One of the highlights of 2016 for me was attending the Harvey Awards. Held every year in conjunction with the Baltimore Comic Con, the Harvey Awards honor excellence in the comic book industry. As an avid comic book fan and reader of many of the books published by Valiant, I was pleased to see so many writers, artists, letters, and inkers who had worked on Valiant series nominated. Halfway through the awards show, it became clear that despite producing some of the most innovative and thought provoking superhero stories in the industry, Valiant wasn’t going to win in any nominated category. Which, to be honest, was stunning considering in some categories such as best inker, colorist, letter, and most promising new talent they were nominated multiple times. In the “Special Award for Humor in Comics,” they were nominated four seperate times, and twice for the same book: Unity#25. (Incidentally Chip Zdarsky won for Howard the Duck, which is an amazing book and deserved to win.)
Awards matter, they draw new readers and media attention to books that are truly exceptional and deserve attention. While this might sound like fanboy rant or simple sour grapes, it matters that Valiant didn’t win, because of the universe and characters they have created, and the stories they are telling.
Current superheros and their adventures as provided by the “Big Two,” Marvel and DC, are for the most part predictable. In their defense, this makes sense considering that both company’s respective characters are some of the most valuable forms of intellectual property. From mugs to Under Armour compression shirts, they are the golden goose that never stops producing. But the cycle of relaunching a character, the inevitable company-wide event series, and subsequent “new” status quo that lasts for the shortest of times, robs many characters of any real growth or progression, and ultimately less compelling stories. Further, the characters of both Marvel and DC inhabit a universe that is divorced from the world we live in. The conflicts and challenges of the modern world are absent. Lastly the characters offered by both companies represent the traditional depiction of superheroes, as in perfect human specimens with perfect physical attributes that defy physics just like many of their abilities.
Valiant has created a flawed, fragile universe for its characters to inhabit that mirrors our own. Imbued with all the problems and perils of our own, with the inclusion of the currently impossible abilities of its heroines, heroes, and villains, the Valiant universe serves as a challenging environment for its characters. As a consequence, the characters themselves are not stagant; they truly grown and evolve, make mistakes and do something that heroes from the Big Two do not: they lose. Or to quote W.B. Yeats, there are stories where “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” There is no reboot to save this characters; when they lose, life continues to move forward. Ultimately, the result is truly great story telling. Here the crisis in Syria is real and the suffering of the refugees and our species’ cavalier attitude towards nuclear war, climate change, and global economic inequality compels the actions of Valiant’s premier villain Toyo Harada.
Harada, a powerful psionic with a terrifying array of abilities, has become convinced that humanity is incapable of charting its own path forward and therefore he and the members of his superpowered Harada Foundation will take responsibility for humanity. Harada is a contemporary antagonist, not motivated by a desire for power, wealth, or self-aggrandizement; he is compelling because he believes that he is the hero. Through the course of his appearances in Harbinger and continuing into his starring role in Imperium, Harada invades Somalia to turn it into a post scarcity utopia, attempts to end the fighting in Syria, and challenges the authority of the members of U.N. Security Council to lead the world, when many are the largest arms manufacturers in the world. The cumulative result is informative, thought-provoking storytelling written by Joshua Dysart with art done by Khari Evans and Doug Braithwaite.
X-O Manowar, which concludes this week with issue #50, is perfect example of the potential of character development. Over the course of the series, Aric of Dacia has evolved from a Visigoth with a singular hatred for Rome so great that when we returns to Earth with the X-O armour after being abducted by the Vine, a race of aliens, he attempts to conquer modern day Rome, not noticing that centuries have passed. Written by Robert Vendetti, initially he is global level threat sufficient to unite the most powerful characters in the Valiant Universe. Over time however he has grown to be its premier superhero, a King to the decendants of the Visigoths, and a protector of the same alien race that enslaved him. That’s a lot of ground to cover in 50 issues.
And then there’s Faith, a character that I can’t imagine any other company publishing. Originally appearing in Harbinger, Faith is the only plus size female superhero who now stars in her own book. Gifted with the ability to fly, Faith is one of us: a nerd who wanted to be a superhero and do good, simply because it needs to be done. In an industry where most major female characters defining characteristics are physical, Faith’s spirit and her humanity set her apart.
Valiant has managed to develop this unique universe and incorporate diversity beginning with the relaunch of the company. Whether it’s Livewire, Shadowman, Divinity, Quantum, or Animalia, there is almost as much diversity in the Valiant universe as there has been in both DC and Marvel until recent history.
This collection of characters and their stories matter in a industry that increasingly feels less interested in compelling story telling and more concerned with managing its intellectual property. The creators and Valiant as a company deserved to be recognized at the Harvey Awards because if what I’ve described isn’t excellence in storytelling I don’t know what its.