Welcome to The Valiant Tangent, a column whose goal it is to chronicle the stories and characters of Valiant Comics, and the things that made them not only cool, but some of the greatest of all time. We are going to start with a book that lays the foundation for the Valiant Universe—Solar: Man of the Atom: Alpha and Omega (also commonly called Solar #0).
Solar #0 is the classic origin story for one of the (if not THE) most powerful Valiant characters. But first, a quick note about the format this story was originally presented in. It was originally serialized as 6-page inserts in Solar #1 – #10. (Don’t worry, we’ll get to those in a future column.) Also included in the first ten issues is a section of what would turn out to be the world’s largest comic book panel. That’s right, the final panel of Solar’s origin is a huge poster that can only be fully seen when all ten parts are brought together to form the last image. (We’ll get to that at the end of this column, so hold tight.)
Written by Jim Shooter, drawn by Barry Windsor-Smith and inked by Bob Layton, these individual chapters, once together, formed a complete story that gave us what would turn out to be the true beginnings of the Valiant Universe. And what a beginning it was. The story is collected in a trade paperback titled Solar: Man of the Atom: Alpha and Omega. Let’s check it out, shall we?
Solar: Man of the Atom: Alpha and Omega
Written by Jim Shooter; Penciled by Barry Windsor-Smith; Inked by Bob Layton; colored by Janet Jackson
It starts with a catastrophe. First panel, splash page, a middle-aged man wearing pajamas, standing in his kitchen, watches his windows explode inward as some blast lights up the sky outside. He utters two words: “My God…” The man is Phil Seleski, nuclear physicist, and the blast tells him one thing—he just killed thousands, possibly millions, of people. The Edgewater Nuclear Facility, where he works, just started melting down.
A quick couple of things you should know about these early Valiant books—except for very rare occurrences, Valiant books didn’t use thought balloons or sound effects. If you are a comic reader today you might think, “What the hell are thought balloons?” If you were a comic character thinking that same question, there would be a puffy balloon coming out of your head with “What the hell are thought balloons?” written in it. Unfortunately they are a thing of the past, shunned forever in the wake of internal monologue captions. I kind of liked thought balloons. It seemed friendlier to me, and made the characters more likeable. Try this: go back and read some Marvel or DC books form the late 80s/early 90s. Really pay attention to the thought balloons. Yes, you are reading what the character is thinking, but it is written in such a way that it seems as if the character was actually telling it to you in a conversation. When I started reading comics, it was like Iron Man was talking to me, not at me, and that was cool, like he was a friend. Anyway, no thought balloons in Valiant. As for lack of sound effects, well, that has a reason. Valiant was created to be like the “real” world (as real as you can get in a comic universe). There weren’t a lot of superpowered beings, and those that were around were not widely known by the general public. There was to be no magic, and everything had a solid basis in real science. That being said, no sound effects, because sound effects would make it seem too “comic book-y.” (Yes, I realize that it’s hard to be non-comic book-y when characters are flying around and shooting energy out of their hands, but work with me here.) Here’s why not using SFX is a good thing—it forces the reader to use their imagination even more. Sure, if a window breaks and there is a “CRASH” written across the page, it’s easy to imagine the sound. But take that “CRASH” away and the sound is now created purely by you. It also adds another element of realism to the book. Okay, no thought balloons and no sound effects. Got it? Good. Let’s continue…
So Phil Seleski hops into his jeep and races to the nuclear plant to see what happened. He’s a slender man, wears glasses and has a receding hairline. Typical middle-aged American male. When he gets to the plant we are quickly introduced to the supporting cast: Doctor Dobson, the head of the facility. He tells Phil that they’ve tried everything except going in the accelerator and banging on it with a wrench; Gayle, a coworker that Phil is attracted to. Even with impending death all around Phil notices that Gayle must have just come from a party because she is wearing a dress; and Doctor Pierce, another physicist that works at the plant. Doctor Pierce, or Erica, as she is sometimes called, plays a major role in the Valiant Universe. Just wait and see…
Anyway, Phil is watching the madness happening all around him when he suddenly runs down into the accelerator. He thinks, “Maybe I’ll go bang on the accelerator with a wrench.”
Phil runs past rescue workers and down into the accelerator. One worker tries to stop him because it’s dangerous, while the other says to let him burn because Phil was the one that caused all this. And burn he does, as we see when Phil walks down the metal stairs. His bare feet get scorched on the hot metal. Phil describes it as, “A little sizzle with every step. Like sausage. Screaming seems…irrelevant. I hate that sticky-sweet smell, though.” This is a really good example of some excellent writing. Say what you want about Jim Shooter, but I think he is a hell of a writer. His dialogue really helps to define each character and how they relate to everyone else. And obviously, as demonstrated by his “sizzling feet” line, he can be quite descriptive and raw. And it gets better.
Phil grabs a nearby containment suit, but he realizes that it will do him no good at this point. He, along with everyone else in the facility, is already completely irradiated. But at least it will help him to block out the smell of his feet burning. He makes it to the anti-proton pump that is causing the trouble and tries to pull levers that will possibly do something to help. Nothing works. Another huge blast shakes the facility and the town outside its walls…and Phil can’t help but silently apologize for all the people that are dying because of his work. In a fit of rage and desperation, Phil leaps into the anti-proton pump that is filled with flowing plasma. As he starts to dissolve he has time for more thoughts. “Stopped falling. Just floating here in the plasma flow, dissolving. Now, this hurts. I wonder why I’m still conscious. Doesn’t seem possible. I wish this would stop.”
Weird, huh? His body is being destroyed, but he is still alive. Ouch.
This is where it begins. We see a charred thing that kind of resembles a human on the ground with lots of guys in containment suits around it. They mention that it’s all slippery and gooey and that they hope they don’t throw up in their masks. They pick up this lump and carry it outside of the room. It’s obviously Phil’s charred body. There is a lot of radiation coming from it when suddenly it twitches…and then drops to the ground because the men carrying it suddenly cannot hold its weight. At the same time all of the radiation levels drop to zero…even outside the plant. Phil suddenly weighs a ton and all the radiation is gone. It’s obvious that Phil is affecting things around him, but how? Cut to a quarantine room in a hospital. Doctor Dobson enters to see Phil wrapped in bandages. Then we get to see through Phil’s eyes. We see Dobson as an infrared image, then we see his muscles as Phil shifts to X-ray…he is going up and down the spectrum seeing every bone and muscle in Dobson’s body. Phil’s bandaged body is on the floor because no bed would hold his weight. They had to move him into the room with a forklift. He is giving off heat and light from his body. Suddenly, Phil starts to sit up and claw at his bandages. Doctor Dobson tells him to stop, that he’s lost a lot of skin, but after a few minutes Phil manages to tear all of the bandages from around his head…and reveals that he is perfectly fine underneath…he looks like nothing happened to him at all!
Phil is hooked up to a bank of electronics…obviously he is the subject of many tests. No one can explain why someone who had recently jumped into a pool of flowing plasma can still be alive. Not to mention the fact that the plant’s nuclear meltdown suddenly fixed itself and disappeared. But it’s clear that Phil had something to do with it. So Dobson and his people have Phil attached to dozens of computers and machines via wires attached to all different parts of his body. The tests are to see how Phil’s body is handling energy. He gets very tired of the tests and tries to have some fun by making his nose light up, and when he sees Doctor Erica Pierce, his nipples. A guy’s gotta have fun somehow, right?
Next we see Phil back home. He is under strict quarantine in his apartment, so in order to pass the time he starts talking to his pillow. He tells the pillow that the other doctors don’t know what made the reactor shut down or the radiation disappear, but that he, Phil, knows. He tells the pillow that he did it, that he willed it. And that no one has any idea of what he has become. Pierce comes in with forms for Phil to sign. Finally with someone to talk to, even if it is for a minute, Phil laments that he forgets what it is like to have a life, and that he is lonely. The next day he is in for more tests. This time the sensors are on the other side of a thick and insulated wall. The doctors want Phil to “affect” them. He asks how much. They say as much as he can. This is the first time that we get to see Phil use his powers in a grand display. Colored lights form around him, and the wall, along with the sensors on the opposite side, explodes into a million pieces.
Phil is home trying to recite Shakespeare because he doesn’t sleep anymore. Not that he has trouble sleeping, but he just physically doesn’t need to anymore. He sees Gayle entering the building from his window with flowers in her hands and gets excited to see her. An hour passes and Gayle has yet to knock on his door. Finally the doorbell rings but it’s not Gayle…it’s Dobson, Pierce and the other technicians. They want to do more tests. Feeling really bummed about his situation in general, and Gayle specifically, Phil says that the instruments they poke and prod him with only say what he wants them to say, and that tonight they’re not going to say anything. No more tests. Afterwards, hours later into the night, a still awake Phil is surprised as Doctor Erica Pierce enters his room and sits on his bed. She knows that he is lonely and offers herself to him sexually. He turns her away thinking that Dobson put her up to it, but she really showed up on her own. She leaves all upset.
The next day Phil is walking around the reactor trying to figure out why it went into meltdown in the first place. He runs across Gayle and asks her out to dinner. He tells her that he doesn’t have to eat anymore, but his body can “simulate all normal functions.” Listen up guys, if you’ve ever wanted a line with the surefire response of turning a chick off, that’s it right there. She uncomfortably declines and leaves Phil feeling really dumb. He can do these amazing things with his body and with energy, but he’s still a dork when it comes to the ladies.
Phil is watching the news and sees that there is a huge fire trapping children in an apartment building. Phil wishes that he could be there to do something and, instantly, he teleports to the scene of the inferno! This is the first time that we get to see this power from Phil, and as we get further and further into the story we will see that his powers are growing. By the way, it’s interesting that, although Phil has these amazing powers, the world that he inhabits still manages to feel like the “real” world. Phil’s first thought after discovering what he can do isn’t to sew a colorful suit with a cape and go fight crime…it’s worrying about being lonely and wanting to take Gayle out to dinner. Not that superpowers are of secondary importance in the Valiant Universe…no way, not even close, but they are dealt with in a more believable way than some people might be used to. As we’ll see in some later columns, if a regular citizen sees someone fly, they freak out. They don’t believe it’s real. This fantasy grounded in reality is one of the many things that make Valiant so appealing to me, and hopefully, you’ll feel that way also when we’re done.
Anyway, Phil teleports to the burning building and saves the children. One of them asks if he is God, a question that will be recurring throughout the entire run of Solar comics. Firemen and the media see Phil come out of the burning building but don’t know quite what to make of him. One thing they know for sure—he is a hero. The next day back at the facility, Dobson reprimands Phil for using his abilities in public (the story is all over the newspapers). Meanwhile, Gayle finds his act of heroism very courageous. In fact, she finds it so admirable that she asks Phil out to dinner. Note to all you guys out there—if you ever find yourself with superpowers, help an old lady across the street or rescue a cat from a tree…do something heroic…then the chicks will be all over you.
During the date Phil gets recognized as the “Fireproof Man” by some people in the restaurant. They all want his autograph, which kind of makes Phil feel uneasy. In his mind he is just a normal guy…well, at least he feels normal. He tells Gayle that he is as human as he wants to be. Once the date is over Phil and Gayle get to do some superheroic making out in the car. Finally, Phil’s life is getting back to normal, or something that has the semblance of normalcy anyway.
The next day in his apartment we see Phil floating in midair while the phone, pens, books and other small objects circle him like the Earth going around the Sun. While floating, he is playing with light in his hands, turning it solid and making it flow over his hands like water from a faucet or sand on a beach. This is important because it is the first time we see Phil controlling gravity. Dobson and Pierce walk in to see it as well. Phil tells Dobson that he plans on leaving the facility and going out into the world on his own to help people. Saving the children from the fire felt good to him, and now he wants to do it on a much larger scale. Dobson warns him that it could be dangerous, but can’t really change his mind. He leaves and we see Pierce staring at Phil hovering, all the while saying, “Fascinating…” This is big…remember this.
Phil now lives with Gayle and has learned to do other things with his powers. We see him watching TV then making the image pop out of the screen and form a big hologram in the living room. Gayle is talking to a guy she used to date on the phone, and when the conversation gets a little angry, Phil teleports the ex-boyfriend through the phone lines so he is now standing in front of a glowing and very brightly lit Phil. He scares the crap out of the guy and screams, “I am Solar—the Polish Sun God!” Then he says some hokey lines about a varlet and fair maiden and wrath and other comic book-y stuff. The ex hightails it out of there leaving Phil very amused. He tells Gayle that he used to read a lot of Thor comics when he was a kid, and that’s why he did what he did. Then he tells her something incredibly important, something that is a foundation of the Valiant Universe. He says that he can do all the things that he can do (hover, teleport, emit energy, etc) by moving energy. And since everything is energy, he can control everything. Remember this: he moves energy. This is a huge concept in Valiant.
In his quest to help people, Phil decides to go around the world and destroy nuclear plants. Dobson confronts Phil and warns him that there will be people in the world that will try to stop him, and that he is acting like he is the judge, jury and executioner for the world. In a way, he is absolutely right. Phil is a man that can literally do just about anything. If he wants to do something, who is there that can tell him no and make him stop?
Phil and Gayle are out on a date when cameramen and reporters flock towards him asking questions about nuclear plants that have been attacked by him. Phil lashes out and destroys cameras with his power, scaring Gayle a little, before flying away with her. Back at the Facility, Dobson is questioned by the government regarding Phil’s activities. And although Dobson is Phil’s friend, he cannot deny the fact that Phil’s actions are extremely risky, and could have catastrophic repercussions. This whole book is suddenly turning into a political action movie. More on that in a bit.
Phil wants Gayle to truly experience what it is like to be him. Back at his apartment he grabs her hand and starts to lose form…he is now becoming a being of pure energy and he wants Gayle to join him temporarily to see what it is like to be a god. At the last minute she gets scared and runs away. But lurking outside the door, watching all of this go down in front of her, is Erica Pierce. She steps forward towards Phil, all wide-eyed and in awe. She wants to join him. And feeling hurt and sad, Phil accepts as he holds out his own hand.
This is it…this is where Unity, the mega-crossover that beautifully fleshes out and tightens Valiant’s continuity, really begins. The actual storyline won’t start for a while, and we’ll be getting to it eventually, but this is where the seed is planted. Right here, this page, this panel. Phil and Pierce are floating in colorful energy in a place that is described as the backstage of the universe. Phil gives a long speech to Pierce about how everything is energy, and that we give energy its form. Move energy and you can do anything. He pretty much breaks down the barriers between thought and reality. It’s definitely enough to make your head hurt, but it totally makes sense in the book. In this behind-the-scenes area of reality, Phil tells Pierce that there is nothing to protect you from yourself…no mental barriers. This is proven true when Pierce starts to wither and look ill, all the while muttering to herself, “Whore. Whore. Murderer.” This is the first time we learn that there is something about Pierce that is just not right. Phil brings her back to reality to save her and asks if she is all right. She feels violated, raped and humiliated. She leaves angry, and Phil feels even sorrier.
Pierce goes back to the office and finds Dobson…who then tells her that she’s been gone for eight days! He asks her what she remembers and she says everything. She remembers it all…and tells Dobson that Phil must be stopped. Pierce tells Dobson that they must kill Phil, and that she knows how to do it. It’s all a matter of moving energy, and she knows how to do that. One look at her eye and the colorful energy leaping from it tells us all we need to know—somehow when she was in this “un”-reality, she got Phil’s powers!
This is it, the final chapter. Instead of the usual 6 pages, this one is a whopping 14. And don’t forget about the huge panel we talked about earlier. The final panel of this story is revealed by putting together ten pieces of art from the first ten issues of Solar to form a giant poster. By the end of this chapter, the proverbial shit truly does hit the fan.
It’s clear that the government wants to stop Phil by any means necessary, and Dobson, although friends with Phil, reluctantly agrees to help. We’re not quite sure what part of the government these guys work for, but we do know that they are serious. They create an elaborate plan to use Gayle as bait to trap and kill Phil Seleski. The plan seems to be working. Phil, after months of looking for Gayle, finally finds her location and heads for it. A quick note about time in the Valiant Universe—it plays an important part in every book and every story. Valiant Comics is presented in real time. Throughout every story there are multiple occurrences of a caption stating the date and time the story is taking place. Characters grow and age in real time…1 year equals 1 year. This is just another way that Valiant presents itself as a “real world” instead of a “comic book” world. Okay, end of aside. Back to Phil, off to see Gayle after months of searching for her.
On the way, he is intercepted by an attack helicopter carrying Pierce and Dobson. Pierce is using her newfound Phil-like abilities to augment the firepower of the guns on the chopper to really put a hurting on Phil. And it works…Phil’s energy is weakening, and he flies up to the chopper to see who his attackers are. He sees Pierce and Dobson, and Dobson apologizes…he genuinely doesn’t want to see Phil dead, just stopped. Pierce uses her powers again and in a flash it seems like Phil is gone, dispersed to the winds. Yeah, right.
Phil teleports to the Edgewater Nuclear Facility, the place where it all began. He goes right into the reactor and absorbs free neutrons. They give him power, but not enough…he needs more, and quick. He flies upward, out of the facility and into the sky, going farther and farther until he reaches space. Flying at the speed of light he finds a yellow star in the outer reaches of the galaxy. He goes all Dark Phoenix and totally consumes the star’s energy, leaving it a dead husk. It’s at this point that Phil starts thinking of himself as “God.”
He teleports back to Earth, right into the apartment where Gayle is being protected by government agents. Phil appears as a golden, brightly lit being, and the agent takes one look at him and says, “My God”, to which Phil responds, “Yes, I am.” The agent gets the crap scared out of him (and rightly so…if a golden man with the power of the sun was pissed at me, I’d crap my pants too) and smartly runs away. Gayle knows it’s Phil in front of her but he is shining so brightly that she can’t see him clearly. He turns his power down a little and they embrace, finally admitting their love for one another (Yeah, I know, Gayle seems easily impressed. Oh well, just wait).
Back in the chopper, the pilot tells Pierce and Dobson that Phil’s energy readings are off the scale. Back in the apartment Gayle is talking, but then starts feeling dizzy. It’s Phil! He’s giving off radiation and killing Gayle! Quickly, instinctively, Phil does what he did after he first jumped into the plasma pool…he starts to draw all of the energy into himself to save Gayle. At the same time Pierce realizes what he is doing, but too late…Dobson and the pilot instantly die as their heads are crushed. Why? How? Quick little science lesson. An object with a tiny mass but lots and lots and lots of energy equals a little thing we like to call black hole. In this case, Phil is absorbing the energy of a sun, but his body is still that of a normal human. Phil realizes this too late, of course, as he witnesses Gayle literally explode int0o a million bits right in front of him. Stunned by what he has done, and not strong enough to stop, Phil draws in all the energy. In other words, Phil Seleski has just become the first human black hole.
And the final panel of the story, the large image that you get when you combine 10 pieces of art, is of the black hole that used to be called Phil Seleski destroying the entire universe.
Done. Dead. Gone. One man responsible for the death of countless billions.
What Have We Learned?
Well obviously the story doesn’t end there. In many ways (which will become clear as we discuss other Valiant books) this is just the beginning of the Valiant story. And a lot of things happened. First, I want to just acknowledge that the only time Phil is referred to as “Solar” it is completely in jest, and it’s Phil that uses the name. The rest of the time he is just “Phil.” There are no costumes, no sound effects, no thought balloons, nothing that would make this seem to be a typical superhero comic book. We learn that Phil has immeasurable power that allows him to do virtually anything he desires. We’re introduced to Erica Pierce, a woman that plays a major role in the Valiant Universe…a role that we will get to in time. Most importantly we witnessed Phil completely destroy the universe around him, sucking everything in existence into a black hole of his creation.
Huh? But if he destroys everything, what about the rest of the Valiant comics? How do they fit into this? Do they take place before the catastrophe that annihilated billions? Do they take place after? What gives? Is Phil dead? And what about Pierce? She has Phil’s powers too! What happens NOW?! Well obviously there is more to this story than what is presented in these ten chapters. Remember, by the time you finished this story in the original presentation, the Solar comic was already 10 months old…so naturally the story continued somehow.
Solar: Man of the Atom #0 (Alpha & Omega) is a great start into this vast world. I promise that all the unanswered questions will be answered in time, and we will get to every one of them.
Thanks for reading this column, and I hope you’ll join me next time when we take a look at the first superhero book published by Valiant—Magnus Robot Fighter!He is a character that is very different from Phil/Solar in many ways, but his story is just as exciting, and equally as important to the Valiant Universe as a whole. Next time we’ll be taking a look at Magnus #s 1-4 in a storyline called “Steel Nation.” And if anyone has seen The Animatrix, some of the stuff inside “Steel Nation” might seem familiar to you. Yeah, those Matrix guys dug Valiant too.
See you next time!