It was sleek, black, and two and a half pounds. I hefted it uneasily. “Voltron coffee table book,” I whispered, unsure if I was ready to exist in a world of Voltron coffee table books. I gazed at the cover, taking in the “Thirtieth Anniversary Celebration” subtitle, admiring the way it served as an elegant reminder of just how damn old we all are. Then, I tried to start reading the book back-to-front, because it really has been that long since I've read a book like this that wasn't unflopped manga.
Honestly, the first question that Voltron: From Days of Long Ago poses is: why'd it take so long for something like this to get made? The iconic combining robot may have debuted in 1984, but it comfortably passed into childhood nostalgia (and inevitable revival) something like fifteen years ago. Through CG reducia, comic-book sequels, toy reissues, and that MetLife Super Bowl commercial from 2012, Voltron's become part of the furniture around here. It's been ripe for a pop-cultural examination, and in some respects From Days of Long Ago handles that role admirably.
The book, which is assembled by a Voltron Force-esque team of five collaborators (writers Brian Smith, Marc Morrell, and Joshua Bernard; photographer Charles A. Diaz; and illustrator Jacob Chabot) opens with a brief history of the Voltron phenomenon, and that's easily my favorite part of the package. The beans are spilled on World Events Productions’ fateful trip to MIPcom to find a show to localize, and while some anecdotes are well-known (WEP ultimately asked Toei for “that show with the lions,” meaning Daltanious, but got GoLion instead) others surprised me, like the revelation that the original Voltron pilot episode that got the series sold in syndication wasn't created from GoLion footage, but from the vehicle Voltron, Dairugger XV. I was pretty happy to learn this, since Vehicle Voltron is the Good Voltron. (I am aware that this is the dissenting opinion, but the Lion Voltron lacks enough pilots to form a rugby team. I see this as a big strike against it.)
There's still sort of a gaping hole in the book's focus for someone like me, a seasoned anime fan hungry for production data. Aside from a genuinely thrilling piece of Dairugger XV production art, there's no details or background on the original Japanese productions that spawned Voltron—no quotes from director Kozo Morishita, and no treatise on the influence of series creator Saburo Yatsude, who is definitely not a pseudonym for anyone who happens to be in the office at Toei, for example. Legendary toy designer Katsushi Murakami's name is invoked, but I always wonder about shows like Voltron—were the toys prototyped first, or based on production materials from the shows? From Days of Long Ago sidesteps questions like these, instead focusing on Voltron's progress as a pop-culture success story.
Some aspects of that story are pretty great, in fairness. It's fun to read about WEP's halting, stopwatch-fueled localization efforts, and details and photographs of a 1985 Make-a-Wish Foundation flight to Disneyworld, complete with photos of promo actors in costume hanging out with awed little kids, is one of my favorite bits of the book. I also have to give my compliments to the photographer, who captures a broad range of both Japanese and American Voltron toys in the kind of detail that kept me staring at the pages in rapt silence. Man, I loved the die-cast toys, but that Lion Castle was weird. What kind of a name is “Panosh Place” for a toy company, anyhow?
We're then subjected to a lengthy examination of the Voltron shows’ lore, focusing almost entirely on the Lion version. This left me really cold – I'm an old fan of the original cartoons, but never latched on to WEP's all-American sequels or tie-in comics. I did appreciate the writer's attempts to slyly tie up Voltron to its originator shows, whether by giving Keith the surname “Kogane” or mentioning that the traitorous Sky Marshall Wade had spent some time attempting to create a stacking robot warrior with a scientist named Albegas, but the section otherwise busies itself providing detailed technical analysis of stuff like Voltron's net tonnage and how the Lion Lariats work. One big plus: the part at the end that catalogs every single “Robeast” robot monster from both Voltron shows, complete with screengrab and list of powers. The section wraps up with, “One thing is abundantly clear: Voltron is the ultimate combination of human and machine,” which just makes me wonder why Vehicle Voltron's alien pilots are left outta the mix.
The whole affair ends with a short comic that does little but remind the reader that the newer Voltron characters and situations still aren't as compelling as the good old stuff. I'm not really sure if it's a coda of sorts to existing material, or an advertisement for an upcoming series. It's got good artwork, but not enough of the big silly robot himself. The previous section mentions the show's extremely important Space Mice, but they don't get to play a key role in this puzzling comic. Alright, maybe I'm being a bit hard on what's ultimately a silly, affectionate fan tribute; the thing is even bookended by notes from Voltron nuts from across the globe. But I look at Voltron: From Days of Long Ago and kind of wish it was a different book, one filled with technical drawings, storyboards, bizarre tie-in products, and funny stories from both the animation and localization teams. My favorite part remains the toy photos—it took me all of one paragraph to decide it was the best, with its breakdown of the various American toy licensors and its memory-jarring descriptions of how the U.S. toys removed or disabled all of the good stuff, like the spring-loaded projectiles.
The fact is, if you're a true believer in the legend of Voltron, Defender of the Universe, you probably realized you've been waiting for this book the second you laid eyes on the cover or heard about it. To me, however, it feels unbalanced; the production details that are included are overshadowed by what reads, at times, like more of a series bible than a broad tribute. The book is ultimately adequate, but I feel like it could've been better; it never quite manages to form the blazing sword and perform its finishing move.