I’ve been debating for years with friends whether H.A.R.D. Corps is the cleverest or stupidest name ever for a team of mercenaries. On one hand, it’s a clever name for a group of badass quasi-military gun junkies who live to fight the Harbinger Foundation (the H. in the name above – but honestly who really cares what the name means as long as it sounds good?); on the other, well, really, what rational human being would want to be a member of something with a name like that?
Actually, those rational human beings are exactly the sorts of men who you’d expect to take on names like that, and to give themselves nicknames like Maniac, Hammerhead, Superstar, Shakespeare and Softcore. They’re former military men, enrolled in a secret agency that gives them amazing super-powers but that is only able to give them those powers one at a time. Thus guns are as important as powers in their struggle to bring down the Valiant Universe’s ultimate bad guy Toyo Harada and his evil Harbinger Foundation.
Like most of these classic Valiant Comics, it would be easy to imagine this as a 1990s action TV series, with a group of happy but bickering warriors always fighting to bring down Harada’s main plot. Each of these men has to keep their involvement in the Corps secret, and each has an interesting backstory that writer David Michelinie slowly delved into. Team member Superstar is a popular and handsome actor who’s presumed to be dead but is granted a second life in the Corps; Shakespeare was co-owner of a posh restaurant (and might be gay, if you read between the lines); Gunslinger’s elderly father is furious that his son didn’t have a military career; and so on.
Those are the character bits that give the action its power, but what H.A.R.D. Corps is really all about is the action and thrills of its story. This is guns-blazing super-hero action that reflects the zeitgeist of the early 1990s. There are dramatic rescues, pitched battles and explosions aplenty. H.A.R.D. Corps #1 has a spectacular action cliffhanger that no doubt had readers gasping to pick up their copy of issue #2 back in the day; there’s a thrilling undersea battle in issue #4; and the book ends on a cliffhanger as part of the team is kidnapped by a group of spider aliens, who appeared in many other Valiant books (and who gave X-O Manowar his suit – I’ll cover his career in a future chapter of this series).
It’s weird and jarring that this collection ends in a cliffhanger scene – the very last page ends with one team member threatening two other team members with a gun – but that doesn’t take away at all from the other pleasures in this book.
For one thing, this volume is squarely set inside the ever-growing Valiant Universe. One of the real strengths of the Valiant team’s vision is that they created a series of comics that could stand on their own, without the need to understand more about the other comics in the line, but that the more you know about the other titles, the better they work together. It’s a subtle way of adding continuity that reflects more the approach that Stan Lee took to Marvel Comics in the 1960s rather than the popular current method of creating a giant crossover and using that to explain the stories (though to be fair, Valiant made much of their reputation on the Unity crossover, which I discussed in the Shadowman article).
The origin of the H.A.R.D. Corps appeared in Harbinger #10 and 11, making this a perfect next book to read after last week’s Valiant Masters: Harbinger (which ran to issue #7 – issues 8 and 9 were Unity crossovers and likely will be collected in a different volume). Harbinger #10 is an especially delightful issue, with its slow burn style and the way it builds to battle. As always seems to be true with Harbinger stories, the character bits among the teenagers are more interesting than the fights, but here that gives everything more weight and heft. It makes things seem more real, and builds beautifully to a thoroughly intense battle at the end of the issue and a delightfully morally ambiguous ending.
Bloodshot also shows up for a thoughtful crossover. The Corps is on a mission to determine if Bloodshot is friend or foe; by the end of the thrilling tale, and its frantic battle in a junkyard, both sides have earned each other’s respect in a very macho, ’90s style chest-thumping style.
The series is written by a team of writers, but David Michelinie is mainly at the helm. Always a solid writer, by that time Michelinie had worked in the industry for more than a decade and showed his well-established skills of balancing action and character moments in ways that emphasized the men behind the powers and weapons. This always feels like a grounded series, in which the heroes are facing their very human limits, both in their personal lives and in their lives as warriors, and Michelinie shows the same skills at balancing both sides of things as he brought to his celebrated work on Iron Man and other series. Since these men are embedded in their adult lives, they have less angst than the teens of Harbinger, but they still have shambolic, complicated lives that bleed (sometimes literally) into their professional experiences.
The art, mainly by Mike Leeke but also by David Lapham and Bernard Chang, among others, shows the characteristic Valiant house style: heroes are always grounded in the real world just outside our windows, in which actions have consequences, events happen in places that we recognize, and the people are as important as the events that they carry out. I love that characters dress warmly when it cold – you seldom see that kind of attention to setting in super-hero books – and that each men has their unique look emphasized in the art.
H.A.R.D. Corps doesn’t have the heartfelt intensity of Harbinger, which may have been the best comic in the Valiant line. But this series and collection are a delightful read, as clear and fun a version of well-done 1990s comics as you can find. As with nearly all Valiant Comics, the emphasis on quality over flash gives this series a unique, ground-level feel that stands out against most of its 1990s peers. Plus it’s a hell of a lot of guns-blazing fun.