The Evil Lord Vladek (Concept)
Mood pitch for "LEGO FUTURE KNIGHTS"
My very first job out of art school was working in LEGO's Concept Lab in Los Angeles in 2002, and my very first big job in Concept Lab was cooking up ideas for LEGO FUTURE KNIGHTS, which would eventually become the LEGO's Knights Kingdom line of 2004-2006.
As we were leaving work one night in early 2003, the boss asked us to take a look at the prototype FUTURE KNIGHTS characters, see if we could make them look cool, and bring in sketches for the following morning. I knocked out the above image overnight, and it ended up landing me the job as main illustrator for Knights Kingdom for the next several years.
(The other guys in the group left LEGO shortly thereafter and each became hollywood bigshots in their fields, while I stayed behind to draw toys all day, so maybe the joke was on me.)
This wasn't the final design for the Vladek character - FUTURE KNIGHTS was originally targeted at ages 9+. As LEGO gradually toned down the first-year launch all the way to a 6+ (and briefly, a terrifying 5+), we lost the harsh lighting, tribal armor decals, jagged weaponry, and image texture in favor of a more first-grade-friendly style. Still, this original Vladek is my favorite.
Lion Castle (King's Version)
Scorpion Castle (Vladek's Version)
The early playset concept called for a transforming castle (met with endless "it transforms into a building?" quotes from Big), so in another overnight job I mocked up a quick animation in Maya and did paintovers of the start and end frames. (You can even see an early version of Sir Danju in the "good" castle - he originally wore gold rather than purple armor, until the kids in the market research groups kept insisting that gold armor made him the king of the other knights.)
While the totem animals for Vladek (the scorpion) and all the knights (hawk, wolf, bear, and monkey) had already been decided, the king was still animal-free. I think this lion-themed castle was where his totem animal was decided. Not that it was a big stretch - LEGO being a Danish company, the kings have always been lions, so it was mostly inevitable.
Once again, the age reduction (to a generous 7+ rather than the 6+ of other sets in the line) meant we couldn't make the model this advanced, although it would have been awesome. We toned it down to what eventually became the transforming Castle of Morcia, which went on to win some of the highest awards offered by the toy industry.
LEGO 8781 Castle of Morcia
Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Award
Children's Choice Award
by Canadian Toy Testing Council, 2004
Toy of the Year Award 2005 (Boys category)
for LEGO Knights' Kingdom by the Toy Industry Association
As the Knights Kingdom theme shaped up for its 2004 release, it quickly turned into one of the most story-driven lines LEGO had ever made (a fact that led to an unusual mention in Dragon magazine that summer), and so I got tasked with drafting up story illustrations to include with each of the Knights "Constraction" figures and minifigure playsets. The style went over so well that we ended up making a series of trading cards to follow up; this turned into an adventure when the design agency we hired to assist dropped the job completely two weeks before the print deadline.
Luckily I went to an art school whose students pride themselves on the lack of any sense of self-preservation, and so I called up Jessica Lo, Eugenia Chen
, and Jeff Nentrup
, and we banged out the eighty trading card illustrations in the space of two weeks, though it almost killed a couple of us. These three continued to lend support through the rest of the Knights Kingdom run through 2006.
2004 Trading Card Illustrations
#1: Jayko the Swift
May or may not be related to Heath Ledger's character from A Knight's Tale
#22: Santis's Home
Just helping out on the Santis family farm
#74: Danju's Citadel Challenge
Are skulls... bad??
#48 King Mathias's Sword
Compare to Legends of Chima's King Lagravis, eight years later
#15: Danju's Wisdom
Dirt, nature's original Wacom tablet
#40: Vladek's Ambition
It's not a proper evil plan unless you stab it
#51: The Guardian
You shall not pass
#70: Tournament Arena
Image rejected for implied swordfighting
#19: Santis the Strong
What are they putting in that wheat
#12: Danju's Past
Danju is a child of privilege, like Bruce Wayne minus the dead parents.
#30: Rascus's Past
Rascus leaves his stage troupe because "the ladies always would prefer a knight to a poor actor!"
Truly a hero for our times.
There are no female characters in the entire Knights Kingdom product line.
#13: Danju's Tales
Danju's favorite way to spend time is gathering everyone together to talk about himself.
#47: King Mathias
King Mathias won the throne in the previous Grand Tournament.
For the new Grand Tournament, he changed the prize
to "Definitely Not The Throne"
#24: Santis's Strength
Do you even lift portcullises, bro
#42: The Book of Morcia
Vladek's power comes from a book. The message is clear: toys are good, reading is evil
#31: Rascus's Home
Rascus's trading cards are the only place women appear in any Knights Kingdom product or media.
The only job available for women in the Kingdom of Morcia is being impressed by Rascus.
#57: Shadow Knights
There were no action figures for the Shadow Knights, so I got to make up their helmets from scratch.
In the playsets, the minifigure Shadow Knights got a barbute helmet based on the scorpion-mask design - my first
official minifigure accessory!
2004 Constraction Figure Storybook Pages
LEGO was still new to the art of story IPs, and the Knights storyline didn't communicate itself especially well through the toys. For later lines like Chima and Ninjago, we wised up and paired them with animated TV series, but for Knights we relied on wordless comics and crossed our fingers. The constraction figure story pages were added to the end of the instruction booklets in the constratction figure sets, with a couple of unique pages for each character.
Why even hire a Grand Vizier except for sudden inevitable betrayals
Have Fun Storming the Citadel
Generic arduous journey playsets not included
Okay, but who's going to reset that boulder for the next group
Master of super acrobatics! Your challenge is: some plants
Scaling the walls
IT'S A TRAP
Solving the Puzzle
Like a fantasy medieval Batman
But will it blend
Better Axe Fast
The penitent man kneels. And dives, and does a forward roll
Too Many Challenges
Extra challenges not included
The Grand Tournament
All that trouble just to cheat at sports
The Heart of the Shield
Jayko isn't allowed to beat Vladek with his sword. He can only win by reflecting his evil magic back at him.
This is because LEGO is opposed to using violence to solve problems.
The Award Ceremony
Each knight had their own version of this scene.
You'd think for all the work Vladek put in, the reward
for winning the Grand Tournament would be the crown and not just some random medals.
2004 Minifigure Playset Storybook Pages
The minifigure comics were added to the ends of the playset instruction books, with a greater focus on the playest-focused parts of the story. By combining the playset and constraction figure comics, you could get a schizophrenic version of the complete story.
Vladek Transforms the Castle
My castle would have been pretty cool though
No respect for authority, these knights
A Wild Catapult Appears
Back before all LEGO themes had to include robots, all LEGO themes had to include catapults. Kids love catapults
We were under no circumstances allowed to show heroes hitting people with swords, because that's violent. We got around this by smashing them with boulders.
The whole reason we needed all these comics was to explain the Citadel and its death traps
The Heart of the Shield
The Heart of the Shield, the focus of the 2004 story and all the heroes' ambitions - but we ran out of element printing budget so it just ended up a plain orange disc
The Grand Tournament
This is the part before the weird jousting on wheeled horses*.
* Decisively not pictured.
Jayko Remembers the Whole Point of the Quest
No swordfighting allowed, so we had to figure out how to beat opponents with a shield
Rascus and Santis Adventures
For web-based and magazine promos, rascally Rascus and serious Santis made the perfect comedy pair. They'd become better friends in 2005, but Santis spent all of 2004 wishing he was in comics with Danju instead.
The Lunch Sack
A dark monkey steals the heroes' sack. Rascus gives the monkey Santis's lunch.
In 2005, Lord Vladek collected enough pieces of the shattered Shield of Ages to create the evil Vlad Mask, making him and his armies invincible. King Mathias gave the hero Knights magic armor to compensate, and the quest was on to lay siege to Vladek's realm of Ankoria (seen briefly on President Business's map in the LEGO Movie, east of Bricksburg and north of the Forest of Obsolete Products) and destroy the Mask. Knights' Kingdom 2005 was the darkest Castle theme since 1997's LEGO Fright Knights.
2005 Trading Card Illustrations
With no new characters to introduce, 2005's trading cards focused on the fortifications and siege engines of the playtheme, and the constraction figures' new twist-action sword and shield attacks, some of which resisted explanation.
#84: Sir Jayko
Jayko's messenger hawk pal didn't appear in any product or set
#92: Sir Santis's New Armor
Santis's special move is to get his shield out of the way of his own powerful blow
#102: Elite Shadow Knights
The Elite Shadow Knights' armor is enchanted with the power of the Vladmask. Now that they're protected from all damage, we were finally allowed to show the heroes engaged in entirely ineffective sword combat.
#87: Sir Danju
His dirt scribbling skills have improved: now with arrows
#96: King Mathias
King Mathias's job in 2005 was to lay siege to Vladek's Dark Fortress, keeping the armies of darkness occupied while the heroes threw the Ring into Mount Doom and / or destroyed the Vladmask.
#90: Sir Santis
This is the aftermath of a story from the comics. The knights can't hurt anyone with swords, so Santis smashes a (non-Elite) Shadow Knight with a barrel before committing grand theft prison cart.
#95: Sir Rascus's New Armor
Rascus's special move ia an "incredible new attack/defend move to confuse any opponent."
#82: Vladek's Dark Fortress
The crowning glory of the 2005 line and the largest LEGO flagship castle set up to that point, Vladek's Dark Fortress marked a new era in LEGO castles in both size and sophistication. (I bought twelve.)
#86: Sir Jayko's New Armor
Jayko's special move is to "strike with his sword and shield at the same time!"
#83: Scorpion Prison Cave
Jayko's magic armor increases his super-speed to supernatural levels, a powerful ability that lets him defeat the Scorpion Prison single-handed. It is then completely forgotten in the final battle.
#89: Sir Danju's New Armor
While the other Knights' armor enhances their existing superpowers, Danju's allows him to "master the incredible twisting-sweep attack!"
#98: King Mathias's New Armor
The King's armor gives him the unstoppably generic power of "great skills with a sword and shield."
Only the best is good enough for the king of Morcia.
2005 Comic Storyline
2005's storyline was told through more playtheme and constraction figure comics panels, supplemented by more traditional full-page comics in LEGO Club Magazine. This year, the Knights' job was to infiltrate Vladek's realm, discover his plan, and breach his impregnable fortress before defeating him in final sword-to-sword combat.
King Mathias Discovers Vladek's Plan
Mathias has Vladek's magic book from 2004, but he mostly just uses it to keep an eye on Vladek
The Heroes Meet Vladek's Army
But Danju has a plan: classic arrow-based pincer movement
Grand Theft Prison Cart
Rascus distracts the bad guys and Santis hits them with a barrel. I love it when an unnecessarily convoluted plan comes together
The Heroes Locate Vladek's Fortress
Good thing Jayko will have an unexplained messenger falcon later on to deliver this map. You'd think the king could have figured out the location from his magic scrying, but here we are
Sneaking Past the Shadow Knight Army
Play it cool, horse
The Jig is Up
Danju, playing the role of medieval Batman again, lets himself get captured in order to get close to the boss
Classic villain mistake. Vladek puts Danju in a deathtrap and tells him the whole secret plan: a giant Vladmask to magically make the Shadow Knights invulnerable to all damage
Jayko Learns to Delegate
I'll find Danju, you guys go crack open the new largest LEGO Castle set ever released
Super Speed Saves the Day
In the time between the trap door opening and Danju starting to fall, Jayko defeats the giant scorpion and all the soldiers using super speed.
Meanwhile, Rascus and Santis discover a loose grate in Vladek's fortress foundations.
Rascus spent all of 2004 driving Santis crazy, but faced with this many opponents, the time has come to set japery aside and become true bros.
Lowering the Drawbridge
Classic strongman move. The chains holding up the drawbridge are no match for Santis's super strength.
The Royal Army Advances
Looks like they were already full speed ahead even before Jayko's map arrived. Good thing they were going the right direction.
The king is using 2004's Heart of the Shield to protect the royal army from Vladek's catapults.
The Siege Begins
Santis gets the drawbridge down just in time for the royal army's arrival.
The king and Jayko crest the ramparts thanks to LEGO Castle Knights' Kingdom II King's Siege Tower (8875). The king tosses the Heart of the Shield to Jayko to let him face Vladek directly.
Danju Leads the Charge
It was at this point in the story we realized Danju didn't have anything to do in the siege, so at the last minute we decided to let him take command of the ground forces as they stormed the drawbridge.
Rascus and Santis Protect the King
Without the Heart of the Shield to protect him, it suddenly seems like a tactical error to send the king to conquer the ramparts entirely by himself.
Jayko Destroys the Mask
Jayko and Vladek are both magically invulnerable and swordfighting is getting them nowhere. Luckily Jayko is able to duck and weave and attack the Vladmask instead. The tower explodes, Vladek is defeated, and Mathias decides kingship is for the birds.
Rascus and Santis Adventures II
They may be bros now, but that doesn't stop Rascus from continuing to torment Santis. I got to give a brief Knights Kingdom Q&A session to the fans in December 2005, and I drew this scene up as a quick process demo.
Note especially the face of the bear on Santis's chest - I tried to work that expression into as many LEGO comics as I could during my first couple of years. At some point it became the official LEGO symbol for getting shot in the face
Do You Even Gift, Bro
Rascus prototypes a new sword attack: MISTLEFOE. With friends like these, who needs Vladek?
In 2006, Jayko was now King Jayko with a new generation of knights to train: Sir Kentis the Stallion, master of medieval kung fu, and Sir Adric the Bull, master of bashing through obstacles. Lord Vladek, meanwhile, was deprived of his Shadow Knights and had to rely on two new Rogue Knights: the cruel Dracus the Dragon, and the sneaky Karzon the Snake.
(These "sneak peek" cards from 2004 were added at the last minute and painted by Jeff at the end of two long sleep-deprived weeks.)
Writing Checks We Can't Cash
What was the intended payoff for all this foreshadowing? No one knows
In 2004, the Knights Kingdom story managers tried to give themselves a little job security by writing up cards promising upcoming story developments. It didn't work - LEGO declined to renew their contracts, and nobody knew what we were supposed to do with this Sorcerer, Gargoyles, and Rogue Knights foreshadowing.
Like most of LEGO's home-grown IPs, Knights' Kingdom was only designed to last three years before being replaced with a fresher playtheme (although the popularity of Bionicle and Ninjago forced LEGO to make some exceptions). 2006 was the year to tie off all these loose ends, and so Vladek got some Rogue Knights, the Sorcerer was trapped in a crystal on the Mistlands Tower, and the Gargoyles were reduced to two bitey heads guarding a bridge. Not exactly what the cards foretold, but Knights Kingdom wasn't a flagship theme anymore in its third year, and our resources were limited.
Knights Kingdom 2006's illustrations were limited to the constraction comics. There were trading cards, but they just re-used the package renders, and there were no playtheme comics, despite an awesome boat.
Okay But That Boat Though
Far and away, my favorite part of the 2006 line was Dracus's ship, the 8821 Rogue Knight Battleship
, despite being a relatively bare-bones 100-piece boat in a tiny set. Junk-rigged dhows are my favorite style of ship, bar none; we'd see the same idea fully realized in 2013 in the LEGO Lord of the Rings set 79008 Pirate Ship Ambush
. In both cases, these are bad guy's ships; LEGO Castle hasn't yet evolved past that regressive fantasy trope where you know the good guys are good because they're all generically Western European and you know the bad guys are bad because they pull from all the generically "oriental" stereotypes in the most offensive sense of the word.
Cringeworthy cultural baggage aside, junk-rigged dhows are awesome. For some great examples, see Seth Engstrom's production designs for Dreamworks' Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)
Dhow's It Going
Yes, I know the lines are run completely wrong for these sails. Googling this stuff wasn't as easy back in 2005.
8821 Rogue Knight Battleship (2006)
The other great thing about this ship is that it's a callback to the 6057 Sea Serpent
, an iconic ship from LEGO's 1992 Castle line belonging to the Black Knights faction. Like Dracus, the Black Knights were dragon-themed rogue knights; the printed dragons on their shields are roughly identical to the molded dragon on Dracus's, and the characteristic crenellated forecastle and poop deck and the dual steering oars of the Black Knights are repeated on Dracus's ship. The major update, of course, is the use of dragon wings for sails, rather than just the dragon heraldry printed on a square-rig sail. The Black Knights would gradually evolve into the Dragon Knights in 1993 and 1994, and Dracus the Dragon Rogue Knight is their apparent heir.
Boardgames, Video Games, and Storybooks
All of my Knights Kingdom artwork was work for hire without limitation, which meant that LEGO could re-use the artwork in any way they wanted - in no time my work was all over board games, video games, and storybooks, although I usually didn't find out until years later. LEGO has no process in place to let employees know how or whether their work is used; you either see it on a store shelf the next year or you don't. (For instance, I only found out I have a Game Boy Advance game
fifteen years later in 2019 in the middle of writing this paragraph.)
What Is Even Going On Here
A LEGO board game by... Mega Bloks???
LEGO Knights' Kingdom for Game Boy Advance
If they're Nintendo characters, that means they can show up in Super Smash Bros
LEGO's choice of licensing partners wasn't always the best. They licensed the Knights Kingdom board game out to RoseArt right as the company was being bought up by our archnemeses at Mega Bloks. The result was a disaster that ended up on a bunch of BoardGameGeek's "worst games of all time
" lists, a mishmashed pastiche of copy-pasted elements of my art mixed with other artists' attempts to copy it. (I don't know who did that Jayko on the cover, but those parts are not
LEGO standard.) After spending my whole childhood dreaming of breaking into tabletop games, that's how I got my first board game credit.
For the children's books, on the other hand, we made the insightful decision to partner with Scholastic instead of choosing a rival company actively invested in our destruction.
For the 2004 line, the children's book illustrations were handled by Mada Design Inc., with a distinctive art style of their own. A year later, at the grocery store, I passed a bargain bin full of remaindered books and saw the new 2005 titles. This time the art was 90% pasted out of my 2005 constraction comics, with only an occasional filler piece by Mada. And that's how I discovered I was now a published children's book illustrator, in the deli section at Ralph's.
And so for 2006 I signed up to do the filler pieces myself and avoid that jarring style mismatch.
Towards the end of the year, Scholastic released the Battle for Morcia Magnetic Adventure Book with the characters as detachable magnets and the pages as the illustrations' empty backgrounds for the magnets to adventure in. With no words anywhere in the book, my name was the only book credit, and for years, through no effort of my own, I was listed as a published author at some of the big booksellers. Most of them have corrected it now, and the author is listed as "Scholastic" if it's listed at all, but there are still a few holdouts
Vladek at the Forge
Vladek's lost his book and his Vladmask, but it looks like he managed to steal one of King Mathias's scryballs from 2005.
Sir Adric and Sir Kentis
Danju doesn't even know what to do with these guys. But newly-crowned King Jayko does: ROAD TRIP!
Nobody Suspects a Thing
This seems like a long journey to go on foot. Nobody rides horses anymore in 2006
If Dracus is descended from the Black Knights in 6057 Sea Serpent, Karzon is the inheritor of 4735 Slytherin. Nobody tell J.K. Rowling.
Big Bad Vlad
Jayko's got to be getting real tired of this guy by now.
Chew on This
Putting that knight fu to work
Wait We Forgot About Vladek
That guy just keeps coming back
Karzon's Sneaky Battering Ram
Karzon's big defining character trait is his sneaky stealth, always striking from the shadows with cunning traps and ambushes. To really drive this point home, the obvious thing to do was to have him surfing on top of a giant battering ram made out of his own face.
Random Axe of Destruction
Placing the constraction figures into the minifigure set piece leads to funny scale issues when so many elements of the minifigure-scale set are the same ones on the constraction-scale figures. Karzon's mask is the same element as the head of the battering ram, and Adric's axe is the same element as the giant bridge destroying axes.
It's kind of like when Tony Stark puts on his Iron Man suit just to climb into a bigger Iron Man suit.
The Mysterious Blacksmith
For the heroes, the point of all this adventuring was to find this legendary blacksmith who can re-forge the pieces of the Shield That Was Broken.
Vladek Keeps Building Stuff
As far as LEGO values go, Vladek is the real hero of this story: rather than fighting, he solves his problems by building stuff. In this case, a deadly sawblade launcher.
And Now There's an Evil Crystal
While the heroes quested up the Mistlands Tower to re-forge the Shield of Ages, the bad guys are here to break this crystal ball and free the evil Sorcerer. The Sorcerer never got his chance to shine in the Knights Kingdom theme, but later came back as LEGO Universe's Darkitect.
Unbreaking the Egg
Vladek breaks the Sorcerer's prison, but luckily King Jayko and his Knights are on the scene with the reforged Shield of Ages. They combine powers to create a new crystal prison that now traps Vladek as well. Could it be that the Heart of the Shield has been powered by imprisoned evil sorcerers all along? A little dark for LEGO.
There's That Blacksmith Again
At the end of the story, King Jayko notices that the ancient statue of King Orlan looks just like the Blacksmith of Mistlands Tower, finally solving a mystery that was never introduced and that no one was wondering about.