The Delinquents: A Beginner’s Guide To ‘Divinity’ And ‘Unity’
Valiant Comics‘ shared superhero universe is smaller and less familiar than those of its major rivals, but even a small shared universe can offer a lot to learn about. To help those readers looking to take the plunge into the Valiant Universe, we’ve assembled our own team of delinquents to break things down. Steve Morris knows Valiant inside out; J.A. Micheline is new to the universe. Micheline has the questions, and Morris has the answers.
In March, JAM and Steve delved into the handsome hunk brothers Ivar, Timewalker and Eternal Warrior, heading to the past and then the future and back to the past and, well, you get the idea. This month the pair have returned to discuss JAM’s latest assignment: the “monthly event” series Unity, which is wholly entwined within the ongoing stories of the Valiant Universe… as well as the almost completely disconnected events of Divinity.
Steve: JAM! Last month was possibly one of the most successful we’ve had, in terms of your overall enjoyment and appreciation for the stories we covered. You liked the way Valiant developed the characters of Ivar and Gilad, and made them feel like well-rounded --- but crucially likeable --- leads for their books. This month, to build off that, I’ve decided to try another solo series called Divinity, and see what you make of the lead character in that storyline.
But also! I’ve decided to offer you extra Gilad, The Eternal Warrior, as we’re also going to take a look at the events of Unity, a team up series that is described as being a “monthly event series” in which each new arc is a major story that has some impact on the Valiant Universe as a whole. We’re taking a step into the unknown while keeping one foot in the familiar, which is a tactic that mirrors Valiant’s own progression of their comics line… sort of.
So: how did you enjoy this month’s Valiant?
JAM: Divinity is definitely unlike anything I’ve seen from Valiant before --- and unlike most superhero fare too. It’s a very strangely structured book that doesn’t hold your hand and leaves you feeling kind of lost --- lots of repeats and retreads that aren't quite either repeats or retreads --- but I think that’s okay for a book that is very much about being lost in space-time. It’s loopy and weird and I’m in two minds about it, because on the one hand, with a little more grounding, I think it could have been phenomenal, but on the other, I kind of like that it creates a sense of disorientation that's appropriate to the subject matter.
I don’t know though! I don’t know. I don’t know if I would say that I enjoyed reading it, but I do think it’d be fair to say that I’m glad that I experienced the comic. It was an experience. I’d like to re-read it once I have a more concrete understanding of how he fits in with the Valiant Universe.
Unity was much less thrilling. It’s like watching the middle and end of a TV show where big things seem to be happening, but you don’t really care because you aren’t invested in the characters. This is an interesting thing, because theoretically, I’ve read about almost all of these characters in depth --- Ninjak, X-O Manowar, Eternal Warrior. Livewire, I’m a little less familiar with, but still, everyone came off as very wooden. They aren’t personal stories.
Steve: One thing that is perhaps coming across is the hiring practice of Valiant Comics. We’ve read several comics from the same writers now --- Robert Venditti, Matt Kindt, Jeff Lemire --- and especially with the latter two names I think we’re expected to think “auteur” when we see them on the cover. Valiant’s choice of writers, in particular, are meant to make you feel like you’re reading something with the structure of Marvel or DC, but with the left-field leaning of people who have something they really want to say (and aren’t being weighed down by corporate mandate). Matt Kindt, writer for both Unity and Divinity, is certainly the sort of person who makes an idiosyncratic mark when he works for himself: Mind MGMT and Revolver were both singular pieces of work.
Which really makes it interesting when you see him writing both Divinity and Unity. The former seems to match the frame of the writer who previously gave us the weird, singular narrative in Mind MGMT. The latter by comparison feels like work for hire. That’s not to disparage work for hire --- Unity is by no means bad, and I enjoy quite a lot of it --- but I think it’s rather fascinating to see Valiant’s attempts to elevate their game reap something different with Divinity, and something rather familiar and predictable with Unity.
JAM: Hmm. I think I would’ve been happiest with some kind of happy medium between the two. I’m glad Divinity was different but I also wish that it had been just a little more straightforward. Meanwhile, I wish Unity had been something... different to what it was. Work-for-hire shouldn’t mean paint-by-numbers, since I think you get what you give to a certain degree, but that’s definitely how Unity felt.
I haven’t read other Kindt work, though. I think these two may have been my first. And I’m just left saying --- hmm. This wasn’t a breakaway success for me like last month. I didn’t feel anything this go round. Even with Divinity, which I’m describing as this weird narrative, isn’t actually that weird. It’s non-linear, certainly, but the beats are actually what you expect them to be. It does read a little more interestingly precisely because the structure is the way it is, but when you pare the actual story back, there’s nothing there you don’t expect.
I wish, for example, the team had got into the politics of having a black man be the Soviet Union’s Great White Hope. Especially when juxtaposing it with the race riots happening in the United States, with police officers turning on their own people. I was starting to wonder --- is this an alternate universe, where racism is a uniquely American problem while the Soviets, apparently, have their act together? Because the racial element definitely passes without comment --- which, of course, is its own kind of comment, right? I wonder what the team was thinking there. I really do.
As I was reading, though, I was kind of wondering why you’d set me these comics after I’d read Eternal Warrior and Ivar, Timewalker. Aside from the fact that Gilad is in Unity, I don’t see how these pieces come together. I can barely understand why Gilad was or is involved with Unity as it was. I could barely understand why any of it was happening, really, but for the fact that it was. Was Unity starting where I left off in X-O Manowar? How does this fit in to my Valiant education?
Steve: Essentially, because Unity is a story Valiant saw as the culmination of a number of different comics. X-O Manowar goes off into space and comes back as an invader; Harbinger’s Toyo Harada shows his hand and puts himself to the public eye; Ninjak first appears and the three brothers Armstrong, Ivar and Gilad make their mark on the Valiant Universe.
The title “Unity” was first used by Valiant in the old days for an event storyline, but here it’s being used literally --- this is a series designed to unite characters from across their various comics.
I picture the Valiant Universe as being developed in three initial stages. Firstly, the reintroduction of characters and concepts familiar to old fans, but new to many (including you, and me). Then, we have the unification of the various characters in particular ways --- crossovers, events, and this series itself. From then onwards, Valiant have been looking to try more original ideas, like Divinity. I kinda feel like we’ve read the first two arcs of everything Valiant have put out so far, and so now I’m trying to see if their idea of unification (a cohesive and complete Universe which can bear out original ideas) actually makes sense for readers.
If you can feel the various characters coming together and you think it works, and flows together, then Valiant has managed to grow the line successfully, where they can hook readers on a new idea because “it’s Valiant,” and it's earned some trust there. If, on the other hand, Unity leaves you cold, then does that suggest the publisher has missed the target?
JAM: Maybe. I mean, as I look at it now, I actually see how all of this kind of fits together and that we’re now entering the next portion of the universe but --- I don’t think what leaves me cold with Unity is a result of the other arcs not doing their jobs. I have the same cold effect, sometimes, with Batman comics or Superman comics and I know those characters really well. I’ve known them for a long time but still, I can read a comic featuring them and feel nothing.
Unity is impersonal. What got me really excited about Eternal Warrior --- and, actually, as I remember it, Ninjak --- was that Gilad was a human being. I feel like I’ve said this a thousand times in this column, but I guess it takes a thousand and one: characters not archetypes, always. In Unity, all the characters feel like bullet points, things that the team wants to highlight like “don’t forget this thing about their backstory.”
I don’t think the team was handled very well here at all. They don’t feel like real human beings. With the exception of that one page where Ninjak discovered a character wasn’t bluffing. That made me laugh aloud. Everything else, though. Everything else felt kind of dead.
I don’t think it’s Valiant’s failure here, so much as --- everything feels superficial at best. These characters don’t feel like they work together or know each other. There are no inside jokes; there’s no major conflict within the team (aside from the obvious Harada/Livewire conflict). There’s no sense of... well... unity.
I think this could’ve been cool, but I don’t think what we had here worked. Neither the plot nor the character interactions were incredibly compelling, and they could have been.
Steve: I think you see a little of that with the art, as well. Trevor Hairsine’s work in The Eternal Warrior was one of your standouts, but in Divinity his work doesn’t seem to have that same kind of electricity? It almost feels like everything’s become a bit more house-style, which feels like it leans against the aims of Divinity as a project. Unity, as well, has artists like Doug Braithwaite working on it, but it strangely doesn’t leave a mark in my memory. Something like Storm Dogs or even his work on Thor/Journey Into Mystery felt more particular and stylish.
I don’t know what it is, but the artwork in these comics doesn’t seem to have the wow-factor.
JAM: Yeah, it’s weird. Hairsine was pretty much flawless on Eternal Warrior. He could do no wrong. But then in Divinity it was all just... fine? The subject matter didn’t seem to hit Hairsine’s strengths in the same was that Eternal Warrior did. The work seems much muddier here, instead of sharp --- and I'm wondering whether that's down to a different inker or colorist, but either way, I wasn't bowled over. It's the same for Unity --- there was one super cool moment that Braithwaite gave us (it's the last panel below; for real, my heart nearly stopped and I could hear the silence, it was that good), but otherwise, I remained largely unmoved. A great blip on an otherwise dull radar.
After reading all of these comics, I’m kind of hoping I get to experience a fresh set of writers and artists in the next round --- or that a fresh set is coming to the line. Consistently, I seem to find it’s not that Valiant’s ideas are bad --- with the exception of X-O Manowar, and even there it’s not impossible --- but instead that the execution is just off. That’s kind of inevitable, just due to the law of averages: most things are just okay except for the few things that are great or awful. And I would definitely slot Unity into the ‘okay’ category.
But, that’s not to say that it couldn’t be great in the hands of other teams. I’d like to see a lot of these ideas in the hands of someone else. What would, say, Ron Wimberly do with Shadowman? What might Annie Wu do with Eternal Warrior? Or hell, what would someone we’ve never heard of, someone who’s never been into superhero comics, do with most of these things?
I feel like --- Valiant, I like you. I just want you to be better. But then, I could say that for DC and Marvel, so in that sense, Valiant’s right in line with the greats.
Steve: Ron Wimberly did do an issue of Harbinger, I believe! You’re absolutely right though.
I think Valiant has this idea that it’ll be the company that picks up and offers work to interesting writers and artists like those you mentioned above, but it's still working on that, really? There are people like Raul Allen, Ming Doyle, Tom Fowler and Jen Van Meter, working around and about at Valiant, but the core of it does seem to be a group of three or four guys who work on most of the titles. If we’d had, as you say, wildly different styles of writer and artist on every one of the books that ostensibly lead up to Unity, then Unity itself would have felt like more of an event.
Instead, it’s a little like Justice League or iterations of The Avengers: the books have the calling card of having “everybody” appearing in them, but there’s nothing pushing things along or offering momentum away from that. I think the main success of Unity as time goes by is with the character of Livewire --- simply because she doesn’t appear in any other comic at the same time. When you’re stuck in the center of the Valiant Universe’s continuity, the only character who can really change within Unity is the one who doesn’t have a leading role in a second title.
I was wondering how you’d view Unity as a series, because it has that feeling of being the most work-for-hire of any Valiant Comic released to date. By comparison, then, Divinity feels to me like the most unlikely comic Valiant has so far produced. There are several ways you can read into Divinity, and I was really excited to see, following Unity, the way you took in and reacted to Matt Kindt and Trevor Hairsine’s tale of a black Russian cosmonaut who heads out into space… and comes back changed.
JAM: Well, I accidentally read Divinity first. Oops?
I don’t think it really affected my read of either. They were introduced as Unity in Divinity, and even though that wasn’t immediately apparent in Unity, you had to know that was the direction things were going just by virtue of who was in it.
Divinity feels like an introduction comic, though. It was four issues long and I understood the basics of who --- or really what --- the character is, but then we don’t really go beyond that. There’s a lot of set up and I thought it would be leading somewhere massive, but these were more the opening shots. He comes to Earth. This frightens people. Unity tries to capture him. Eventually they do. But then what?
That’s actually a question I had at the end of Unity too. I read all of this, but then what? Now what? You’re right that Livewire probably has the most growth in the story. And the smart thing to do would’ve been to center her from the very beginning, make her the POV character for the whole series. There was something in there when she bowed to Harada and handed over the suit. But then upon their decision to take drastic measures, I just felt...nothing.
So I guess, what I wanna know now is, what next? Have I seen it all at this point? Are we kind of at the crossroads for whether I like or don’t like Valiant? Is there more and different or does it all kind of go forward along this path?
Steve: There is different! Quantum & Woody alone is going to be a whole wave of different for you and I could see you writing at least five different amazing essays about it after reading. There’s also Jody Houser writing Faith, and Clayton Crain on Rai. There’s some stuff coming, I think, still, even if there’s always those roots into the familiar creatives we’ve seen so far.
But, really… yeah. As we stand, you’ve done learned most everything, and a lot of what’s to come are new takes on established ideas. We have Divinity II and Imperium, which is the pretty incredible follow-up to Harbinger. Bloodshot, Dr Mirage and The Eternal Warrior all have second volumes published, and there are event storylines like Book of Death and The Valiant. Really, you’ve had a look across all the Valiant Universe… except Quantum & Woody, which at this point I’m blatantly attempting to give mystique.
This is how the Valiant Universe restarted, and what it’s grown into. You’ve seen the characters, the creative teams, and the way everything coheres into the feted ‘Universe’.
Does it work for you?
JAM: I’m really avoiding answering that question.
I think the answer is no, but it’s a conditional no. It’s no because I mostly am not into the teams that seem to largely be dominating the Universe. I’ve loved Trevor Hairsine’s work on Eternal Warrior and Roberto De La Torre was great on Doctor Mirage. But they’re the only stand out artists for me. Jan Van Meter and Greg Pak are the only writers who stood out for me too. But they’ve been isolated, mostly, instead of working on the big titles.
And perhaps part of the issue is that, because I didn’t grow up with these characters, I feel less of an impetus to read whatever they might be in and hew more closely to which person is working on them. After all, when you listed those three different creators --- Houser, Crain, and Braithwaite (although, haven’t I seen Crain on a Valiant property already?) --- I immediately thought, "Oh, I’d check that out." Just for the sake of trying something different.
This is the thing with Valiant. I feel like I am ready to fall in love with them; I want to them to wow me. But they just aren’t doing it with any regularity. They aren’t there yet. And I don’t know whether I should be more patient or throw in the towel. The gold is definitely there. I’ve seen it; I’ve felt excitement reading their comics. But you can only sit by the river and pan for so long, you know?
Steve: I wonder if the same is true of any superhero universe, though. Valiant has been going since 2012 so far, and I suppose with any line of comics you have to sift through a lot of wet beige sand to find any gold.
Faith seems to be a big moment for the company. Here’s a book which got them crossover appeal and hit a huge audience, to the extent that it’s now jumping from a miniseries straight into an ongoing. When you couple that with the second Dr Mirage miniseries, the current Ivar Timewalker and Eternal Warrior ongoing books, and look at that core group of titles? There’s a lot to like about Valiant Comics.
So let’s make that what we focus on just for this moment! Unity didn’t work for you, and Divinity was an experiment that didn’t hit that big moment that it felt it was heading to. We’ve got some fun comics still ahead of us, though, and those should be the focus of our next reading. Having done the hard ground work of reading Harbinger and Unity, it’s time we looked at the current success story: Faith. Does it signal a chance of style for Valiant, or is it an outlier?
And hey: it’s time. Let’s read Quantum & Woody. It’s manic, pushes a nerve, and is a series I’ve really enjoyed. Both of them look to be progressive in tone and content, and they both seek to make Valiant feel like a more fun company. I really want to know what you’ll think of them both --- so how about we move away from talk of continuity and into two books where literally nothing matters but the characters?
JAM: Yeah, I should be clear: the fact that I’m having this reaction has nothing to do with Valiant intrinsically. I think this is kind of what you get with any line of comics like this, and Valiant probably has an equivalent success rate to its more robust cousins. There is definitely a lot to like about the universe, and I want to say unreservedly that I’ve had a good time reading several of their comics.
Also, I think you’ve touched on something important just by mentioning the way that both Faith and Quantum & Woody work --- nothing matters but the characters. I’m definitely the kind of reader who puts those things first, so I’m anticipating these books working for me. I’ve heard a lot of great things about Faith, particularly from fat women (whose opinion about Faith is the only one that I, or really anyone should care about), so I’m definitely looking forward to that experience too.
Onward and upward, I think. Even if this month didn’t bowl me over, if there’s one thing I can say about Valiant, it’s that I’m always ready for more.
Make sure to pick up the recent issues of the Faith miniseries (#1-4) as well as Quantum & Woody Vol 1 and 2 so you can follow along for when we return next month!