God of Comics – Imperium
We started this column off with a Valiant Comic.
It seemed like a good idea – yes, we talk about a lot of comics and other forms of media, and we try and break down the why that makes a story work or not. All of our discussions are based on that, the idea that there is something at the core of a story that either makes it resonant or fail with the audience.
Valiant Comics, when they launched all the way back in the nineties, resonated with their time and still hold up today. Their comics as a whole were born from the idea of having a tight mythology and over-arching continuity tied to thematic stories that explored different facets of society. They were, in many ways, Vertigo with punching and an over-arching plot that allowed them to do small crossovers that didn’t require you to buy everything the company was putting out to understand. You could read what you wanted and that would be enough. Modern Valiant has taken that a step further. Instead of every comic being an ongoing title, most of their comics are set as a series of limited series that follow a certain core group of characters. This allows the writers a great deal of flexibility; the only comic not to do this is X-O Manowar, their flagship title and the best of all comics (according to us).
There are two other titles launched shortly after X-O Manowar that have stood the test of time. One was Bloodshot, which we tend to think of as the best pure action comic on the shelves, although recently they’ve delved into horror. The other was Harbinger, but now it’s called Imperium. What demanded the change? The story did, as this is one of the most deceptively complicated narratives in any medium, in that in doesn’t look all that complex until you sit down and think about.
Which is what we do.
Seriously, we get about as much sleep as John Flood.
Harbinger was the story of Peter Stanchek, a teenager on the run from a government agency that he knows nothing about. They’ve targeted his mom, and he’s been on the run with his best friend for years when we first meet him. The reason? Peter is what’s called a psiot, basically the Valiant version of a mutant. The general public knows nothing about psiots or any superbeings; they’re finding out about them at the same time we are, at the same time Peter is, and Peter is very much a kid. He’s running scared, trying to smother his powers while using them to make people forget he exists rather than killing them.
Does this make him a good person? Not really. He’s enabling his best friend’s drug addiction, breaking into people’s homes, doing all sorts of things to stay ahead of the criminal government agency that seeks to bring him in. It all seems justifiable until he goes to his old neighborhood and changes the emotions of an old childhood friend, making her love him. I repeat: he brainwashes someone into loving him. He doesn’t take advantage of this, but he does violate another person’s agency and this is something that the comic never forgets and something that he will never forgive himself for.
He would like to be a good person and he knows he falls short of the mark.
The government program responsible for capturing and containing psiots – Project Rising Spirit, for those interested – has a reason for going after Peter above all others; it seems that Peter is one of the most powerful psiots alive, even if he doesn’t know it. If they can get him, harness and program him, Project Rising Spirit will have the weapon it needs to go after the one man they fear: Toyo Harada.
Harada is the CEO and founder of the Harbinger Foundation. He looks like a supremely fit man in his late thirties, despite having been alive in World War II. He was there when the bombs fell, and he swore that he would save the world from itself – and when he steps in to save Peter and takes him to the Harninger Foundation, everything looks fine. The Harbinger Foundation is Harada’s means of influencing the world, a corporation that leads in several tech-fields, and is working towards creating a world of post-scarcity economics – in other words, they want to build a world where everyone has food and shelter, access to education and whatever else it is they need to pursue their passion. Harada possesses the gentility of Charles Xavier and the ruthlessness of Erik Lenshar.
Harada introduces Peter to the other psiots and intends to start training him. There’s some jealousy from the other psiots, who have been there longer but are not getting the attention that Harada pays Peter, and this is where we begin to see Harada’s faults: he doesn’t see people as people, he sees them as parts in his plan. He expects perfection, and is annoyed but forgiving when people can’t live up to his expectations. Like many intelligent, capable people, he doesn’t understand that there’s serious differences between himself and the people around him. He thinks it’s a matter of application rather than utility. And so, when the other psiots dislike Peter, he doesn’t understand why or how dangerous that might look to someone like Peter.
And things get worse when Peter discovers that Harada left Peter’s friend, a drug addict, to die.
Peter freaks out. He grabs some other psiots and runs away, unable to understand how anyone that would leave a single person to die could be good for the world. Harada, meanwhile, doesn’t see what the big deal is. He’s a big picture kind of guy and often doesn’t see what the individual consequences of his actions are going to be on a personal level.
And this comic? This comic thrives on consequences. A bomb fell and a man swore to eliminate the causes that resulted in their use. A boy ends up on the run and is traumatized, emotionally stunted, and he lashes out but tries and fails to be a good man. One of them is unable to forgive himself, and the other is incapable of recognizing that he might need forgiveness.
More immediately, we see how power corrupts. We see a scared child do something terrible with the power he has, and the moment he has an understanding of what it is he’s done he hates himself for it. On the other hand, we see someone who is actively using his power to save humanity from itself, all the while losing his own humanity.
It’s thrilling, challenging, and intelligent.
So when Valiant announced their first crossover, Harbinger Wars, we were apprehensive. We’ve already railed against the big stupid idiot events of the big two, so we’ll refrain from doing so here. Image and Boom do not do crossovers, and IDW does them as one-offs that may or may not connect with anything.
And Valiant? Valiant does them as something different. Something better. The whole of the Valiant line moves forward with every story, with new characters introduced and new dimensions added to old ones. They’re self-contained, adding to everything without requiring you to buy everything. The template for this started in Harbinger Wars, and has been in every single Valiant event since. Harbinger Wars put all of it’s major players in Vegas for a big showdown, and also gave us our first real look at Project Rising Spirit and how far they were willing to go to stop Harada. We understood that while Harada was blinded by his own hubris, Project Rising Spirit was dedicated to the perpetuation of a death cult built on greed and avarice. They represented the very wealthy, the people that break governments and ideologies to further their own wealth. The Wolves of Wall Street. The One Percent. Them.
Look at how those people are crippling our own world with their idiot greed, crippling their own long term interests in favor of their short term lusts. So long as everyone else has less than them – far less than them – they’re happy, even if their means will end up killing every living thing on the planet (and it will, but we’ll be talking about that presently).
Project Rising Spirit also has psiots of its own. They were kidnapping kids, then implanting them with bombs to control them and brainwashing them into being slaves, but Peter got them free and Harada rescued as many as he could, forcing Project Rising Spirit to tap a group of people they’d rather have left behind.
The H.A.R.D. Corps.
Don’t worry, it’s an acronym. H.A.R.D. stands for Harbinger Active Resistance Division, and if you think that makes their operation sound like hardcore, well, remember that this property has its roots in the nineties. The people involved in the program are those that have given up on living, their situations so bleak because of the circumstances Project Rising Spirit and the people they work for have created that they have no way out. The Project offers to take care of whatever problems they have if they’ll agree to serve on this horrible top secret military unit. If you could sacrifice yourself to save your family, would you? And defend your country at the same time?
Horrifying, isn’t it? Valiant Comics is willing to look at how American democracy is broken in a very real way, and then applies that to their comics. If you had the power to fix it, would you? No matter the cost? Because that’s what Harada is doing: taking a look at a broken system and trying to fix it, with happiness and prosperity for all at the end of it. And if you saw a man that was going to destroy everything you knew and claimed to want to make the world better, but, by the same token, you knew that he was willing to let people die, would you stop him? If you had the power? No matter the cost? Because that’s Peter Stanchek.
Harada is determined to take the will of others and bend it to his own. He wants you to be happy and by your definition of the word, but will accept nothing less. Peter, on the other hand, will happily kill himself and everyone around him to maintain his freedom and the freedom of those around him – even his ex-childhood friend, who he recruits to be his conscience, relying on her to keep him from being corrupted by his own power.
She gets Peter to reveal that psiots are real to the public. She gets a group of psiots together and organizes a rebellion, exposing Harada (but not Project Rising Spirit), forcing Harada to confront Peter, and Peter uses his powers to corrupt Harada’s cell structure, then leaves. Yes, Peter Stanchek leaves. He never wanted to be anyone or anything, and he hates himself for the things he’s done. Using his powers, he vanishes from the world and sinks below the oceans depths, planning never to resurface.
And Harada, fully exposed, now has to operate under the watchful eye of the world. See, Project Rising Spirit and the Harbinger Foundation were engaged in a secret war, but Harada being exposed forced the war into the open. It’s the whole world versus Harada, and that’s where Imperiumbegins and the story shifts. Harbinger was about what is right on a personal level coming into conflict with what is right on a global level. The thing is, both points are equally necessary, but if you deal with the world people will follow. Harada was going to win his Peter even if it cost him everything, and it did.
Imperium changes the scope of the conflict.
We see the world that Harada will create, and it is every inch the utopia he promised. Thing is, with the resources of the Harbinger Foundation stolen, Harada has to start from scratch and is forced to do some things he might not otherwise do. First thing he does? Takes over a small African country, the one most crippled by disease and warlords and everything else, basically the antithesis of what it is that he’s hoping to build. He lets everyone know that this country is his now, and he starts building the infrastructure needed to make this place the utopia he envisions.
Project Rising Spirit isn’t going to make it easy for him, of course. They set up attacks, trade embargoes, various acts of sabotage, everything they can think of to make Harada’s plan not viable. They’ve also moved their base of operations to a submarine in the hope that Harada (a) won’t know they’re down there, and (b) won’t cause their heads to explode.
Thing is, this is Harada. He knows that the submarine is down there, that they have resources that he wants, and he’s going to need skills he doesn’t have to make this work. So he recruits monsters, a group of aliens, killers, monsters, robots, and other-dimensional beings to help him achieve his goals. A lesser writer might tell us these things, but Joshua Dysart is unwilling to skip over so fertile storytelling grounds. He gives us the unsettling and often disturbing perspectives of the creatures that Harada has recruited to his cause, allowing us full insight into the scope of what he’s fighting alongside.
You know the phrase, those who stare too long into the abyss, the abyss also stares into them? Yeah, I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the sense we get here. Harada is dealing with so many extra-human forces that it’s stripping away his humanity, and this is a sacrifice he can accept provided he gets to save everyone else’s. It’s the hubris of being right that’s going to kill him, and the arrogance that comes from thinking that being right justifies any action. The people he’s associating with him aren’t trustworthy in any way, and making matters worth he’s just come across the one power that is, without any chance of argument, greater than his own.
This is a feeling we can share with Harada – having followed him from Harbinger until now, we always think that Joshua Dysart might plateau, that he can’t possibly top the issue or story arc that came before, but he always finds a way. The art is good enough to capture everything that Joshua comes up with, whether than be utopian future, African slum, or alien hellscape. One reads Imperium with a sense of awe and trembling, waiting for whatever is to come with baited breath.
Imperium moves an already complex philosophy into something more grander and, at once, more grounded. Harbinger was about responsibility and consequence on a personal and global scale. These comics still cover the original conflict, yes, but they also look at the cost of creating a better world and the push-back of those who profit from human misery, mingled with the broken souls of a broken world. This is one of the most intellectually challenging comics on the market, and it never delves into the grim and gritty bullshit that so many mistake as the hallmark of maturity. Instead, like a lot of Valiant comics, Imperium focuses on a few core philosophical themes and engaging characters and goes from there, adding in explosions and punching as necessary. There’s a real sense of movement and accomplishment, and it makes their comics an absolute joy to read and talk about.
Imperium may not be the best of all comics, but it’s damn close. It’s brilliantly written and illustrated, with interesting character designs and art that knows when to be breathtaking and when to move the story along. It hints, it teases, and when it’s ready Imperium engages you on multiple fronts: it is one of the perfect comics for our times, political and economic and social commentary dressed up as people hitting one another, an epic opera writ on the comics page.
These comics cannot help but resonate strongly with whomever read them, and we can never get enough.