Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Dirty Dozen: Harbinger

Dirty Dozen is a semi-regular feature with twelve disconnected thoughts on the first twelve issues of a current ongoing series.

1. I have said this before and, no doubt, I'll say it again, but the biggest and most obvious strength of Harbinger is how naturally Joshua Dysart writes the numerous teenage characters. Not every line is exactly "realistic" or "accurate" in terms of how a typical modern teenager might talk, but then again, what is a "typical" modern teenager, and are these kids even supposed to fit that description? Regardless, on the whole they feel like believable and, above all else, consistent characters, each of them damaged but still young enough to possibly heal their larger wounds and grow into more stable, put-together, productive people. Yet that hope for a brighter future is constantly interrupted by the overwhelming and incredibly adult situations in which they find (or insert) themselves. And that, too, is reflected in their voices, the strain and insanity of their new lives affecting each of them in numerous ways, both obvious and more subtle, as the story rolls along.

2. In the debut issue, when we see 18-year-old Harada, we first learn where and when the scene takes place, and only then do we get his name and age. Immediately afterward, we meet Peter at 18, but the information comes in reverse order: first his name and age, then the time and place. This is indicative of their entire dynamic. Harada is a big-picture, long-term thinker, and Peter cares only about keeping himself and the people he cares about safe and alive from day to day. This difference is demonstrated more overtly when they talk in issue #3. Peter sees how luxurious his quarters at the Harbinger Foundation are, and says that way of living looks lonely. He than expands upon this sense of loneliness by looking at the view of Pittsburgh from his room and musing on the fact that, of all the people down there, he only knows Kris and Joe. Harada responds by asking Peter what he sees when he looks at the city, which Peter has essentially just answered, but it doesn't matter, because Harada doesn't want to hear the answer, anyway. What he wants is to give his own answer, but deliver it in second person, to try and sway Peter to his way of thinking. And Harada's answer is all struggle-for-survival rhetoric, humanity competing against itself and needing a new direction that he will provide and so on. These two men aren't even having the same conversation, and this disconnect between them is why they're perfect rivals.

3. I could take or leave the Bleeding Monk, who is a pretty archetypal cryptic old man with knowledge of the future who plays both sides and/or fights for a side all his own. On the whole he doesn't excite me much. But man, that gangster stroll on the final page of issue #5 is delectable.

4. It definitely moves quickly. Kris is introduced, raped through mind control, and released, causing a massive and understandable emotional breakdown, all in the space of two issues in which she is a relatively minor player. Joe's dead by issue #4, in spite of being one of the primary characters up to that point. His presence lingers much longer, but still, that's a fairly short run. I mean, Peter's entire journey from ignorant runaway to student at the Harbinger Foundation to knowledgeable runaway only takes five issues, and I think in a lot of other books with a lot of other writers, it would've been two if not three full arcs. One for him to get off the street, one to realize that Harada is really a villain, and a third to fight back and break out. I do think that the latter half of the series drags a bit, because not all of the Renegades need an entire issue devoted to their introductions. Charlene and Torkelson probably could've been recruited in a single issue wihtout too much being lost, at the very least. Plus the zero issue doesn't provide much new information or plot advancement (though it does serve its purpose), and issue #11, the most recent and the first of several tie-ins to the Harbinger Wars crossover, is more filler than meat. So lately the pace has slowed, but it still has a healthy clip compared to any number of more decompressed titles out there. For me, this is a positive, but I suppose others might make the same point as a criticism, and that's fair enough. Sometimes rapidity can mean glossing over or entirely ignoring important information, but this is such a character-based series, the plot is easy to follow even when it zips ahead. And the characters are all either running from or trying to catch one another, so the relentless forward momentum is appropriate and often necessary.

5. Tull is a more interesting antagonist than Harada. Where Harada is a mishmash of cliched villain tropes pushed to logical extremes, Tull is very much specific to this particular title and some of its unifying central themes. I can't count how many Special Victims Unit episodes are based on the idea of a bad guy who, like Harada, has a great public image, and that's just one crime procedural. And certainly world domination, even under the pretense of altruism and improvement, is not an original motive for a supervillain. His views on psiots are the same as Magneto's on mutants, and his calm and serenity in the face of all obstacles is reminiscent of Watchmen's Ozymandias. But that's fine, those are great characters, and the specific blend of familiar elements that make up Harada is unique. But Tull, though many aspects of his character are just as well-worn, also has a singular attachment to this series that I just don't feel with Harada. Because Tull's mind is wiped by Peter regularly, he loses himself. He has no memory of hunting Peter in the past, and no real desire to do so now, only keeping it up because he's told it is his job. How much damage invading another person's mind can do and the moral implications of it are both ideas Harbinger explores regularly, and Tull is a walking argument against meddling too much or too often. He is a warning against what could come, and a demonstration of how much power Peter (and presumably other psiot characters) actually has. With an only slightly modified power set and goal, Harada would fit in a lot of books; Tull's only home is Harbinger. His last appearance made it seem like he was doomed to die, and that may be, but I suspect we'll see him again. He's too bound to the core of the series for me to believe he's really gone.

6. Kris is the best character, and her issue (#6) is the best as well. One of the things I most like about her is I feel like Peter could die and she'd step up and keep his mission going, but she also has potential, down the line, to replace Harada as the main villain. There's a definite darkness inside of her, and it leads to a certain unhingedness in her personality. Add to that how badly Peter messes her up at the beginning of the series and the fact that she is one of the only non-powered members of the cast, and it's easy to see her going through some pretty transformative shit and coming out the other side as evil. Not that I expect it, I just see her as the Renegade most likely to turn. But what Kris is best for is her humor. "Even if I kill you for what you've done to me... I'm still just giving you what you want?" That's hilarious, and hilariously bleak, which is the heart of Kris' sensibility. She understands, maybe better than any of her allies, how much trouble they've all gotten themselves into and how dangerous their future promises to be. But she manages to stay intelligent, sassy, alert, and smirking through it all, and finds the levity in their lives wherever it exists.

7. Having Joe's last words to Peter be, "You're the most terrifying person I've ever known" is easily the darkest, most tragic thing Harbigner has done.

8. There has been a definite lack of regularity in terms of artists from the beginning, with Khari Evans contributing the most, but even then having only a handful of issues on which he's the only penciler. Yet there is nevertheless a certain level consistency to the style, speaking, I guess, to editorial skill when it comes to picking similar artists. I wouldn't call it realism, but it's definitely more realistic than not, with detailed backgrounds and moody character expressions. Yet the art always manages to embrace the superpowered elements, too, blasts of electricity and glowing eyes and widespread wreckage and the like. None of that ever feels out of place, because all the artists make the rest of their pages just exaggerated enough so that the fantastical moments can cut loose without clashing. Which is all well and good, but there's still a lot of fluctuation when it comes to the finer details, and I would like a more unified visual identity for the book, because even if the ever-changing art team handles things satisfactorily, right now this is a title very much defined and distinguished by its narrative alone. The visuals get the job done, but they're never a draw, because there's no way of knowing quite what to expect from each new issue.

9. Peter is a hero where Harada is a villain because Peter can admit his flaws and shortcomings, and does so regularly, beating himself up over any and every mistake and always struggling to learn from them and better himself. Harada refuses to acknowledge his own personality defects, and that's why there is so much difference of opinion and even dissent amongst his ranks. It's hubris, baby, and it'll be what undoes him someday.

10. Faith is amazing, Charlene is growing on me, and Torkelson's sort of a pain in the ass but I get it. It's important to have Faith on the team because she is the only non-cynic, a true believer. Charlene's history was way too trite for me, but after her intro issue was over I grew to like her quite a bit. She interacts well with each of the other kids, and she's really the only one of them who can. As for Torkelson...he's repetitive and obnoxious, but as Kris says, it's sort of like dealing with a rescued puppy. Literally everything he is experiencing is brand new for him, and he's understandably emotionally stunted to begin with from spending his life confined to a bed in a trailer. He grates on me now, but I'm empathetic to his struggle, and I look forward to (hopefully) seeing him grow.

11. Darpan's on a slow burn, by which I mean we've seen disappointingly little of him so far even though he seems slated to be a pretty big deal before this saga concludes. He obviously has a special place in Harada's black heart, and there MUST be significance to he and Peter being two of three known psiots who were born activated. Also I just like him, have from the beginning. He's a bit simple, but it stands to reason, since everything in his life has been controlled by Harada. All Darpan knows is the Harbinger Foundation. It gave him a home and a purpose and an understanding of his abilities, so he is ever grateful and obedient. He also seems largely unaware of how devastating his powers are. I think he knows that he is the cause, but just has no real moral compass to tell him that forcing others to relive the worst moments of their lives is a terrible thing to do. He's one of the story's biggest threats, but he doesn't know it and likely wouldn't care one way or the other, and that is a nuanced role I want to see expanded rather than set aside.

12. Peter is not easy to like. He fucks up constantly, he wallows, he's got anger and control problems, etc. But he cuts through the bullshit more quickly and efficiently than anyone, even Kris, and ultimately that's why he's the star. Not just his power level but also his point of view make him singularly equipped to push back against Harada.

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