Joshua Dysart has been the architect of the Harbinger corner of the VALIANT relaunch, and while there is and always has been a science fiction beat to the VALIANT Universe, the story of Toyo Harada, even in this issue with a robot at his side, is to me one of heroic fantasy gone awry.
I think what’s most telling is that he sells his vision of the future by placing each of his people as beneficiaries and key architects of it. That even the most powerful mind on the planet cannot mask what’s at the heart of his own flaw. Maybe his only flaw. I think a lot of people, maybe even appropriately so, assign it as God Complex. I see a circumstance that’s mired in more tragedy. It’s Hero Complex. Toyo wants to be the hero. By giving each of his team the a vantage point into the future he reveals what he values the most: a perfect world because of him. A perfect world is not enough. It is his ego that is sated in these visions. Even when he’s physically absent, he’s revered by those — in this issue’s case Darpan — who are themselves revered in the future utopia. He wants the acknowledgment of, and maybe even the validation of, future generations. He’s not God. He’s Moses except he’s not being banned from the Promised Land he himself built. He’s Jerry Jones firing Jimmy Johnson. He’s a fantasy hero who wants to stick the landing.
This is reminiscent to me of Cool Hand Luke going to Jabba’s palace, really our first look at a hero on his journey, while confident in his power. Toyo’s path is not one of a villain, it’’s the beginnings of a now trite Hero’s Journey made interesting. He wins. He creates his kingdom, a couple of times, and he uses it as a headquarters, a learning center, to help insure humanity’s future. While Solar held the title in the original VALIANT Universe, it is Harada who is now almost the literal man of the atom, his Harbinger powers activated when the Atom bombs were dropped in Japan. He was birthed by his time’s greatest representation of destruction, and since then he has had his eye on the future, and more importantly his place in it. This is the first time we are introduced to Harada, and Dysart puts him on his path, again, literally.
If you notice, the path he walks, where his dreams lead him, from the very beginning is of blood. Also, note what he says “who does not die”. The term legacy is very common in the comics medium and I’ve always been drawn to the character of Harada and Rai (who is a definitive example of a legacy character, both inter-universal and his title as guardian of Japan) especially in VALIANT because of my own shared Japanese heritage where a word like legacy feels like it has — even if stereotypically so — extra meaning as a people. When you Harada, you are so powerful, time seems to be the only limitation on your potential and his legacy is how he, how humanity, will keep score. In his future he is revered for everything the world has become. He is forgiven and vindicated by those who stood net to him and history. The toll was worth it.
The concept of Time is a staple of the VALIANT Universe. Among their catalog of characters are included a time traveler, an eternal warrior, a visigoth barbarian living in the present day, the latest in a line of protectors in the year 4100, and an immortal drunk. Oddly enough, arguably the most powerful and most affluent being of the present, Toyo Harada, probably considers the future more than any of them. Even more, his specific place in it. Harada is the best of a classic Marvel-esque villain, meaning simply that he is an antagonist that you will catch yourself agreeing with on some occasions, even his end goal. If you tell me I have to do some shitty stuff in my lifetime to insure a lasting and real utopia for human kind, it’s not something I’d reject off hand. Fans of the X-Men might see a resemblance to Magneto, but he’s actually closer to being the subject of a What If… Xavier Wasn’t a Depowered Bitch All the Time? issue. No wheelchair, he has hair, no easy visual symbols indicating weakness, faltering, or declining strength. Indeed, he has the ability to mask the effects of age has had on him — in itself a possible form of immortality in the world we live in. Harada can be reserved, but Imperium put him into the mix, the frontlines of a war that we get a peek of the possible fruits of in the first issue of Imperium. When experiencing this Harada transition it made me think about how less than insightful people in our own world often cast CEO’s or corporations as pure villains, and with Imperium we are seeing the degrees of difference in a now unadulterated Harada. Harada played by the rules. Sure, rules he could bend and manipulate, even outright cross when he needed to, but largely Harada played the human game and elevated himself in it. Now, you have a Harada not only seeking but pushing to create sovereignty — he’s going to be an individual powerful enough to become a geopolitical entity. Imperium.
Speaking of the visuals, Doug Braithwaite is very good here. The utopia that Harada provides for his people reminds me of the futuristic upper levels of the early issues of the original (VALIANT) Magnus: Robot Fighter title mixed with the chosen architecture within the Toyo’s Harbinger foundation in Dysart’s run, featuring oriental garden landscapes in the midst of what has to be one of the most technologically advanced facilities on the planet. This first issue sings, and the narrative is in harmony with the visuals, which carries an extra layer of importance when we are dealing with a story that not only has to sell the future to Harada’s team but to the readers as well — a small part of us has to be at least somewhat onboard with Harada’s motivation. We have to buy the future in heaven to believe in the hell Harada is going to bring now, because Harada has to.
BUT let’s not take all of the above and think this has the look of some boring heavy handed series. This is not slice-of-life crap comics. Imperium looks like it’s going to be one of those classic fun “getting the gang together” series, the villain edition, leading to a VALIANT version of a Legion of Doom, which may give opportunity to new characters and influx of new villains, an element that was an actual weakness of the original VALIANT iteration, which otherwise had very few flaws. In a comic book industry climate where creators can keep their best or even just good ideas regarding character creation to themselves, it sometimes feels as a fan of a shared universes that we expect some level of stagnation, where the stories can be infinite but in what’s in the toy box is already set, which is why I loved that VALIANT is rolling out Divinity, a character debuting in an existing universe in their own book, kind of reminds me of going back to DC with Sword of Azrael or Vengeance of Bane or like Jessica Jones from Bendis at Marvel. I LOVE that.
I think the end of the issue tells you all you have to about the state of Harada. He shares panels with an aforementioned robot that shows more emotion and sympathy… more humanity than he or the people he shared his vision with do. In a way Mech Major — aka Sunlight on Snow — mirrors Harada. Initially designed as a medical droid, something to help humanity, we now see it’s progression in Harada’s cadre, doing the opposite of its original intent and design. When it points to an innocent victim it almost feels like the part of Harada’s speaking to us that used to hold him in check. It’s the death of the dream, or maybe the logical continuation of the one he started leading to the Bloody Monk, and the beginning of Harada’s uncharted future reality. He’s playing off-board now. It’s not about sides or factions. Utopia is in fact not good enough. Not without him. It’s not just about the game or winning it.
He has to be the game.