just another book inspired by an 80's property, but why? "The term 'nostalgia series' has taken on an unfortunately negative connotation over the last year or so; a lot of people seem to think it means 'series with a tie-in to some old dusty property, that doesn't have to be any good because it's only there to remind people of the old stuff,'" explains Jolley. "That mentality is, I would say, the exact opposite of what we're going for here. Yes, 'Voltron' is tied in to the old animated series, but we're basically using the old series as a springboard, a jumping-off point. We're taking all the concepts presented in the animated series, breaking them down, then putting them back together in one solid, streamlined, action-packed story meant for all ages (as opposed to the TV show, which was aimed at ten-year-olds). What we're trying to produce is a well-crafted, engaging science fiction story, an intelligent, beautiful tale that will entertain readers young and old alike. That it's based on a 'nostalgia property' is in a lot of ways incidental."

Norton couldn't agree more and stresses that something very different is being done with this property. "This is an updated 'ultimization' of the story. I think its different from practically all the other eighties revivals in that we've actually changed the stuff that we thought was bad about the original and pretty much started over with what was really a blank slate with some neat character ideas."

For Hilinski, this is the kind of series that he says fill a need that comic fans have today and satisfies a niche of the market. "'Voltron' is the kind of fun sci-fi series that comics have been missing for a long time. Sci-fi used to be a staple of comic books but slowly disappeared with the advent of the superhero. Also if you look at the rise of Japanese manga and it's popularity, since 'Voltron' originated in Japan, I would think a lot of people who enjoy good manga are going to be eager to check out 'Voltron.' At least I hope they would."

The passion that these three men have for "Voltron" is evident- but they explain that their unique talents brought them to the attention of Devil's Due president Josh Blaylock and allowed them to create this series. "I know from experience that giant robots will never go out of style," smiles Norton. "I got attached because I drew another book with giant robots, and Josh thought I had an 'animated' drawing style."

"Voltron" #3, page 5
For Norton's partner in crime, the enthusiastic Hilinski, it was his devotion to drawing mechs and other mechanical things that landed him this gig. "I could make the obligatory 'I've got these pictures of Josh Blaylock blackmail joke here' but I think that one's been done to death. I'm pretty good at drawing detail and mech stuff, so we've got a book full of space ships and giant robots, they asked and I said 'Hell yes.' As to being a fan, I liked the original cartoon as a kid, but had kind of forgotten about Voltron after all this time, after familiarizing myself with it again, I remember why I liked it so much. The story is simple and fun and lends it's self to all kinds of potential. I think that's where our responsibility as creators comes in, there's a ton of potential with Voltron, it's up to us to deliver on that potential to the fans."

But nothing prepared Blaylock, who also writes "G.I Joe," for the passion with which Jolley approached simply getting the job. "I got attached to it because Josh Blaylock, president of Devil's Due, mentioned to me on the phone one day that they'd acquired the license to do Voltron comic books. I then babbled in his ear for ten minutes straight about how much I loved the show as a kid, how much potential I saw in the characters and situations, and how if they needed I writer I was very much their man. And that worked.

"As far as why I'm a fan, seriously, just take a second and look at the property itself: you've got five protagonists, at least one of which every person living will be able to identify with; you've got alien princesses and evil kings and starship battles; you've got ghosts and sorceresses and a freaking huge robotic knight fighting loathsome cyborg beasts. How can anyone not love that?"

Though "Voltron's" initial issues - #0 and #1- have followed the cartoon's continuity fairly closely, look for things to change and each creator hints at how it may happen. "from what I've seen I think Dan has done an amazing job of keeping the book true to the show but at the same time delivering something new, to diehard fans and new readers alike. That's not an easy task but Dan makes it look effortless. And yes I'm kissing up to Dan now," laughs Hilinski.

The changes will begin soon and one can expect them after the five Voltron lions merge together. "To begin with we're following the show fairly closely, in terms of the five pilots arriving on Arus and their subsequent discovery of Voltron. Pretty soon, though, I think we'll be diverging more sharply, taking the Voltron Force to places they never saw in the animated series. I can't give much away about that yet, though."

Though that's all there is to say about the story changes, Mike Norton says you can expect the art to be different than expected too. "Artistically, I made an effort not to make it look anime... but to try and render it as if an American animation company had produced 'Voltron.' The character designs were very much inspired by Dan's new take on their personalities peppered with what I originally liked about the show. You'll notice that several characters haven't changed much at all (Hunk, King Zarkon), because if it's not broke, I ain't going to fix it."

Something that's resonated with fans is the depth of characterization displayed in "Voltron" so far and the histories for the characters revealed in issue #0. Jolley says that's his goal on the series- providing people with stories that resonate. "Giving these people in-depth characterization is something I'm very dedicated to. I want to get into these people's heads, find out tons of things about them -- although a lot of what we find out will not exactly synch with what was portrayed on the show. We're not doing a direct screen-to-page transfer, after all; these are not exactly the same characters, and it'll be great fun demonstrating what the differences are."

"Voltron" #3, page 6
"I think the characterization is the most important part of the whole series," contends Hilinski. "You asked why 'Voltron' still has such a great following and that's the answer right there. The fans love these characters. They know them, they know how they'd act in a certain situation. We've got to deliver on that. We want the fans to enjoy seeing there old friends in all new adventures. But at the same time, we've got to keep it exciting, there's got to be surprises. We want people to wonder what Keith is going to do next. No matter how well a fan knows these characters they can't know how they'll react in a certain situation, only Dan gets to know that."

For the critics of "Voltron," who decry the perceived one dimensional characterization of some individuals, penciller Mike Norton says that he can see the point of some of the comments and also says Jolley is making this a far more rounded piece of work. "I think I was the least attached to the source material, so moving away from it was not a problem for me. What I realized when looking at the original episodes was that while there were many shows, a lot of the characters were very one dimensional and underdeveloped. What we wanted to do was give them a reason for being in this story... some substance."

That all being said, no one's about to say that "Voltron's" going to explain the meaning of life: each of these men realize that they're working on a high energy action/sci-fi series and want to make it the best they can without worries about "relevancy." "I'd say character and action [are most important]," states Jolley. "It's difficult to do an all-ages book when you're exploring the weighty socio-economic ramifications of the conflict between religious parties on another planet. ; )"

Hilinski re-affirms his previous statements: it's all about the characters. "I think the characters are the driving force behind this series. You've got five young adults and teens out on the edge of the universe facing an unimaginable force of evil in the Drule Empire, with not only the fate of Arus resting in their hands but that of the entire universe. That's a lot of pressure, heck I get stressed out when two of my favorite shows are on at the same time and I can't find a tape for the VCR."

And Mike Norton, one of the funniest men in comics, can't help but add, "If you mean deep philosophical issues being discussed between Voltron and a robeast, I'd have to say no."

But with "Voltron" having a fan base of people devoted highly to the original series, there's obviously a lot that the Devil's Due team wants to show right away- at the same time, they know they have to keep things going at a reasonable pace. "Well, in the original series, it took several episodes before you even saw Voltron. We're kind of using that as a way to build up awe and wonder. I mean, there's a lot of cool stuff to see in this story," says Norton.

Hilinski says it worth it, because if fans thought the ending to issue #1 was exciting, he says his current work is even better. "There's a pretty cool image I've got to work on pretty quick here, Mike left it for me to draw so I'm pretty jazzed. Long time Voltron fans might have an idea of what might be a pretty cool image from Voltron! Hint. Hint."

For Dan Jolley, he says fans can expect him to weave a lot of different stories- "How many ideas do I got in me? I can't count that high."

"Voltron" #2, Page 16 "Voltron" #2, Page 17
Now that CBR News has talked Voltron heroes, it's time to talk villains- and this is one series with a unique aesthetic for it's antagonists. "Yeah, you'll be seeing the classics from the TV show (somewhat re-imagined) in the first mini-series; in the future, I'd really like to see some baddies from other parts of the Drule Supremacy," explains Jolley. "And hey, maybe some human villains too, y'know? It's not as if humanity is 100% good and noble, is it?"

The rest of Devil's Due studio is contributing too, as Mike Norton reveals one of his artist friends has inspired the look for a favorite villain. "Tim Seeley has come up with an impressive horde of Robeasts for Voltron to battle. Much nastier than what he originally had to contend with."

As much as the writing is being praised, the art duo of Mike Norton and Clint Hilinski are receiving a lot of great feedback from fans for their work on "Voltron #1" and Norton, known for his work on the teen slice of life series, "The Waiting Place" and the adventure series "Jason & The Argobots," probably wasn't the first name many fans thought of when this series was announced. "I'm still not sure I am perfectly suited," admits Norton. "I think I was just at the right place at the right time. I do think however, because I'm not the sort of artist that people think of when you think "Voltron", that I may have a take on the visuals that is different and hopefully makes for an interesting read. We wanted the over all look to be more American animation looking. Just a stylistic experiment, really."

While Clint Hilinski isn't a familiar name to fans yet, he says that it doesn't bother him- he's just here to draw "kickass robots." "I'm drawing Voltron, he's a kick ass looking giant robot. Have I mentioned my love for the giant robots yet?" chuckles the artist. "The lions are a blast to draw too. And I love all the space battles and space ships and things. A lot of the design work from the old show was really fun to interpret it into the ship designs and stuff. Difficult wise-Voltron and the lions have a lot of parts you have to get right, but after a while, it becomes easier."

There's a big "cool" factor associated with Voltron and it's incarnations, so one would assume that it's quite a daunting task to bring that ambience to the comics. But these creators are as tough as the die-cast metal in Voltron toys of old and show no fear when challenged. "I just try to identify the parts of the TV show that captivated me back when I was watching it, and expand on that; no matter how many times I saw it, for example, I always found myself going 'YEAH!' when Voltron sliced a Robeast in half," Jolley explains. "So I try to take those elements, everything that was cool about the show, and weave them into a serious, butt-kicking story. It's been a lot of fun so far."

To some, like Hilinski, "Voltron" is inherently cool- all you gotta do is put the pencil to paper. "I think the coolness just comes from the concept and the look of Voltron. I think we've done a pretty fair job of capturing that. I've heard some great feed back from the fans so that definately helps take some of the pressure off."

Norton admits there's some difficulty in illustrating the robotic giant, but says the series is a gestalt of a lot of great elements. "I have said it before and I'll say it again. Voltron is the hardest character I've ever had to draw in my entire career. There's just something unexplained about the character himself that makes it cool. I like the team dynamic of the series myself. The whole idea of a bunch of people unlike each other that have to work together."

Admittedly, the "Voltron: Defender of The Universe" series that fans are seeing now may be solicited as an ongoing series, but Devil's Due hasn't decided whether to do a series of mini-series or make the series ongoing. "I think once people get a good look at what we're doing, sales won't be a problem," says Jolley of the series that is popular with fans but isn't doing "Transformers" numbers. "And I'm committed to it as long as Devil's Due wants to publish it."

"Yeah," says Hilinski of his commitment to the series. "And a lot of the 80's properties are still steaming away pretty strong. I think Devil's Due has proven if you put hard work and a love of the property into a series and give the fans what they want, a so-called 'Nostalgia property' can have great long term success. That's what I'm looking to do, create a great new series that will hopefully be going for a long time. I've seen a lot of Voltron fans out there and if they're any indication I think Voltron's future looks pretty bright."

"Voltron" #2, Page 18 "Voltron" #2, Page 19
No matter how hard some fans rally to the cause, it seems that some readers won't try "Voltron" and feel it's only fans are the ones who grew up loving the cartoon in the 80's. Don't tell that to the Voltron creative team. "I kinda think that the nostalgia thing is misdirected sometimes," argues Norton. "I know it may seem like a futile argument, but we're doing these titles ('G.I. Joe,' 'Voltron,' etc.) because they meant a lot to us and we think they have huge creative potential. As far as Voltron is concerned, there was really never a good comic version of the property. That in itself is a good reason to pick up this book."

It's all business as usual to Hilinski, who notes that it's often the most popular franchises and concepts that have target signs on them- "Voltron's" just the newest target for readers who don't want to read the series. "Blah Blah Blah, I've heard the nostalgia gripe since GI Joe and Transformer hit the top of the charts and they're still there. Nostalgia is a good reason to buy it if that's what your looking for. Great Sci-fi action and adventure is another great reason to pick it up. Fun manga originated themes and stories is another great reason. Did I mention Giant Robots I mean, you really don't need another reason to check out a book other than that. But I've got more reasons if you want them."

But even professionals have criticized the comics based on 80's properties- from Greg Rucka in the latest "Wizard: The Guide To Comics" to Mark Millar in his "The Column" here on CBR. "The thing is, 80's-property books are a trend, and it's always easy to hang a target on a trend," Jolley contends. "But I would refer people to critics' responses to 'Voltron,' which have largely read along the lines of, 'Y'know, I don't care for these 80's books, but 'Voltron' is pretty good.' Randy Lander at The Fourth Rail, in particular, gave 'Voltron #1' the best grudging, back-handedly positive review I think I've ever read. I loved it!"

Norton says that there are roots to these 80's properties that might make people doubtful of the eventual quality, but hopes that fans are able to approach the comic with the open mind they'd approach any new superhero. "Well... It's easy to criticize something that was created as a toy advertisement in the first place (in the case of Transformers and G.I.Joe). The thing is is (that I don't think many naysayers take into consideration) that a lot of these properties have been built up and built up and have a place in a LOT of peoples hearts and minds. I know just from being a G.I. Joe fan from when I was a kid that these properties have just as much story and character potential as any established Marvel or DC property, there's just a stigma attached because they're not "original works" or somesuch. Whatever. I don't see any difference between them."

Similar to his other cohorts, Hilinski just feels fans should show more love for comics and a lot less hate. "I'm guessing they are bashing them because it's not their cup of tea. And that's fine. Unfortunately for them there seem to be a ton of fans out there who truly enjoy this material and are glad it's coming out. I'm more interested in making the fans of these books happy than what a few people who don't like retro books think. I also think it's a little narrow-minded. I think if you tell a good story and people enjoy it, it shouldn't matter if it's a 80's book or the newest issue of 'Wolverine.' We create comics for fun, for people to enjoy. Some people like Voltron, some like Superman, why bash a series that has a huge fan following. I don't see the reason for it. As to why they've become targets, one word, 'success.' Success draws attention, attention gets everyone noticing the books, of everyone, there are going to be those who don't like what you do. Of those who don't like what you do, there are going to be those who think it's important enough to be vocal about it. That's just the way things work, especially in comics. It's what's great about comics. I know when I don't like something I like to be as vocal as possible about it. God bless the comic fan."

All that business aside, Norton says fan reaction has been excellent and has been provided from diverse sources. "There are some surprises yes. I had the fortune of seeing a lot of fans in Philadelphia in May. It was just really, really cool to see so many people happy that the character is back. I was really surprised at how many women were into the series as well."

Jolley echoes the same sentiment and has brave enough to comb the message boards for people not liking the series. "Fan reaction has been great! I've really only encountered two people who haven't liked what they've seen, one because he seemed to want a very direct, frame-for-frame transfer from screen to paper (which we freely admit we're not doing), and one because he didn't like it that it wasn't aimed only at young children. Everyone else seems to have really enjoyed what they've read, and told me that the property badly needed an updating.

"And as for surprises, oh ho ho, just you wait."

Hilinski says that his plea for a more positive output from fans has been met- he thinks "Voltron" fans are just the best. "As I've mentioned, the fans have been totally awesome. This is why I love comics and love working in comics. I've done a few things before but nothing that's gotten this kind of response, and I don't try to fool myself, it's more because of 'Voltron' than me. But I think it means we're doing something right with our work on the book. I don't know how many times I've heard, 'Thanks for bringing back Voltron' and I want to hear it more. The fan response has just inspired me more to make this book something the fans are really going to love and want to keep reading. It's kind of an addictive loop You draw the book to get fans to like it, they like it and you draw more so they'll like it even more. Ah, Comics the new drug."

One of the things that fans may remember, perhaps even want, is the return of the vehicle Voltron- fifteen vehicles that formed together to make a different kind of Voltron. So will fans see them Vehicle Force in action. "Yes. Yes you will," cackles Jolley evilly.

Like those old comics said, "You demanded it!" and Hilinski says the Vehicle's team return will come because they're here to please the fans. "All I know is there's a lot of Vehicle Voltron fans out there too. Don't think we haven't noticed. And I think part of our job is giving the fans what they want, so I guess you'll just have to wait and see. Hmmm...maybe in some great interstellar misunderstanding we get Vehicle vs. Lion. Let's hear from the fans!"

While fans are getting what they want, some might suggest a Power Rangers/Voltron crossover of sorts and the fearless Jolley replies with a ":::shudder:::" to the suggestion of the popular super teams meeting. Hilinski is more enthusiastic and says, "I wouldn' t mind drawing that Pink Ranger. She's the hot chick right?"

But it's Mike Norton that hints that this absurd crossover idea could have some life at Devil's Due. "Dude, if it were ninja storm it be easy, but if you had the original rangers complete with Tommy and the... oh wait.. I've said too much."

The crew is glad to hint at things that they know will happen and Jolley, who has success stuck in his throat, manages to say, ">coughcough

For Devil's Due's crew, there's no doubt in their mind that "Voltron" is a winner and they offer up a few reasons to read the series:

Jolley: "Because the entire creative team has really poured our hearts and souls into it in an effort to make it the best sci-fi adventure book we can. And because, according to fans, it's working. : )"

Hilinski: "People should pick it up because Dan's story rocks, he's really getting into the characters and creating a great level of excitement, I can't wait to get new scripts to see what's happening next, so I can just imaginge how fans feel. Plus to those who aren't diehard Voltron fans. This is a fun book you can get into on the ground floor. So jump on in and come along for the ride."

Norton: "Other than I'm drawing it and it will make me happy if they do? I think its one fantastic book. Not to toot our own horn but I think we do something that most of the "Nostalgia books" (now you have my eyes rolling when I hear that), in that we're actually trying to create something new rather than just pick up where we think fans remember it leaving off."

 
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