Harbinger: The Beginning
Collects: Harbinger #0, 1-7, plus more
Writers: Jim Shooter and David Lapham
Pencillers: David Lapham and Bob Hall
Inkers: Bob Almond, John Dixon, Gonzalo Mayo, Joe Rubinstein
Colorist: Rob Ruffolo
Cover: Bob Hall
By Desmond Reddick
30 April 2009 — By the early 1990s we were already a few years into the age of the deconstruction of superheroes. Green Lantern and Green Arrow were dealing with social issues two decades earlier, and Miracleman, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns would soon follow. But when they were being released, I was six; I was interested in figuring out who Wolverine was going to fillet, not digging into the dark underbelly of our brightly colored heroes.
When I was 12, it was a different story; I had become ambivalent towards mainstream superhero comics. So when I discovered Image and Dark Horse, it was a bit of a relief. One company was attempting to create freshness within the genre by pushing the same gritty heroes on us, and the other was publishing books I was far too young to be reading.
But when Jim Shooter created another option for comic buyers in 1991, he found a happy medium. At the end of the first issue of Harbinger, when one of the characters says, "Being a superhero isn't like I thought it would be," it opened my eyes to the strange realism this series would develop. And it became what I consider to be one of the greatest series of the past 25 years.
Needless to say, I was delighted to find that a new company called Valiant Entertainment had purchased the rights to the Valiant-created properties, and were releasing hardcover collections of the original books. Harbinger: The Beginning is, fittingly enough, the first of these releases.
Not only does it collect the first seven issues of the series, it also contains the zero issue, the stories that were printed on the backs of the mail-away coupons that got you the zero issue, and a new "Origin of Harada" story by Shooter and Bob Hall. In 200 pages, you are given the cornerstone of one of the most intriguing comic book universes ever created — certainly the most intriguing of my lifetime.
Upon rereading this collection, what strikes me first is how much mileage Shooter gets out of what is essentially a tired X-Men comic book cliché: teenagers with superpowers on the run. What Shooter did was layer the story with a level of realism unheard of in the X-Men books and, more importantly, he made them the villains. I should clarify: the teenage characters we follow are most certainly our protagonists, but we discover pretty quickly that what they are doing is morally ambiguous — and sometimes downright wrong.
In fact, Toyo Harada, the villain, manages to come across as someone doing good even though we rarely see him. This is obviously to keep us on the side of the teenagers. But to add insult to injury, the book is not named after the superheroes; it's named after the corporation that's hunting them.
Besides Harada, who operates more as a presence than as a character, the characters fall into very recognizable, yet more intelligent types:
Sting is a confused but driven young man whose psychic powers lead him on an odyssey against a corporation that has wronged him. It eventually causes him to stoop to levels lower than those of the corporation.
Kris, Sting's girlfriend, is powerless but still one of the most important characters. She acts as the anchor for the group, and, eventually, the lynchpin around which their dynamic revolves.
Flamingo takes the "fiery redhead" type to the extreme by having pyrokinetic powers. She also has severe issues with men and self-esteem. (This is now considered a cliché, but I'm pretty sure this was the first time it had been used in comics.)
Torque is the muscle. Due to his own cognitive difficulties, he has seemingly used his psionic powers to amplify his physical strength. You might be confused by this. But I find it to be a charming way to show that he's chosen brawn over brains.
And the most grounded character of them all is Zephyr. Her power of flight has made her one of the superheroes she so worships. She's the geek on the team, and is responsible for some of the more eye-rolling moments. But she's also the well-developed center of the group who utters the phrase I quoted above. On top of that, she is most likely the first overweight female superhero to hit the cover of a comic book. Her friends call her "Zeppelin" to mock her weight, but the ability to fly becomes an emotional shield for her.
To say this book was groundbreaking is to make an understatement.
Shooter, former tyrannical Editor-in-Chief of Marvel, makes a few missteps in language — such as overloading the book with geeky references, and making up curse words to get around the Comics Code Authority — but that's about it. Harbinger covers the early stages of teenage romance, rebellion against The Establishment, the need for independence, and loss of innocence all in one story. Every page runs deep with honest teenage existence, and, had I been a year or two older when I found it, I would have loved it even more.
David Lapham's art set the stage for what would become the house style for Valiant — where realism was key. This was a sharp contrast to the styles of the other new independent publishers of the time. Lapham was still years from the brilliance he would display in Stray Bullets, but the building blocks are there. The art is solid, and the digital recoloring is beautiful.
In another sharp contrast, the characters are properly proportioned, especially the women who have thighs, hips, and breasts that do not look like the inhabitants of Bret Michaels' tour bus. It's a breath of fresh air — even today. And though the characters use psychic powers to fend off private armies, go into space to fight aliens and robots, and fly around in a car, it never seems disingenuous.
The "Origin of Harada" story, interestingly enough, introduces two new characters to the Valiant Universe, setting up conflict for the upcoming next incarnation of the comic book universe. Yes, Valiant Entertainment is picking up where their predecessor left off, and will soon be delivering all new stories with our favorite Valiant properties. And there is no better place to start brushing up than Harbinger: The Beginning.