I've been looking forward to this, not only because it was the first full Visionaries strip to make its way over the Atlantic after the origin story but it's also the start of the comic universe diverging away from the cartoon to forge its own path. Back as a kid I read The End... The Beginning from the first two issues of the comic several times thanks to reprints in the annual and later in the Transformers comic. Later in life I bought the DVD of the cartoon series and so I'm very familiar with that version of the origin too, upon which the comic's was closely based, and also with where that version of the story went next. But I haven't read any of these strips. Ever.
First up though, the Vision On editorial disappointingly ignores the strip again, like last issue, and instead focusses on publicising Marvel UK's other new releases, namely the new Action Force Monthly which was part of the company's push to export their material back into the US by creating original British comics in the smaller US format, and something called Dragon's Teeth.
If you're in any way familiar with Marvel UK you'll know that Dragon's Teeth was actually Dragon's Claws. The comic had to go through a last minute name change just before publication, so last minute in fact that the pre-release publicity across their comics range had readers looking for a different title! A title "for older readers only" according to editor Steve White. We'll get to Simon Furman and Geoff Senior's creation on the blog eventually, trust me. For now though our real time read through is on Visionaries so let's get stuck into the story, shall we?
Plotted by Jim Salicrup who had adapted Frank Dille's teleplay for the first two issues and scripted by Gerry Conway (The Punisher, Superman vs The Amazing Spider-Man, Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons, Diagnosis Murder) the first comic tale is The Balance of Power with the same art team returning to bring medieval Prysmos to life again and what a job they do! We kick things off literally minutes after the end of the previous issue's origin tale, with Merklynn face staring down upon our heroes and villains from the side of Iron Mountain. Colouring errors aside here and there, the artwork treats the subject matter seriously and continues to deliver the kind of atmospheric visuals we'd seen previously, but with the action quotient upped somewhat this issue.
This feels very much like an extension of the previous two issues and the cynical might say it's nothing more than a couple of extended fight scenes, but the main point is to establish the sides, the characters and how they react to these new powers and how, indeed, these powers mess with the balance of power, hence the name. Of course, they can't resist a duff up before they even leave the area surrounding the mountain. During this we get a taste of the kind of frenetic energy the artwork would bring us alongside its beautifully crafted magical world.
For the uninitiated let's break it down for you. Each and every one of the justice and equality seeking Spectral Knights and the power hungry Darkling Lords had a three-dimensional magical totem on the chest plate of the toys. These were the animals their personalities matched with the closest and in the stories they could turn into these at a whim whenever they chose. Most, but not all of the knights also had staffs with a double hologram that could change between the symbol for their side in the battle and one unique for each figure. These represented each of their special magical powers and in the fictional world would be represented in different ways.
These staff powers were released by a sort of incantation, and these are fondly remembered to this day by fans of the cartoon series in particular. In this issue four of the characters get to use them. Do you remember any of these?
"A whim, a thought and more is sought,
Awake my mind, My will be wrought".
This released the power of knowledge.
"The arrows turn, The Swords Rebel,
May nothing pierce this mortal shell".
This prevented the cowardly Lord from damage.
"Sheathe these feet in a driving gale,
Make swift these legs, O'er land I sail!"
My favourite of the Visionaries had the power of speed.
"By nature's hand, By crafts, By art,
What once was one, Now tear apart!"
This Lord's destructive nature was released with this.
We see all of Darkstorm's Darkling Lords in his castle fortress, arguing amongst themselves because they want action but their leader prefers preparation and intelligence in his battle against the Spectral Knights, the background that of an old English castle, complete with lavish banquet hall and elaborate decor. Speaking out is Reekon who is unhappy with his lack of magical staff, an item not all of the Visionaries received from Merklynn, only to be told their powers will be released in another unnamed way.
Pushing back against Reekon's plan to steal staffs from Leoric's Knights, Darkstorm sends him and Mortdredd out to find an alternative. Their scene starts with those wonderfully atmospheric captions above, which are an example of the narration throughout the story and it really suits the setting perfectly. The mix of the medieval, the old, the new, the sci-fi and the magical is a unique blend and it's great to see the attention to detail afforded to this aspect of the comic. Whether this narration is an idea from Jim or Gerry I don't know, but whoever it was seems to have really got and understood the whole setting and as a fan I really appreciate their efforts.
The aforementioned 'Lords end up in Harkon's Blacksmith Shop, an individual known by Mortdredd from the Age of Science and who now supplies all of the replacement armour for them. A harsh man to his employees he actually comes across as someone just wanting to make a living, he's not evil even though that's who he's supplying armour to, he's just won the contract for want of a better phrase. All around him are vehicles from the time before the alignment of Prysmos' moons, all covered with tarps from the moment they simply stopped working.
One of these vehicles is instantly recognisable and brings back many happy memories for this reader as it's none other than the Sky Claw, one of the large vehicles from the toy range and one of three that I personally owned. Covered with large holograms and movable levers and wings that concealed a variety of cool looking weaponry, it was a favourite childhood toy and there's a very real feeling of being reunited with an old friend of sorts in seeing it pop up on the page.
In the toy range Reekon came with the biggest toy of all, the Sky Dagger and Mortdredd with the Sky Claw so it's interesting here to see how the former is able to activate the craft's engines, so maybe he'd be able to control it to a certain degree. However, the grovelling latter Lord is the one whose chest plate fills those of the craft and soon he finds himself able to control its flight with a mere thought.
Upon lashing out at his fellow evil doers when they start doubting Darkstorm's tactics, his beloved leader banishes him and Mortdredd sets out to prove himself as the most loyal to the cause. Taking the Sky Claw he launches a devastating attack on Leoric's own castle. Here there's more atmospheric narrative with captions such as, "And, like a wild stallion, rearing with savage fury, the mystically powered craft responds, laser cannons sliding into view - - firing a burst of occult energy that pounds Leoric's castle like a fist of thunder!" Great stuff.
We actually don't get to see the Sky Claw's holographic magical powers yet but even without them it's a force to be reckoned with. (If the pilot had been Reekon that sentence would've ended with a pretty bad pun, by the way.) It gives Arzon a chance to discover his new power of knowledge. Not that he was stupid beforehand, just to be clear!
Above you can see how the magical incantation comes to him through Merklynn's voice projecting into his mind and this is how it happens for the others throughout the story too. Arzon's power interestingly doesn't give him the answer to any predicament, handed to him on a platter, it brings with it all the knowledge he's ever had, everything he's ever read and below you can see how there's even more.
I'm particularly interested to see if there's anything in the remaining stories that delves into that bit about the knowledge from his past. I could see it opening old wounds, thoughts he's tried to suppress or even things that he doesn't wish to know. Obviously, with such a short run I know there's going to be so much potential that'll go unfulfilled, but for now I cope but hope.
The Darkling Lords appear again to try to make something of the botched job Mortdredd has ended up making of the unsanctioned attack and for the first time I've noticed Leoric's and Darkstorm's colour schemes are actually the opposite of each other. Leoric's main armour is a light blue while his limbs are green and vice versa for Darkstorm's, which was a nice touch by Hasbro. But anyway, back to the end of this story and back in the thick of the action the comic shows some key differences between its interpretation of the Visionaries and that of the fantastic cartoon series.
In the cartoon the characters' magical totems would emerge from their chest plates and be fully formed as the human behind them magically faded away, whereas in the comic it's more of a transformation or morphing from one form to another. The totems in the cartoon also stayed the same holographic green colour as on the toys for the Darkling Lords and a heroic blue for the Spectral Knights, which for me works much better visually, both from the toy line perspective and just the fact they were really cool. But saying that, the fact their colour remains true to their real world counterparts in the comic means they could actually disguise themselves as these animals which might open up interesting story ideas so I'll reserve judgement for now.
The staffs (and I'll assume the vehicles too) are treated differently here as well. In the cartoon every staff's power would materialise as a green or blue form either to release its might apart from the knight branding it, or could wrap itself around its owner to enhance them in some way, for example. The comic plays with this idea as you can see on the cover with Cravex's staff, albeit it's the basic holographic green instead of blue (and we also see Sky Claw's magic that the strip missed out on) whereas Arzon's knowledge, Witterquick's speed and Cindarr's destruction of the surrounding world all happen without anything visible coming from the staffs. Instead, their powers just seem to happen to their bodies/minds/ground they're standing on. Which is a shame as Witterquick's was brilliant in the cartoon and Cindarr's released a huge raging monster to destroy all around it.
So again, I prefer the visual representation of the cartoon, which you can check out in the amazing opening sequence which I included in the introductory post to this series, but I'll wait and see what these changes bring story-wise. Rather than being disappointed, I'm very aware they're two very different formats and what works visually in one wouldn't necessarily work in the other, however here it's not even clear sometimes that these powers released by incantations are from the staffs at all. But visuals aside, these changes could have been made for potential plot reasons, or potential character reasons rather than just because it's a different medium. I know from checking online that the fifth issue of the American title showed Cravex's bear form in green on the cover, so who knows?
One big plot change is how in the cartoon each staff can only be used once, after which the owner would have to return to Iron Mountain to dip it into the magical pool we saw at the end of #2 and refill its energy. However, Merklynn would only allow this if they performed a task for him first, which set up a nice dynamic. It'll be interesting to see how, with unlimited magic in each staff in the comic, how their relationship with Merklynn will play out differently here.
The strip is a few pages longer this issue, being a full complete tale from #2 of the American comic instead of half of #1. So there's not even any more nice retro Marvel UK adverts like before, just the same Hasbro toy advert on the back page we've seen before. It's a very basic repackaged publication of the American story so it all has to hinge on the strip itself, but as stated before this seemed to be the way Marvel UK were going at the time with new titles, and the British arm of DC were doing the same with their Batman Monthly, albeit it with a letters page thrown in, and it was selling very well.
At the end of the day we buy our comics for the stories first and foremost and in that department this first comic-exclusive story for the Visionaries really delivers. There's more to come and I for one am looking forward to seeing if they're able to develop beyond these introductory tales before the end. Stick around and we can find out together with the fourth issue on Tuesday 23rd June.