I don’t know. Do you now or have you ever liked Marvel comics? If the answer is no, I’m probably not gonna be much help here. Valiant’s Harbinger Wars 2 is straight outta Westchester, a Mutant Registration Act battle for America over whether or not it’s OK to kill teens. It feels rude to relegate a story to the shadow of another. But better be rude than tell a lie, am I right? I’ve been clear I don’t consider knockoffs disappointing.
Harbinger Wars 2—I don’t know what happened in Harbinger Wars 1—began with a Prelude issue that’s currently on shelves, as these things often do. It continues, or “begins in earnest” as the press copy has it, in Harbinger Wars 2 #1 on the 30th. The prelude is superior to the starting issue.
Eric Heiserrer has been impressing WWAC with his Secret Weapons work for most of this year. Emily Lauer and myself have both covered the collected 2017 miniseries Secret Weapons and the additional character backstory issues Secret Weapons Zero: Nikki and Secret Weapons Zero: Owen. We’re both hoping for an Avi issue to complete the set.
Heisserer’s work centres fractious young adults with “useless” practical powers. He makes most of his drama out of what his characters feel about situations and how their behaviour is responsive to those personal, emotional evaluations. It’s extremely good superpower-as-portraiture writing, deeply satisfying to a Claremont-centred reader such as myself. Heiserrer does not hew close to the stylistic or event-based writing toolbox of the X-Men’s longest-serving scribe, but his double-fisted grasp on how to make abnormal abilities personally meaningful and maintain the internal tension of a group book is similarly notable and impressive.
He begins Prelude to Harbinger Wars 2 with mentor-leader Livewire, a technopath, finding a rare moment of peace in one of those oft twet about anti-wifi, laptop-free, no-phones Luddite-chic big city cafes. That’s an immediate in for a new or old reader, blending the observational capacity of a writer engaged with humanity (these cafes exist) with the facts of a superpower and how they may impact the psyche that owns it (it really would be a nice change for her). Raúl Allén and Patricia Martín with Borja Pindado do a gorgeous job of stacking panels and people to create sympathetic layouts that make these characters feel immediate. The aesthetic recalls all of Heisserer’s prior Secret Weapons issues, though the artistic teams are not identical. There is a real sense of cohesion to all of these books that allow me, as a new reader who disdains an expanded universe, a straight path into the heart of the matter.
This issue reintroduces the college-age team and cutely (I find myself constantly saying “cutely” about Valiant’s 2018 output, which strikes me as a positive) adds a supporting character to their main ranks. It also shows how far their mentor is willing to go to protect them as the government decides “her kids”—a girl who can talk to pigeons, a boy who makes random shit appear, a boy who can turn into a still stone statue, and a girl who takes meds to stop her non-fatal explosive attacks—are too dangerous to be allowed to live. Picking up Prelude, I am instantly willing to follow this book, and these people, through the upheaval it predicts.
Unfortunately, Harbinger Wars 2 #1 is not quite so far up my street. It’s more like the main road a block over.
Livewire retains her centrality— and it seems like that’s because she’s the villain. Magneto Was Right? So might say Amanda McKee. In fact, she does something Magneto has literally done himself, turning off all technology until Psiots (mmmmutants) are recognised as human beings who deserve lives and basic respect. Magneto has used electromagnetism to destroy satellites, submarines, and disable hospital equipment. Amanda has turned off America.
It’s dismaying to see a character who has thus far been a voice of security against predation become the world’s most wanted supervillain. It’s dismaying to see a black woman positioned as the world’s most unreasonable terrorist and opposed by large, muscular white men. It’s also dismaying to see this happen in an issue full of quite poor rhetoric— Amanda does not present her position well. Her opponents do not present their positions well. Aric of Dacia, aka X-O Man-O-War, is a Valiant superhero Barbarian king who found a technosuit and travelled forwards in time. Now he’s apparently a government-contracted superhero freelancer who goes to space sometimes and leads a group of Visigoths who live in Nebraska (that’s exposited, helpfully, by some lady in military dress and covergirl make-up on a totally-not-SHIELD mobile command centre).
He’s told to be on the government’s side against Livewire, because…Visigoths need electricity to live? It’s not clear. It’s stated that Livewire’s action endangers Aric’s people, and that’s enough of a reason for his official and implicitly soon-to-be violent opposition of her stance. It does not land. It’s too formalised. The body language and artistic style is likewise over-defined, all clenched fists, frowns, and pin-up poses. The Livewire of this comic seems worlds apart from the Livewire of Secret Weapons.
Similarly, the house where Nikki, Owen, Avi, and Lucia were last seen welcoming Amanda back to them either does not appear or appears in a new form. There is a house full of Psiots; an array of unidentifiably powerful young people I do not recognise and who are not introduced. There’s Faith, I should expect, as even Valiant is unlikely to have two fat blonde women in their “speaking role” roster, and there’s… Beer Drinker? Coffee Robot? Sarada Uchiha? A bundle of disgruntled youths sharing their suspicions of Livewire and their disapproval of her methods. The Secret Weapons group are seen in the last few pages, standing behind Livewire in a derelict building as she states her intent to “make [the Government and several of Valiant’s other superheroes] hurt.”
I’ve gotta be honest— it’s depressing. Kindt, Giorello, Rodriguez, and Sharpe do not do justice to the agreeably readable woman and inspiring, modern superheroine that Heiserrer and his collaborators have conjured out of their five or six earlier issues. This is why we superhero comic readers say “oh no, a crossover” and “oh no, an event comic.” It’s because, without tremendous care, our favourites get mashed together in stories that don’t serve them and in issues that taint our memories when we try to go back and enjoy the parts we already liked. Where will Harbinger Wars 2 go next? I don’t know, but I hope Heiserrer is in charge of at least some of it.