Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s Harbinger #20. Written by Joshua Dysart (Unknown Soldier, Harbinger War) and drawn by Clayton Henry (Suicide Squad, Archer & Armstrong), this issue spotlights the title’s unpredictable plotting as it begins a new storyline with a dramatic shift in status quo. Warning: spoilers ahead.
Valiant Comics is the underdog superhero publisher. Marvel and DC fight it out at the top while companies like Image, Dark Horse, IDW, and Boom! supplement their superhero output with licensed titles and creator-owned properties, but Valiant is relying entirely on costumed heroes for its survival. Over the past two years, the publisher has built up a solid lineup of titles. They’re not necessarily the most noteworthy reads each week, but they reliably entertain, and they scratch an itch for classic superheroics with a modern storytelling touch. No title does that better than Joshua Dysart’s Harbinger, following a group of teen psiots (people born with psychic powers of all varieties) as they work to take down the Harbinger Foundation and its psychic megalomaniac creator Toyo Harada. The book constantly takes unexpected turns to keep the reader guessing, taking advantage of the creative freedom posed by Valiant’s young universe to create a story with real risks delivering significant rewards.
The keyword of last week’s Big Issues was diversity, and Valiant has done impressive work telling superhero stories from a variety of different angles. Looking at its current crop of ongoings, there’s the political space opera X-O Manowar; superpowered coming-of-age tale Harbinger; Highlander-esque action fantasy Eternal Warrior; superhero horror story Shadowman; team-based espionage thriller Bloodshot And H.A.R.D. Corps; satirical superhero buddy comedy Quantum & Woody; satirical everything buddy comedy Archer & Armstrong; and Unity, the latest addition that also serves as Valiant’s flagship superhero team book. Each book has a specific tone and genre influence to make it distinct, but they often utilize the same art teams to give the shared universe a sense of visual cohesion.
Eight new debuts in two years (plus one miniseries event) is a wonderfully conservative number of books for a new publisher, allowing the creators to expand the Valiant universe gradually while giving readers a manageable number of titles try out. The publisher has been cautious with its launch schedule, waiting a few months between new title debuts so as not to flood the market with books that may get lost in the wave of new releases, and makes an effort to make each issue fairly accessible for incoming readers, even if it’s by way of a lengthy recap page. It’s entirely possible to pick up Harbinger #20 on a whim and get enough information to understand what unfolds, but the major developments of this issue will resonate much more for those that have been following the series from the start. Luckily, Harbinger is one of the most binge-worthy superhero comics currently available, thanks to Dysart’s twisting plot, which consistently thrills while creating a remarkable sense of discovery. If readers like what they see here, they can always check out the first collection, affordably priced at $9.99. And it’s very likely that they will want more.
Although Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Uncanny X-Men read as dated nowadays, there’s a similar rush in the pages of Harbinger, a title that has established an environment where anything can happen. Dysart knows how to structure a dramatic reveal, and this book’s second year has raised the stakes in surprising ways, thanks to the Harbinger Wars crossover. The ending of that event left something to be desired because it wasn’t the actual ending at all—but in one of Harbinger’s best twists, it was revealed that Dysart had misdirected the reader the same way Harada had misdirected his young foes when he took them captive and psychically forced them to believe they were living out their greatest fantasies. That set up a brand new set of obstacles for psiot Peter Stanchek and his fellow renegades, but the twist at the start of this new storyline is all about making life difficult for Harada.
The opening pages of Harbinger #20 change the entire book. At some point in the coming future, Toyo Harada’s extraordinary abilities and the true nature of his foundation will be exposed to the public, shifting the course of the entire title by making him an international criminal. When he’s called to answer for his crimes, Harada goes on the air and essentially declares war against the rest of the world, suddenly making this book much more than just the struggle of a group of teens fighting an evil organization. Characterized as a sort of Lex Luthor/Charles Xavier hybrid, Harada has been groomed to become the big bad of the Valiant universe, and both this week’s Harbinger and Unity make significant strides toward a war between the superheroes of this world and it’s most powerful psiot. Because Harada has been sharing the spotlight with Peter Stanchek in Harbinger for almost two years, he’s a fully formed, multidimensional villain, and understanding the personal stakes for Harada in this fight ultimately makes for a more complex conflict.
While the opening sets up a bold new status quo, the rest of the issue flashes back to show how Harada reached this point, introducing the new character responsible for revealing massive amounts of confidential information online. Dysart understands the importance of a good first impression, and Octavio González’s escape from an armed S.W.A.T. team is another captivating character introduction that reveals personality in a situation rife with suspense. Sometimes Dysart’s teen dialogue can be a bit much (“You guys are boob-punching my vibe!”), but it works to bring some humor to the tense proceedings and helps differentiate the young characters from the old. In many ways, this book is about the world’s extraordinary youth fighting against a corrupt establishment, and the colorful speech helps emphasize the immaturity of these characters compared to their deadly serious opponents. It will be very interesting to see what role Peter and his friends have in the title’s new landscape, and a large part of this book’s appeal come from the fact that it’s nearly impossible to guess where the story is going to go next.
Clayton Henry is one of the artists regularly used by Valiant, and his clean, smooth style is indicative of the publisher’s house style. With some exceptions, most of Valiant’s artists have a traditional superhero look that may not have the most personality, but tells the story with clarity and energy. Henry’s work combines the cinematic staging of Eternal Warrior’s Trevor Hairsine with the animated expression of Quantum & Woody’s Tom Fowler, making him equally adept at dynamic action sequences and more intimate character moments. The scope of the opening sequence pitting Harada against the world is so much bigger than Octavio’s introduction, and the art reflects that as Henry uses primarily widescreen layouts for the global events in the future, then shifts to smaller panels to build tension for Octavio’s escape.
The final pages lead to a foreboding moment of utter denial from Harada, and Henry’s art (along with Brian Reber’s atmospheric coloring) highlights the contrast between the reality of Harada’s situation and the fantasy that he is struggling to keep alive. The characters of Harbinger face an uncertain future, but that uncertainty has made it the crown jewel of Valiant’s lineup by creating a superhero comic with a legitimate sense of risk. Dysart’s story isn’t afraid of taking chances, and giving creators the freedom to move in unexpected directions is one of the reasons Valiant has built a strong reputation in a relatively short time.