The Delinquents: A Beginner’s Guide to ‘Harbinger’
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.
Last time, Steve introduced JAM to the first sixteen issues of horror series Shadowman and supernatural romance The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage. For the next assignment, he set JAM homework of the first two volumes of the superpowered team-book Harbinger, one of the flagship titles of the Valiant Universe — and now they’re back to talk about it!
JAM: Steve. Steve. I want to talk about Harbinger? Can we talk about Harbinger? I love Harbinger.
Steve: Ah! JAM, so you have returned bearing news of Harbinger. When we left off, you were going to try both Harbinger and Bloodshot, two ongoing Valiant books which lead up to a crossover storyline called Harbinger Wars. This was a big deal for Valiant at the time --- it was their first crossover since they returned as a publisher --- but it remains a big deal now as well, as these stories will be the basis for the opening movies of "the Valiant Cinematic Universe".
If... they're calling it that, I mean.
We'll come back to Bloodshot in our next column, as well as the Harbinger Wars crossover event, but I think we'll keep our focus simply on Harbinger for this time round. As a basic rundown, Harbinger is the story of a guy called Peter Stanchek who finds he has special powers, and the world that quickly builds up around him. It's a little like X-Men, but far more like the 'edgy' Ultimate version than the classic characters. Joshua Dysart is the ongoing writer of the book, whilst the main artists include Khari Evans and Lee Garbett.
What were your thoughts on Peter as a character, and the opening storyline of Harbinger?
JAM: Peter as a character and the opening storyline are... my least favorite parts of Harbinger? Given that you described Bloodshot to me as comics' Jason Bourne in our first instalment, while Harbinger was kind of supposed to be X-Men, I really expected to like Bloodshot more --- since Bourne --- but I loved Harbinger.
Or rather, I loved Harbinger Volume 2.
The opening story in Volume 1 and, really, Peter's characterization in general. suffer from a lot of what happens when you try to directly critique a genre/work --- I'm basically reading Harbinger as a direct critique of X-Men and its ilk --- in that there's often not enough to distance the critique from its source material. There were some gems, to be sure, and the most satisfying points were when Peter actually voiced a lot of my skepticisms about the Harbinger Corporation, or whatever the right name for that is, but in general it did feel like a lot of the same with a slightly cynical twist.
All of that changed in volume 2.
Steve: What happened in Volume 2 to change your mind?
JAM: To start with: the change in perspective. We open in Volume 2 from lead female protagonist Kris' perspective, and actually address --- but kinda obliquely --- a sexual assault that Peter performs on her in Volume 1.
Steve: Okay so let's just explain what happens --- in the first issue Peter, who can control minds, uses his powers on his childhood sweetheart to make her love him. Then he sleeps with her. He rapes her.
JAM: What's the word on the street about the assault though? Someone actually warned me it was coming so I was prepared but... is this a topic of ongoing discussion on the Valiant fandom?
Steve: I don't actually know where Valiant fans stand on the storyline as a whole, to be honest. It threw a lot of people off the book, certainly, especially as Peter is meant to be our heroic lead and he rapes someone in the first issue he appears in --- I wouldn't blame anyone for reading the story, being disgusted, and not trying a second issue.
Like you say, it's only with the sixth issue that we even get to see Kris' perspective on things, and even then the series doesn't actually use the word 'rape' to describe what happened.
JAM: Yeah, I think if I weren't doing this as "homework" and had just come across it as a regular reader, I would've ditched the book pretty quickly. And as you say, I wouldn't blame anyone for ditching the whole story entirely after that. Even when it comes up in issue six --- which is way too late --- we only get as far as Kris describing it as an 'emotional violation.' There's no content about the actual physical violation and she only brings up Peter's actions in generalities.
I was told by the same friend who warned me about the assault that it is continually addressed throughout the narrative, but, two volumes in, I don't particularly agree with that. I think if Kris had tackled it head on in that issue, then maybe the use of sexual violence might have been justified, but if she was only going to limit it to emotional violations, then Dysart could have limited that scene to emotional violations.
We didn't need to see him getting out of bed with her. We didn't need any of that.
Steve: So let's take a look at the second arc, as you bring it up which sees Peter go on the run, with Kris reluctantly helping. They start recruiting one character at a time to their team, called The Renegades, and we get a look at characters like Flamingo and the fan-favourite, Zephyr.
JAM: I think what I love about Volume 2 is that, not only does it introduce three different women who have three different backgrounds and perspectives on life, but also it gives each of them ownership of their narratives. We don't have to experience them through Peter's eyes and in his voice; each gets to tell their own story. I mean, really, when they're all sitting together in the strip club (yeah, I know), I thought how amazing it is that they'd managed to collect such a nicely varied cast.
I think the main problem with Volume 2 is the way that disability is represented with John Torkelson/Torque. I'm not as well-versed in these issues as I should be, but even I was given some pause when I saw a character whose powers were being used to negate his physical disability, as well as a character whose disability was talked about as almost a fate worse than death. I still need to do some reading and listening, but it's my understanding that these kinds of representations do more harm than good.
Steve: It's a conflicted series. There's a sense of edginess at the start which eventually --- thankfully --- wears away and we start to get an ensemble cast, which I think is where Dysart's work really starts to shine. He'll take five or six characters, give them all a glimmer of ambition and hope, and then cast them into his plots at will. Those motivations bubble under for issues at a time, but because you've been given something to hold onto for each character, you aren't surprised when they rise to the surface and abruptly change the direction of the series entirely.
JAM: Reading Faith/Zephyr's backstory was enough to make me want to cry. Seeing that picture of her with her parents --- who are as large as she is --- in Star Trek uniforms absolutely ruined me. What a great character. Step aside, Tim Drake, we have a new and improved stand-in for a nerd superhero. She is bigger and she is better.
I've been puzzling over how Volume 1 could have been done differently in order to convince an audience to get to Volume 2. I like seeing these three distinct women together --- and I like that they get along in some ways but not others. The three of them are far more interesting than their male counterparts, really, but I invested in all of them as a set, and would like to see where they go from here.
Steve: Well I'm glad you say that, because we're going to next head across into the gory world of the assassin Bloodshot --- before jumping immediately into the crossover storyline between the two comics, Harbinger Wars.
JAM: Let us blaze onwards, oh captain, my captain!
To be continued....
If you want to read along with our Delinquents, check out, Bloodshot volumes 1 and 2, as well as Harbinger Wars, and join us back here in two weeks time!