ViSiONARiES #4: KiCKiNG OFF TOO LATE

With hindsight I know the next issue of Marvel UK‘s Visionaries will regrettably be the last, but for readers at the time there would’ve been a real feeling of the comic taking off this month, ironically enough. With the introductions now out of the way this feels like the first proper story about these characters and their new abilities upon the ravaged planet Prysmos. Unfortunately, the writing may have already been on the wall at Marvel UK, evidenced by a downgrade in the physical comic.

The outer eight pages are no longer of a thicker, glossier stock and instead the whole issue is made up of the same paper as the weekly Transformers. At least editor Steve White is introducing the story in the editorial rather than solely plugging other titles. Action Force Monthly still gets a mention though, they must really have wanted to push it, but the main thing is we finally get a proper editorial for this comic.

With characters beginning to develop beyond the information on the back of the toy packaging and some larger scale world building taking place, The Star Stone is a brilliant story which asks big questions about the choices we make and why, as well as clearly setting things up for as-yet-unknown events further down the line. Gerry Conway was now in charge of developing the storyline and it’s clear he understood the subject matter and its potential.

It kicks off with plenty of action as Reekon‘s new Dagger Assault, the biggest and best of all the toys in the range, tries to eliminate the Darkling Lords‘ contractor Harkon to stop him supplying any magical vehicles to the Spectral Knights. Reekon also goes up against the Sky Claw which is still in the hands of their enemy, but its owner Mortdredd recaptures it this issue, sneaking into Leoric’s castle in beetle form to steal it back. This act introduces one of the changes from the cartoon that I actually prefer.

The characters’ magical totems would emerge from their chest plates and become fully formed as the human behind them faded away. The totems in the cartoon looked like glowing holograms to match the toys and in the context of a cartoon it did look brilliant. But comics are a different medium and in this more serious take on the story their animal selves maintain the colour of their real world counterparts, meaning they are a proper disguise. This is used to great affect several times this issue.

More humour slips in too, for example that background exchange between Lexor and Virulina happening behind a major plot point. The main story itself, once the characters are all in place, sees the discovery of an ancient scroll which tells of a hidden device, forgotten about for millennia that could end the Age of Magic and return the world to the Age of Science. This is revealed after a startling discovery by Arzon.

After the initial battle Arzon finds himself approached by child beggars, homeless and desperate for food after being abandoned by their parents following “the change”, which is how the cataclysmic events of the origin story are referred to. This is where Gerry’s world building comes in. The toys and the cartoon hype this fancy new age, the wonderful powers that came with it and all the action and adventure kids could hope for. But Gerry’s Prysmos is a grittier, medieval place where Arson finds himself suddenly faced with the harsh truth.

The origin tale placed a lot of emphasis on how reliant humans were on their technology. At the end only a few Knights were deemed worthy of Merklynn’s magic, the future of their world placed on their shoulders. You could view it as an allegory of the dangers of relying too much on technology (technological advancements were happening at breakneck speed in the 80s), or a reference to the class system and how those in a position of power, whether earned or not, have a responsibility to those less fortunate. The Spectral Knights and the Darkling Lords just have differing views on what their responsibility is.

While all the magical action is there, seeing them have philosophical debates, questioning their powers and being properly affected by the world around them has been a very pleasant surprise.

The coming of the Age of Magic has left many suffering and having these starving children approach Arzon, who is unable to help, is a particularly dark moment for a toy licence. It makes for a surprisingly mature thread throughout, one of many planted by the comic’s new head writer.

Arzon thinks returning to the previous age is a way to end this suffering. His leader Leoric isn’t so sure. Suffering still occurred before and humans had lost their way, their compassion, their true selves. The Age of Magic is a chance to rebuild together, to fix all that was wrong before. But at what cost in the short term? The scene in which this is discussed is a lovely, quieter moment between the characters and shows how they’re now being treated as three-dimensional characters who just happen to have magical powers.

But when Mortredd steals the Sky Claw it’s clear he could be taking the information from the scroll back to Darkstorm, so Leoric has no choice but to track down the device. We see Arzon in his eagle form, a true animal and not a holographic projection, alongside more lovely atmospheric captions. He’s unable to catch the Sky Claw, so he and Leoric leave to seek knowledge from Merklynn about the scroll, which results in a rather funny exchange from the usually serious wizard.

We now get a few pages told through Arzon after he casts his Power of Knowledge poem, telling us of a time ten thousand years ago during the earliest days of the Age of Science when a meteor fell to the ground. Upon its discovery the military’s head scientist, Tech-Colonel Ragni Fiesel found none of his equipment worked within its vicinity.

Identified as a ‘Reversal Field’, Fiesel ordered the building of a bomb containing the meteor as a way of deterring any other region from invading. It was promoted by the government as a way of keeping the peace. But Prysmos had been at peace for millennia, there was no need for such a threat against other nations. Some things never change and it would appear the mythical world of Prysmos was in reality no better than our own.

It was clearly a ploy by a corrupt government, one which was soon overthrown in a coup. But not before the bomb had been built and secreted in a mound of earth, over time becoming overgrown and part of the landscape, indistinguishable from its surroundings. All records of the bomb vanished, apart from the one scroll discovered by Harkon, who as an engineer longed for the return of that age.


“Can a man become a beast, for however short a time, and still remain a man?

Leoric

During their quest to find the bomb Leroic gets to muse to himself about the magical totems they now possess. After witnessing Feryl find a path through twisting thorns as a fox (this is an error, Ectar is the fox, Feryl is a wolf), Leoric notices his friend’s voice sounds less human every time he transforms. It surprised me they can speak in their animal forms at all! But that’s not the point I want to make. Leoric’s foreboding thoughts set up possible future storylines about just how much these powers change those who use them.

I’m loving all of this extra depth because I just didn’t expect it. While all the magical action is there, seeing them have philosophical debates, questioning their powers and being properly affected by the world around them has been a very pleasant surprise. It’s bittersweet of course and I can’t help thinking about how this could’ve developed if it hadn’t been cancelled so early.

Gerry clearly had plans for the future and he was carefully planting seeds here. But the main thread this issue concerns how little they know about their planet’s current situation, enough to throw doubts on whether they should attempt to change their future yet again. With all these unknown factors they could make things even worse.

Fortunately for the Spectral Knights, and for Hasbro, inside the meteor’s casing their ancestors saw fit to place vehicles which could work near the Reversal Field by drawing energy from a magical source instead of a scientific one. Fiesel knew that if his government really did have to throw the switch, they’d need some kind of advantage.

Say hello to the Capture Chariot (the one vehicle I didn’t possess) and the Lancer Cycle, completing the comic’s take on the toy line.

The large scale battle at the end of this issue is brilliantly brought to life (with no more mistakes I should add) by penciller Mark Bagley, inker Romeo Tanghai, colourist Julianna Ferriter and letterer Janice Chiang. We even get to see the Capture Chariot‘s power and I was thrilled to see it resemble that of the cartoon’s. There really was no other way to show it and, even if it’s not in the ghostly green colour I was used to as a kid, it’s still pretty neat to this old fan.

In a moment of desperation against ever decreasing odds Darkstorm uses his staff’s Power of Decay to try to destroy all of the Spectral Knights in one swift move and it’s Galadria who saves the day, throwing herself into its path. She may not have her own powers yet, but here she shows her willingness to sacrifice herself to save others. This sets her up to receive her Power of Healing from Merklynn. See also how cowardly Lexor now throws himself into battle, but only because his Spell of Invulnerability can stop anything in its tracks.

In a clever moment Leoric’s Power of Wisdom and Arzon’s Power of Knowledge are shown to be two very different things indeed. The Spectral Knight leader isn’t sure the reversal bomb should be set off and Arzon questions this, “Think of all the pain we’ll save the world!” Leoric’s response isn’t the kind of thing you’d expect from a toy licence comic.

“But pain is a part of life, Arzon. When a mother gives birth, she knows pain. Would we deny the newborn child to save the mother pain?”

As Arzon then notes, knowledge and wisdom must be used together.

In the end Darkstorm accuses Leoric of being weak and reference is made to their opposing plans to rebuild their world. Leoric sees a better world, Darkstorm a stronger one. Most of the time the villains in our cartoons and comics in the 80s were evil simply because they were. Darkstorm genuinely believes only by ruling with an iron fist can his beloved Prysmos regain its strength and position in the heavens. Leoric believes in compassion and fairness instead, even if rebuilding takes longer to achieve. It’s an interesting dynamic.

As discussed before Visionaries has no extra features, in fact this issue there’s even only one advertisement. It isn’t even for the toys the comic is based on which seems a strange choice. Instead it’s a promotion for the new Flintstones & Friends title. It feels rather out of place here, surely it had a different target audience? The fact it’s out twice as often as Visionaries yet has more pages is a bit of a blow for fans of the Knights too. The Flintstones comic would last for just under a year, managing 24 issues before being cancelled and rebranded as Cartoon Time.

It’s sad to think of this as the penultimate issue of Visionaries already when it seems to have so much promise. However, there is at least some more to come even after the final issue next month. I’ll let you in on what when I review that fateful #5 on Wednesday 21st July.

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