The Valiant Tangent — Harbinger #1-4 (Children of the Eighth Day, Part 1)

Welcome back to The Valiant Tangent, the longest running series whose goal it is to chronicle some of the stories and characters of Valiant Comics and the things that made them not only cool, but some of the greatest of all time. This article is a very special one (well, more special than usual). Today we will begin our look at Valiant’s first “team” book, Harbinger. But before we dive into the story, there are a few things that you should know about this incredible series.

More than any other title we’ve discussed—more than Solar or Magnus or X-O ManowarHarbinger is what I would consider to be a true Valiant book. What do I mean by that? Well, it’s hard to describe, but it has to do with the general feeling you get when reading it, and the experience you have when it’s done. Is it the brilliant characterization? Sure, that’s definitely part of it. Is it the tight continuity with other Valiant titles? Absolutely. Is it the captivating storytelling? You’re damn right it is. But it’s more than that. It’s also the intangibles and the indescribable. Harbinger epitomizes what it means to be a Valiant comic book, and it’s not something that is easily identifiable. You’ll know it and understand it when you see it, and you’ll be aware of its absence when it’s not present. This title is so firmly entrenched and imbedded into the fabric of the Valiant Universe that reading just one issue feels like you’ve been reading six. There is more story in a single issue than in an entire year’s worth of some of today’s comics. But the amount of story alone doesn’t make a comic great. There has to be other factors, and this book has them all.

Harbinger, ostensibly, is about a group of super powered teenagers trying to find their way in the world. But like a freshly baked cake, you’ll see that there are many layers and flavors once you dig in. When I first read this comic I was 16 years old, and the characters were older than I was. Now I am 30, and it’s easy to see that the main characters (although 18 years of age and technically adults) are really just kids. Amazingly talented and powerful kids, but kids nonetheless. We’re going to meet them in a few moments. Pay close attention, because these kids are just as (and in some cases more) important to the foundations of the Valiant Universe as Solar and Magnus.

In these issues we’ll be introduced to my absolute favorite Valiant character. We’ll also run into some people that we’ve met before in previous books. Again, this just tightens the continuity of the Valiant Universe. The issues were written by Jim Shooter and penciled by some guy named David Lapham…yeah, that David Lapham. This is where he got his start, and even in these early issues it was clear that he was going to be a star.

Enough chatter. The only way to really experience this book is to dive right into it. Prepare yourself for an awesome ride.

Harbinger #1

Written by Jim Shooter, Penciled by David Lapham, Inked by John Dixon, Colored by Janet Jackson and the Knobs

In the tradition of classic splash pages like the ones we saw in Solar, Magnums, and X-O, this title opens right in the middle of the action…and right in the middle of a line of dialogue too! No time to catch our breath…we are immediately in the story. It’s a full panel splash of a busy highway. The point of view is from above, and we see a car flying high above the traffic. Yes, flying. A young lady is driving, and a teenaged boy is climbing through the passenger side window. There is a helicopter not too far away from them. The kid is in the middle of talking to the girl driving. “…because the guys in that helicopter were staring at us. I think they know who we are.” The girl driving tries to pull him back in. “Pete! Get back in here! Pete–?!” Pete has his mind made up and continues to exit the car…while still in midair! “Don’t worry, Kris” he says. “I’ll set us back down after we lose them.”

Allow me to introduce Pete Stanchek and his girlfriend Kris. Right from the start, we learn that Pete has some incredible powers. (In fact, they should seem pretty familiar to those that have been reading this column on a regular basis. But more on that soon.) Apparently Pete is making the car fly above the ground. Kris wants to have the car fly under the trees to hide, but Pete tells her that “maneuvering this thing is like flying a blimp in a hurricane.” It’s the little descriptions like this one that truly make this series seem real, or at least easy to relate to. Not that I’m saying anyone reading this can relate to making a car fly, but it’s nice to understand how the characters are feeling, and Jim Shooter’s script makes it very easy to do that.

Anyway, Pete flies out of the car and heads towards the chopper that’s following him. He opens the door and gets in the face of the pilot. Naturally, the pilot is freaked out, and Pete makes the chopper land. Once the chopper and Pete’s car are both safely on the ground, we learn that apparently some guy claiming that he was an FBI agent paid the pilot to follow Pete’s car. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a young woman comes flipping down the road, smashing into Pete and covering him with some sort of wrestling hold. She yells at her friend that has also just appeared to attack Pete before his head clears. Her friend (named Eel, by the way) warns her that they don’t want Pete’s head to clear or else they will be in big trouble. Pete manages to stand up and flings his attacker (codenamed “Weasel”, by the way) away from him. Before he can catch his breath, a huge muscle-bound guy attacks Pete, lifting him off his feet. The strong guy grabs Pete by the head and starts to pull, obviously hoping to end Pete’s life quickly and easily. Suddenly a glint appears in Pete’s eye, quickly followed by a similar glint appearing in his attacker’s eye. The attacker screams I pain and releases Pete. Pete screams in pain too. He starts apologizing to the strong guy for hurting him. Kris warns Eel (who has started to threaten Kris) that “Pete probably just yanked on his optic nerves. Pete says he has ghost hands that can do anything…like squeeze your heart into pulp.” Before Eel can do any more damage, Pete telekinetically lifts his car into the air and smashes Eel with it. There is a pool of gasoline on the ground from the fight, and the whole place blows up like a scene out of a war movie. Pete manages to grab Kris and fly them both to safety.

Okay, a little break here. Pete is obviously a telekinetic, but that’s not all he is. It’s very clear that his attackers feared him, and deeply respected his powers. What powers does he exactly have? We’ll find out in a moment, but suffice to say that he has mental abilities very similar to another character in the Valiant Universe…a guy that we’ve spoken about in a previous column.

Pete and Kris land in the parking lot of a motel. They want to get a room so they can clean up and sleep. The man behind the desk kicks them out because they look too young. He doesn’t want illegal minors being sex fiends in his establishment. Kris is ready to go somewhere else, but Pete refuses to leave. He gets that gleam in his eye again and says to the manager, “Give us a room. Now. We’re just ordinary travelers. Got that?” The manager, with a sleepy look on his face replies with, “yezzzirrr.” Once in the room, Kris tells Pete that it’s spooky when he does “that Jedi mind trick thing.” She doesn’t like him doing that. Pete doesn’t like it either, but he was too tired to go anywhere else. Exhausted, Kris and Pete pass out on the bed.

The next morning, they are in a diner wondering what to do next. Pete is looking at the newspaper and notices a familiar ad. It’s the Harbinger Foundation ad that we last saw in Solar #3, the ad that claims to want to help people that are different. Pete claims that Harbinger is an evil foundation, and that they brainwash kids to join their cult-like group. Kris feels sorry for all of the kids that send Harbinger letters looking for help. Pete, in a stroke of genius, wonders if he and Kris can intercept these letters from troubled kids before they reach Harbinger. Little does he know that this decision will change his life forever.

The next page shows Kris and Pete breaking into a local post office, looking for the Harbinger post office box in that city. With Pete’s mental abilities, breaking in and escaping before the authorities arrived was not much of a problem.

They take the letters back to their hotel room and try to sort through them. Most of them are from kids that have normal teenage problems—unpopular at school, feeling fat, etc—but one in particular catches Kris’s attention. It’s from a girl that dreams that she could fly…and claims to have woken up hovering over her bed on more than one occasion. Kris and Pete decide to visit her.

They arrive at the girl’s house, introduce themselves to her mom, and then finally meet the girl herself. Her name is Faith, and she is another vital part of this comic book series. She is a short, overweight blonde girl, and is the typical sci-fi comic geek—a real fangirl whose room is plastered with Star Trek posters, action figures, comic books and typical nerd paraphernalia. She also plays a very important role in this series—the fictional embodiment of our (the readers) preconceptions of what comic books and superheroes should be. She’s the girl that lives, eats, breathes and sleeps comics and fantasy. She’s grown up with a firm knowledge of the effects of kryptonite, the properties of unstable molecules, and the first appearance of every member of the Avengers since the first issue. She’s basically a walking version of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (the old 80s version). I completely identified with Faith because I was that kid too. In many ways I still am.

Faith is naturally leery of her visitors, thinking that they are pranksters from her school coming to make fun of her. Kris mentions the letter that Faith wrote to the Harbinger Foundation, which makes Faith believe even more that it’s all some sort of set-up. She gets very upset and tries to kick Pete and Kris out of her room. Suddenly Pete starts to levitate and make objects in Faith’s room fly around. Faith immediately recognizes what Pete is doing and shouts, “You must be telekinetic! Is the Harbinger Foundation a school for mutants? I knewit!” Pete answers with, “Harbinger is a big, powerful organization. They killed my best friend in the world. They’re trying to kill me. If you fall for their crap, they’ll trick you and use you…” Pete then pushes his way into Faith’s mind to see if she really can do the things that she claimed, like fly. While he does this, Faith’s speech is slurred like the hotel clerk from before. Pete’s verdict is that she doesn’t have any special abilities. He and Kris apologize to Faith for bothering her and leave. As they walk down the street Faith comes flying towards them! She can fly! Apparently Pete somehow triggered her powers when he went into her mind. Faith convinces Pete and Kris to let her join them on their crusade against Harbinger, and runs back into her house to get a trunk filled with costumes that she made. Pete flies himself, the two girls and a clothes-filled trunk back towards the hotel. Incidentally, Faith now wants everyone to call her “Zephyr.” After all, now that she is a superhero, she needs a cool superhero code-name, right? Once they are close to the hotel they notice that there are cops all over the place, obviously looking for them (because of the cameras watching them when they broke into the post office). Obviously they can’t go back to the hotel, so they later find themselves in an abandoned van in a junkyard. This scene really sets up the underlying theme of this comic.

Zephyr is cold and wants to huddle with Pete and Kris for warmth. Kris, being Pete’s boyfriend, is pretty annoyed and starts getting an attitude. While the two girls are arguing, their voices get lower, their speech starts to slur, and then they become quiet. Silently, they both lie down next to Pete and try to sleep.

Pete sits up and apologizes. He used his powers to control them so they wouldn’t fight. He says that it was wrong and the kind of thing that Harada would do. Harada—meaning Toyo Harada, the head of the Harbinger Foundation that we have previously met in early issues of both Solar and X-O Manowar. Kris tells Pete that doing that kind of thing is evil, and that if he ever does it again she will kill him in his sleep. Kris takes control of the situation and lays out a plan to find more kids like Faith and build up an army to fight Harada. Incidentally, when Pete loosened his grip on the girls’ minds, he gave Faith a sharp headache. She said that it stings, and that is exactly what she (and I) will start to call Pete from now on—Sting.

What’s clear is that Sting has very similar powers as Toyo Harada, and we’ve already seen what Harada can do. Imagine being that powerful and being a 17-year-old kid too. Sting is still growing up, and who is to say if he will follow the right path? This is something that will constantly be touched upon in this title.

The next few pages cover Sting’s search for other people who have written letters to Harbinger. Instead of breaking into post offices, he decides to go directly to the source and walks into the local Harbinger Foundation office. While riding up in the elevator he meets a young woman named Charlene. More on her in a sec…

Once in the office, Sting heads into the file room and starts ransacking the place looking for information. A Harbinger executive (Mr. Tod Bevins from X-O Manowar #4) tries to reason with Sting and tells him that they can help him and that he is acting irrational.

Sting doesn’t listen to Bevins and leaves the office with a sack full of files (as well as Charlene). Once back at the abandoned mill they’ve recently found, Sting introduces Charlene to Kris and Zephyr. Charlene tells them to call her Flamingo, and then she demonstrates her power…she is basically the Human Torch (but without the ability to fly). When the flames cover her body her clothes start to burn off, much to the chagrin of Kris. Apparently Sting went into Flamingo’s mind and “activated” her powers, just like he did with Zephyr. There is definite tension between all the girls. Flamingo is the flirt and knows that she is already getting under Kris’s skin. Zephyr just wants everything to be like a real comic book. Kris is trying to hold it all together but is angry at Sting for bringing another girl into the team.

After reading the files, they decide to investigate someone named John Torkelson. He happens to work nearby at a mechanics shop. When they arrive they meet Torkelson—whose friends call him Torque (and now so shall we…)—and see that he is a little older than they are, probably in his early twenties, and BIG—muscle-bound big. He’s a jock, tall and powerfully built. He’s also not very friendly to strangers, especially when they’re punk teenagers. He’s not the least impressed when Sting asks him if he wrote a letter to the Harbinger Foundation. In fact, Torque pretty much threatens them and tells the kids to beat it before they get hurt. The group leaves (well, all except for Flamingo. She stays behind and tries to make time with Torque). Pete maintains that Torque is no one special, and that when he went inside Torque’s mind a little all he could learn was that Torque is illiterate, so someone else had to have written the letter for him. A few minutes later, Torque and Flamingo drive up in a convertible. Kris and Zephyr jump in—they want to go have a good time. Reluctantly, Sting agrees. Back at the mill, the kids are hanging out. Well, most of them are. Flamingo and Zephyr are fawning over Torque, while Kris watches from a distance. Sting is far off from the rest of the group, clearly not wanting to hang out with Torque. After a while, Torque walks over to where Kris is sitting and tries to rap to her. Kris is clearly not buying his macho act and basically calls him out that he is an illiterate jerk that acts obnoxiously to cover up his true self. Torque, in his own way, calls her out as well, saying that she probably isn’t as cold as she appears to be. He goes to sleep in the car, and invites her to join him. Maybe they could both teach each other something. Kris actually gets up and follows until Flamingo stops her. Flamingo wants Torque all to herself and a wonderful cat fight ensues. Once Flamingo flames up, the fight gets out of hand, so Sting telekinetically separates the two girls. He decides to talk to Torque and asks him if he is working for Harbinger. Torque, being the way he is, gets in Sting’s face and cops a major attitude. Let’s face it, these are two young guys that instantly didn’t like each other, and they’re surrounded by girls. A fight was bound to happen. Sting decides to fully go into Torque’s mind, and as he says, “This is going to sting, jerk—as much as I can make it!”

The next panel sees Sting apologizing. He was all wrong…he had no idea…and all of a sudden Torque, in obvious pain, lifts the convertible over his head, ready to smash Sting to a pulp! Sting apologizes again for acting like a kid. Apparently, while in Torque’s head, he saw how Torque grew up, having people always pick on and beat him. All Torque ever wanted was to be strong enough to fight them back. And now, because of Sting’s prodding, that is exactly what he is. Sting activated Torque’s super strength. Torque calms down and sets the car on the ground.

Suddenly, a chopper appears out of nowhere, and Sting screams in pain and falls to the ground! This is it…the best scene in the comic! A whole squad of people repels from the huge chopper and starts firing bullets at Sting. Kris jumps and covers him, but gets shot in the process.

One of the attackers (a girl) starts pounding away on Torque, knocking him back into a pile of cars. Flamingo flames up and burns Torque’s attacker, saving Torque. Sting is still immobile, clutching his head and in the fetal position. Zephyr flies towards the chopper and notices that there are agents (clearly from the Harbinger Foundation) protecting a lone figure in deep concentration at one end of the copter. She assumes that they are protecting him, and that he is what is causing Sting to be out of action. She kicks him, breaks his concentration, and, at the same time, Sting’s head finally clears. He quickly airlifts himself and Kris up into the sky and tears his attackers to shreds. Descriptions won’t do it justice. Here is the whole page in its entirety:

Zephyr, still in the chopper, manages to barely escape in time before it blows up. Sting made the chopper explode and killed all of his attackers. A walkie-talkie crackles to life, and Tod Bevins’s voice comes out of it. He basically tells Sting that there is no turning back now. Sting has killed too many people, and Harbinger will stop at nothing to finish the job they started this evening. He warns Sting not to drag his new friends into this mess.

The final panel is Sting crouching by the wounded Kris, saying, “I…I don’t know what to do.” Torque answers with, “Yeah? I do. Take care of Kris…then you and me go rip their throats out.” Flamingo says that she will go with them, and Zephyr sums it up with, “Being a super hero isn’t like I thought it would be.”

And there you have it…the first issue of Harbinger, and what an issue it was. This issue kicked off numerous storylines, whose repercussions will have a massive impact on the Valiant Universe. Is the Harbinger Foundation truly evil? What is the extent of Sting’s powers? Do they rival Harada’s? Where do the kids go from here? Will they be able to take the Foundation down? What about the relationships within the team? Why did Kris start to follow Torque to the car? Doesn’t she love Sting? Is Sting really using his powers to make her love him? All of these questions, and more, will be answered sooner than you think.

Next time we’ll continue right where we left off, and you’ll get to learn more about these fascinating kids. Like I said in a previous column, Harbinger could be, in my opinion, one of the most well-written comics ever. I promise you’ll be hooked by the time we’re done.

Shameless plug moment…redux!

If you haven’t gone to your local comic shop and purchased Danny Fingeroth’s Write Now! Magazine #13, what are you waiting for?! It’s chock full of columns and articles about writing comics by some of the masters of the comic book industry like, for instance, Denny O’Neil and Kurt Busiek. And somewhere towards the end of the issue, after the guys that know what they’re talking about are done, there is an article written by yours truly. It’s all about adapting comics, and I hope you like it. If nothing else, it could be a cure for your chronic insomnia.

So until next time, be good, keep checking out, and keep reading Valiant comics!

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Stephen Pakula lives in the Bronx.

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