"The Balance of Power" picks up right where "The End... The Beginning!" leaves off, but unlike the first issue, the second deviates almost completely from the cartoon.
The wizard Merklynn sends the successful Knights of his quest back to the foot of Iron Mountain and leaves them with this...
"One final word brave knights! With the powers you now possess, you can either rebuild this wondrous world - or DESTROY IT ALL! The fate of Prysmos is in your hands!"The warriors are confused. What are these "powers" that they possess? And what of those warriors without staffs? Confusion leads to anger which inevitably spills over into a battle between the two loosely affiliated groups. As the fight rages, something strange begins to happen. The warriors who posses staffs begin to hear a voice, like a whisper, in their head. The words it speaks are a spell that unleashes a power within them. One by one, they begin to discover just what it is Merklynn has given them.
The battle escalates. It's a free-for-all of destruction and chaos. And then a voice rises above the calamity. It's Leoric. He makes a plea for the warriors to unite and use their new powers to rebuild their world. Some of them scoff at this and Darkstorm seizes this opportunity to rally them to his cause. In the end, the knights choose their sides with neither group having a clear-cut tactical advantage. Both agree to go their separate ways. For now.
Leoric takes his knights to his stronghold in New Valarak, where they thoughtfully debate a plan of action. In the end, they agree on one thing: to unite as one against the forces of evil. Meanwhile, back at Darkstorm's lair, he and his newly minted Darkling Lords have a less... civil discussion.
A caste system quickly develops between those who posses a staff of power and those who don't. The sniveling Mortdred and the bitter Reekon are made errand boys, sent to a local community to have Darkstorm's armor repaired. There they meet Harkon, a renowned blacksmith who had been a brilliant engineer and scientist during the Age of Technology. While Harkon repairs Darkstorm's armor, Reekon discovers something hidden under a tarp. It's a project of Harkon's from before the Age of Magic rendered all technology useless: a flying vehicle with immense firepower that he calls a Sky Claw. Mortdred muses about getting back into Darkstorm's good graces by presenting him with this flying machine, a secret weapon that he can use to crush Leoric and his meddlesome knights. And then...
The Sky Claw whirs to life! Reekon feels the transfer of energy from his hand to the machine, and when Mortdred touches it, the symbol on his chest plate instantly appears on the wing. They have discovered their power. They have the ability to power this vehicle and, presumably, any electronic device from days gone by. They present this to Darkstorm and a feast is held to celebrate their new advantage. This naturally leads to a discussion on how best to use this new power and that leads to a mêlée amongst the Lords. When the dust settles, Darkstorm blames Mortdred for the scuffle and sends him from his sight. Mortdred, seeking to once again regain his master's favor, steals the Sky Claw and sets off for New Valarak. Initially intending only to spy on the enemy, Mortdred is overcome with a desire to do more, to prove his worth by destroying Leoric and his knights.
Leoric's men are roused from their sleep and a battle ensues. The Knights are horrified by this terrible new weapon, but fight back bravely. Eventually, a new power is roused, this time inside the knight Arzon. It is the power of Knowledge and with it he is able to deduce that there is a weakness to the Sky Claw. He tells his fellow Knight, Feryl, to hit the underside of the craft dead center. This causes it to spin out of control and crash. But then the Darkling Lords arrive.
Having found Mortdred and the Sky Claw missing, Darkstorm and his warriors knew they'd find him in New Valarak. The two forces battle. Meanwhile, the Sky Claw begins to repair - no, to heal itself, almost as if it's alive. Mortdred rejoins the battle and is about to blast Leoric, only to be waylaid by Arzon. The Sky Claw is sent spinning and the blast destroys Darkstorm's chariot instead, injuring the Lord in the process. The tide has turned and the Darkling Lords are forced to beat a hasty retreat, leaving the Sky Claw in the hands of Leoric and his Knights. Back at Darkstorm's lair, Mortdred is thrown into the dungeon until his master can decide what to do with him.
As I mentioned in the beginning, this issue doesn't follow the storyline of the cartoon. The only thing(s) the second issue and the second episode have in common is that Mortdred and Reekon's ability to power electronic devices is revealed and the Sky Claw is introduced.
As a consequence of this original take, one of the first things I noticed is that Flint Dille's trademark humor, more or less retained in the first issue, is largely gone here. The second issue has a more serious, straightforward tone to it. It's very well written, but the tonal change is a bit jarring at first.
One thing that hasn't changed is that it still embraces a more complex morality than most other properties of the era, such as when the still unnamed Spectral Knights have a genuine debate on how best to use their powers and deal with Darkstorm.
"Don't get carried away by anger, Ectar. Remember what Merklynn said - We're supposed to use our magic to rebuild the world, not fight a war."Not exactly earth-shattering stuff, mind, but again, considering the era, it's refreshing to see two good guys disagree on a course of action without some coda reprimanding the one who was "wrong". In the real world, good people disagree. It happens every day. In fact, I'd say they disagree far more often than evildoers.
"Maybe we'll have to fight the war first, Arzon."
Overall, "The Balance of Power" is a less generically entertaining but more intelligent second chapter than its corresponding episode in the cartoon series. I'm looking forward to the next issue.
We're at the point where the comics and the cartoon are two fully separate continuities with different takes on the same idea that will likely continue to divide as they go on. Any fan of Transformers and G.I. Joe will already be prepared for this, but for those of you who have been following along with us: forget the tv series. From here on out, the comic will be its own universe with the characters and world and magical rules working in their own way.
Let's take the power staffs. In the cartoon, they unleashed a magical being for one shot before they needed to be dragged up to Iron Mountain and dipped in Merklynn's pool for a recharge. Here, they not only recharge themselves after a short time, but there is no magical being, the powers they represent instead being cast through the knight wielding them. Lexor's Invulnerability spell coats his armor with an unbreakable skin. Arzon's Knowledge spell instantly fills his head with perfect recollection of everything he's ever known throughout his life. Cindarr's Destruction spell tears the ground with an earthquake. I kinda miss the kooky figures that would pop out of the Staffs when summoned, but I like this shorthand of simply having the powers channelled through the wielder. And while having to trek up to Merklynn's place for a recharge was a clever twist, it's not essential.
As Tony pointed out, I love how the Darkling Lords are quick to look down on those who don't wield staffs, and the motivation this gives to Reekon and Mortdredd to prove themselves. The Sky Claw is nicely used here, going from a piece of junk in the back of a smith's shop to a wondrous sight as it takes to the air and reminds everyone of the era they've lost. I like that we get an explanation of how the holograms on the craft are tied to the user and how the Spectral Knights are still able to take it down through skill and strategy. But I do have one issue: how is Darkstorm able to pilot it? Unlocking the vehicle is Mortdredd's magical skill and it's imbued with his power, so how is Darkstorm able to take the controls and go off for a fly on his own? It's kind of pointless to give someone a special ability that anyone else can use.
I also love the conflicted ethics and motives Tony mentioned. The Knights arguing about waiting for Darkstorm to attack or making the first move. The Lords pulling together even as they break into fights and plot behind each other's backs. And I love the recurring theme of "That's not fair!", first expressed by the smith who built the Sky Claw when he's stunned to learn he's not able to fly his own creation, then again by Mortdredd when he's tossed in a dungeon for a week for trying to impress his master. It's good stuff.
And, yeah, the tone is definitely different. The tv series was almost as much a parody of medieval knight ballads as they were a modern tribute to them, but the comic is becoming much more of a straight-forward high fantasy. There's nothing wrong with that different approach, though. The characters are rich and (mostly) distinct. The central clash between freedom and dominance is played to the hilt. The magic adds to the characters and world instead of overwhelming it or making it silly. It's with this issue that Jim Salicrup handed the scripting reigns over to Gerry Conway, who's a legendary writer in the industry for a good reason. Trust me, we're in great hands with him.
A few small notes:
- I'm impressed they didn't fall back on the ages old cliche of having the two female knights always squaring off against one another. Here, they hold their own against the males.
- I'm surprise how little use they've made of the animal totems. I know there's only so many pages to play in, but I only counted for shifts, and each ended rather quickly.
- In the show, Leoric would be blundering head-first into whatever fray he could find. I love the calmer, wiser version we have here. There's a great bit where the Knights and Lords break out into their free-for-all brawl in the opening scene, and he's just standing on a hill top, scowling down as the senseless conflict.
- Mortdredd continues to be the most entertaining character in this franchise.
Tune in next Saturday Morning for another Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light adventure in "The Star Stone".