When Words Collide: The Brandon Thomas Interview

Mon, July 16th, 2012 at 2:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

Tim speaks with "Voltron" writer Brandon Thomas

Last week I revisited "Voltron" via the better-than-expected Dynamite Entertainment comics that have already come out this year. After reading those issues, I reached out to writer Brandon Thomas to find out more about his approach to the Voltron franchise and see what was coming up in the future with both the Voltron Force gang and the sequel to his Glyph-nominated "Miranda Mercury" series.

Brandon's a writer who is just starting to make a name for himself in the industry, but he's already shown a willingness to work hard and approach his stories with a fresh perspective. He's good, and I'm sure we'll see much more from him in the future.

Here's our conversation, but be warned that we get into some specifics about major events in "Voltron" and "Voltron: Year One," so if you don't want anything to be spoiled, make sure to read the most recent issues first...

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Tim Callahan: I have to admit, I'm not up on my Voltron continuity, but it seems like your comics radically change/flesh-out the backstory of these characters. Is that fair to say? What did you have to work with, as far as directives from the publisher, when you started the "Voltron" series or the "Year One" comics?

Thomas' reinvention of "Voltron" provides a more nuanced, layered story

Brandon Thomas: The Zarkon backstory is completely new to the franchise, but everything else is keeping with what was established in the original cartoon. I thought it would be cool to preserve most of what came before, setting the comic a couple years after the end of the show, and treating it like the next set of adventures of a slightly older, slightly wiser Voltron Force. So I chose to work with Zarkon's secret origin in the first arc because his history was more of a blank slate than the pilots, and I wanted to more fully explore the relationship between Earth, Arus, and Planet Doom. Those three planets have a very long, complicated history, and with how this story ultimately plays out, Zarkon ends up with connections to all three and therefore a much more developed perspective on the state of things than our main characters.

The licensors and Dynamite were extremely open to that, and a host of other things, and I did do my best to really test their "we're open to everything" mission statement. And they meant that wholeheartedly and have been extremely supportive of me taking things in some unexpected directions. Honestly, I don't know they were entirely convinced of the Zarkon arc until I'd finished that second script, but when I pitched for it, I outlined the first 18-20 issues, and I think they liked that I was taking a very long-term approach to things, felt really strongly about it, and were willing to give me some extra latitude. After I turned in the second script, which was the one I really nervous about finishing, they were completely sold and you know, every month the scripts got a little better, and I got less and less notes back on them, and it was full steam ahead.

The Zarkon stuff does seem completely radical in many ways. You're reframing a character and changing everything about who he is and what his motives are, but yet explaining how he could end up as a tyrannical ruler of monsters. Last week I called the scenario "Shakespearean" because of the pathos you've given to this formerly cardboard bad guy.

Were you worried that you were humanizing him too much? Not in the sense that he'd be too sympathetic, but in the sense that his actions in the animated series would seem wildly out of character for a guy who has had the experiences you've shown him to have?

Oh, that was definitely a concern, especially since we went out of our way to honor what came before. The approach I tried to take hinged on the fact that the original series was aimed directly at a much younger audience, and that is almost painfully obvious when you're re-watching them again as an adult. Most of those great '80s cartoons that we grew up on simply haven't aged well, and though I didn't want to necessarily wipe away the actual events, we wanted to give everything a significant tonal shift. To create a version of it that would've worked for us if this was a cartoon we had started watching as teenagers, like "Batman: The Animated Series," and even "X-Men" to a certain degree.

In the larger context of the comic, which has a much more dangerous and capable team of space explorers at its core, and deals in government conspiracies and cover-ups, I think it feels more appropriate and on-message. As a little kid, I didn't really care anything about why Zarkon did what he did, he was just evil and that was that, but as a teenager, that wouldn't have been enough for me to really connect to the material. We just treated this Zarkon backstory as a layer that we never saw was there, or simply wasn't important for us to know at that point.    

But Zarkon still did everything he did and despite having a "justification" for it, that still doesn't change anything. I also wanted to play with the idea that Zarkon, in his old age, is looking back on everything and feeling a little regret about how he chose to respond to those intense feelings of betrayal and loss.

The normal man that we meet, with the wife and the kids, simply can't feel great about the choices he's made, and I wanted him to seem tired and broken down after failing yet again. The initial draft for issue #6 had him putting up more of a fight before Sven guns him down, but I thought it would better if he didn't. There's an inevitability to what he's done and I wanted him to recognize that at the end.

After cutting his teeth on "Miranda Mercury," Thomas will return to the series soon

Was the "Year One" story part of your original pitch to Dynamite? Because there's a distinct lack of Voltron Force characterization -- we just don't spend much time with them because of all the Zarkon attention -- in the main "Voltron" series up to this point. So I'm just wondering if "Year One" was designed to fill a narrative void that you recognized in the Zarkon-heavy main series.

No, the "Year One" pitch wasn't written until a few months in, but I think I was compensating a little bit. The plan was always for Zarkon to die at the end of this storyline, so that's why the focus was so clearly on him, even to the detriment of some of the other characters. But it was one of those things that I thought people would understand when arriving at the ultimate end, and something I was expecting to take a little heat for in the meantime.

The Voltron Force did become supporting players in their own story, but I wanted to kind of invert the somewhat standard turn of events in stories like this. You know -- the heroes get kicked around at the beginning and are facing impossible odds, yet somehow come through in the end to put everything right. I don't think anyone ever doubted they would ultimately rescue Voltron and save the day, but that wasn't the most important element long-term; it was what they actually learned about the origins of Voltron along the way that carries things forward. It's always a balancing act, to make something enjoyable and relevant both now and later on down the line. With the narrow window most comics have to make a great impression, I think maybe my eye was a little too focused on the possible future, and that's an adjustment you'll definitely see reflected in the next arc.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, Dynamite asked me to prep some ideas for a potential spin-off if the main book launched well, and it only made sense to use the opportunity to focus more closely on the core Voltron Force members, before they're sent after Voltron. And with Sven firing the shots heard round the universe in the main title, I wanted to spend some time really digging into his character in the distant past and how different things were with him in charge. Keith is in the Commander's chair when they're sent after Voltron, so even though the end of this story is certainly a known quantity, I thought it'd be fun to see how that actually came about. Also, Sven is kind of the red-headed stepchild of the mythos, and I wanted to lay down an emotional foundation that helps explain that though he was never destined to pilot the Blue Lion for very long, he does have a number of redeeming qualities and was able to overcome some personal obstacles.

Let's talk about the time jumps. With "Miranda Mercury" hopping back and forth through time within issues and with the multiple timelines in "Voltron," you're establishing yourself as a guy who doesn't tell stories chronologically. But why? What's your thought process as you play with linear time on these comics and chop them up out of sequence? How do you actually work, structurally speaking, when you're plotting this stuff out?

You know, I don't know exactly when it became something I was really interested in bringing to my own work, but the one comic where I really admired what the writer did with time jumps and shifting perspectives, was Christopher Priest's "Black Panther" stuff. That was when I said "WOW, I love how these stories are being told," and to me, being able to manipulate time and perspective gives a storyteller yet another measure of control over a story and is another great thing in the toolbox. For what I wanted to do with this first Voltron story, it was almost a necessity, because the arc spans over a hundred years, and devotes screen time to a ton of characters.

I think all the jumping around is just fun, and I love being able to pose a question and then answer it with a scene that takes place in a completely different time or in this case, a completely different decade. There's a real element of misdirection involved too, and I always want to keep you slightly off-guard. What do they say -- "come into a scene late and leave early?" The goal is to engage the reader with not only what's happening in the scene, or with what's being said, but also in how did you get there, and how do you get out? One of the big things it takes me forever to lock down is my transitioning from one scene to another, and trying to create a natural flow to things, so there isn't that moment when the narrative stops dead somewhere because I made the cut in the wrong place. Didn't always get it right, but the more I do it, the more comfortable I get, and by the time I reached #6, I was pretty happy with the overall rhythm.

While "Voltron" and "Miranda Mercury" both involve drastic time shifts, Thomas doesn't want to get locked into using the technique in all his work

The planning aspect always works a little different, depending on the book, but playing with time requires a little more attention to detail in my outlines. I knew exactly where every single one of the "Voltron" issues began and ended, and what scenes and beats needed to be included. That issue of "Miranda" where we played with the idea of shifting and "missing time" was pretty well laid out, and part of that was because it was the first 22-page Miranda story I'd written. Now usually, the length of the scenes is something I let evolve more naturally, but the first rule of writing comics should be that you'll never be able to fit everything in. How can I get this across without asking the artist to draw ten panels on every page? What here can I lose without diluting my point?

But the time jumping deal is not something I want to do with everything I write, so I consciously took it away from myself when it came time to write the "Year One" spinoff. There is some jumping around in that one, but the story only moves forward and that's definitely intentional. I love doing it, but I haven't decided if I want it to be my permanent "thing" yet and just don't want to turn it into a crutch or something I'm always turning to.

You mentioned that you had a long-form story planned out when you brought your ideas to Dynamite. Is it safe to say Zarkon's death is just the end of Act I? What other kinds of things to you have planned for both series?

Definitely big things coming in the future. "Voltron" #6 actually had a small preview of #7 in the back, which revealed N. Steven Harris' first artwork from his upcoming tenure on the book, and that the Voltron Force will be facing down a new, completely advanced, and completely evil Voltron unit. The person in the pilot's seat of this powerful new enemy should be a pretty nice surprise too. But after spending so much time away from the core group in the first arc, the Voltron Force is front and center, with some of them taking on surprising new roles. Other things to look forward to...

Secrets threaten to tear Keith and Allura's relationship apart. Lance comes closer to the leadership post he's always wanted. King Lotor dedicates the rest of his life to cleaning up his father's mess. Earth gets an offer it simply can't refuse. The truth about Arus is laid bare. Sven returns again. The search for Vehicle Voltron. The Third Sphere comes into frame. And the Galaxy Alliance decides that having one Voltron just isn't enough anymore...

What about more "Miranda Mercury?" What's going on with that series?

BT: Man, I just finished the first script for volume 2 and got it off to Lee [Ferguson, artist of "Miranda Mercury"]. I actually wrote the end of this volume first because it culminates in a moment that I've had in my head for years now, and if I couldn't get it right, none of the other stuff even matters. It was really exciting to officially get started though, because we learned so much from doing the first volume over a number of years, so we're looking forward to producing a tighter, more potent batch of Miranda Mercury stories that show everything we've learned in the meantime. The book we put out already is one that I'm incredibly proud of, and something we all poured everything we had into, but this next volume is going to be a lot more focused and just better executed on every level. That's always been one of our goals, to keep getting better and better until one day we're able to serve up the perfect Miranda Mercury experience, and we won't stop working and pushing until we get there.

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.

TAGS:  when worlds collide, voltron, voltron year one, brandon thomas, miranda mercury

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