October 29, 2011

Our final thoughts on Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light


Let's get this out the way right up front: Visionaries didn't go away because of low toy sales or low ratings of the show, it disappeared because Hasbro became increasingly dissatisfied with their contract with Marvel/Sunbow and decided not to renew said contract when it expired. I honestly don't know what the numbers were for Visionaries, if it was a bomb, a modest blip, or a potential smash, but it had the pure dumb luck to take its first lap in the race just as the arena cleared its seats and the building was torn down. The ending of the contract caught Marvel/Sunbow completely off guard and is the reason My Little Pony and Jem went away, why new episodes of Transformers stopped appearing anywhere outside of Japan, why G.I. Joe suddenly leapt to being a DiC production, and why a little note announcing the cancellation of Visionaries was stuck on the last page of part two of a four part comic book story. It apparently took a bit of doing for Marvel to hold onto the licenses for the popular Transformers and G.I. Joe comic books, but even those left the studio several years later.

The other reason we never saw Visionaries resurface again like the more prominent Hasbro properties is because, while they were creations owned by Hasbro that had been licensed to Marvel/Sunbow, Visionaries was a co-production. Both the toyline and animated series were created in conjunction with one another under the supervision of Flint Dille so as to create a new level of cohesion between the two instead of show writers being forced to make due with whatever new toys were dropped on their desk. Why this didn't extend to the comic, which was kind of its own spin on the material, is beyond me, but with the two companies divided, there's no way the series could have made a comeback unless either both sides paired up once again or one bought out the other's share. And this may be where sales numbers came in. Again, I can't see those numbers, but I can't imagine Visionaries was a show that blew minds and stuck with a mass audience straight out of the gate. Not because I don't love it, but because the designs and concepts don't have that iconic hook, and it's mostly the eccentric execution of the show that made me love it and guaranteed it could have built a cult following had it been given the chance.

So let's talk about this show, this crazy, post-apocalyptic tribute to cheesy ballads of clashing knights, smiting monsters, and wandering on quests for an ambiguous wizard that plays both sides. This is a land where a mustachioed King will charge headfirst into battle, only bringing backup when they think to follow his path of daring do. This is a culture where both heroes and villains have to suddenly adapt to the crash of an age of technology and the resurfacing of a now forgotten era of magic and monsters. This is a world where grown men will combat a miniature furball menace with oversized shaving implements and birthday cakes. This is a really wild show. Sometimes too wild, but often nailing a satirical smirk that actually adds realism and humanity to the harsh world these people find themselves in.

The big problem, as we often pointed out, is that Leoric and the Spectral Knights, the heroes of the tale, are stiff. There are a few points where disagreements arise, but they're always such upstanding pillars of moral do-goodery that there's no real depth to make them compelling. I mean, sure, we eventually get charmed by Leoric's ridiculous bravery, or Feryll's youthful impulsiveness, or the tender romance between Cryotek and Galadria, but they're all just so bland. There's no comic relief, leaving everyone looking silly in their medieval forms of knightly logic, and no Shipwreck style rebellious jackass who shouldn't be in such a position of honor but has earned a place because, despite his shiftiness and whining, rises to the occasion when the cards fall.

Instead, all our heroes are vastly overshadowed by the villains, the Darkling Lords. Darkstorm, basking in silly displays of his own ego like forcing his citizens into trapdoor games of human chess. Reekon, the sly thief who's always working an angle and only fights for the side he does because they pay him to do so. Cindarr, the lovable slab of muscle with a gentle heart for whom it hasn't yet sunk in that he pledged his loyalties to the wrong side. Cravex, the berserker barbarian whose every line is delivered as a shrieking roar. Lexor, the coward who only fights where there's other people between him and his foes and runs like hell or hides in his armadillo form when he becomes the center of attention. Virulina, who's so badass she once turned into a shark and swallowed her leader whole. And then there's Mortdredd, bootlicking Mortdredd, who desperately tries at every occasion to makes his beloved leader Darkstorm proud, no matter the humiliation and sacrifice he himself must endure.

The big problem with this show is you don't want to watch the heroes, you want to watch the villains. Case in point is "The Overthrow of Merklynn", where the villains conquer the world, then have to outrun a massive armageddon scenario they accidentally triggered. It's hilarious, it's epic, it's wildly entertaining, and it leaves the following episode, "The Power of the Wise", where the Knights find themselves playing out a similar story formula, left completely in the dust as the Knights show again how boring they are in the face of their charismatic foes.

But this is not something that couldn't have been fixed. I know there was a new batch of characters set to debut the following year, but they could also have shaken up the team a bit, have some people flip sides. What would happen if Cindarr finally got it through his skull that he was on the wrong side and took his uncontrollable power of Destruction to that of the Knights? What if someone like Witterquick, who has a bit of a temper and often finds himself on the opposing side of ethical arguments, gets into such a heated disagreement with the other Knights that he falls into the lure of Darkstorm? I don't know if either of these would make the show better, but anything that spices up the Knights can't be a bad thing.

All that aside, let me conclude by saying I really enjoyed this show. The lead characters are a little bland, there's the occasional fumble of an episode, and sometimes Flint Dille's trademark sense of humor can fly a little too free, but they don't detract from the overall experience. It's a very intelligent and sly show that both parodies and nails the ballads of ancient heroes and villains, all overseen by an ambiguous wizard that plays both sides to his own ultimate advantage. The post-apocalyptic world where technology collapsed and magic arose is strikingly designed and there's a few episodes that are among the most beautifully animated of that era. There's so much fun to be had and so many genuine dangers to be fought that I absolutely have to recommend tracking it down. The comics you can skip - there's some good moments, but it's ultimately dry and gets cut off before it can really make its own statement - but definitely hunt down the animated series Visionaries: Knights of the Magical Light. You'll laugh, you'll be swept up in adventure, and you'll fall head over heels for the wildest batch of unforgettable villains you've ever seen.


When Noel and I landed here on the planet Prysmos some 13 episodes, 6 issues, and a brief sidetrack into the realm of Dragon Strike ago, I thought I knew what we were in for. After all, Visionaries came with a certain pedigree. 80s? Yes. Hasbro? Mm-hmm. Sunbow? Naturally. But, to my surprise, this was a series that refused to play by the rules.

Visionaries is what I would describe as being “morally complicated” - relatively speaking. In an age of righteous heroes, dastardly villains, and cookie-cutter plots, it was striving to be something a bit deeper. Good was good, but Good wasn’t always right. Evil was evil at times, but they were also human and their actions were sometimes justifiable from their point of view. Trying to tell a nuanced, sophisticated story in an 80s cartoon must’ve been a bit like trying to do jumping jacks while wearing a straight jacket.

But it wasn’t all naval gazing and moral relativism. Thankfully, series creator Flint Dille was smart enough to infuse Visionaries with a sense of humor, too. Near the end of the series’ run, it began to get a bit broad, but at its best, it was sharp, winking, and tongue-in-cheek. Well, at least for the bad guys. Our heroes were about as colorful as an Ansel Adams photograph.

So now to (try and) answer the question that was on our minds when we began: Why did Visionaries fail to catch on and become a phenomenon like other Hasbro/Sunbow collaborations? Quite inadvertently, I answered that in my review of the fifth issue of the comic book series.

...as I was reading "Quest of the Four Talismans, Part 1", it dawned on me why Visionaries failed. Its media isn’t “toyetic” enough. While this is artistically commendable, it’s business suicide. I’m not suggesting that the material is above kids’ heads, but it doesn’t capture that sense of simple fun and wonder that makes little Tommy throw a temper tantrum in the toy aisle of his local K-Mart until his Mom gives in and buys him a Witterquick figure.
In the end, Visionaries was a good animated series, a pretty good comic book series, and a good toy line. But the media often seemed to be at cross purposes with the toy line, a sure recipe for disaster because, in the world of 80s cartoon/toy line hybrids, as go one, so go all.

Having now completed our final quest with the Knights of the Magical Light known as the Visionaries, it’s time for us to depart the world of Prysmos. And as we leave, I take one last look back and see Witterquick waving goodbye. Or is it Arzon? Or Feryl? Maybe... maybe it’s Ectar. I don’t know, I never really did learn to tell them apart.

Goodbye, brave knight. We may not remember your name, but your deeds will never be forgotten.

Tune in next week when we announce the subject of our next Showcase!

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