Welcome back to Longbox Junk, the place to find comic reviews you never asked for and never knew you wanted! I'm going to try and keep the introduction short so that we can jump right into the second half of this Reader Request for Valiant's Harbinger. . .
THE STORY SO FAR:
High School student Peter Stanchek discovers he has powerful psychic abilities. He goes to the mysterious Harbinger Foundation for help and is taken under the wing of Toyo Harada, the director of the Foundation and a powerful psychic as well.
Later, Peter begins to realize that the Foundation's training is sending him in the wrong direction and decides to leave. Harada retaliates by killing Pete's best friend and later trying to assassinate Pete as well. When the assassination goes wrong and Pete miraculously survives, Harada decides to capture and study him. . .forcing Pete and his girlfriend Kris to go on the run.
Pete decides to go on the offensive and try to take down Harbinger by gathering a team of superhumans of his own. Pete and Kris eventually recruit Faith (with the power of flight), Flamingo (fire powers), and Torque (superhuman strength) to their cause. . .but are still outmatched by Harada and his superhuman Harbinger students.
During a raid on a secret Harbinger training base, Pete and his team of Renegades come across encrypted information that they enlist a new member of the team (Ax, with the power to speak to and understand electronic devices) to decipher.
The information leads them to an extraterrestrial craft, which takes them to a hidden base on the dark side of the moon, where the team is quickly captured. A betrayal by Ax accidentally gives the team the opportunity to escape, but they are severely outnumbered and as they fall one by one during the fight to escape, Flamingo is left to fight the aliens, their leader, and Ax on her own. . .
Which brings us to the second half of this review.
Harbinger Part 2: Issues 4 - 7. Let's do it!
SCRIPT: Jim Shooter
PENCILS: David Lapham
COVER: David Lapham
Continuing straight in from where issue #3 left off, our heroes are trapped on an alien space station on the dark side of the moon. They've managed to escape captivity, but as they make their break for freedom, they are taken down one by one by the aliens, the cyborg human called Rexo, and the traitorous Ax. Only Flamingo remains standing.
She subdues Ax by burning his crotch, then melts the station floor beneath Rexo and his alien minions, causing them to fall and giving Flamingo the chance to free the rest of the team and make their way to the alien ship that brought them. They force Ax to reverse the alien ship's autopilot and return to Earth, where they dump the traitor in the middle of nowhere before flying to their hideout.
After they hide the alien ship under water, they are confused as to why it's so cold in the summertime. While watching the news, they realize to their horror that it is December and they've been gone for five months! The aliens must have had the team in some sort of suspended animation before Ax accidentally freed them.
The news that a large chunk of their life has gone missing, as well as their almost-deadly experience on the alien base splits the team and they all depart on their separate ways. . .
In the meantime, determined to have his revenge, Ax uses his powers to gain more information from the encrypted computer disks left behind by his former teammates. He discovers files on several superhumans that were rejected by Harbinger for their psychopathic tendencies. Armed with this information, Ax sets out to form his own superhuman team.
We follow Flamingo as she tries and fails to make amends with her mother, who is lost in religion and has disowned her "sinner" daughter. Then we see Faith at home with her loving parents as she finds it hard to return to a normal life after her adventures.
Torque returns to the garage he worked at and finds it abandoned, the man who raised him as a son has passed away during Torque's absence, leaving him without a family. Kris returns home, but is unable to face her family. She decides to go to Pete's house and tell his mother he's still alive, but finds a van with Harbinger agents watching.
Kris returns to the hideout to reconcile with Pete after leaving him on bad terms. Faith and Flamingo also return to the team's hideout. . .Flamingo can't reconnect with her mother and doesn't have anywhere else to go, and Faith wants to return to the exciting life of a superhero. While the four reunite, Torque is attacked by Ax and his team of psychotic superhumans.
Pete and the rest of the team decide to try and get Torque back on board with them, and they arrive to find his home in flames and Torque fighting three superhumans on his own. Jumping into battle, Pete and the Renegades manage to save Torque after barely winning a brutal fight. Torque rejoins the team and we end the issue with them celebrating Christmas together at their hideout. . .
This issue was half and half for me. It starts right where the last one left off with the -Awful aliens and Rexo on the hidden moon base. That's the bad half. Thankfully, there's not much time spent there and things get better as the focus shifts away from punching aliens and back on character moments, with the rest of the issue becoming a "The team breaks up, then gets back together" story. That's the good half.
So far, this series has been at its best in the character moments taking place between the action scenes. This issue has several particularly strong moments to balance out the weak conclusion to the "alien escape" story. Flamingo desperately trying to make amends to her mother for all the rotten things she did in the past while her mother just sits there silently and ignoring her stands out as a pretty great scene. Torque returning home and realizing he has nothing and nobody is another one. Faith getting a Batman doll from her parents and realizing she can't return to a normal life also is a good moment.
Overall, except for the ending of the horrible "alien base" story taking up the front half of the comic, this was one of my favorite issues so far. It follows a pretty well-worn path of breaking and then re-forming a team, but there's some really good character moments for almost every member of the team (Pete just sort of hangs out at the hideout waiting for everyone to come back) that makes them finally coming back together as a sorta-happy (for now) dysfunctional family a pretty good read.
All For One. . .
SCRIPT: Jim Shooter & Janet Jackson
PENCILS: David Lapham
COVER: David Lapham
The reunited team decides to head to New Orleans for some vacation time. We follow Flamingo and Kris as they bond at an art gallery, and Torque and Faith as they enjoy a day at the zoo. While everyone else is having fun, Pete's real reason for wanting to go to New Orleans is revealed as he mentally follows Toyo Harada's trail.
A disaster in Dallas, Texas reveals Harada's presence to Pete. An explosion that levels a skyscraper that we learn has been caused by one of Harada's most powerful students losing control of his powers. As Harada struggles to mentally contain his student and prevent worse damage at a hidden Harbinger lab, we see the hero known as Doctor Solar discovering information leading to Harbinger in the wreckage of the explosion. At the same time, Peter and the Renegades are flying to Dallas to confront Harada.
Peter and his team discover the hidden Harbinger base and fight their way toward Harada, who is desperately trying to keep his superhuman student, "Puff", under control. As the Renegades get closer to Harada, he decides that Puff must be terminated, but his sister "Thumper" won't let it happen, delaying Harada long enough that Peter and his team are able to finally confront the Harbinger leader.
While Peter and Harada engage in mental battle, the rest of the team takes on the Harbinger forces in a brutal fight, where Faith is horrified when she accidentally kills a man. Harada manages to break free from Peter's powers and escapes in the confusion of the battle. Thumper warns the Renegades about Puff's loss of control and Peter turns to the task of trying to contain him now that Harada is gone.
Doctor Solar arrives on the scene and is mistaken for one of Harbinger's superhumans until Faith recognizes him from her comic books. Solar is quickly informed of the situation, and by combining their powers, Pete and Solar manage to get Puff under control. Unfortunately, Harada returns, backed up by a fresh squad of Harbinger gunmen and several superhumans, ready to continue the fight.
To be continued. . .
And it's CROSSOVER TIME! I knew it was only a matter of time before other characters from Valiant's superhero "universe" showed up. I've never really been a fan of crossovers, because they tend to take away from the story at hand and often have a definite stench of just existing to advertise other comics.
THAT SAID. . .
Doctor Solar's appearance here isn't too bad. . .at least not compared to Issues 8 & 9 (that I'm not reviewing) which are full-on crossover $%#@ with just about every character in the Valiant stable for some sort of multi-series "Event" called Unity that makes no sense unless you buy EIGHTEEN comics across NINE Valiant titles, including Harbinger (the 8th and 16th part of the story).
BUT I DIGRESS!
I'm not familiar with Valiant's version of Doctor Solar. I know him from older Gold Key comics and then only with a passing familiarity. A quick check of Wikipedia tells me that the Valiant and Gold Key versions of the character are two whole different things, but that Gold Key comics actually exist in the Valiant "universe", which is why Faith recognizes him as a comic book character. Okay, then.
Of course, Valiant just assumes that the reader of Harbinger is ALSO a reader of Doctor Solar, because why wouldn't they be? So he just sort of pops into the story like. . .of course Doctor Solar is here. Why wouldn't he be?
ANYWAY. . .
Doctor Solar just sort of shows up out of nowhere as the MacGuffin needed to get a dangerous superhuman Harbinger student's powers back under control. It's a pretty weak excuse for a crossover, in my extremely humble opinion. As a matter of fact, this whole issue is pretty weak. There are a couple of decent character moments early on, but then the whole story just becomes this contrived situation so that Valiant can force in an appearance from a character from another series.
And not for nuthin' but "Puff" is about the most stupid name possible for a highly-destructive and barely-controllable superhuman capable of destroying an entire city. Come on, Jim Shooter. You can do better. I KNOW you can do better.
One For All
SCRIPT: Jim Shooter
PENCILS: David Lapham
COVER: David Lapham
Continuing directly from issue #5, Pete and his Renegades are confronted by Toyo Harada and a squad of Harbinger gunmen and superhumans. Doctor Solar intervenes and forces both sides to stand down. After accompanying the Renegades away from the Harbinger base to a safe place, Doctor Solar warns Pete that he's dangerous and Solar will be keeping an eye on him, and then warns Pete not to enter into conflict with Harada. Then he departs.
Against Solar's warning, Pete immediately decides to attack Harada by surprise. The Renegades return to the Harbinger base, which is seemingly deserted. Of course, it's a trap. Harada knew that they would be back. The Renegades are confronted by a large squad of Harbinger gunmen and superhumans, led by Harada, who immediately mentally attacks Pete.
As Pete and his team are overwhelmed by Harbinger forces, the superhuman brother and sister Puff and Thumper decide to pay Pete back for saving Puff's life (in last issue) and jump into the fight on Pete's side, taking down Harada long enough for them to help the Renegades escape the Harbinger trap.
Later, in hiding, the team regroups and tries to decide what to do next. Puff and Thumper are still loyal to Harada and Harbinger, but agree not to reveal their location. Faith and Torque strengthen their bond of friendship, and we get a strong hint that Kris is pregnant.
Despite their agreement not to reveal the whereabouts of Pete and his team, Harada uses his mental powers to learn their location from Puff and Thumper and sets yet ANOTHER trap for the Renegades. . .this time made up entirely of superhuman agents.
During what becomes a particularly brutal battle, Torque is stabbed in the back and badly wounded. The ambulance that is called to rush him to the hospital is yet another Harbinger ruse, and an agent posing as a paramedic injects Torque with poison. Pete intercepts the fake ambulance and desperately tries to save Torque by going into his mind. . .but he is too late and Pete's Renegade team faces their first casualty as Torque dies.
To be continued. . .
The death of comic characters is pretty commonplace now, and is usually taken with a grain of salt. The more popular the character, the less likely the "death" is going to be permanent. Torque's death in this issue took me by surprise, but what's even more surprising about it is that a quick Wiki check told me that this death was actually permanent (except for Torque being in Harbinger Vol. 2, which was less of a revival and more of a complete reboot of the character). So proper credit due to Jim Shooter here for actually having the stones to kill off a popular character and keep it that way!
Obviously, the death of Torque is the big deal in this issue, but the rest of the comic has some pretty good moments as well. Once again, this series is at its best outside of the obligatory fight scenes. . .which are okay, but almost feel like interruptions to the story.
We get a look at the ruthless side of Harada as he commands his gunmen to start shooting Pete as soon as Harada has him down and not to stop until he tells them to. We get a bit of light philosophical discussion between the Renegades and Puff/Thumper over what's more important. . .Loyalty or Freedom. Torque's death is made sadder by having us see him letting down his "Tough Guy" wall and becoming friends with Faith after brutally taunting her about being overweight in earlier issues. We see that Pete is actually sort of a lousy leader after getting his friends caught in an obvious trap that Doctor Solar tried to warn him about.
Overall, this was one of the better issues of this series. It had some good character moments and is topped off with a surprising death due to Pete's epic leadership failure. I'm really interested in seeing what happens next.
AND FINALLY. . .
Flowers For the Living
SCRIPT: Jim Shooter
PENCILS: David Lapham
COVER: David Lapham
Continuing directly from issue #6, Pete and the remaining members of his team of Renegades try to deal with Torque's violent death as they hide out in a nearby motel while Harbinger cleans the battle site of any trace of a fight. Kris is especially upset and emotional over Torque possibly not having a proper burial at the hands of Harbinger, so Pete and the team decide to steal his body from the morgue and tend to the funeral themselves.
Pete uses his mental powers on a funeral home director to make him ignore the unusual circumstances of a group of teens showing up in the middle of the night with a dead body and Torque is given a proper funeral and burial. Flamingo is the only one who knows that Kris is pregnant with Torque's child, and she makes a private promise at Torque's grave to protect her.
While going through Torque's belongings, the team discovers that he still has a bunch of cash left over from the raid on the secret Harbinger training base (from issue #2). And together, the team decides to spend it on something he would have wanted them to. . .a brand new Mustang.
And so we end this review of the first story arc of Harbinger on a somber note. As you can tell from the fairly short synopsis above, not much really happens in this issue, but what DOES happen is all pretty good. . .if a bit depressing.
Being an issue without any action scenes and dealing with the sudden death of a character, this epilogue to the first story arc digs deep into what makes this comic good. . .the character moments that take place between superhero fights. It's all a bit gloomy and you KNOW there's trouble down the road coming when Flamingo reveals (to the reader) at Torque's gravesite that she knows that Kris' baby is his. But it's gloomy and depressing in sort of a good way. Shooter does a great job filling this issue with darkness and emotion that doesn't feel fake or forced.
Overall, this quiet and emotional issue is a fine epilogue for the first story arc of Harbinger. Shooter has taken us from one young man discovering he has powers, to the formation of a team, to the breaking and re-formation of the team, to the team coming together as a dysfunctional family, and finally here to the repercussions of Pete's actions. It's a decent end for a decent story. . .and from reading ahead, they probably should have just ended it here. Things take a steep downward turn beginning with the next issue. But as far as THIS issue is concerned, it's a good ending.
I came into Harbinger with no knowledge except the fact that it exists. I'm not a fan of Valiant comics and I'm not a fan of team books in general. . .so there was plenty going against Harbinger before I even opened the first page. Like I said in my introduction to part one. . .as far as I was concerned, these were junk comics to be given to my daughter to plump up her collection with reader books that could take some abuse.
BUT. . .
When I actually READ these comics, I found them to be a pretty enjoyable read (for the most part).
They follow a pretty well-worn path in general, but Jim Shooter gives things JUST enough of a twist to keep things interesting. It's basically an X-Men story with the script slightly flipped so that the "Professor X" character played by Toyo Harada is actually the villain and his "School for gifted children", the Harbinger Foundation, produces psychopathic superhumans fanatically loyal to Harada.
Pete Stanchek and his "Renegades" are a dysfunctional mess of a team, with a lousy leader that is directly responsible for the death of one of their own and a team dynamic based on jealousy and physical attraction, which was probably the most interesting thing about this series.
Unfortunately, that strange team dynamic fell into the background following issue #4, in favor of crossovers and large-scale superhuman battles with only a few moments between action to showcase anything else. The story was still pretty good, but the best parts were left behind in favor of a new focus on Pete's poor leadership.
Overall, I have to say that Harbinger is a pretty good series. It's not great. I've definitely read better. But it's not nearly as bad as I assumed it would be. It's not really Longbox Junk as I define it, due to the surprisingly high collector "value" of the first few issues, but I'd certainly recommend picking up the collected edition, if you should spot it for a good price.
THAT SAID. . .
This review only covers the first 8 issues of this series. I've read ahead a bit and can pretty confidently say that this is where Valiant should have ended the story. The next two issues are unreadable crossover $%#& and going past that, the series never really recovers its footing. So fair warning. This is as good as Harbinger gets. It's all downhill from here.
Up Next. . .
So much Longbox Junk! I don't even know what's next!
I'm thinking of maybe heading back into some Marvel or DC stuff.
I've been in the off-brand section of my collection for a while now. . .
In any case, be there or be square!