In a recent post about Toyo Harada I talked about the order of VALIANT character appearances in the original VALIANT universe from the early 1990s. I thought about it some and decided to piece together three reviews I did of first three original (post-Magnus and Solar) VALIANT properties in their initial arcs as titles.These cover the two hardcovers that the current VALIANT owner released of the classic material, Harbinger: The Beginning and X-O Manowar: Birth, along with the classic first TPB of Rai from the ‘90s. I wrote thsi awhile back so if there are any continuity eras in our current world, it’s because my Infinity Gauntlet is in the shop.
The first page of Harbinger #1 is a splash page, the backdrop is mundane: a traffic jam, trees, a helicopter hovering above, this is the real world, the world that you and I live in, a chaotic world but to a degree we have been able to account for with some sense of false order in our minds — in our world oddities occur, even atrocities and comics in this era would attempt to remind us of these grim elements to attempt to parallel our experiences, but on the first page Harbinger goes a different route, it attempts to instill something so fundamental the word alone was a title of a comic in out industry’s Golden Age, we have multiple characters: boys, girls, canines, even animated twins, that carried the name, and if anything it is what drew us to famous lines like, “look up in the sky, it’s…”. Harbinger, in a time when pubescent and fanciful definitions of grit being passed off as realism were prevalent, appealed to our lost sense, the one that is unique to us — our wonder. From the first page we are thrown into an already fluid story, we are both going somewhere and know that something has already occurred, a bit of a microcosm of the VALIANT Universe that plays all across its own time-line while being linear and occurring in real time, our wonder is not isolated in the now or the future but is in concert with the what has been the initial mystery in just meeting someone who naturally has a past, life does not begin in these initial pages. Above that aforementioned prosaic backdrop and in the direction of the unseen fingers pointing from the ground, a car is flying — and we know immediately we are a part of a story that will touch on places with roads we know and stories that have no use for them.
The title “Harbinger” can relate to a couple of things, one is the simple definition and second, those called Harbingers that embody the former. Essentially, Harbingers were the next turn for humanity, beings of some diverse powers, though for the most part the abilities were dormant. It is also the name of the foundation that will serve as the adversary in the title and the VALIANT universe as a whole — thus it is rather unique in that it’s a comic that could be construed as being named after the antagonists and the fact illustrates the duality of the story if one ever wishes to go beyond the adventures of super-powered teenagers trying to do right while being pursued by a corporation of similar beings who are chasing them. In many ways, the second generation of VALIANT’s line was Peter Stanchek’s story (though there is something to be said about the meta-frame that was Solar) and that of his family. His first family are the group we follow within Harbinger: The Beginning a hardcover released in 2007 by VALIANT Entertainment that reprints issue 0–7 that featured the creative team of Jim Shooter and Dave Lapham. In these pages you will be introduced to family, you will experience the growth of that family, and you will suffer from a loss in that family as we meet a group of kids who had enough troubles finding themselves to begin with. The Harbinger part of VALIANT universe is rather simple in that corporation that recognizes people of ability searches them and collect them to train them in their ability in order to pave the way to a better world that humanity has or will squander. The Harbinger Corporation was founded and is led by one Toyo Harada who in several ways is one the most powerful people on the planet — a statement he makes around the ‘other two’ and none seem inclined to correct him — as his foundation is an economic power and more importantly that he is an Omega Harbinger. Harbingers to this point have come into their power only by their potential being unlocked or activated by an Omega Harbingers. Omega Harbingers are those able to use their abilities by their own will without need of an ‘activation’ and upon finding another like him — Peter Stanchek — it becomes his mission to bring him into the fold. Going back to the duality of the title and how it can be applied, Harada himself is at times a character one can empathize with and in the issues Shooter goes out of his way to illustrate that he and his followers nor only believe they are doing the right thing — but also compares them to the actions of Peter and his friends in a manner that makes the readers view the Harbinger kids as ‘kids’ involved in a rather petty rebellion and not seeing the big picture and on several occasions they arrive to further their ‘goals’ at inopportune times when Harada is indeed trying to handle important matters (like saving the life of a member of his organization). You see the distinction brought into full effect when the character Solar arrives — a real Superhero — and indeed points it out to Peter and the reader. The reason why Harada wants Peter dead is not out of jealousy but he deems him to uncontrolled and a danger and what you get in this title are two powerful individuals who think they are the correct answer but on different level, it’s just that one knows, or rather thinks he knows what the answer implies beyond the question. Harada is effective because in truth he’s consistently the most reasonable, lucid, and rational figure in the title.
The Harbinger kids themselves are a motley band even if familiar archetypes. Pete — aka Sting — the de facto leader, like Harada is one of the most potent individuals on the planet — an Omega Harbinger he has at his disposal psionic abilities that are only rivaled by Harada and his abilities are vast and growing. Faith — aka Zephyr — is one of those quirk that gives the title a unique element. It’s not that her ability is to fly — it’s that she is a tubby kid, a bit of an oddity in an era where all female superheroes had a likely fallback as models, body builders, or porn stars. Charlene — aka Flamingo — is basically the Human Torch and the aforementioned likely future adult star. Kris, who is not a harbinger, but play the role of non-powered foil and also becomes the catalyst of VALIANT legacy characters and John Torkelson — aka Torque — who is the strong guy of the group. Lapham drew these characters and made them look like kids, like people which played into the bigger desire for VALIANT to be and look like the world that is or could be outside of your window. You get a bit of a Claremont-type feel where you just sense multiple plot lines being developed for later fruition — or not — and half the fun is the knowledge of exploring those further but yet you never are taken away from what is a story about teenagers with powers — the plot moves, things happen and like all VALIANT titles they ripple into other books.
If there is an issue for today’s reader concerning Harbinger: The Beginning it is that the dialogue dates itself and not just with particular references to things like Nintendo, but in that it at times doesn’t just forward the story but attempt to aid the art to describe what is occurring as a narrative which seems odd not only due to current readers just don’t need or prefer that anymore as the age — and hopefully comprehension — increases but also because even at this point in his career Lapham is able to tell sequential storytelling without the crutch but you feel what seems to be a Shooter mandate of being very easy assimilation of what is occurring. One would hope and suspect in the event of future incarnation that this will be eliminated but at least for myself it served as what may be the last top shelf example of the way superhero stories used to be told — a reflection of the ’80s MARVEL sensibility brought over by Shooter when he was their Editor-in-Chief for a number of years, but I don’t back-away from the idea that nostalgia plays a role in that, one that isn’t particularly relevant. I do want to point to point out what seems to be an often repeated saying: “there were Image kids and VALIANT kids, you go to Image for the art and if you want well written you go to VALIANT”. Not even to point some quality written titles that had and would come out of IMAGE — this is a statement that I find to be fundamentally incredulous. Who were some people that contributed art to VALIANT? Barry Windsor Smith, Dave Lapham, Frank Miller, Steve Ditko, Bob Layton, Walt Simonson, Joe Quesada — just to name a few. To continue my previous thought however, it does strike a rather unique balance of having layered storylines both within single titles and as a line and it creates a story complexity and drama without being either avant-garde or my least favorite adjective to describe fiction — ‘gritty’. It recognizes ideals exist but certainly does not use that as mold and while there is redemption, there are also permanent prices to pay. This is where the zero issues come to play and while I fully understand the choice of leading off these hardcovers with them, I think they lose a certain nuance — albeit only if you are familiar with the original reading experience — of their power. I think in many ways this order tends to take away from the message the first page of Harbinger #1 offers and I think this applies for any VALIANT title and their zero issue. To be able to go back and see where Pete came from — to see a darkness to him that is not at all abnormal, but is deviant — acting on hormones and issues of control someone his age would have causes one to be able to cast the story they just read in another light. And in my mind simply adds to the story in a manner that it doesn’t when they lead-off the hardcovers. In an interview we can see Shooter thought much the same (at least at that time)
Too many times, especially in comic books, you get the feeling the characters are just hanging around waiting for the story to start. Like they were doing absolutely nothing before this story started and they have no other reason for being than being bitten by the radioactive water buffalo so they can go charging around butting into trucks. So I tried to give the sense that stuff had gone on before. I wanted to try to get people interested in the characters, and also to take through the building of the team. So maybe I didn’t do it very well…my motives were good.”
And people have asked “well why didn’t you do issue #0 as issue #1?” Because issue #0 is really intensive to one character, to Sting. And I felt that if that were the first issue, it wouldn’t be until the third issue or so that they’d really be a team. No, let me start further down the pike, and come back and fill that in. I mean, isn’t that how people really are? If you meet someone, you know what’s going on NOW, and sometime later, in a bar or something you’re sitting there talking and you find out how they got that way. I mean I’ve done it both ways. I’ve started with the origin and moved on, and I’ve started in the middle. The goal is to make these characters come alive and be as real to everyone as they are to us. There’s probably a lot of ways to get there.”
Given that, for myself these early Harbinger issues represent a point where the last time a throw-back superhero team book was arguably the best (superhero) book on the market and it dwells in and may be the sole representative of the transition from 1980’s MARVEL storytelling and what would we would now call modern storytelling employed by people like Johns and Bendis in books pointed at the mainstream comic reader and in some ways represent the best of both worlds while carrying some baggage from the former and less refinement of the latter that may actually (as noted above) a refinement of the reader and for this achieves a charming quality but not to the depths where it has to become a guilty pleasure.
The new material in the collection is The Origin of Harada and is new material written by Shooter and penciled by Bob Hall. It is a rather effective ending to a collection in some way speaks to the zero issue being used first as using the two Omega’s as bookends to a presentation. This is essentially the first new real VALIANT material in over a decade and by real VALIANT, this reviewer means VALIANT through Unity and perhaps a year beyond with some titles — as one simply can’t deny Barry Windsor Smith’s Archer and Armstrong which was post Unity — and was simply a striking 8-page story that is a no frills yet haunting eight pager that has relevance to readers old and new. and like the first page of the first issue, Shooter again gets it — stories are based on questions and what’s revealed contradicts information in this very review and also reinforces what is probably Shooter’s original vision of Harada that may have been deviated from when he was ousted from the company.
Harbinger: The Beginning is a story of life evolved, not of the day after, two days — these are the children of the eighth day, of this world as sure as those of the sixth day but like those they would have to succeed and suffer through a world that’s evolution not only was represented by them, but hinged on them. To call Harbinger the X-Men of VALIANT has some accuracy to it on the surface even to the point that their arch-nemesis , Magneto, is also an antagonist that has the quality of being reasonable and both deal with a group who may represent the next step in evolution but they are also much like the VALIANT’s Fantastic Four, in that they are our first family and where titles like Solar, Magnus and Rai set the stage and were top shelf stories in their own right and served as our introduction to a new line and world to explore, it was Harbinger that turned visitors and tourist into inhabitants — it was the ground we needed to settle on while we watched stories of far future invasions and when spectators became participants. To this day VALIANT fans may at times visit Gotham or look up at New York City skylines and catch a glimpse of a webslinger, but we do so reading from the comfort of our home, a place where wonder still stirs — where faith can fly.
Rai: VALIANT First True Born Son
VALIANT as a universe began with the Solar: Man of the Atom and Magnus: Robot Fighter, two former Gold Key titles given new life and chosen to draw the first breath in a universe that would in its early years rival the creative height any other company — large or small — would reach. It is against our nostalgic sensibilities to makes such claims, but there is a magic to early VALIANT, gee-whiz science fiction tinged explorative work operating on marvel wonder that still catered to our sense of the reality around us. With VALIANT it was a universe; and featured a not always linear manner of storytelling but still fit with a tight continuity and if Magnus and Solar were the lungs that initiated breath in the setting with two era-essential storylines (Steel Nation and Alpha and Omega respectively), then RAI was its heart.
I wasn’t able to get these books when I was younger as when I became aware of the top-notch storytelling the prices of VALIANT back issues simply exceeded my weekly allowance. VALIANT was on fire, and caught in the speculator boom of the early 90’s when coupled with a minuscule print runs really priced these out of my range excluding reading about them in Wizard Magazine, cementing spots in their Top Ten hottest comics (this was when Wizard was a comic book magazine and practiced some form of journalism in its pages) feature.
This TPB collects and chronicles the first four issues of Rai, the first major original VALIANT character, as well as the pivotal to the entire universe issue #0. These do not account for his first appearance as they would occur in the pages of Magnus as the secondary story in a flip-book format in that title. It is there where the story of Magnus and Rai joining forces to defeat an alien invasion was chronicled, a victory that’s ramifications would include the country of Japan to be cast into the atmosphere orbiting the earth and its god-like patron to depart for love. Japan now floating above the rest of the world, not cut off but instead just serving a Tokugawa-like, symbolic and active isolationism but also has the more immediate impact on the central character. One cannot even pretend there has been no change, you live in the same place but the horizon seems different — it is gone — and you cannot run from it, there is no place to go and Rai would not want to but the comfort of knowing you can is a unknown presence you are not alerted to until it is no longer an option.
Japan Floats in Space.I float in Japan.
Which of us is more Alone?
Rai is the traditional guardian of Japan, a responsibility of blood that served Grandmother — the robot that effectively maintained and managed the country. Their robo-obachan lost, Japan enters a scared new world and the symbol of the old world is going through personal crisis, he finds himself without a master, a ronin, and left without someone to dictate his cause he is forced to confront his identity not just a role. He struggles to find his place in a civil war, in his family, in the world he helped save. The people of Japan are shown to be in two rival social-political camps during this transition period and the country is in involved in a civil war between what could be considered the legitimate government, a government of the people, ran by humanity for humanity and that of those who yearn and try to facilitate the return of their mechanical god. It is all however, not so simplistic — yet certainly fundamentally — at the heart of it all are just individuals who seek power for themselves. What is left is a country that doesn’t know which to embrace more; its past, present, or future, a dilemma that is personified and magnified in Rai’s personal life by his father (the previous Rai), his wife, and his infant son. We see choices and not too subtle political and social options played out, we see the development of a drug culture and how one governs individual self and how to fit that into government. In the end you can’t help anyone or stand for anything until you are satisfied with doing either for yourself.
It is an interesting project for Micheline who probably has more quality runs on several glamour titles than anyone who is not more of a household name, having helmed classic Iron Man work with Bob Layton that’s probably the definitive run for many not to mention being the writer during Spider-Man run that saw the creation of Venom that was also the mega-popular McFarlane Amazing Spiderman era. He offers an unfixed view of Rai, VALIANT readers had already been introduced to him, and while he is clearly a noble-hearted figure at his core he does not offer him to us on a pedestal, we make our choice, as Rai himself does. There’s a lot of Silver Surfer in Rai. As a reader, it wouldn’t be an unfair observation to label Rai’s personal struggle to border on incessantly whiny and bordering on annoyance on par with the worse examples that occur currently in comics, you find yourself wanting him to take any advice just to give him a direction — we pity him, we are annoyed of him, we root for him, and before we know it, we care. In many ways he is Peter without Ben, with power and conscious of responsibility but not the direction or anchor mimicked by his free floating nation.
The art for the first four issues was supplied by Joe St. Pierre and the third issue sports one of the great covers of that decade, a traditional beast created with a future technology attempting to swallow Rai whole. While VALIANT certainly had high profile (or those that would become such) and even legendary figures working for them in various degrees like Steve Ditko, Barry Windsor-Smith, Frank Miller, Dave Lapham, Bob Layton, Dave Lapham, Rags Morales, Sean Chen, Bart Sears, Joe Quesada, Bart Sears, Paul Gulacy among others, their early accomplishment was a brand of storytelling that seems almost a vintage novelty in today’s market: that art and writing combined to make a greater whole — the story. The art tells a story, it’s not just splash art around dialogue; it’s a synergy between two skills to craft story, the very essence comic books and the first issues of Rai like the rest of the Pre-Unity VALIANT aren’t only worthwhile reads but also combines with the others to create a unique corner in the medium that represent the most impressive attempt at a superhero universe outside of the big two.
Which brings us to a weakness in the TPB. Understanding and applying it as a piece — a significant piece — of the tapestry, it’s a fundamental cog in a project that’s whole is better than the parts. RAI #1–4 are real nice reads, but isn’t going to floor you, it is part of a greater dream. The VALIANT fan cherishes the pieces with the benefit of the image of the whole picture, and no matter how nice some won’t be able to appreciate a piece of the frame completely especially how the fourth issue ends. What you get in Rai is not only the next piece in the grand scheme but you get the contrast with the Magnus character, two that are as close to being reflections of each other but are still opposites.
Holy blood, holy grail…
The VALIANT universe was rendered to readers via titles that were published simultaneously at two different parts of the timeline, present day (and in real time) and in the far future (4001). The blood of a future Rai is one of and perhaps the most significant binding element of the two threads, as the remnants of the nanotech that resided in a character of the present day VALIANT setting, a former mob hitman Bloodshot, through history will be over what wars were fought for and why revolutions would begin and affect entire generations of the VALIANT universe. It became a real sangreal and openly desired by one of the most powerful men on earth, Toyo Harada whose corporation would come to control the majority of the world and himself was an Omega Harbinger, a being of almost unsurpassed natural ability and power — and one of the two or three most potent minds not just in the world, but in its history. The last arc of the collection is Rai #0, a time jumping mosaic piece that tells the story of the Blood of Heroes. We witness heroes fall and heroes born, legacies earned and lost, and of familial bonds that spanned centuries. It is a piece that is often the subject of differing opinions and represented a transition period for the company’s creative infrastructure, for myself, however, it remains the fulcrum, an issue that echoes the greatness that was and a view — even if fractured and tainted — of what could have been, an issue on reflection that is a memorial of VALIANT’s rising sun in the process of burning out. Still hot — but not the light in the industry it once was.
VALIANT Spaced Barbarian — X-O Manowar: Birth
Some may know I’m a big fan of VALIANT comics and as I of late I have been rereading the early VALIANT titles, which is not to say — at least not limited to — that I am just enjoying the individual origins and exploits of great characters. No, the creative goal of most companies is only half of the obligation, only a portion of the mandate cast upon a Pre-Unity title. With VALIANT, every title, every arc, every issue has significance and relevance. How do we gauge this? The answer to this question is muddled by how we have come to gauge what is important in comics. VALIANT is not just an umbrella brand, it is more than a unifying selling point for otherwise an in cohesive product — VALIANT is a true comic universe. Certainly such a product demands more of the readers, and investment, or invitation to walk a world full of lives, not just in one; where one can brush up against others and the effect will still be applicable not just a month after. It is not the history dissected into runs or creative teams — it is the history of the entirety of the universe and the footsteps left by characters.
So when we read X-O Manowar #1, part one of Retribution, you, even if unknowingly, are not only introduced, but become a participant not in a single life, but a world through his eyes. What shouldn’t be lost is this: it’s about an ass kicking Visigoth barbarian living in our time with who happens to have sweet, semi-sentient, alien suit of armor that makes one Aric Dacia one of the most powerful men on earth that forgot him. It — like the universe it inhabits — is a measured mixture of reality and pulp sensibilities. The first page looks to be something that could have been discussed at a meeting with the Lovecraft Circle or seen in the pages of 1920’s Weird Tales, something Edgar Rice Burroughs may have enjoyed flipping through; a splash of a single man going toe to toe with spider-like monsters, some of which who carry guns in backdrop from a technological level feels much too advanced for either and has you asking who is being invaded who? You come to find out that the man is a displaced barbarian, abducted from his time by a technologically advanced alien race that are a fixture in the VALIANT universe, present in some fashion for thousands of years in the continuity. Aric Dacia spends several years as a slave most of which in a stasis and when we join him in his attempt at escape, a rush to an alien weapon, an armor and a ring, that he has been told will grant him the ability to leave the prison. The X-O Manowar armor is the pride of the Spider Alien’s military development and thus when taken by the enemy become their greatest fear. It leaves, now in the possession of a man who has a history of violence and upholding vendettas. How long a history would surprise even Aric, as he plummets home, to earth, where it’s now 1992.
These opening issues show us a man trapped out of his time, yet the keeper of an armor that’s technology that is before its time. Aric has gone from a warrior amongst many in the 5th century to arguably one of the most powerful individuals on the planet and that’s before via hostile take over, he achieves controlling interest in a powerful corporation. There is a simplistic quality or plainness to the narrative that in some regard may be overdone, I’d like to think humanity didn’t have a personal train of thought of a retard even in the 5th century, but I think for the most part conveys, before you are even told that his is not you or me — yet he is — in true VALIANT fashion we are thrust into a story that not only has more to come, but is already the culmination of an as of yet untold story. We assimilate the new environment with Aric; to him he is in a foreign land of wizards and magic, where he as if a member of Arthur’s court visited Hank Morgan instead. Aric becomes a target, even as he always perceives himself as the ultimate predator, he is the true wolf, and indeed in wolf’s clothing, yet still a perceived sheep in a world that has passed him by. The Aliens on earth — able to disguise themselves — want their armor back and perhaps even more of a threat he garners the attention of other powers in the world.
I have said this before but the VALIANT Universe’s continuity — the portion of which that took place in our time — is chronicled in real ‘time’. Toyo Harada, the head of the Harbinger Foundation and one of the most powerful men in the world even if he wasn’t an Omega Harbinger first perceives Aric as a threat then see’s the possibilities of being his ally, we see the cast from the Harbinger title — a group dedicated to stopping Harada also take an interest in Aric due to his communication with Toyo. Solar appears; VALIANT’s most powerful character leaving a warning in true hero fashion. In short we witness convergence of powers, a reaction to another extraordinary element added to the world — X-O Manowar. What must be understood is that the VALIANT Universe is meant to be our own world, where its inhabitants may be reading DC and Marvel comics. What is also a rather unique VALIANT technique, and illustrated in this issue span (issue#4) is the unheralded first appearance of a future major player in the universe. In an era associated with the speculative boom, and certainly VALIANT practiced in some of the more undesirables flair associated with it, this was the best gimmick: When I say unheralded, I mean no crazy banners, no audacious or obnoxious billboard covers advertising it — they give you a reason to read their books, and in the future, the promises revealed occur in-page, not on the cover or final page, and be it days or months later it affords the reader that special, almost now unheard of opportunity to think, “Oh shit, the books I read before really matter”, and it was planned, not a retcon, it was creative not clever manipulation. In the case in this issue you literally just have to sit back and enjoy the ambiance and just listen to the music.
Now do not mistake me, these issue don’t force you to buy other titles to get a complete story to then decide whether the first one was worthwhile or not — it instead genuinely makes you want to explore the other titles, other corners, to follow that glimpse. It appeals to our curiosity. Who were those crazy kids in that ugly green car and why did they jump me? If I want to find out I can go read Harbinger — but for now Aric has more important things to do like getting his pimp game on at Mardi Gras. It’s so not superhero-comic like yet completely rational to our main street sensibilities, we don’t question it, we just love it.
We also see that Aric is not a “hero” at this point, he certainly has a moral compass and belief system, but it is from his time. Aric may go out and bring back somebody’s head — without the body — you see him make gaffs and his frustration as he assimilates our language and modern customs but he draws apt parallels; muggers are bandits, and again we see those instances that keep us grounded. In true comic fashion he foils an ambush and promises vengeance but what does he do next? He has to rest — the tranquility of the moment exhibits that this is what Aric has done his whole life — X-O Armor or not. You are able to use panels to showcases this when you are committed to the atmosphere by expressing it in the pages. His rite of passage, his understanding will take him where many of us thought to go in our own youth, in our own exploration of a brave new world, where stage names are given to performers on stage not to men or women in spandex.
The zero issue was actually released around the same time as the 19th issue yet can be read prior to the regular series. Personally, I prefer reading it after the first 6 issues I this case as it takes us to the activities just prior to the first page of the first issue and offers Aric in his own time, the birth of his rage, where in a short turbulent time span, Aric will change faiths, witness Roman demons, and find himself the prisoner of Aliens. It does not answer all the questions, but it attempts to, even finally telling us the fate of the King.
A man lost in time, given something beyond him, a suit of kick ass armor, alien invasions, the rise of powerful Global Corporations exerting influence in our world, a barbarian warrior, these are elements any functional semi-aware person has seen or experienced in fiction or in the real world, but much in the way they took two, storied, pre-existing characters in Magnus and Solar to be the foundation of their new Universe, it is the application and the editorial sensibilities that make it work. There is a distinct science flavor to the universe that one would comically think and is contradicted by being ran amok by a mixture of iconic pulp facsimiles’, Conan finding Cobra La tech, yet what occurs is this fascinating place — our own world, and the exploration of it from as many diverse perspectives as possible. I feel like the first family on Yancy Street in 1964, stalking down familiar but fictionalized roads, I know where I am, but something else is out there, watching, fighting, and drawing the same breath as me.
I’m holding mine for the hope for more, not just looking up in the sky, but in the corporate board room, the Jazz filled bar, the strip club, central park, N’awlins, stories can come from anywhere, and with the early issues of X-O Manowar, VALIANT tried to take us there.