If there ever was a comic that symbolized what made Valiant Comics special, it was Harbinger. The Valiant line was based on the idea of featuring men and women with special powers who lived in a world just like our own world, full of ordinary and flawed people. It was the “world outside you window”, only with the slight addition of super-powers. When a Valiant Comic followed that idea, it could often be magical, and reading one of those comics today often felt a lot like discovering a lost 1990s TV series. The eight issues of Harbinger collected in this wonderful hardcover volume may have been the best comics that Valiant released during their “golden era.”
The Harbingers were a kind of more realistic take on the X-Men, released at a time when X-Men comics were seeming to reproduce like rabbits and read like the definition of superhero decadence. Harbinger featured a misfit group of teens who were neither heroes nor villains; instead, they were unambiguously fighting for themselves against a corporation and its leader, Toyo Harada. The teens think Harada is corrupt and nasty, a killer out to dominate the world, so these kids will do anything they can do to stop him, including killing henchmen, stealing from innocent people and creating millions of dollars of wanton destruction.
What truly makes this comic so powerful is the characters at its center. They’re confused and unhappy, on the run partially because they feel they need to run but also because running seems fun, at least until it gets terrifyingly tangible. The leader of the teens, Peter Stancheck, may be the most dangerous person in the world, but he is slow in coming to realize that fact, and his psionic powers seem in these early issues to be as much about making cars fly and fighting henchmen with his brain as it is in setting him up to struggle against his counterpart Harada.
Pete and his companions seem like actual American adolescents from the 1990s, though obviously simplified for comics. Charlene Dupre, nicknamed Flamingo, is a trampy girl, always in high heels, who has a deep inferiority complex. John Torkelson, nicknamed Torque, is a high-school dropout and mechanic who has enormous strength and vulnerability. Kris Hathaway, Pete’s best friend, has no super-powers but his resourceful. And the breakout character of the comic, the one that many readers no doubt empathized with the most was the chubby fangirl Faith Herbert, who nicknamed herself Zephyr but was called, cruelly, Zeppelin by her friends.
It’s tempting to say that Faith is the moral center of this comic, and in some ways she is. She’s an eternal optimist, always full of joy even when danger is rapidly coming upon them. When we first meet Faith, she’s in her bedroom, which is liberally decorated in Star Trek swag and she’s wearing a Trek shirt. She pushes the team to put on super-hero team costumes (which resemble the original Fantastic Four costumes, jumpsuits rather than spandex), and helps her friends to think of themselves as super-heroes. Alone among her companions, Faith sees her power of flight as a blessing rather than a curse; in fact, it’s a dream come true for her.
For the rest of the teenage protagonists, the powers are a both good and bad, and often at the same time. The kids are badly hurt and irrational when they get shot, are terrified when they’re kidnapped by aliens, are continually worried about getting hurt or killed in their battles, and in fact one of the team members gives the ultimate sacrifice to save his friends. If these are heroes, they’re very reluctant heroes who are forced into adventure as much as they seek it out. In their real world, nothing is black and white.
This comic very much has the fingerprints of writer Jim Shooter on it. It’s been remarked many times that the Valiant Universe is a lot like Shooter’s abortive New Universe, which was launched with great fanfare in 1986 for Marvel’s 25th Anniversary but greeted with widespread fan apathy. That line had as its premise “what if there were people with superpowers in the world outside your window?” and Shooter’s fascinating Star Brand comic was the best of the line. It focused on a man in his early 20s who is granted great superpowers but lacks the imagination to figure out what he actually wants to do with them. Mostly the guy with powers just wants to listen to heavy metal and have sex with his girlfriend – which in some ways makes him the most lifelike super-hero of all time.
Pete Stancheck is a more classical hero, despite his age. When we first meet Pete, he’s fleeing from some attackers, with Kris by his side, and he quickly engineers a thoroughly implausible but effective plan to free some other powered teenagers from the clutches of the Harbinger Foundation, a kind of evil corporate Xavier’s School that has vague plans for world domination. (The ideas do firm up as the comic goes on, but Harada seems to be intended in a similar way to how John Byrne depicted Lex Luthor, as a billionaire with complicated strategies that can affect the entire world around him.) We get the sense that these Harbinger kids are battling for justice as best they can but that it’s a small miracle that any of them survive.
Shooter is joined in this comic by David Lapham on art. Lapham, now best known for his superb work on his own Stray Bullets, delivers exactly what this comic needs: a very realistic approach to the heroes’ world, a place where it’s as important to draw cars and coffins convincingly as it is to draw powers manifest themselves. At times Lapham’s work betrays a bit of influence from Barry Windsor-Smith, who did a lot of work at Valiant in those early days, but more than anything, Lapham’s art just looks right – even in the issues that feature the spider aliens or the omnipowerful Dr. Solar, Man of the Atom.
It’s striking how often Lapham draws the heroes in straight-on shots rather than from a forced perspective. These are young men and women who have their feet on the ground, and Lapham specifically draws them that way. It’s also striking how often Lapham includes complete backgrounds in these stories, giving them a real world grounding that makes it feel like the heroes could step out of their comic and into your house.
Harbinger shows why fans still revere the Valiant Comics line today, some 25 years after it first appeared. This flagship title was fun but also included a bit of grit, a bit of intensity and a bit of complex morality. As much as anything, too, it features editor-in-chief Jim Shooter’s vision for this new superhero line on full display.
It’s worth remembering that at the same time this solid storytelling was coming out from Valiant, Image Comics was releasing its first few comics and was dominating sales at comic shops. Image’s series emphasized flash and slickness over substance and quality. Both sets of comics are fun, but Harbinger sticks with the reader. There’s a heart and soul that makes this comic stand out. It feels different from anything else from the time and, really, different from almost any other comic featuring teen heroes. It’s the product of a singular vision, well executed. It’s a delight. It still stands up today.