PGHHEAD PICK for Best of 2012: HARBINGER
********** Every single one of the Valiant character revivals in 2012 was excellent. I cannot say the same for all of the revived DC and Marvel titles of 2012 - - likewise for the other comics companies whose books I read last year. So, Valiant was my choice to select as a “pick” for 2012 - - but which book ? That was a tough choice. While X-O MANOWAR was an early frontrunner, HARBINGER started out amazing and just got better with each issue. So, my PGHHEAD PICK FOR THE BEST REBOOT OF 2012 is HARBINGER. **********
If you have over-looked this title you are missing one of the most engaging and different books among the current choices. Valiant is wisely putting out the first-story arcs of their new titles in affordable $9.99 trade paperback editions. Lucky you! The HARBINGER Volume One trade paperback (Issue #1-5, “Omega Rising”) hits comic store shelves tomorrow!
HARBINGER provides an adventurous exploration of all aspects of enhanced mental abilities through the way that various characters utilize them. They are referred to within the storyline as “psiots”; and exhibit powers of “telekinesis, levitation, spatial atomic distortion, electro-psychokinesis, etc . . .” The two most prominent characters are both psionics = wealthy “humanitarian” Toyo Harada and fugitive Peter Stanchek, seemingly at opposite ends of the universal spectrum like Order and Chaos, or Ying and Yang. There are also various scenes within the book that contrast how these two characters handle similar situations, beginning with the opening of Issue #1 which highlights two separate incidents when they were both 18 years of age.
Things get intriguing from the get-go as it all begins in 1951 when a very young Harada (then 18) braves the unknown to uncover an uncharted monastery in Tibet, and holds off a heavily-armed security force with only the power of his mind. He finally meets the “bleeding monk” who has inhabited and haunted his dreams and who aptly names his discoverer “harbinger”. This new mentor (who later accompanies Harada back to the U.S.) can see into the future and describes Harada as “an unassuming wind . . . waiting to be whipped into a storm.”
Those words foreshadow the panels introducing Peter Stanchek (18 years old in 2012), also battling some waking dreams as his mind acts like a radio receiver, constantly picking up the thought patterns of every single person within his perimeter of reception. (Issue #1 features a fantastic expressive cover which details a barrage of thought balloons bombarding Stanchek from all sides.) Rather than meet his challenges head-on (as Harada did in Tibet) he seeks to muffle or conceal them by using pharmaceuticals to keep himself in a constant stupor.
Toyo has a vision for the future and a purpose, and his every action is calculated to move those plans closer to fruition. (Acquire the building blocks. Develop. Create events that move things forward. Control. ) Pete does not think beyond today, and his actions are immediate and more spontaneous rather than thought out or planned. ( Satisfy immediate needs only. Get numb through sedation. Escape. Avoid.)
So which of these two is the main character in this book? And who should we root for? The answer is both and neither. As the story progresses it becomes clear that the fates of Harada and Stanchek are intertwined and dependent on each other (but not equally). Toyo does have admirable qualities but you immediately sense that something much darker is hiding behind the curtain of his persona. (One of the reasons I’m following this book - - I want to find out more). There is even less to like about Pete - - - he’s dangerously unstable and an explosion waiting to happen. He’s on the run and not sure where to turn. We can understand his plight and empathize with his situations. But we are unlikely to get warm and fuzzy in the way that issues of teen angst made us root for PETER PARKER, SPIDER-MAN. Stanchek’s problems are self-induced and far removed from simple adolescent angst. He’s a certified “nut job” (apologies to anyone who thinks I’m referring to them). Sure, there have been mentally disturbed characters in comics before. THE BADGER (First Comics, 1980’s) comes to mind as an extreme example. However, he was crazy and funny at the same time. Stanchek is more crazy, and he’s not funny at all. In fact, he’s realistic in a very frightening way. Imagine a mentally disturbed person with super-human abilities. (This is a another reason I’m following this book - - this makes it different than the usual fare).
In the hands of a writer with average abilities these situations would seem more fantasy than reality. We would not care because it would not feel real. Writer Joshua Dysart is a master at this type of writing, and can make you feel it as if it is happening to you. Watch and marvel at his style. (Check out VIOLENT MESSIAHS and THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER for more evidence). Artist Khari Evans brings a realistic style to this book that helps enhance the effect even further.
There are several Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary (Eleventh Edition) definitions for “harbinger” = 1) a person sent ahead to provide lodging; 2) one that pioneers in or initiates a major change (precursor), and 3) one that presages or foreshadows what is to come (forerunner). Between Toyo Harada and Pete Stanchek, which one is the “precursor” and who is the “forerunner”? Are they both “harbingers”? Let’s pile up some more evidence before deciding that. Right now it seems able to go either way.
ISSUE #1 HIGHLIGHTS:
We get the details on the duration and reason for Pete’s flight and meet his also conflicted companion. We learn of the vast scope of Harada Conglomerates and their efforts to help prop up struggling world economies while providing humanitarian aid to areas of famine or political turmoil. Pete is so disturbed (and lonely) and has struggled so hard to cope that he has to reach back eight years to find any instance of companionship or love. He trashes that relationship and manipulates situations in the worst possible way. The panels in which this occurs will make you sad. There are other organizations besides Harada Conglomerates that are looking for Stanchek and they may be equally dangerous. Pete’s “friend” Joe Irons is operating within an entirely different level of disturbed, and his personal state of confusion causes him to slip up and bring trouble to them both. (They recently escaped together from a mental institution). Toyo has the ability to project images and converse long-distance and communicates with Pete, who only sees a talking dog. He can also mentally project an imaginary setting and make it seem real. Toyo explains his purpose and mission, and offers Pete a chance to join his organization and learn to control his powers, find happiness, perhaps . . . .” Dysart crams so much information into the debut issue that it requires several readings to recall it all. But it’s not clutter. The script has a real flow with perfect pacing so you never notice how much goes on and how quickly it happens until you get to the last panel.
ISSUE #2 HIGHLIGHTS:
Harada’s mental powers surfaced during the Hiroshima bombing. New character Darpan (“The Mirror”) can bring horrible memories to life again and incapacitate a person by doing so. Phased electromagnetic pulses at a certain frequency will disrupt the nervous system of psiots. (Good to know!) Pete reveals more of his powers (a psychic wall with enough force to repel and propel assailants) to add to his thought-reception and mind control / memory wipe abilities. Meet Harada team members Rachle Hopson, a psiot sensate with tele-link abilities and Edward Sedgewick (Stronghold), who draws energy from mass, pulling it from building structures, etc. Pete accepts Toyo’s offer in exchange for a promise of safety for his friends.
ISSUE #3 HIGHLIGHTS:
Peter gets assigned quarters at the Harbinger Foundation, the secret school where he hopes to learn to better control and develop his powers. Meet new character Amanda McKee (Livewire), able to control machines with her mind. Toyo gives more insight into his operation, explaining that it’s a “culture” more than a corporation. The pre-cog powers of the Bleeding Monk still see Peter Stanchek as a threat. Hidden Moon is the headmaster of the school and a psionic dampener. The students access their specific powers through a painful process referred to as “activation”. Ingrid Hillcraft is a telepath who conducts the psychological evaluations for the school. Her consultation with Pete reveals that his powers manifested at an early age and in a violent way, when he was being taunted at a playground. His efforts to bring out similar abilities in others cost him a family member. Eventually everyone became so afraid of him that (while still of elementary school age) he was put under the care of one mental institution after another. Student Daniel Hessler (Ion) controls electricity. Lunchtime and the social hour go badly for Pete.
ISSUE #4 HIGHLIGHTS:
New character teenage Faith Herbert is blond and big and lacks confidence, but seems to act on hope. Training at the school reveals more of Pete’s powers: a mind whip called “the sting”, thought-transference, limited telepathy, and impact psychokinesis (the repelling wall of force). He worries about his friends and begins to see them in hallucinations. The board members at Harada have mixed opinions and are conflicted about how to best handle Stanchek. Pete learns of the gruesome consequences as Toyo shows him an activation session that ends up failing. Toyo suggests that Pete may be able to activate latents with his mind, thereby avoiding the dangers of the machine process. Pete manages (with unexpected help) to get away from the compound and then rebels when he learns the news about his friends.
ISSUE #5 HIGHLIGHTS:
Toyo Harada does not seem to deviate from his professed calling to help engineer a better world. But mixed in with his public projection as a great humanitarian/benefactor we see evidence of lack of compassion . He seems a great contradiction. The man who wants to help mankind will also easily accept risking the lives of others to achieve those ends. Didn’t someone once say that “deeds, not words” take a true measure of a person? If so then his stated intentions mask an inner heartless being. Pete gets angry and turns extreme, forcing a showdown with Toyo. He get help from those unexpected sources.
As you may suspect, there is an awful lot of great stuff occurring in this title. Just look how many words it took me to try and describe some of it to you ! The contents of Issue #1 alone would take multiple chapters of text to truly convey, but Dysart and the art team pull it off through the visual power of the comics medium. Good stuff. Get some for yourself.