They were the latest toy line from Hasbro, the latest cartoon from Sunbow and now the latest comic from Marvel. With Transformers and Action Force (G.I. Joe) still riding high what could possibly go wrong? Unfortunately this sure thing wasn’t to last, but while it did the Visionaries brought with them one of the greatest 80s cartoons, some of my favourite childhood toys and what could’ve been one of the greatest comic book epics.
But we’re not here to dwell on what could’ve been, this site is all about celebrating these classic comics by reading them in real time and on this day back in 1988 #1 of a brand new Marvel UK title appeared in the shops. While it does have a lovely glossy cover it only contains 24 pages, the same as the weekly Transformers which seemed strange for a monthly. Inside it was cover-to-cover strip action too. No extra features, no fact-files, letters page requests, back up story and no sign of a Lew Stringer humour strip. What kind of comic was this without that last item?
What it did have for kids in the 80s was a free holographic sticker. Featuring two images of Merklynn the wizard, one a 2D outline and the other a 3D image of his face, I can’t begin to describe how bloody difficult this was to photograph.
Inside, Transformers colourist Steve White is the editor and welcomes us to the premiere issue with Vision On, an editorial page which looks a lot like the HQ one from The Real Ghostbusters. Other than that, the comic is made up of 19 pages of strip, two Marvel UK adverts and another for the toys and that’s yer lot. It’s still an excitable introduction though and hypes the strip very well.
The End… The Beginning is adapted by Jim Salicrup (Jurassic Park, Transformers, Spider-Man) from Flint Dille‘s (Transformers: The Movie and G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero cartoons) screenplay of the cartoon’s first episode. In the States, Marvel’s Star Comics released Visionaries bi-monthly (much like their parent company had with Transformers originally). The premiere issue from October the previous year had been a double-length edition, but here in the UK the origin story was split into two and spread over the first two months. This means none of our characters actually become ‘Visionaries’ this issue.
Set on the planet Prysmos, Merklynn the wisened old wizard brings portents of doom as the three suns begin to align, signalling the end of the Age of Science and the beginning of a new Age of Magic. Angered at their reliance on technology, Merklyn states he’s watched humans grow weaker for ages, a hint that he’s older than we think.
He has a point. It would appear that from birth to death technology is on hand to answer to these humans’ every whim. Even in this restaurant, sitting on the side of Iron Mountain, we see people being fed their food by robots, after the robot chefs have cooked it and the robot waiters have served it. They don’t even have to bother their brains with the task of choosing what they want to eat, instead their dietary requirements are scanned by the maître d’.
Then the suns align.
In an instant the world is plunged into darkness. The restaurant crumbles and falls, no longer held in place by the advanced machinery and is destroyed completely as it hits the ground far below. To prove to the people around him this is truly the new Age of Magic, Merklynn teleports the diners to safety. All around them their world has changed forever in the blink of an eye.
Completely out of their depth, unused to thinking for themselves, the first words anyone utters as the world ends around them is, “Anyone know a good restaurant near here?”. A brief moment of humour before the horrors on the next page.
The Age of Science has ended and the beginning of the Age of Magic is a terrifying and violent place. The once peaceful human race, who didn’t want for anything, soon descend into barbarism. But as society crumbles a new order slowly rises up “cobbled together from bits and pieces of the old”.
The useless technology all around them is melted down and used as protective armour and weapons, a necessity in these new times. From the villages emerge knights, some ruling with iron fists and led by Darkstorm, others aligning themselves with Leoric, the former mayor of New Valarak who witnessed first-hand Merklynn in the restaurant.
There’s some great imagery throughout this issue, with pencils by Mark Bagley, inks by Romeo Tanghai, colours by Julianna Ferriter and lettering by Janice Chiang. In particular the fight scenes are exciting and during one particularly brutal confrontation the skies light up with a familiar face (inside a familiar free hologram-like shape) and a booming voice.
Merklynn tells the knights of his Iron Mountain, where the destruction began. Inside, great power resides, power enough to rebuild the world and take command of this new age, to rise up and become strong again. It’s obviously too much of an opportunity for someone like Darkstorm to pass up so he and his men (the grovelling but loyal Mortdredd and the brutal mercenary-for-hire Reekon) take off to claim the power for themselves.
They believe these times call for a tough leader, someone unafraid to make unpopular choices in order for their planet to survive, no matter the cost to the people. On the other end of the spectrum Leoric, Ectar and Feryl believe only by working together can the populace regrow their communities and flourish. In the background we also meet characters like Cravex who wishes to use the political climate to his advantage (he had the voice of Starscream in the cartoon, appropriately enough) and during the final pages we’re also introduced to Galadria, Arzon and my favourite Witterquick.
With the world building complete we move to the main part of the origin story and the quest for their magical powers. Iron Mountain’s labyrinthine interior is home to tests of intelligence, fitness, strength, wisdom etc. Just as the toys had set out each figure’s specific ability, these tests are our chance to be introduced to them in a more natural way than resorting to the kind of long winded exposition we got in the earliest issues of Transformers.
For example, Galadria uses her keen senses to stop herself falling for a trap like the men ahead of her, Witterquick uses his speed to avoid deadly fast moving spikes and Arzon’s love of flight sees him escape danger and soar inside. But not before we’ve had a cheeky wink towards their Hasbro stablemates; as a ladder transforms into dozens of intertwined snakes Arzon exclaims, “There’s more than meets the eye here.” Brilliant.
Our original six characters from earlier in the story round things off for us this issue when they discover a giant stone gargoyle, curled up in a corner and snoring loudly. It’s alive! But at least it’s asleep. Sneaking past it, Mortdredd puts on a weakened voice and tricks Leoric’s team into coming to the aid of an apparently fallen comrade.
There’s actually a nice bit of humour here too. Mortdredd’s character sucks up to Darkstorm constantly, eager to please him by carrying out any sinister task no matter how horrible, keen to have his protection. Darkstorm is constantly exhausted of the grovelling but recognises Mortdredd’s diabolical talents are crucial to his plans.
It’s at this point the story, which has been building momentum nicely from its atmospheric beginning, gets unceremoniously cut in half.
Below is the final strip page. If you look closely at the penultimate panel you’ll see a metal portcullis and it’s this Reekon is controlling with that lever. This could be easily missed so its effectiveness as a cliffhanger is debatable. From memory of the annual, showing the next panel or two at the top of the next page would’ve been much better, with maybe a ‘Next Issue’ box filling out the rest of the page.
The overriding feeling I get from this issue is these are well developed characters, grounded in a magical kind of reality, their reactions and relationships with each other feeling very real. All in all a well thought out world full of possibilities for future storytelling and all before we’ve even concluded the origin tale.
It’s great fun reading something so full of far-fetched magical elements, action and adventure, yet has such believable characters at its centre. This gives real meat to the bones of the story and something to care about and draw you back to find out what happens to them.
By the end the lack of anything other than the strip itself isn’t an issue anymore, the story being very satisfying in its own right. It certainly wouldn’t be the last Marvel UK comic to go this route either. Slimer, Alf, Inspector Gadget and others simply repackaged their American comics on larger paper with a new editorial and maybe a letters page.
Speaking of other Marvel comics.
Apart from the cover and editorial, the only non-strip pages are a toy advert (which you can see in this previous post) and two promotional pages for other comics which I’ve included above, because why not? The Real Ghostbusters had just launched this same month and Thundercats was celebrating its first birthday by this stage. The ‘Cats had also been launched as a bi-monthly in the States by Star Comics, proving popular enough to warrant going monthly from #8 onwards.
Despite knowing in advance a series won’t last long, I don’t let that take away any of the enjoyment of reading them and I’ve loved reading this! A whole month does feel like an agonisingly long time right now though. But I shall follow my own rules and wait.
Issue two shall be read and reviewed on Wednesday 21st April. Join me then, won’t you?