Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]
Cancelling and restarting titles is a trend that I have mixed feelings about. Marvel’s constant use of short runs is making it difficult to figure out their story collections (Charles Soule’s various Inhuman books are one victim of this trend). Conversely, Valiant has every reason to change its publishing schedule on a regular basis: it only has about a dozen title slots each month. Still, ending Harbinger, one of Valiant’s flagship books, was unexpected, and essentially replacing it with Imperium was a bold move. This trade, Collecting Monsters, is proof that the gamble was worth the risk. You can understand what’s going on without reading previous Valiant books, but Harbinger Wars and Unity are recommended reading to prepare for Imperium.
One of the strongest contributors to this success is keeping Harbinger writer Joshua Dysart onboard. In fact, the entire relaunch and changeover reminds me of Jonathan Hickman’s Fantastic Four turning into FF, especially since Imperium also features a foundation that hosts empowered children. This is the Harada Foundation, founded by Toyo Harada, the businessman/supervillain/possible savior of the Valiant universe. Defeats in the pages of Harbinger Wars and Unity have led to his fall from grace and the exposure of his evil deeds. He’s the most powerful psiot (a type of superhuman with unlockable mental gifts) in the world, and he’s tired of that world not bending to his will.
When Valiant announced Imperium, I was curious to see what tone the series to take in its approach to Harada and his plan to gather forces. Would it be a Legion of Doom-style approach with him recruiting the nemeses of the Unity team? Would it be more like Norman Osborn’s Dark Avengers with villains acting as heroes despite their nature? The end result is a mix of these; Harada believes that he’s taking on the world’s problems for the benefit of humanity, but his methods are still brutal and are at times unnerving. The aforementioned children are shown a vision of the future which is really just Harada’s conception of what a utopia would look like; this ends up brainwashing him to his cause.
The allies Harada gathers to his cause are mostly new, although some like Stronghold have been his allies since the beginning. One character with deep-seated Valiant connections is the Chechen rebel-turned-mercenary Gravedog, a member of the pre-existing H.A.R.D. Corps. He’s one of the central characters and we follow his journey as Harada tries and fails to recruit him ... or does he?! There’s a lot of intrigue afoot as the Harada Foundation takes on the equally shady Project Rising Spirit, which at times has been both ally and enemy.
The other recruit to Harada’s cause that’s based on a classic Valiant idea is Lord Vine-99, a Vine spider-alien grown specifically to assassinate Harada forty years ago. This vicious assassin is kept under control by cruelly disconnecting him from the Vine’s telepathic network. Lord Vine-99 is created towards the end of Collecting Monsters, as is the mysterious Broken Angel, who starts as one of Gravedog’s colleagues but ends up the host of a scientist from a microscopic dimension. It’s one of the most “comic-booky” ideas I’ve seen in Valiant books and it’s played straight to build up horror.
The breakout character of Imperium is Sunlight on Snow, or as the other characters insist on calling him, Machine Major. He’s a robot so advanced that a lock on him prevents him from connecting to wireless networks and starting the feared technological singularity. This lock is definitely not going to come back to bite Harada and company, and it’s certainly not a basis for forming a friendship with the similarly-crippled Lord Vine-99. A former medical robot, Machine Major looks and acts like a mash-up of H.E.L.P.eR from Venture Brothers and HK-47 from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.
“Sunlight on Snow” sounds like a translated Japanese name, and there are other Japanese references throughout Imperium, stemming from Harada’s heritage and his status as a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. The title’s name is written in Japanese on every cover and the Harada Foundation members have karate-style ranks. Even the name “Imperium” evokes the Emperor of Japan. This might seem like a series of coincidences if not for the future of the Valiant universe seen in Rai, where Japan is a super-nation orbiting the Earth. Perhaps we’ve already seen Harada’s planned paradise in action in that title.
Art duties on the book were given to Doug Braithwaite, who had previously drawn Harada’s downfall in Unity. Valiant’s creator loyalty has been one of their strengths, with the same group of writers and artists rotating onto different books as their schedules open up. Braithwaite gets to branch out a bit with the body horror of the birth of Lord Vine-99 and the microverse visited by Broken Angel. He’s assisted in this by colorist Dave McCaig, who uses red tones to enhance the violence being depicted. Imperium is a book where describing it as “dark” is a compliment, as that’s the tone they were going for.
With Imperium, Valiant has their equivalent of the Thunderbolts and the Suicide Squad, and I look forward to the crossovers that entails. In fact, the next trade sees the team fight the equally utopian-minded main character of Divinity, which launched at the same time as Imperium. Valiant is finally breaking away from their roots and investing in new characters and concepts now that they know that the fans will stay after the nostalgia fades. Since a Harbinger film is in the planning stages, we’ll see Harada on screen soon (I’m crossing my fingers that they cast Ken Watanabe), and hopefully some of his Foundation members will follow suit.