Of all the comics I’ve read as part of this Valiant Comics series, Rai is the one that surprised me the most. Unlike the other comics in this line, this series is amazingly dark and grim, a brilliantly odd picture of a dysfunctional hero in a very broken future Japan who somehow manages to become the most despised person to have ever lived in his country – and then the series gets still darker yet from there.
Rai is an oddly audacious comic because it’s a fascinating portrait of despair. It’s about having ambitions to do well that backfire in one’s face, and about how traditions can drift from their planned ends and cause catastrophes when fully explored. It’s about war and fighting men, and rebellion, and it also has a villain in stupid weather-controlling suit and a cybernetic dragon, but neither of which are really as interesting or important as they seem to be at first.
Most of all, Rai is oddly subversive. It shows us a guy who seems like he should be the hero, with rising sun tattoos on his hands, chest and feet, amazing powers, forty generations of tradition behind him and all the other trappings of power. But none of those attributes, not a single one, helps him one bit from his own ineptitude, short-sightedness and nihilism.
As you can probably tell, I loved Rai.
Warning: there are spoilers ahead for this twenty-year-old comic.
When we first meet Rai he is literally set adrift, in some sort of dream space in which he contemplates recent events in his contemporary Japan in the year 4001 and his role in those events. Due to an alien invasion, the always isolated society of Japan is even more insulated than before: it now orbits the Earth like a satellite, far from everything. The Rai have always been the protectors of the country, but with these changes, our protagonist’s role is adrift. Everything has changed, and is there a place for a Rai in this new world?
Right from the beginning of the first issue, the themes of this series are set out: this will be a comic in which the action hero is beset by profound existential problems. Writer David Michelinie’s introduction reminds us that this Rai, whose real name is Tohru Nakadai, is a reluctant hero. He was forced by his enfeebled father to take on the mantel of his family legacy despite the fact that he just wanted to spend time with his son and wife.
As the story moves ahead, we find that the drifting Japan is in the midst of a revolution. Sabotage is afoot, and Rai is torn between the two sides in the revolution. As the man appointed to help protect society, he’s incapable of deciding between the two forces who are battling each other. “My trust is to protect our people. I was not told which people.”, he says. And so when the spirit of Rai’s grandmother comes alive at the command of the rebels to cybernetically attack her people, Rai engages in a battle both physical and metaphysical. He makes a decision in the heat of battle and is hated for his choice.
This first issue sets the tone for everything that will follow. This isn’t quite dystopian science fiction, but it shows a hero and society that are profoundly broken, and asks the reader to keep following the events it depicts in future issues. Looking at this first issue some twenty years after its release, it’s striking that there’s no hero here, no positive events. Rai # 1is just a signpost of worse things that will be shown. That makes a radically different comic than virtually anything that came before. For that matter it’s radically different from even its peers in the Valiant line, which managed to keep a bright element or two at the same time heroes like Harbinger or Bloodshot worked through their crises.
In the next issue things get worse. It’s one thing to damage a revolution; it’s another thing completely to destroy the supply of drugs in traumatized Japan. One of the biggest scourges of the country is neopium; as Rai reflects on the impact of the drug:
Writer David Michelinie, who does sterling work throughout this series, does a wonderful job of setting up the moral complexity of the drug issue on this page; as the story proceeds, we discover that the society has a complicated relationship with neopium, not too different from the way that our society manages drugs, with each side taking its own nuanced stance both in public and private.
As the issue proceeds, the nasty Icespike persuades citizens to drug Rai but he fights back, against the influence, and barely manages to defeat the megalomaniacal villain. But it’s a pyrrhic victory, as the defeat turns the citizens against Rai even more:
Our shambolic super-hero becomes more and more hated as the series moves ahead and it becomes clear that he is an outsider in a country that is itself an outsider. The old ways may have worked well in a Japan that was still securely moored on Earth, but the orbiting Japan is experiencing deep fractures that can never be healed. No matter how much the society tries to fall back on tradition, it can never truly do so because life is so changed. This is symbolized by the character of Rai’s father, the previous Rai, who is progressively weaker every time we see him. If he is emblematic of old Japan, then old Japan is enfeebled indeed.
No matter whether Rai wins or loses his personal battles with villains, he always seems to do the wrong thing. This scene from issue #3 shows that dichotomy in stark terms:
In issue #4 things get worse. Rai’s actions in saving Japan kill thousands; as he reflects, “[the Japanese people] won’t believe the rocket that gashed through Japan’s outer skin, spilling thousands into the deadly void of space, was an accident. That it wasn’t my fault.”
Rai becomes not just hated but a genuine pariah. When he agrees to exile himself and his infant son from Earth in Rai #5, he’s so despised that ordinary citizens attack him and are willing to kill him. They’ve been devastated by their nominal hero, and have seen their family and friends decimated, by this living symbol of the past who can’t help them in their horrific present. Even when he flees as an exile, Rai is attacked: his engines are damaged and he will be set adrift in space. The only thing that can save the baby is an unbelievable effort from Rai, which ends up nearly killing him:
At this point so much has happened in these first five issues of Rai that I was left completely off balance. I wasn’t sure whether Rai was hero or villain, what the hell happened to him on the page above, what would happen next. It’s rare when a comic book leaves a reader completely adrift and curious, especially one written and drawn in the early 1990s, but Rai does that, and does that with a customary grimness of purpose and world-building that is fascinating.
Speaking of world-building, the last page of this wild and crazy issue ends with Rai crash-landing and meeting two characters who have never appeared in this comic before. In a series full of “wtf” moments, this was another major “wtf.”
It turns out the men he meets are Rokkie the Geomancer and Gilad the Timewalker and they proceed to drag Rai into a new adventure by appealing to Rai’s love of tradition. I like the easy world-building in these four panels, though frankly this issue is an abrupt right turn from everything we’ve seen before.
As Rai gets dragged by his new friends to the great Valiant crossover Unity, there’s a feeling that our pale-skinned protagonist may be turning the corner. He has new friends (including, soon, Magnus Robot Fighter) and a new place to live. For a moment Rai is like a newly divorced man who has a chance to start a new and happier life.
But Michelinie and the Valiant team won’t let Rai be happy for long. That’s not the goal of this series, and it’s not what they deliver. Very quickly a cybernetic talking dinosaur informs Rai that Japan is about to fall out of orbit. He has the change to save his country…
…and he loses his chance to save them in a fit of rage and anger. Japan’s space colony is transformed into a dragon and crashes to Earth. It’s a cataclysm.
Events are spiraling out of control. A megalomaniacal goddess is threatening to destroy the universe, and Rai is tormented by his role in devastating his small part of it. He promises to perform seppuku after the goddess is defeated. There is no other choice. For a man who professes to have honor, his life is the least he can give up.
Even there, though, Rai loses. The goddess kills him, and he lives no more.
Rai can’t even choose the moment when he dies. And he does die in Rai #7, because in the Valiant Universe dead is dead. His legacy is one of the darkest of any super-hero ever created. Rai killed millions of people after making them miserable. He failed to live up to his family traditions, couldn’t defeat a goddess gone mad, and never seemed to make the right move in anything he took on.
This is an amazingly dark series, but that darkness makes it fascinating. Sometimes it’s more interesting to watch the heroes lose.