We here at Panels are taking some much needed time off; in the meantime, we’re revisiting some favorite old posts from the last 6 months! We’ll see you back on July 11 with all new posts for your enjoyment.
This post originally ran on May 12, 2016.
The End of Two Big Eras From The Big Two
Something inside me snapped in January 2016. I had just finished reading the finale to Marvel’s months-long mega-crossover series, Secret Wars, and I daresay it did its job too well. By drawing on its own publication history in such a thorough manner, the ending all but suggested “that’s the end of Marvel, thanks for reading.” On top of that, DC’s Convergence event and tie-ins in summer 2015 flew over audience’s heads, serving as a stopgap while DC moved shifted its offices from New York to Burbank. While much of Convergence was poorly received, it nonetheless drew upon tons of nostalgia and gave send-offs to old versions of characters, culminating in a tone similar to Secret Wars of “your favorite toys all came out for one last hurrah, and now they’re all playing somewhere else, the end.”
Combined, these two events left me feeling a bit like Andy at the end of Toy Story 3 – sure, I’d keep up with graphic novels released by the “Big Two” to stay on top of trends, but the urgency had left my fanhood. Characters like Kamala Khan and Howard The Duck are still fun to read, but not because of their place within a larger comics universe. It’s easier to board a train out of your hometown when everyone told you goodbye at last night’s party, and my reading habits were ready to depart for new locales.
Valiant was founded in 1989 with a reputation for avoiding the pitfalls of superhero storytelling found elsewhere. Their comparably small fictional universe was tightly interwoven between titles, stuck to its consequences (no resurrections!), and pushed a unique stable of characters who were never carbon copies of each other. Valiant was bought by videogame studio Acclaim, who went bankrupt and let the comics die out. Their intellectual properties were purchased by fans-turned-investors and the brand relaunched in 2012 with a fresh, rebooted slate of comics sharing all of the same strengths as its former glory.
Admittedly, my first exposure to Valiant’s comics, the first trade volumes of Shadowman and Harbinger, seemed just okay when I read them in 2013. Then, more recently, I took a chance on a couple of miniseries that served as a one-two punch that restarted my comics-loving heart: The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage and Divinity. Both of them are consciously considerate in every facet of their design: plotting, color, panel placement, emotional and visual themes… any comics universe that could contain two such stories must have more, so I decided to go all-in with Valiant and read everything they put out from 2012 to the present. With a couple of personal exceptions (Harbinger gets a lot better, by the way), I can confidently say that they are one of the most consistently entertaining brands I’ve encountered in comics.
Not An Army of Middle-Aged White Men With Painfully Similar Hero’s Journeys
The diversity of Valiant’s casting puts other superhero universes to shame. Between Neela Sethi (Ivar, Timewalker), Monica Jim / Animalia (Harbinger), Faith Herbert / Zephyr (Harbinger, Faith), Jack Boniface / Shadowman (Shadowman), Eric Henderson / Quantum (Quantum & Woody, The Delinquents), Shan and Hwen Fong (The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage) Abram Adams (Divinity), Amanda McKee / Livewire (Harbinger, Unity, Imperium), Toyo Harada (Harbinger, Unity, Imperium), John Torkelson / Torque (Harbinger), Kristina Hathaway (Harbinger), and Rai (Rai), just to name some prominent characters, there is a wide blend of nationalities, races, body types, and personalities. I have not noticed much LGBTQ representation outside of Kristina sharing a kiss with a female teammate and Quantum dating a trans woman, which is portrayed surprisingly sweetly in a series usually full of snark and satire.
Even protagonists many would codify as white adhere to specific and unique identities. John Torkelson is from the state of Georgia with atrophied legs and a chip on his shoulder the size of adolescent boyhood (in his super-powered “Torque” mode he mocks a man in a wheelchair, failing to recognize the sheer irony of his attitude). Pete Stanchek, ostensibly the early protagonist of Harbinger, grew up with mind-control powers and developed into an unchecked little monster, only seeking to atone for his abuses after he mind-controls his childhood crush into loving him (whether that led to molestation or rape is up to interpretation, but his actions are treated as despicable either way). Bloodshot, a chalk-white character who functions as a cross between Punisher and Robocop, lacks any identity of his own and is often thrust between competing causes that wish to direct his talents as a killer. In addition, the mantle of “Bloodshot” is shown to have belonged to several different men over the decades. X-O Manowar, wielder of an alien suit of armor, is Aric of Dacia, a fifth-century Visigoth who was kidnapped by an alien race and returned to Earth 1,600 years later due to time dilation. Idealist straight-edger Obadiah Archer was raised by a religious cult to become an assassin.
Regardless of qualities of identity, all of Valiant’s protagonists share imperfection in common – none of them were told about great power and responsibility, or if they were, they weren’t transformed into altruists as a result. Even when they attempt the superheroic, results are mixed, often securing temporary peace at a high price. Speaking of mixing…
Valiant’s Crossovers Are The Best In The Biz
There is a tendency among Valiant fans to emphasize how easily readers can enter its universe. “Just pick a character and enjoy the ride!” They are mostly correct, but should also emphasize the fact that, when series do intertwine, they tend to play to each other’s strengths and combine themes to become more than a simple “two heroes beat someone up instead of one!” story. Every crossover reveals something about the characters involved, and ends with everyone having learned something new, either about the world they live in or about themselves (usually both). On Valiant’s end, this accomplishes the goal of hooking readers on more series, and on the readers’ end, they get to see story threads continue to build and reflect in new characters. This pattern sounds so simple, yet it’s so satisfying every time!
The two most prominent examples are Harbinger Wars and Armor Hunters, both of which are contained in hardcover editions that print each issue in the intended reading order. If you read the paperback trades, you’ll have to swap between two or three books a chapter at a time to get the same effect. Having tried both methods, the hardcover is the most convenient, but the extra effort to coordinate between paperbacks is well worth it too. If you stick just to one series and don’t branch into the others during a crossover, the separate story threads are constructed to accommodate such a reading, but cannot escape creating the impression that there’s a larger story taking place.
Another crossover, the appropriately titled The Delinquents, pairs the two most comedic series, Quantum & Woody and Archer & Armstrong, and plays their personalities against each other for compounded laughs. Beyond its sense of humor, the panel work and layouts are out of this world and employ a visual creativity that couldn’t replicate to film without a virtuoso like Edgar Wright at the helm. (If nothing else comes of this article but Edgar Wright directing a film adaptation of The Delinquents, my mission on this planet will have been a qualified success.)
The Valiant, which starts with Gilad The Eternal Warrior, leads to a massive showdown involving basically all of Valiant’s heroes, and winds up following Bloodshot and Geomancer before a fourth-issue finale, is the only crossover that seems to derive maximum value from knowing as much of the Valiant universe as possible. It’s not a jumping-on point so much as a rallying cry for fans, even though the story it tells tries to be accessible for new readers.
Plus, can I take a moment to throw some love on CineFix’s 8-bit explanation of the plot to crossover series superteam Unity?
Despite retaining roughly 1% of comics sales market share, Valiant is chugging along, recruiting top talent and allegedly paying top-dollar page rates. They’ve got several movies in production thanks to some nine-figure funding from Chinese entertainment company DMG, with the first movie, Bloodshot, scheduled for release in 2017, with an eye towards Harbinger and an eventual movie crossover between them.
Whatever comes of the movie adaptations, they have more than enough quality material for inspiration, and I hope they take the same cues as the publisher has.
I hope you get bitten by the Valiant bug and join me in the fandom, which has been largely positive. Marvel and DC’s legacies go back nearly 80 years, bringing with them hordes of fans all too eager to tell new readers either “how it used to be” or, just as likely, “how it should be.” Valiant’s a more recent brand, with roots only going back to 1989, meaning the writers, artists, and editors only need to appeal to the most recent generation readers and not any bygone nostalgia trips (although classic editions of the original comics do exist). They are making comics to be enjoyed, free of editorially tweaking characters until they’re someone’s “right version.”
Perhaps their comics are the right version to me now, but their party hasn’t bade farewell yet.