Welcome back to Longbox Junk, the place to find comic reviews that nobody USUALLY asks for. That's right. . .it's another Reader Request Edition!
This time out, I switched things up a little. Instead of randomly drawing a request from the pickin' hat, I decided to grant a (very late) Christmas wish to one of the fine folk of Comic Book Realm and give his suggestion for Valiant's Harbinger a read and review.
Here's the thing about Harbinger. . .and most of Valiant's 90's comics in general: I don't really like them. I admit that I've never really given them the chance they deserve, but even just flipping through the ones I've gained here and there I've never really seen anything to grab and keep my interest.
BUT. . .
I'm going to give Harbinger a fair chance here. It's what Longbox Junk is all about!
A little background before we get into it.
These comics are actually from my daughter's collection, and they've been there for years. Usually when I come across any Valiant comics in auction lots or comic bundles of some sort, I'll give them to my daughter by default, so she actually has quite a few of them.
So imagine my surprise when I did a little of my usual pre-post research and discovered that these comics are actually NOT quite the Longbox Junk I thought they were, with the first issue in good shape valued at a cool $125 (according to Comic Book Realm) and high-graded slabbed copies (According to CGC) coming in at around A THOUSAND BUCKS!
I just tossed these comics (and many others) to my daughter when she was a kid in order to plump her starter collection with reader comics that could take a little abuse. Just looking at them, I would have never thought that ANY of these comics would be that "valuable".
As far as my daughter is concerned, though. . .their true "value" lies in having got them from her dad when she was a kid. She's not interested in selling them for any price, thank you very much.
ANYWAY. . .
I'm not reviewing the whole 41 issue series of Harbinger because my daughter doesn't have the whole series. After issue #10 there's a lot of gaps. So what I'm going to do here is review the first story arc, which covers issues #1 - #7 and the most "valuable" issues of Harbinger. I'm also going to break it up into two parts make things a bit more readable.
Merry (late) Christmas, Tenzil!
Harbinger #1 - #7. . .let's do it!
Children of the Eighth Day
Well isn't this series just FULL of surprises. . .
After a very confusing read of the first issue, I discovered that there's a #0 issue where the Harbinger story ACTUALLY begins. My daughter doesn't have the #0 issue, but the #1 she has DOES have the coupon you need to send away for it, which means that (K-CHING!) she's got the most "valuable" version of the comic (not that she cares much about that).
A bit of research shows me that this Harbinger #0 is actually pretty rare (even though it was included with collected editions later) because in order to get it, you needed to send in the coupon included in issues #1 - #6.
I find myself a bit confused over this.
In order to get the BEGINNING of the story, you have to spend SIX MONTHS collecting coupons from the series, meaning you will have already reached the END of the first story arc before you can send in for the comic that STARTS the story. To make matters worse, the coupon in my daughter's #1 has 3 panels of a story ON the coupon. Research shows me THAT short story told over the 6 coupons is the origin of the main Harbinger antagonist, Toyo Harada.
SO. . .what we have here is the beginning of a story that readers could only get 6 months after the series had been running, with the origin of a major character told in tiny pieces on the coupons you had to send in to get the missing part of the story.
Probably the worst part about this confusing little dance that Valiant set up is that Issue #1 of the series takes place soon after the end of #0, making it practically unreadable without context.
In 2020, I'm fortunate enough to be able to cheat and read #0 online, but this must have been a strange experience for readers in 1992 because #1 starts RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE STORY during a fight scene with absolutely NO explanation as to what is going on or who these people are!
Just how the these comics became so valuable after such an awkward beginning is a complete mystery to me. But there it is. A comic that begins in the middle of an action scene without any context or introduction is worth a thousand bucks slabbed. Go figure.
ANYWAY. . .
Like I said, I cheated and read #0 online just so I could figure out what the was going on. So let's start this thing over from the beginning and throw an extra issue into this review, shall we? We shall!
SCRIPT: David Lapham
PENCILS: David Lapham
COVER: David Lapham
After high school student Peter Stanchek begins to manifest strange mental abilities, including mind reading, levitation, and telekinesis, he answers a mysterious newspaper ad placed by "The Harbinger Foundation" that claims to be looking for people like him.
After meeting a representative of Harbinger, Peter's powers seem to increase. He uses them to mentally control his mother, and to make one of the most desirable girls in school, Kris Hathaway, want to go out with him against her will.
Peter is taken to the Harbinger Foundation complex in Pittsburgh and we are introduced to Toyo Harada, the head of Harbinger, as he secretly watches Peter being interviewed. We learn that Peter is unusual in that his powers manifested on their own instead of being fully triggered by Harada's own ability to do so, and that Peter manifests multiple powers instead of the usual single power Harada is able to unlock in others. Harada takes Peter personally under his wing, becoming a sort of father figure and mentor.
The story skips ahead two months later. Peter's best friend, Joe, confronts him. He's concerned about the nasty changes in Peter's personality since becoming involved with Harbinger. He also suspects that Peter is forcing Kris to be his girlfriend against her will.
During that day's training at Harbinger, Peter is distracted. He knows that his best friend is right and Harbinger has changed him for the worse. Peter decides to leave Harbinger for a while in order to clear his head. This doesn't sit well with Harada, who has been personally training Peter. He quickly identifies Joe as the problem.
Later that night, Peter removes his mind control from his girlfriend, Kris, and tries to explain. She is disgusted by what she's been forced to do under his influence and makes him leave. Peter goes to Joe's house in order to apologize to his best friend. He finds Joe dead. . .covered in blood. He's been murdered.
Turning to the only place he thinks he can, Peter returns to Harbinger. . .but he (rightly) suspects that they were behind the murder of his friend. As his mental state worsens, Harada sadly comes to the conclusion that Peter must die as well. A despondent Peter calls Kris to make amends and discovers that despite his mind control, she did develop feelings for him. They agree to meet.
As Kris drives to Pittsburgh to meet Peter, Harada's assistant takes advantage of Peter's trust to get close enough to shoot him in the head. The assassination doesn't go as planned. In a massive explosion that destroys the Harbinger building, 32 people are killed and 200 are injured as Peter's mysterious powers somehow subconsciously save him. Harada is intrigued by Peter's survival and decides that instead of killing him, Peter needs to be captured and studied.
The story ends with Peter and Kris fleeing Pittsburgh together.
First off. . .despite the very "collectible" nature of this comic, it has one of the most -Awful covers I've seen in a while. But that's neither here nor there, as far as the story goes. . .
The story here is actually pretty good. It introduces the two main characters very nicely and with a minimum of exposition. It's well-written for the most part and flows well from start to finish, nicely setting up the rest of the series (which was already through with the first story arc by the time anyone could get their hands on this. . .but enough about THAT).
At the heart of things, it's basically a sort of discount X-Men origin story. However, there's just enough differences to make me want to see what happens next. I like that they flipped the X-Men script and made the most powerful Psychic in the world (Harada, playing the role of Professor X) a villain finding and recruiting potential superhumans for training (The Harbinger Foundation playing the part of Xavier's School for Gifted Students). This reversal on the standard formula is an interesting one.
I also liked that as Peter's powers increased, he uses them in a way that (come on and admit it) many of us would if we suddenly had mind control powers as a teenager. . .he snags the hottest girl in school and makes her do, well. . .whatever he wanted her to do. There's no nobility here. There's no heroism. He uses his powers to get what he wants. It's a pretty honest and realistic look at how powers would probably actually be used by a teenager.
Overall, I liked this issue. It's a great introduction to the series. It follows a pretty well-worn path, but flips the script JUST enough to make me want more. Too bad readers in 1992 had to jump through hoops to get it.
Children of the Eighth Day
SCRIPT: Jim Shooter
PENCILS: David Lapham
COVER: Jim Shooter & David Lapham
So HERE'S where the Harbinger story actually started for readers in 1992.
Let's do it!
Our story continues directly after Issue #0, with Pete Stanchek and Kris Hathaway on the run from the Harbinger Foundation after a failed assassination attempt on Pete leads to the death of more than 30 people. Harbinger is in hot pursuit of the couple, with Toyo Harada determined to capture and study Pete.
After a battle with three of Pete's former friends and fellow superhuman Harbinger "students", Pete and Kris manage to elude their pursuers and go into hiding, where Pete decides to fight against Harbinger by intercepting mailed responses to the Foundation's newspaper ads seeking new recruits.
After robbing a post office and finding a likely contact, Pete and Kris make their way to the home of Faith Herbert. Pete reveals his powers to her and, in doing so, unlocks Faith's own powers of flight. She quickly agrees to join Pete and Kris on their mission, but there's immediate jealous tension between the two women.
A few days later, during a raid on a Harbinger building to intercept more ad responses, Pete encounters Charlene Dupre (AKA Flamingo), a recent Harbinger recruit with the ability to manifest flames from her body. After witnessing Pete using his telekinetic abilities to wreck the Harbinger office, Pete fully unlocks Charlene's powers and she quickly joins the growing group of Renegade superhumans.
Charlene's arrival at their hideout immediately causes more tension, with Kris coming to the conclusion that Pete is less saving people from Harbinger and more building a mind-controlled harem. She is determined that the next recruit for their group will be male or she's leaving Pete. . .and so they decide to investigate a John Torkelson in Georgia.
Torkelson is a massively strong man, but not superhuman. Pete immediately becomes jealous as all three of the women are obviously strongly attracted to him. They invite "Torque" to join their group despite his lack of powers and against Pete's wishes.
Later, while Pete is away from their hideout, the women are all trying to attract Torque's attention, leading to a fight between Kris and Flamingo that Pete arrives in time to break up. Pete uses his powers to look deeper into Torque's mind and unlocks his hidden superhuman strength. Reluctantly, Pete admits that Torque has a place in his group of Renegades.
While the group discusses Torque's place with them, Harbinger attacks their hideout! A brutal battle between Pete's group of Renegades and Harbinger's gunmen, backed up by several superhumans, takes place. The Renegades fight together as a team and barely manage to defeat the Harbinger hit squad, but Kris is injured during the battle. . .
To be continued.
It's basically a "Gettin' the team together" story that concentrates mostly on introducing the members of the "Renegades" and showing them fighting together for the first time. As I mentioned before, it begins abruptly and with no context. . .lacking the essential Issue #0. The picture below is literally the first introduction the reader has to these characters:
It's an extremely odd way for a comic series to start. It still amazes me that this issue is so valuable to collectors, given the almost unreadable nature of the story at the beginning. And if you think you're going to get some exposition later. . .you're wrong. There's VERY little background given. The story jumps right into a fight scene and then Pete and Kris start gathering recruits for their group without any real explanation as to who the they are or why they are doing what they are doing. It hits the ground running in the middle of the story and doesn't look back.
My first read through this issue before discovering there was a #0 was confusing to say the least.
THAT SAID. . .
I've already gone over the strange beginning of this series WAY too much. Let's look at the issue on its own merits. Like I said, it's basically a "Let's get a team together" story that is mostly introductions to new characters and setting up conflict for future issues. It covers a lot of ground, so even though it's well-written, it does feel a bit rushed. Even so, I still liked this a lot.
What I like most is the underlying sexual tension that keeps this from being a straight X-Men clone and gives it a bit of a darker edge. I like how Kris calls out Pete for only recruiting women to his group, and then turns hypocrite when she (and the other two women in the group as well) falls for Torque, who immediately takes over Pete's place as Alpha Male. It's an interesting setup for an extremely dysfunctional team where every decision is made based on jealousy and physical attraction.
Overall, moving past the problem of starting a story in the middle, this is a pretty interesting take on what would otherwise be a standard superhero team comic. By giving everything a dark undertone of tension and jealousy, it flips the script just enough that I'm interested to see where this is going.
The Root of All Evil
SCRIPT: Jim Shooter
PENCILS: David Lapham
COVER: David Lapham
Continuing directly from Issue #1, Pete and his team of Renegades rush an injured Kris to a nearby hospital. Pete desperately uses his powers to pull the bullets out of Kris, but he lacks the medical skill to save her. He reluctantly allows an actual doctor to operate.
Realizing that Harbinger is hot on their trail, the Renegades flee the hospital with Kris as soon as she is stable. They are attacked by Harbinger snipers outside and the doctor who saved Kris gives them his car in order to escape. After they elude their pursuers, Doctor Heyward gives them directions to his secluded summer house, where he allows them to stay until Kris recovers from her injuries. Pete and the Renegades are glad to have found a new ally and hideout.
In the meantime. . .Faith flies to their former hideout in order to retrieve their belongings. She finds the area completely cleaned of any sign of the battle that took place shortly before. As she investigates, she is attacked by two Harbinger agents waiting for anyone to return. Pete arrives just in time to save her, and mentally interrogates one of the gunmen.
Following a vague lead in the mind of the Harbinger agent, Pete and Faith discover a warehouse full of Harbinger uniforms. They steal enough to outfit the team. Also at the warehouse, they discover information pointing toward another secret Harbinger training facility.
As Pete tries to rally the Renegades for an attack, Torque asserts his new dominance and tries to take over command of the team (and the team's women) from Pete. Kris makes it clear that Pete is still the official leader of the Renegades. . .for now.
The Renegades quickly travel to New York City and assault the Harbinger facility, meeting little resistance until they discover a secret elevator that leads them straight into an ambush! The team is attacked by dozens of Harbinger gunmen, led by Toyo Harada and backed up by several superhumans.
The rest of the team are quickly subdued by Harada's mental powers, and he informs Pete that he is too dangerous to be allowed to live. Pete desperately fights back, managing to revive his friends and helping them to defeat the Harbinger forces until only Harada is left. The Harbinger leader retreats, and as as Pete and the Renegades try to pursue him, they discover his office and break open the hidden safe.
The story ends with Pete and the Renegades flying back to their new hideout in possession of a huge pile of cash money and celebrating their first victory as an actual team.
To be continued.
Moving past the "Gettin' the team together" stage and into the "Comin' together as a team" phase of the story, the second issue is well-written, fast-paced, and carries a nice sense of tension and jealousy. . .especially in the scene where Torque tries to take over the team from Pete by openly asserting his dominance over the women. It's an interesting take on the usual "superteam" dynamic. . .at least for a comic from the early 90's. This kind of deconstruction of "traditional" superhero tropes is pretty common in comics today.
But underneath the interesting angle on superteam dynamics there is a glaring continuity problem rooted in. . .*sigh*. . .that strange Issue #0. It's established in #0 that Toyo Harada was a father figure and mentor to Pete, whose betrayal was so brutal that Pete is now gathering a team of his own to gain revenge. In THIS issue, Harada introduces himself to Pete for apparently the first time. . .
What's the REAL introduction?
OR. . .
It's just a strange little moment that sort of breaks things if you actually read issue #0 as the beginning of the story instead of #1. It makes me wonder when exactly #0 was written. . .before the main series or after it was already going? There are a few other disconnects that I've noticed in these first two issues. . .namely Kris' steadfast devotion to Pete (despite her physical attraction to Torque) and extreme jealousy toward other women on the team when in issue #0 she was disgusted by the things she had to do for him under mind control and they were barely speaking to each other at the end of that issue.
Strange continuity disconnects aside, this was a pretty good issue. Jim Shooter does a nice job of keeping an edge of physical attraction and jealousy in almost every interaction between these characters, which make the conversations between fight scenes just interesting enough for me to want to keep reading. I can see where this sort of writing can drive right off the cliff into superhero soap opera territory, but for now Shooter is keeping a pretty steady hand on the wheel.
One Small Step. . .
SCRIPT: Jim Shooter
PENCILS: David Lapham
COVER: David Lapham
Continuing shortly after issue #2, Kris has recovered from her injuries and the team plans their next move. They fly to Seattle to enlist the aid of a computer hacker called "Ax" in order to see what's on some heavily-encrypted computer disks they stole from Harada's office during their recent assault on a secret Harbinger training base.
Ax is unsuccessful until Pete reaches into his mind and unlocks his hidden power (the ability to speak to and understand electronic devices), leading Pete to wonder if EVERYONE has a hidden ability that he can unlock. They discover that the discs contain lists of suspected and confirmed "Extraterrestrial Landing Sites". The team votes Ax in as the newest member of the Renegades and decide to investigate the closest site on the list.
Deep in the forest of Olympic National Park, the team discovers what seems to be some sort of beacon. As they try to decide what to do next, they are attacked by strange beings driving a heavily-armed vehicle. After defeating the creatures by turning their own weapons against them, Ax discovers a control box, which he uses to open a hidden holding area containing a large alien ship!
Inside the ship, Ax's new abilities compel him to launch the ship on a pre-determined course off of Earth and toward the moon, to the horror of the rest of the team. The ship automatically lands at a hidden alien base on the dark side of the moon. As the team exits the ship to investigate the base and find a way back home, they fall victim to gas that knocks them all unconscious.
Shortly after, Faith is woken by Ax, who has been recruited by the aliens to use his powers to help them build a ship that will enable them to return to their home galaxy. They have been stranded since their original ship was somehow destroyed. Ax informs Faith that part of his agreeing to work with the aliens is that they have given him Faith to use as he pleases.
Faith quickly wakes Pete, who uses his psychic powers to disable Ax as they rouse the rest of the team. They leave Ax behind as they try to find the ship they came in so they can escape the deadly alien base. They are quickly cornered by a large group of aliens and their human ally, Rexo. . .who is a former quadriplegic that was given a powerful robotic body by the aliens for. . .reasons?
The battle doesn't go well for our heroes and they are quickly overwhelmed by the superior numbers and weaponry of Rexo and the aliens, leaving only Flamingo, cowering and terrified. Ax rejoins his new alien allies and Rexo gives Flamingo to him. He orders the rest of the team executed. Flamingo finally summons the courage to attack, burning Ax and then facing Rexo and the aliens alone!
To be continued. . .
*Sigh* I KNEW it couldn't last.
Only three issues in (four, if you count #0) and this series hits the first dud. There's still some interesting things going on between the characters in the first part of the book. . .Torque trying to be a bit more discrete in his takeover of the team (and the team's women) from Pete by concentrating on Pete's main defender among the women, Kris. . .Flamingo noticing this and admitting to Pete that she's nothing but a "Hosebag" to any guy who wants her as she makes a move of her own to seduce the leader of the team. . .other small moments between characters through the issue maintaining the interesting level of sexual tension and jealousy that underlies their every action.
But then there's the aliens.
The story is just so contrived and forced. It honestly feels like the lowest amount of effort was put into it, like they were starting to get behind a bit and just threw this out there. It's just. . .it's bad. After a pretty good start in the first two issues, all of a sudden we get an extremely weak alien story like this? There's no imagination here. There's absolutely nothing interesting about the aliens or their laughable robo-warrior, Rexo. They even LOOK stupid!
I haven't really talked about the art in this series yet, as the story has been pretty interesting up to this point. The art is actually very nice. It seems to have a light Neal Adams influence, with expressive faces and a good amount of detail. It's nicely-colored and there are some interesting panel layouts. It's not GREAT comic art, but it's good comic art that I don't have much to complain about.
THAT SAID. . .
The aliens and especially Rexo are just. . .stupid-looking. I don't know what happened here, but the art after the first half of this comic takes the same steep downhill slide that the story does. It's pretty disappointing, to say the least.
Overall, there are still some good parts taking place outside of the main thrust of the story during the lead-up in the first half of the issue, but once you're past the midway mark and the alien story is in full swing, it's garbage. It looks like maybe this issue wasn't going to hit the stands on schedule, so the creative team just rushed something out. There's an obviously clear divide between good at the front and bad at the back.
As I said in my introduction, I've never really given any Valiant superhero comics a fair chance until now. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised to find Harbinger to be a pretty good read.
It has a well-written story that flips the standard teen superhero team comic script (of the time) by having every single action by the main characters influenced in some way by physical attraction and/or jealousy, leading to a constant underlying theme of dysfunction and tension. I can easily see this sort of writing going off a melodramatic cliff at any time, but for now it's an interesting team dynamic.
That said. . .
It's not perfect. Not even close. This series has problems that keep it from being as good as it COULD be. The major problem and the Pink-Covered elephant in the room is that the first issue starts in the middle of the story, hits the ground running, and never looks back long enough to explain what's going on. The actual beginning of the story wasn't available until the first arc was done with.
But THEN, the #0 issue directly contradicts events and story beats in the main series, leading to several "Wait. . .what?" moments that made me wonder exactly when the beginning of this story was actually written.
Worse, a mere three issues into the series and there's unfortunate signs of decline in terms of both story and art with an unimaginative alien brawl that I hope isn't a portent of things to come because I still have four more issues of Harbinger to review before I'm done.
Overall, despite some pretty big flaws, I like Harbinger so far. Hopefully the extremely weak third issue is just a bump in the road because I can see a lot of promise for good stories that DON'T involve punching aliens.
Up Next. . .
I wrap things up for this Reader Request Edition with issues #4 - #7
Be there or be square!