Tag Archives: Mark Bagley

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.

ViSiONARiES #3: CLAWiNG AT THE SKY

Starting with this third edition of Marvel UK‘s monthly Visionaries are stories I’d never read before collecting these for the blog. The origin story I felt I knew almost verbatim, but now the comic was diverging away from the cartoon and forging its own path. Having missed the regular comic as a kid, I’ve looked forward to finally getting to read these stories.

With these being original creations and something fans of the cartoon may have been eager to read, it’s confounding to see once again the editorial page not mentioning the story at all. Even though it’s called Vision On it’s basically an advertisement for other titles again, this time the new Action Force Monthly and Dragon’s Claws (called by its original name here which was changed just before its release), both of which were of the smaller American format and designed to try to sell UK material back into the US market.

Next to the editorial the first page of Balance of Power is a bold image. On it, Merklynn‘s stone face stares down at the assembled Knights and reiterates the words from the end of last month’s story. Jim Salicrup, who adapted Frank Dille‘s teleplay origin story has created the plot this time around but full scripting duties fall to Gerry Conway (The Punisher, Spider-Man, Transformers and G.I. Joe cartoons, Diagnosis Murder) who would take over as the comic’s writer.

The art team are the same as the previous issues, with pencils by Mark Bagley, inks by Romeo Tanghai, letters by Janice Chiang and colours by Julianna Ferriter. Unfortunately, it’s in this final category that the issue is let down. There are quite a few colouring errors, which is something you don’t want when you’re still introducing characters and the colour of their armour is key to seeing who is doing what and to whom in battle. It’s a shame because at times it can really ooze atmosphere, such as with that splash page above.

Something else this issue has in plentiful supply is action. As soon as Merklynn finishes his prophetic speech the Knights turn on each other, wishing to finish off the battles started inside Iron Mountain. Galadria gets the best line and then some of the characters start hearing a voice inside their head, telling them of incantations to summon the power of their magical staffs. Reading these again brings back memories of learning these off by heart from the toy packaging.

This is where some fundamental changes between the comic’s universe and that of the cartoon become apparent. Here, the staffs just sort of produce the desired effects, like making Lexor invulnerable, Witterquick superhuman fast and Cindarr‘s unleashes a mini-earthquake. But in the cartoon the holographic image on the staff materialised in the real world, for example a cyclone around Witterquick’s body or a giant monster wielding a club for Cindarr. Even the cover of this issue shows Cryotek’s archer, but none of these would appear in the strip. They’re missed and without them it’s not particularly clear what’s happening at times.


“And, like a wild stallion, rearing with savage fury, the mystically powered craft responds.”

Description of the Sky Claw

It also doesn’t help that when some of the characters transform into their magical animal totems these are mistakenly referred to as “magical powers”, when that’s actually what the staffs contain. Instead, the totems are an embodiment of their individual personalities, which they can change into, physically becoming said animal and harnessing its abilities. However, their magical powers are that of speed, strength, healing, decay, knowledge etc. Fans of the cartoon or toys would be able to follow along and it’s clear these are the intended audiences, but it must’ve been very confusing for anyone reading without prior knowledge.

The plot is rather basic this time around. Even though both sides have yet to even experiment with their new powers and totems, Darkstorm insists he and Leoric’s Knights are too evenly matched. How would he know this? Surely they should train with their new magical abilities before coming to that conclusion. He wants an advantage and, annoyed with some of his people complaining about their lack of staffs, he sends stealth master Reekon and the grovelling Mortdredd to find a new weapon to given them that edge.

It all feels rather convulted. Given the cover we know what they’re going to find, but the pacing is all wrong. If this had come later in the run, or even if we’d jumped forward a few months and they were having difficulties managing their powers and wanted something more conventional, it would have made more sense. The saving grace here is the world building in the background. Wanting to rebuild his world no matter the cost to anyone else, Darkstorm’s castle overlooks slums where the poor and hungry struggle to survive, through which Reekon and Mortredd trot along, uncaring of the devastation around them.

They make their way to a contact of Mortdredd’s at Harkon’s Blacksmith Shop. An engineer by trade Harkon found himself without work in the new Age of Magic and retrained as a blacksmith, where he won the contract to repair and replace armour for the Darkling Lords. Underneath tarps scattered about his workspace are high-tech vehicles which are now nothing more than useless relics of the past.

I recognised the one above as soon as its covering was pulled back. It’s the Sky Claw. It was 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 concealing a variety of awesome weaponry, it was a favourite childhood toy. It’s the whole raison d’être for this story so my excitement levels have been turned up a bit now.

The machine responds to the energy of Reekon’s magical touch, but it’s Mortdredd’s proximity that really brings it to life. While the statement that the symbol from his chest plate transferred to the craft is completely wrong, it’s still a fun way of introducing the craft. I particularly like how magical powers erupt from Mortredd’s chest, while his hand almost disappears into the holographic panel, becoming nearly skeletal-like. Although, why does Harkon say he hasn’t heard the sounds of an engine in years when this follows on directly from the previous origin story?

Able to control it with but a thought, Mortdredd is eager to prove himself to his Lord and Master. Darkstorm wants to wait, plan, gather information before a strike (again, no mention of learning their new skills) and this leads to other Knights calling him a coward. Defending his leader’s honour, Mortdredd attacks the others but find it’s he who ends up pushed out. Seizing the moment, he takes the Sky Claw and launches a devastating attack on Leoric’s castle, hoping to show he’s worthy of his position within the Darkling Lords. None of the vehicle’s magical powers are used though, just the weaponry which is a shame because I was looking forward to seeing those holograms come to life again.

The descriptive panels here are excellent. In fact, throughout the comic they’re a unique mix of science fiction and what feels like medieval storytelling. The latter in particular sets it apart, the comic playing up to this aspect of the characters and setting particularly well, the attention to detail is great.

One of the more interesting magical powers makes an entrance here and that’s Arzon‘s power of knowledge, even though he’s incorrectly drawn as Ectar but we’ll skip that detail for now. He recites his incantation to find out what the Sky Claw is, because there has been no flying vehicle since the Age of Science and it takes them by complete surprise. However, he not only discovers the information he seeks, suddenly everything he’s ever known in his whole life temporarily returns to his mind.

Everyone having completely different powers […] could make for some epic battles.

This could’ve set up some brilliant stories for the future. I could see something like that opening up old wounds, thoughts he’s tried to suppress or even things that he doesn’t wish to know. Unfortunately I can’t see this being explored in the short run the comic ultimately had.

On the surface a power like this could seem to give an individual an unfair advantage in any fight, but with everyone having such completely different powers, all with some form of vulnerability built in if not used correctly, could make for some epic battles.

It all comes to a head when Arzon transforms into his eagle form and attacks the cowardly Mortredd from above. From there it all falls apart for the Darkling Lords, who had shown up to finish what the Sky Claw had started. Disobeying orders and nearly killing his leader sees Mortdredd locked up in the dungeon of Darkstorm’s castle at the end of the story, but not before he’s made reference to the Sky Claw feeling alive when it repairs itself during a moment away from the battle. It’s a passing comment for now, but if memory serves me right this could tie in to some revelations yet to come about all of the Visionaries’ magical powers.

The Balance of Power 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 action scenes. There’s little in the way of characterisation but the main point here is to see more of this world and the characters inhabiting it, to see their magical powers and how they could turn the tide of battle. Hence the name of the story.

With Jim having set things up and established the potential for future stories, the authorship is handed over to Gerry for him to develop the comic as its full-time writer. So let’s wait and see what he brings to the table and if all that potential is realised. The next chapter will be reviewed on Wednesday 23rd June. Be here.

ViSiONARiES #2: THE BEGiNNiNG

This gorgeous Andy Wildman cover opens the second issue of Marvel UK‘s new Visionaries monthly, released on this day back in 1988, showing some of our heroes and villains surrounded by the magical totems that’ll become a part of their very being. We’ll get to that further down the review, but is that a price increase already? It’s only 5p but back then that was quite the hike, especially for a second issue.

Not only is the price increase a bit strange, so is the Vision On editorial which doesn’t mention anything about the issue’s story, instead focussing solely on other Marvel releases. The recap of the previous chapter is then pasted on top of the next page, excising the top third of the strip! It is atmospherically written though.

Last time, Reekon pulled on a lever as a large stone gargoyle rushed towards Leoric, Ectar and Feryl but what the lever did could easily have been missed because of where the story stopped. The metal gates that trapped them with seemingly no hope of survival would have come down at the top of this page. So not only could it have been missed last issue, this time it’s been deleted by editor Steve White.

Thankfully the strip itself more than makes up for any shortcomings in repackaging it for UK readers plus the outer eight pages are made of an even higher grade of paper than last time. A shame the rest is of the usual stock because these glossy pages are lovely and really do justice to Andy‘s cover, as well as the opening pages of the strip from penciller Mark Bagley, inker Romeo Tanghai, letterer Janice Chiang and colourist Julianna Ferriter.

Adapted by Jim Salicrup from Flint Dille‘s animated teleplay, it’s all action this time around, with the knights from across planet Prysmos now inside Iron Mountain facing the trials of Merklynn the ancient wizard. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for humour, as we see when the startled gargoyle runs off like a yelping dog, and then there’s this panel featuring Darkling Lord leader Darkstorm and (the voice of) Mortdredd, his snivelling follower.

In fact the first several pages contain some comedy gold. Below, Cravex spots some apparently noble knights talk of forming what sounds very similar to Leoric’s future team of Spectral Knights. It’s all talk though, humorously told with mention of their skills and expertise but their actual plans amount to nothing more than monthly meetings. It reminds me of some office managers I’ve had to work with.

Then, after being surprised by an animated skeleton pushing him over a crevasse, Darkstorm’s superior climbing skills and cool head save him and he finds himself beside a vat of milk from a giant spider, which looks ominously on overhead. Realising in order to fulfill his ambitions he’ll need underlings so he traps three knights in the sticky goo and forces them to pledge their allegiance. Cindarr‘s sole requirement had me roaring.

We see some personal rivalries begin here too. The Cryotek versus Cindarr fight is interesting as it’s actually the Spectral Knight who loses his temper during it. Showing a fearsome, darker side and swearing to kill his enemy, his magical totem in the final pages is revealed to be the grizzly bear for his incredible strength and endurance, so I’m interested to see how these two aspects of his personality develop in tandem in future issues. But I want to concentrate on one particular grudge match here.

At the time of Visionaries having only one or two female warriors was deemed enough in everything from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe to The Transformers. The former at least had a female-centric spin-off but the latter had only one female robot in a cast of hundreds. This has been remedied in the intervening years with the Cybertronians but we can see now just how woefully inadequate it was at the time. Galadria and Virulina, shown here in a thrilling underwater fight scene, weren’t even toys and were instead creations of Flint’s. I hope they’ll get as much coverage as their male counterparts in future issues.

While the comic’s origin was based on the cartoon’s, there were already key differences. Something that irked me about the same story in the cartoon was the fact only the characters who’d receive the magical powers in the end had the hologram-shaped chest panel. It kind of gave the game away, but in the comic they’ve shown several background characters with the same design. It’s not overly done, we’re always aware of who’s going to make it and who isn’t, but it’s a welcome change.

It may be over three decades later and it may be based on a toy line, but this is still a thrilling read.

Something else a comic can do is expose the inner thoughts of the characters and throughout Visionaries so far it’s used in abundance, and not in that annoying way of further describing what we can see is happening to them. Instead, it’s used to add depth to reactions, portrays their inner doubts and fears and adds to each individual character.

As we approach the final pages a huge climactic battle between the knights is interrupted by a booming voice as a huge wooden door nearby contorts into the shape of Merklynn’s face. Daring them forward, they’re faced with horrors on the other side.

It’s actually Darkstorm who feels a certain level of familiarity with the screaming souls in front of them. They march on and Merklynn explains this was their final test, the spirits really being mystical reflections of their deepest, darkest fears and in conquering them they’ve conquered themselves. It’s quite startling to turn the page over and see this image. It may be over three decades later and it may be based on a toy line, but this is still a thrilling read.

It’s at this point we finally get some more background into the previous Age of Magic. It’s played out over a page previously shown in the preview mini-comic but essentially Prysmos was a planet with a strong-willed race of humans, able to achieve anything they set their minds to for the good of their neighbours. The strongest were the Knights of Prysmos and from these arose the Mages of Prysmos. Only a few were able to predict the cataclysm when the Age of Science came, of which Merklynn was one. By secreting his power inside the mountain upon which his castle once stood he was able to ride out time until the suns aligned again and the ages were reversed.


“Be not afraid, Knights of Prysmos! Accept these totems as your just reward! Only you had the vision it took to succeed in finding this chamber! Truly thou art Visionaries!”

Merklynn the Great Mage

Then it’s on to the finale and the part I, as a fan of the toys and cartoon, had been waiting for. It was time for the new Knights of Prysmos to receive their totems, their magical emblems that would encapsulate each individual character, granting them each unique special powers, regardless of their intentions beyond the mountain.

Looking over these particular images sparks happy memories. I had so many of these toys it’s like being reunited with old friends. It’s been a great start and we haven’t even seen any of their powers being used yet. But given what we’ve seen them all achieve as people grasping for the power to rebuild or rule, it’s already a compelling story and I think this is mainly thanks to the way the characters have interacted with one another. They feel real, which is no small feat given these are based on action figures.

Judging by these beginnings, if Visionaries had proven more popular and had the chance to develop over the course of a few years, I would say these human characters could’ve risen through the ranks of comics to sit proudly alongside the likes of Larry Hama‘s superlative G.I. Joe creations. I’m well aware I’m saying this after only one story, but I’ve a feeling the remaining issues are going to back that up.

For now The End… The Beginning finishes with everyone safely transported back to the entrance of Iron Mountain, where a rock formation in the shape of its soul occupant’s face (he does like doing stuff like that) ends the proceedings with some ominous words for all those assembled.

After this initial story the comic would diverge completely from the cartoon and I’m looking forward to seeing what direction it goes in, what with the animated series being one of the best of its time. I really do get the feeling all is set for a story unlike any other. The comic team should be proud of their adaptation and now with them at the helm completely we’ll have to wait a whole month to see what they bring to the myth of the Visionaries.

To round off this review here’s a quick look at the only two non-strip pages in the comic after the editorial. I know how much people love these retro advertisements. This month there’s another Marvel UK monthly looking for attention, then that small promotion in the preview comic for what I’m sure was a superlative poster gets the full back page treatment.

I can remember the whole family sitting down and watching ALF together on the TV every week. We’d laugh along with the canned laughter as we watched the adventures of the Alien Life Form, real name Gordon Shumway from the planet Melmac, taking shelter in the home of the Tanner family after his planet was destroyed when everyone turned their hairdryers on at the same time. I think I can remember buying an issue of the Marvel comic, which was a basic repackaging along the same lines as Visionaries.

It’s been great fun revisiting this story on the planet of Prysmos so far. I’m eagerly awaiting the next edition and I hope you’ll join me too on Wednesday 19th May for #3 of Marvel UK‘s Visionaries.