Underrated: Harbinger

I was going to write about Imperium this week, but I haven’t finished the hardcover book I picked up Wednesday from my LCS. So instead of rushing a column on a book that deserves a lot more attention than I’d have time to give it, I decided to rerun a column about the series preceeding Imperium.

This is a column that focuses on something or some things from the comic book sphere of influence that may not get the credit and recognition it deserves. Whether that’s a list of comic book movies, ongoing comics, or a set of stories featuring a certain character. The columns may take the form of a bullet pointed list, or a slightly longer thinkpiece – there’s really no formula for this other than whether the things being covered are Underrated in some way. This week: the comic book publisher Harbinger

When Valiant Entertainment relaunched in 2012, one of the four books that the publisher started with was Harbinger. Arguably one of Valiant’s signature books, the original series launched in the 90’s with the publisher’s first incarnation. I have never read the 90’s series in full, but have dabbled in an issue here or there (specifically the two that contained chapters of the multi-book crossover Unity). I have, however, read the entirety of the modern Harbinger run, and own a smattering of individual comics and the three deluxe hardcovers containing the story; Harbinger Deluxe Edition One, Harbinger  Deluxe Edition  Two and Harbinger Wars 
Deluxe Edition. The latter also contains four issues of Bloodshot that tie into the Harbinger Wars miniseries – also four issues. The series is also collected in trade paperback as well (though I have no idea how many volumes). I realize I’m rambling at this point, so I’ll get back on to the subject at hand.

It would be easy to compare Harbinger to the various X-Men comics Marvel has released through the years; both feature teenagers with powers originating from a a genetic difference (although Valiant’s psiots need to be activated through risky painful procedures or times of extreme stress whereas Marvel’s mutants just need to hit puberty), and both have a villain character who is more complicated than you would initially expect. While the comparison is justified, it also does a disservice to the Harbinger comics to write them off as another publisher’s X-Men imitation.

Especially because Joshua Dysart’s run on the series (which also include Imperium, which I have inexplicably not finished yet) deals with some really interesting concepts that you don’t often find elsewhere. It’s for this reason that I hold his run as some of the very best team based comics that been published in the last ten years (honestly, I’d also go so far as to say that I’ve ever read).

The characters are wonderfully deep and complex, some are flawed and broken, searching for a redemption that may never come; others are desperately trying to make the world a better place no matter the cost; one wants to destroy a shadowy organization that may or may not have more worldly influence than they should regardless of the cost; and one wants to be a bonafide superhero in a world in which right and wrong and good and evil are not always on the same side. The series, at its most simple description, can be boiled down to two incredibly power psiots, Peter Stanchek and Toyo Harada having a disagreement, and at the outset you know who fills the typical hero/villain positions, but after a few issues you’ll begin to question who you should root for.

Should you root for anyone?

Dysart’s story is a wondrous thing. In giving us a gripping and emotional tale about people who just happen to be caught up in events, people who are just reacting – and not always well – to the stimuli around them, some of whom are super powered, he also leaves us questioning the traditional role of the hero and villain. Much like Magneto and Professor X were allegories for Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 60’s, Stanchek and Harada represent the world we live in today; shades of grey where ethically and morally questionable decisions are made by the people we’re supposed to hold in high esteem. Dysart uses these characters to remind us that beneath the power, the people we follow are just as flawed as the next person. Stanchek, with his position as a hero within the book, has made some pretty fucking awful decisions – ones where forgiveness shouldn’t be given lightly – but then is Harada any better?

We’re only scratching the surface here (and honestly, only the first trade or so if you’re going the non-deluxe route), and Dysart doesn’t let up throughout the run. His writing will educate you, encouraging you to think and develop yourself all while delivering one of the greatest stories in comics.

I don’t mean to discount the artistic contributions to the book, and it may seem that I have, but Harbinger, like almost every Valiant book, features some consistently brilliant artwork by artists, colourists and letterers that will have you asking why you hadn’t heard of them before (since the series wrapped, some have gone on to become more familiar to comic fans in general). I remember reading the comics for the first time and being in awe of what I was seeing; Harbinger remains one of the only series which I have framed on my wall simply because the interlocking covers to issues 7-10 by Mico Suayan are so damn pretty.

The art more than balances the story, which is an impressive feat.

This series is the subject of today’s Underrated because I had forgotten how amazing it was until I sat down and read the full run in almost a single sitting. And I realized that I seldom hear people talk about Valiant’s Harbinger comics, or Toyo Harada. With one of the most complex and interesting characters in the medium getting a six issue miniseries this year, I hope that changes.

Do yourselves a favour, add The Life and Death of Toyo Harada to your pull list now. Preorder the series because, and I say this after having read the first issue already, it’s going to be amazing.

As an addendum to this column, I’d like to say that The Life and Death of Toyo Harada was every bit as good as I hoped. Yes, I am aware that reading the end before the middle isn’t always ideal, but c’est la vie.