When I reviewed Marvel UK‘s monthly Visionaries comic earlier this year the general reaction on social media fell into two camps. There were those who’d forgotten all about the comic and those who never knew it existed. Even fewer knew about this annual. Exactly 33 years ago to the day, back in 1988 I received it on Christmas Day, not knowing about the existence of a regular comic until it was mentioned inside. I was gutted I’d missed out, being such a fan of the cartoon, so finally reading their origin story (which I’d missed on TV) was a thrill.
Of course, today that thrill is diminished somewhat after reading that story several months ago in the comic. I can imagine fans weren’t too pleased that over half the book was reprint material either. But let’s start at the beginning with that eye-catching cover by Martin Griffiths (Thundercats, The Real Ghostbusters, 2000AD) and John Burns (Transformers, Sable and Fortune, G.I. Joe). Only upon reading these for the blog did I realise this was the image produced for the premiere issue marketing. But still, original Marvel UK pieces like this are the envy of American Visionaries fans, just like this opening spread by Dougie Braithwaite (The Punisher, The Real Ghostbusters, Batman) and John.
There’s an editorial matching the comic’s design, although at least here it’s all hype for the annual in the reader’s hands rather than advertising for other titles. Surprisingly it explains the strip is a reprint but it does make a big deal of the fact there are two brand new prose stories and a handful of fact-files. There’s also the obligatory space to fill in your name in case your friends decided to steal it away from you.
Monthly Visionaries editor Steve White is credited as designer here, most likely because most of the design is lifted straight from the comic with minimal changes. The editor is Marvel UK stalwart Richard Starkings (Transformers letterer, The Real Ghostbusters launch editor, Elephantmen writer and Comicraft founder) and with limited resources to produce an annual for a comic which had proven unsuccessful, meaning no UK originated strips, he’s done a fine job in pulling together a book I have very happy memories of.
So yes, the most exciting thing in this annual for me originally was finally reading how it all began and it’s always a good read, no matter how many times I do so. The End… The Beginning takes up a whopping 38 of the 64 pages available here and is the original version of the strip, minus the great big lump of text that removed some important panels from the start of the second half when published in #2 (see below).
Based on the teleplay by Flint Dille, adapted by Jim Salicrup, pencilled by Mark Bagley, inked by Romeo Tanghai, lettered by Janice Chiang and coloured by Julianna Ferriter it’s still a masterpiece in origin storytelling today, however I’m not going to read it again for this review. It may have been brand new and exciting 33 years ago but I read it for the comic’s reviews last spring and again in the pages of Transformers this year on the blog’s Instagram! (I’ll explain that at the end of the review.) So for the full details of this story check out the reviews of #1 and #2 of the comic.
So I’m just reading the parts that are new and as such it’s a much different, much shorter experience this time around. We begin with the fact-files, of which there are six featuring Spectral Knights Leoric, Witterquick and Arzon, and Darkling Lords Darkstorm, Cindarr and Cravex. I’m not sure who drew the images for them but they are rather basic. Four of them were used for the editorial page, although just their faces. Given how far in advance annuals are created I think we can conclude these were drawn for these fact-files and then used in the monthly.
The descriptions have basically been lifted from the toy packets, reworded slightly to include the occasional reference to the origin strip. While the cartoon and comic had our heroes turn into the animals on their chest plates, the toys simply said these totems “represented” the characters’ personalities and you can see that’s used here too, which is a bit strange. Also, by this stage Darkstorm‘s goal had been established as more than simply wanting to conquer his foes (I’ve gone into that in depth in the monthly reviews) so it’s a shame to see that included.
I loved getting my Marvel annuals every year with their mix of strips and text stories. Unbelievably, some of my friends didn’t read the prose tales and wished their books were strips from cover to cover. They really missed out, these were some of the very best stories told by Marvel UK; it was one of the annual text stories that created Megatron‘s background of being a gladiator before the war, something that’s canon in basically every interpretation of Transformers today.
The writers would often concentrate on a couple of characters for the whole story, using the format to have some fun with them. While Transformers used it to develop them, for most of the other annuals it was a chance to take one small battle or incident and create a story full of personality and humour. That’s definitely the route the two new stories take here. First up is The Edge written by Ian Rimmer (Zoids, Action Force, Transformers) with art by Will Simpson (Transformers, Hellblazer, Rogue Trooper) and colour by Stuart Place (Captain Britain, Transformers (yes, again!)).
The story is bookended with Merklynn playing a game of chess, or whatever the Prysmos equivalent is, and equating his game to the ongoing battles between the two factions of warriors he’s created. The theme here is luck; no matter the strategy in the game chance will always play a part. The story itself is simple but fun and these bookends are an attempt to make it all feel more substantial than it actually is. It’s an interesting way of doing it and a good example of the more experimental writing techniques used in the text stories.
Reekon and Virulina are stalking about the lake near Leoric‘s compound when they happen upon Cryotek gathering drinking water and immediately hatch a plan to take him out involving both of their totems, a plan which is actually quite smart and very entertaining. In the midst of the fight the wooden shaft of the Spectral Knight’s staff gets snapped in two and the magic power itself disappears from within. This is a moment of revelation for the Darkling Lords but surely they’d have known this already? Has no damage come to their own wooden staffs in all this time?
The Lords launch a mass attack in which their targets aren’t the Knights themselves but their staffs, and they begin destroying them one by one. Surely a risky manoeuvre since their own staffs would be just as vulnerable, surely? Cryotek is holding the two pieces of his and needs a free hand to fight, so he holds them together in one hand at the point where they snapped apart. The magical energy returns, all it needed was to be held together and connected via the inner energy of the person whose persona is embodied within it. The battle ends in a draw and we read about Merkylnn resetting his chess game ready for the next battle and laughing.
It’s a strange little tale that doesn’t make an awful lot of sense if you think about it too much but there are some nice character moments, particularly for Reekon and Virulina. The dialogue between the two is snappy and funny as they whisper and bicker about their plan, and Reekon shows a masterful mathematical mind in working out the odds of success (and survival), an aspect of his character we never got to see in the comic before its premature cancellation. Definitely worth it for these moments alone.
The second prose story is the final new Visionaries story of the whole run, so in hindsight it has an awful lot to live up to. I’m very happy to say it does so with aplomb. False Light at Fulch Rock stars Arzon, Darkstorm and Cravex and is written by Dan Abnett (Doctor Who, Knights of Pendragon and a legend on The Real Ghostbusters), with accompanying art by Dougie Braithwaite and Cam Smith (Supergirl, Sinister Dexter, New Mutants), and colours by Chris Mattews (Thundercats, Mighty Max).
I was won over from the very first sentence, which paints the picture of a monastery on a cliff edge in the middle of a “dark storm”. With an image of the similarly named leader of the Darkling Lords on a purple horse across the page it immediately draws you in; we’re in for a treat with this one in atmosphere alone. However, everything else about the story is a winner too.
Darkstorm: “The Crystal of Light. With it, I will be supreme.”
Darkstorm: “The Darkling Lords. Whatever. Now come on!”
It tells the story of the Knights and Lords travelling to townships offering protection in this new dangerous age and Arzon’s next stop is Fulch Rock where the Order of the Lightfinders have taken refuge, led by Murnoc. Before he can get inside he’s set upon by Darkstorm and Cravex, barely escaping thanks to his Power of Knowledge spell poem, with which he’s able to predict the most likely next attack from his foes. However, he eventually falls over the cliff, transforming into his eagle form at the last second, slowing his decent enough to survive although he’s badly injured. He’s found by the Lightfinders and brought inside, where Darkstorm is ordered not to harm Murnoc’s guest while he works out which side to accept protection from.
It’s a great start. The rest of the story explains how the Lords are only offering protection because of the rumour of a Crystal of Light much like Merklynn’s hidden inside. There’s some cracking dialogue here which we’ve come to expect from Marvel UK text stories and in the end we find out it’s all been a ruse to lure the Lords there to steal their armour, what these religious nuts call “Aftertech” and view as their salvation, to power themselves and take over the land. The crystal is a fake and the three Visionaries must work together to escape due to the vast numbers of followers Murnoc has amassed.
Dan’s writing paints a picture in the mind and I think the story works so much better as prose than I think a strip would have. The Visionaries comic was always very good at building atmosphere with its descriptive panels, but having what is essentially seven pages of that kind of writing is something else. After the final battle Arzon tells Darkstorm the lesson to be learned is not judging others by appearance alone and that it’s a shame the two sides, so formidable together for the greater good, couldn’t work together to rebuild the planet. Darkstorm actually hesitates here. But in the end they leave as enemies. It’s a nicely written reference back to the monthly and the fact Darkstorm truly believed he was just doing what was best for his world.
So if you’ve read the strip already is it worth your while picking this book up? Most definitely. The exclusive art and text stories are worth the entry fee and it’s essential for the completist. It’s also a bittersweet moment because as I finished Fulch Rock I realised that was the last story these wonderful characters had. There’d be a Spring Special a few months into 1989 which was a page-for-page reprint of #5 of the comic, released to plug the fact Visionaries were returning to the Transformers comic, which I’m reading in real time on the blog’s Instagram. But when they did reappear it was yet another reprint of The End… The Beginning, making it three times it was published in the UK in one year!
It’s been a blast reliving the feeling of receiving this annual all those years ago. It’s sad to know there are no more stories to come when the comic had some of the greatest potential of any licenced title. It started off in such strong shape and was developing so fast. I truly believe it’s a great loss we didn’t get to see what could’ve happened if the lifespan fellow Hasbro franchises like Transformers and G.I. Joe had, had been granted to the Visionaries.
After Christmas get yourself on to eBay and see if you can track the whole series down (it won’t take too long to complete), you’ll enjoy some of the very best 80s comics you’re ever likely to read.