KNiGHT RiDER ANNUAL #1: MAKiNG A DiFFERENCE

“No matter what’s going on in the world or in my life, putting an episode on can bring a huge smile to my face.  Don’t we all have something in our lives that does that?  This is mine.”

My late grandad Ted came to my house one Sunday morning when I was a child and asked my parents if I’d seen the film on TV the night before about the fantastic car that was filled with computers, could talk, drive itself and even jump in the air. My mum hadn’t known about it but luckily enough my grandad knew it was going to be a TV series starting the next week and he thought I might like it. He wasn’t wrong. Thus began a lifelong obsession with Knight Rider.

I may have grown out of it temporarily by the late 80s but when repeats began airing in the mid-90s my love for Michael and K.I.T.T. returned and has never gone away. Every decade since may have brought its own obsession, from Babylon 5 to Stargate SG-1, from Doctor Who to NCIS, but Knight Rider has a special place in my heart and, no matter what’s going on in the world or in my life, putting an episode on can bring a huge smile to my face.  Don’t we all have something in our lives that does that?  This is mine.

There wasn’t a Knight Rider comic because the trend at that time was to feature popular series in strip format inside our magazines such as Look-In, a young person’s TV guide which featured the series alongside the likes of The A-Team and Airwolf. But between 1983 and 1987 Grandreams released five Knight Rider annuals filled with strips, prose stories, puzzles, pin-ups and behind-the-scenes features and interviews. I think I only ever owned this one from 1983 though.

The series debuted this side of the Atlantic in February 1983, with the first annual released the end of the summer and my eager young hands got a hold of it that Christmas, hence why I’m reviewing it now as part of the blog’s festivities. I remember reading the two-page Look-In strips in my sister’s magazine, with their weekly cliffhangers similar to the 60s Thunderbirds comics but they were line drawings, not the gorgeous greyscale wash we get here.

Upon picking this annual up for the blog I wasn’t sure what to expect. I really hoped for something entertaining but over the years I’ve seen some horrible annuals quickly thrown together in order to cash in, without much love nor care for the property. As long as this wasn’t like that I’d be happy. What I didn’t expect was something of such high calibre, with an excellent creative team behind great stories illustrated with gorgeous art, alongside some fun articles. I couldn’t be happier Knight Rider received this treatment.

When I opened the book and saw the two-page introductory strip above which recaps the set up for the series not only was I in awe of the art, I was instantly transported back to that Christmas. Quickly telling the tale of Michael Knight’s original identify, being double-crossed, shot in the face and left to die, and the reconstructive surgery which resulted in his new identity and his new life, we’re instantly up to speed and ready to get stuck in to what promises to be a much better book than I thought it was going to be.

The intro strip is followed by a feature explaining the background to the characters, the Foundation for Law and Government and the story behind the series. Some of the details here didn’t even make it into the show and were pulled from the series bible, put together by Glen A. Larson when the show was created. For the uninitiated, Wilton Knight’s Knight Industries set up F.L.A.G. as a non-profit arm of his company to help ordinary citizens fight those untouchable criminals who operate above the law.

Court battles and legal wrangling make up the majority of their work (though for obvious reasons we only heard about these happening off camera) but sometimes “direct intervention” is called for and that’s where the Knight 2000 project came in; one man in one car, that car offering him all the funding and resources of the Foundation to make a real difference in the lives of people the justice system has let down. Sounds like a good set up for a show, doesn’t it? Well, it sure was.

Of course, that one car was K.I.T.T., or rather the Knight Industries Two Thousand artificial intelligence inside the Knight 2000 car. That’s something the show (and I’m glad to say this annual) made perfectly clear; K.I.T.T. wasn’t the car, he was the A.I. inside the car; a car that could jump, drive on two wheels, create fog and oil slicks and so much more, all inside the near-indestructible molecular bonded shell capable of 300+ kph. Add in K.I.T.T. who could control all of this, drive it, remotely hack computers (a big deal back then) and give Michael computerised, forensic and scientific resources that’d make NCIS envious.

There’s even information which was new to me today. It’s full of wonderful little details fans will lap up.

Knight Rider was that rare thing, a television show my whole family gathered around to watch together. It was unlike anything anyone had seen before. My sisters may have had David Hasselhoff posters on their walls, but mine were adorned with K.I.T.T., shelves packed with models of the car, books, electric toys… you name it, I had it. I remember when ITV repeated the show in the 90s and my mum, dad and a then-teenage me would still watch it together. Today, the remastered HD Blu Ray collection takes pride of place in my own home. My love for this show will never wane.

So, intros out of the way and my obsession detailed, I can happily declare this opening feature is anything but a basic round up. Michael’s boss Devon Miles (played by the excellent Edward Mulhare) may be misspelled ‘Deven’ but there are details here from the series bible the show didn’t elaborate on until later seasons, so it must’ve been fascinating reading it in 1983. There’s even information which was new to me today. I never knew Devon originally met Wilton on a mission in France for the British S.O.E., or that his parents were killed in the blitz. Technician Bonnie Barstow’s father was a pilot who worked for Wilton and she has a Masters in Computer Science and a Doctorate in Robotics. It’s full of wonderful little details fans will lap up.

This image is taken from the first strip, Break-Out. There are two strips in the book, both of which act like the final act of an episode, so all of the detective work and build-up is out of the way and the strips can concentrate on some fun action. For example, here we see the results of the supposed damsel in distress trying to double-cross Michael only for K.I.T.T. to quite literally eject that plan. So who was behind these exciting, fun stories and the simply gorgeous, atmospheric art?

I was thrilled to find out my favourite thing in the universe was handed over to none other than David Lloyd, he of V for Vendetta fame (as well as Wasteland, The Territory and Hellblazer). Yes, that David Lloyd! His unmistakable style and that lovely wash suit Knight Rider perfectly. The original pilot movie was rather dark with a lovely atmosphere and David’s art is reminiscent of the direction of that particular episode. With Marvel UK’s Transformers letterer Annie Halfacree bringing her talents to the page the only question left to ask was who wrote these?

While speaking with David recently (more on that at the end of this review) I was finally able to find out it was Steve Moore (Abslom Daak Dalek Killer, Hercules, Warrior) who wrote many of the stories for Grandreams tie-in annuals at the time. Steve nails the characters of Michael and K.I.T.T. and, best of all, their dynamic interplay. This evolved as the series progressed and at this early stage could still be quite antagonistic at times, Michael’s patience sometimes wearing thin with the analytical and logical computer. I’m very happy to say that’s here in spades.

The prose stories, beautifully drawn and coloured by David, are lengthier than any in Marvel UK’s annuals, giving Steve the scope to give us a more detailed adventure for our heroes. Although, I must note Bonnie is conspicuously absent outside of the features. This could be because the stories had to be written so far in advance that the pilot movie was all Steve had to really go on (Bonnie didn’t appear until the first regular episode). But then again the stories take place out on the road already, so by this stage in the episodes it would be all about Michael and K.I.T.T. anyway.

Reign of Terror uses that old 80s staple the bad motorcycle gang, one the show itself used in its first season. In fact, the episode Good Day at White Rock would’ve been broadcast months before this annual hit the shops. Also, K.I.T.T.’s functions are limited to those shown in the pilot movie, so again I think these were written before much of the series was broadcast. Given this, it’s nothing short of incredible how well Steve nails everything from the characterisations to the tone.

The distinction between K.I.T.T. and the car are particularly enjoyable, especially since this was something the series would only really begin to highlight in season two (after it was set up in the pilot). For example, in one paragraph here, “K.I.T.T. brought the car round the buildings and came up behind them.” It’s enthusiastically written and I get the impression Steve was having fun with this. Michael and K.I.T.T. throw everything at the bikers and it’s not just a checklist of the car’s functions, there’s a proper plan here, perfectly thought out and executed with panache, a plan that could only be achieved by this unique partnership.

Reign of Terror’s plot may not have been all that original but it paints an entertaining picture. The other prose story, The Long Chase is a more original idea when the US Customs Department asks F.L.A.G. for help in an art forgery case, where they believe a legit art business is also smuggling stolen works. They’ve tried tracking their trucks but are always met with car accidents, traffic jams, road blocks etc., too many to be a coincidence. Enter Michael and K.I.T.T.

In the end it boils down to a situation where they have a choice of two trucks to follow, each going separate ways on the highway. They deduce which one to tail and are met with the same impediments, but they’re no match for these two and we get a wonderfully written sequence of them barging their way through everything thrown at them, much to the terror of Marshall, the Customs Agent along for the ride.

These images have a lovely retro feel to them that many would pay good money to have painted and framed today.

When it’s clear they’ve followed the truck with the legitimate art, sent on a wild goose chase with the diversions, Marshall is about to quit, what with the other truck now hundreds of miles away. But this is a challenge our pair relish. There are some really nice scenes involving Michael and K.I.T.T.’s burgeoning partnership. It’s intriguing, well-paced and all round a thoroughly entertaining little tale. There are also some brilliant night scenes drawn by David, my favourite being a double-page spread of K.I.T.T. coming head on towards the reader, scanner and headlights cutting through the night. These images have a lovely retro feel to them that many would pay good money to have painted and framed today.

Alongside a brief bio of The Hoff there are two features centred around our other main character. K.I.T.T. – The Car and the Stunts is pretty self explanatory and is apparently based around an interview with one of the producers, although they go unnamed and give inaccurate information, which is odd. I wonder if the book did speak to someone involved with the show or if they got these details from elsewhere and reprinted them.

There’s a reference to turbo boosting onto the back of a truck being done for real, but the scene in question was actually achieved through clever editing and effects.  The ‘producer’ also says the only thing that isn’t done for real is the ejector seat, but in reality this was really installed into one of the cars used on the show. Indeed, since this book there have been numerous interviews with the stunt people on the show which have been very funny, especially the story about when they were trying to calibrate the ejector seat for the first time and the stuntman went flying into the air higher than a palm tree next to the car! Unfortunately, this isn’t referenced here.

But at the time of this book it was just exciting to see photos of K.I.T.T. in action. You have to remember this was way before the internet. Even VHS video recorders were only starting to be installed across the UK. That meant the only way to see your favourite TV show was when it was broadcast or repeated, and the only chance to see photos was in printed publications. There may not have been any photos of him turbo boosting over anything which I remember being disappointed with, but there are explosions, a ski mode (up on two wheels) and a very memorable chase where the stunt performer jumped from a flying helicopter right down into the driver’s seat of the speeding, self-driving (on the screen at least) K.I.T.T., all without wires!

What’s interesting is how the book credits actor William Daniels as K.I.T.T.’s voice when the show didn’t. In fact, Daniels insisted he not be credited so as not to ruin the illusion for the kids, so given who the target audience is for this book it’s strange to include his name. The second car feature, K.I.T.T. – Equipment and Functions deals specifically with the fictional side of the car, meaning its artificial intelligence and futuristic abilities.

There’s a particularly well written introduction to this part of the annual, especially when discussing the different ways he interacts with the human characters.

“Michael and K.I.T.T. are true partners: they bicker, they rib one another, but they are fiercely loyal to each other. K.I.T.T. is a little bit of a know-it-all. He’s pragmatic, sometimes arrogant, often fussy and peevish. And since he’s (yes, he is described as a “he”) completely logical, he has a difficult time understanding this most illogical of humans, Michael Knight.”

Of course he’d soften as his character developed over the series, as he learned from his human companion and their missions together.

“K.I.T.T. has a great sense of humour and he is incessantly interested in human emotions and feelings, things he seems to pick up on as time goes on.”

It’s clear these details were taken from the series bible because when this was written they were the future plans for the character, rather than anything seen yet. Also, maybe an early draft of that document was used because even here there are some inaccuracies, such as claiming K.I.T.T. can’t have independent thought unless put into surveillance mode. This mode is for scanning the area, K.I.T.T. always had independent thought. (Elsewhere in the same article this mode is described correctly.)

It’s rather strange that the publishers obviously had access to information from the show itself yet these errors slipped in. Could it be the series bible was further refined as the original pilot was created? Or perhaps the book elaborated where they thought they could, not thinking they were contradicting anything. Most glaringly are the two oft-cited errors that peeve fans off; no, turbo boost does not enable K.I.T.T. to fly and no, he does not have offensive weapons!

Saying all that, as a child I really didn’t care. We were much more forgiving back then. Books such as this were the only way we could see photos of the super cool car and enjoy new stories away from Saturday evenings in front of the family telly. My own copy of this annual disappeared many, many years ago and I remember it falling apart from being read that many times. It rarely left my side for months after Christmas 1983. I’d even clutch it tightly while watching the latest episode.

To finish this childhood favourite is Devil’s Valley, our second gorgeous strip and it’s even better than the first. It may have been a family show but Knight Rider never shied away from dealing with issues you’d see in more adult dramas, such as murder, kidnap, drug dealing and terrorism. All defeated by one person making a difference of course. Another topic it would touch upon more than once, which this strip also does, was racism.

A variation of the Ku Klux Klan seem to have kidnapped a young lady to make some sort of religious sacrifice. She escapes and runs out in front of a self-piloting K.I.T.T. (Michael is having a sleep). Once again, it plays out like the final scenes of an episode and all of the car’s capabilities are the same as the movie but it’s huge fun. The spread above is an exciting collection of panels and shows the potential a regular Knight Rider strip could have had if coupled with a deeper story.

One thing I have noticed throughout the book is the incessant need to have ‘Knight 2000’ plastered all over the car. It looks like it’s been added later and David confirmed he can’t remember any instruction to do so. (It’s particularly jarring on the cover.) I remember any toy K.I.T.T.s I owned as a kid had stickers of this all over them and I’d always remove them. After all, K.I.T.T. was meant to blend in. It could be a licensing thing, to separate merchandise for Knight Rider from that of car manufacturer Pontiac, but adding it to the strips feels unnecessary.

As you can see this is only the first of five Knight Rider Annuals and if this one is anything to go by I’m glad I’ve finally been able to track them all down (those later ones seem to be somewhat rare) and I’m really looking forward to the next one. When will that be? Why, next Christmas of course! This blog is in real time after all. It’ll be an agonising wait but nope, I won’t be reading ahead, it’ll make the experience all the better for it.

For this year however, I have a very special treat in store for both Knight Rider and comics fans in general. Artist David Lloyd very kindly agreed to answer questions about working on the annuals and not only did he supply some fascinating insights, he also sent me some of his original sketches for K.I.T.T. and a Hasselhoff study! You’ll be able to check all of these out in just a couple of days on Saturday 17th December 2022. For now, I’m off to have my yearly viewing of the show’s sole Christmas episode, appropriately enough titled ‘Silent Knight’.

“Straight ahead.”

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