Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Issue-by-Issue: The Knights of Pendragon, Volume One - A Prologue.

Welcome to this, the First part in a series of issue by issue summaries of Marvel UK titles. In this first article I shall be discussing some of the background to the series, and the aesthetic choices which were made for this series.

I've actually been wanting to do this for a while, but with commitments elsewhere online I never quite found the time. Knowing that I now had more of a window available to me I decided to Poll regular readers of this site, back in April, for the series which they might want to see as the starting point to this feature. With a 34% state of the vote, ahead by a fair margin, was Knights of Pendragon.

And if I had been choosing the title myself, well that's probably where I would have started too. The launch of Knights of Pendragon in July 1990 was very much a watershed moment for Marvel UK. Marvel UK had tried doing US format books before Knights of Pendragon. In 1988 we had the first Death's Head series and also Dragon's Claws. But both of these books were primarily self-contained in future timelines, separate from the rest of Marvel US's output. They weren't the easiest sell to the US market, and were also not taken up well by British newsagents, who complained about these tiny US sized books not fitting anywhere on their shelves.

Knights of Pendragon in some ways followed on spiritually from what the final issues of Death's Head had been doing; trying to prove that it was possible for the UK Office to produce a monthly title which could be set within the continuity of the mainstream Marvel Universe, telling stories with established characters as a part of that Universe, but without treading on anybody's toes as they did. Knights of Pendragon proved that was possible, and it gained a fair bit of acclaim in the process. What started off its life as a planned short run series of six issues actually made it far beyond that remit, to an unplanned eighteen.

That's not to say that it was plain sailing though... I do understand, that there were some close calls during its run. It has to be said that the US office did monitor the use of certain British characters, which they did after all consider to be theirs, very closely. There were certain scenes and character actions which made Marvel US a little nervous. The rather graphic cliffhanger at the end of #5 for example.

But we'll get to that later.

Back in 1990, I can remember there being a really strong vibe of something significant coming, attached to this title's launch. Remember that at the time Marvel UK's output was principally based around Licensed properties (Transformers, Action Force, Thundercats). So when adverts for this new title started turning up in those weekly books they really did stand out, as being very different.




This is the cover to issue one (Artwork by the brilliant Alan Davis) and in middle of 1990 this image seemed to be everywhere. From forming full-page adverts in Marvel UK books, to big posters in UK Comic Book stores. I actually still own one of those posters, myself.

The cover worked at grabbing attention on several levels. Firstly it's a piece of Alan Davis art, and at this point in time that alone was a big deal. And secondly, it grabbed the attention of readers of the late, cancelled, Captain Britain series, through the recognition of Cap and of Dai Thomas of Scotland Yard. But it also brought in recognition from readers of the newer Excalibur series. Alistair and Alysande Stuart had made their d├ębuts in Excalibur, and they were recognisable supporting characters.

So, basically, a winning combination, taking several fronts into account.

The house style of the book itself also certainly marked out a statement of intent. Right from the choice of type font - not only used as the Header for the book's title, but carried on throughout the book.




This was somewhat of a departure from the two previous US format titles. Both Dragon's Claws and Death's Head's Title Logos had very much been hand drawn for the cover, and the choice of internal type font used was effectively the same as had been used throughout Marvel UK's licensed products at the time, in particular on Transformers. While that brought a certain familiarity, with it for long-standing readers of those licensed titles, it didn't really give the titles a great amount of individuality. In using a very deliberate type font, which echoed the concepts of Knights and Legend, to both Title the book and follow through into the overall house style, it did make a very individual statement. A style very much of its own.

The book itself wasn't the only part of the publicity machine for this one. As advertised in the back of the very first issue there was also a well publicised Signing Tour.



(Pictured above Writers Dan Abnett and John Tomlinson, 
Penciller Gary Erskine, Inker Andy Lanning, 
Colourist Helen Stone and Editor Steve White.)

As a guy buying into the whole experience of Knights of Pendragon it all seemed incredibly well-crafted and thought through. But perhaps one of the most impressive details of this series actually falls down to artist Gary Erskine. The art in Knights of Pendragon is really very strong. But amazingly this book was Gary's first paid work. I kid you not. Up until this point Gary Erskine had been working in a branch of Forbidden Planet, and putting together examples of his work in his own time.

Marvel UK just so happened to have been arranged a Sleeze Brothers signing with Andy Lanning, John Carnell, and (I believe) Dan Abnett, at the store one week, and Gary persuaded his manager to let him show them some of his artwork. And the rest is history...




But that was the way things were back then. It's hard to imagine now. In the modern Comics Industry trying get your Artist's Portfolio reviewed at a convention, or heaven forbid EVER trying to get somebody from the Big Two to look at script for prospective work as a writer, without having been already published in several other places or mediums is virtually impossible.

Back in the days of Marvel UK you could still apply to the offices in London, or show them your work at a convention, and if they liked it they'd actually run with it. I think that the biggest loss from Marvel UK's closure was that it really was an incredible training ground for talent, with a level of opportunities which no other publisher has really offered since.

But what of Knights of Pendragon itself?

What Knights of Pendragon achieved was actually very clever. Here we have a book which was very much set in the Marvel Universe, with familiar places, familiar characters and conventions, and which definitely dealt with special, otherworldly, 'super' powers.

But for the larger part it actually avoided using capes and costumes, and the other sillier elements of traditional superhero comics.

Obviously, it couldn't always. When Captain Britain appears he is very much in costume. And likewise Union Jack and Black Panther, later into the run. But through using established characters like Dai Thomas and the Stuart Twins (None of whom are 'costumed' per se) and through the use of new characters like Kate McClellen, Ben Gallagher and Adam Crown, characters who joined the story AS civilians it allowed the title to tell some quite complex 'super' stories, but without them descending into the standard superhero fare. It struck a rather unique balance in that regard, able to be familiar to the long term Marvel reader when necessary, but ultimately able to tell its own story and to be it's own animal.




The central story of Knights of Pendragon, whilst still grounded in an age old battle between Good and Evil, was also far less two-dimensional than the average superhero yarn. The story establishes a rather clever concept that, throughout history, at times of great threat to the Land, an age old force creates 'Champions'; exceptional men and women which it empowers to fight, on its behalf, for the common good. Be that Arthur's Knights of the Round Table, a costumed Hero in the trenches of World War One, or even a seventeen-year-old Car Wash attendant from East London. The Green Knight, avatar for this force sees the potential in individuals to do great things, that they themselves may not be aware of. It provides them with 'powers' to compliment their own natural instincts and abilities. And that was a deliberate distinction in this first incarnation. These weren't characters who were being given ridiculous, solve-all, God-like powers; as is the trapping of so many traditional Superhero tales. At their roots these were still just ordinary people, thrust into incredibly difficult situations, acting primarily on their own instincts. The power given to them was less of what defined them, and more of an assist in their ongoing calling as protectors of the Land.

I guess, in a certain mindset, you could think of the the whole Pendragon concept as being a little bit like some ancient, mystical, early warning system for the Planet, which detects a threat and applies a solution. But a natural one. Knights of Pendragon presents us with a tales where the bad guy is often Mankind, shepherded by the hand of an age old enemy. It was set in the present, but had very strong themes of returning to simpler times, to a more natural order, and with a strong sense of renewal. It's easy to see why so many people picked up on its more environmental themes. Because there certainly are a good many eco/environmental elements within some of these stories, and quite intentionally so.

Heck, the comic itself was even printed on SCANGLOSS paper, which the inside cover told us used 'half as many trees as normal paper and a minimum amount of chlorine bleach'. A gimmick some might have claimed, and certainly a very 'eco-friendly' concept for 1990. But, as a side note, if I'm honest it's not the gesture itself which impressed me about using that paper stock. It more the fact that coming back to these issues 20 years later, I'm actually very impressed with just how well the SCANGLOSS pages have stood the test of time. A few yellowed edges on the pages of my old copies, but the actual colours on page have remained pretty bold. And certainly far richer than the US market books in my collection, from this period. Call it a gimmick if you like, but maybe it wouldn't have harmed a few other titles to have followed their example?

So anyway, there you have it. Knights of Pendragon. Or as Dan Abnett described the book, on his own Blog, the "eco-superhero-Arthurian comic".

In the next article I shall be starting with issue #1 of the first Volume "Brands and Ashes" discussing the story in more detail.

Should you also wish to read along yourself, I am informed that the long delayed Panini collection of Knights of Pendragon, or at least the first volume thereof, will finally be released shortly. I have heard from others who have now received preview copies, so this time around it actually looks quite promising. Keep an eye out for it in Comic Book stores abd Booksellers here in the UK.

Until the next time.

Mark

5 comments:

  1. I remember the house ads well. They were very striking, and they got me interested in the comic, but I was never able to find it for sale anywhere, so my first experience of KoP was when I tracked down back issues years later, after the horrific second volume and the inevitable cancellation.

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  2. I have to admit that I did not complete my run until many years later, either. Part of the problem with the days before there were proper specialist comic book stores across larger parts of the UK, was that really newsagents were the only places you could get comics. And boy, did newsagents NOT like the US sized books. Even Action Force Monthly, when that went US size. So yes, while I did get the first issue or two I then missed a couple before finding the next few. Then my local newsagent stopped stocking them entirely.

    It was only through Comic Marts and Back Issue bins that I found out how things ended much later into my teens.

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  3. Looking forward to you going through this series (a sort of Sword vs. the Knight), especially as I totally missed this series. Do you know if the Panini reprint will stand alone or be part of their Captain britain series?
    How often are you planning on getting an article up?

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  4. Hi Pompster. The Panini series will stand alone, and (I believe) reprint this series in two volumes. Captain Britain does feature as a guest and supporting character, but this is very much a standalone series.

    The intention at the moment is to do an issue weekly. Although with BICS this weekend that might slide to a week and a half... :)

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  5. Righto Mark, I got about halfway down and you'd persuaded me to buy the first volume (hmm, should we be scattering Amazon buttons around our blogs?). So I'll read that, then come back.

    I have no idea why I ignored KoP at the time, but I'm looking forward to these pieces.

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