This 1994 Valiant-on-Valiant documentary has a number of joys to offer and a lot of information. One such piece is a fairly large nugget: that 1994 was “the year of The Visitor.”
1994 was not the year of The Visitor. Maybe it was in pre-production, but The Visitor vs. the Valiant Universe #1 didn’t hit stands until (cover date) February 1995, and The Visitor didn’t transition to his own thirteen issue series until April. Thanks to Birthquake transitioning all titles into twice-monthly, it was all over by November. 1995 was the pocket into which The Visitor vanished.
This is actually a shame. The Visitor, like most of Valiant’s 1990s titles, was firmly situated within the context of the story, society, and characters of “the Valiant Universe.” Superhero readers are so used to the idea of a shared universe that this doesn’t necessarily sound like a benefit or a notable aspect of a narrative, but in Valiant’s case it is. The Visitor turns out to be a futuristic version of one of Valiant’s most significant characters (which, again, sounds like bargain-bin superhero plot desperation to the jaded ear), and he interacts significantly with a brainwashed version of his regular-timeline self. The Visitor’s problem, and his younger self’s problem, are both that they’ve been victimised by Toyo Harada. Harada is one of two of the primary villains of the Valiant range, being both exceptionally powerful in the supernatural sense (basically, he has all of the superpowers) and a businessman with connections, contracts, and ownerships that put him far above the law.
Harada’s villainy is a genuinely important part of the Valiant mythos, and his determined focus on trying to dominate and control Peter Stanchek, specifically, is an integral part of his psychology. Stanchek’s passage through the Valiant chronology has been eventful and driven the anti-capitalist subtext of Valiant’s Harbingers (as opposed to the more generalised anti-bigotry message Marvel’s mutants are associated with): Harada wants to own Stanchek, because Stanchek is powerful, i.e. productive. As The Visitor, Stanchek frees his younger self from Harada’s telepathic and psychological domination; the latter had been using the former as a corporate assassin.
1990s Valiant, as I explained in this handy primer, functions as one whole story: the story of a world containing naturally occurring superheroes, super-science, and real magic. Its various titles tell individual threads of that story, and while each is able to be the only part of the story you read without your narrative of choice feeling unfinished, experiencing the full weave is very rewarding. All of the elements involved in the paragraph above are introduced and explained within the series itself; all of those elements are further explained and organically introduced in other Valiant titles from 1991 to 1995. But none of this is actually the primary source of interest that the Visitor provides. What’s so particular about him? Well… he’s a knockoff.
Taken at first glance, the Visitor looks like “the nineties.” And Valiant, on the whole, didn’t. They had a singular stylistic presence, their initial aesthetic based around the cool competency and refined beauty of Barry Windsor-Smith, the hand-painted colouring style of Janet Jackson, and the like. The touchstone ’90s look is the Image look, the Jim Lee-Marc Silvestri-Rob Liefeld-Whilce Portacio extremity, all hyperextension, spitty yells and digitally created shine. Valiant was gradually edging into some similar realms, it can’t be pretended otherwise, but the Visitor was a really purposeful step into that other design world. He had a cape. In the video linked at the beginning of this article, Valiant’s Editor in Chief Bob Layton can be seen saying that “capes are stupid” and that the Visitor is the first Valiant hero to wear a cape for “a very good reason.” In fact, Faith Herbert wore a cape in her early appearances. That cape was used as evidence of her fangirl’s naivete and (long before Edna Mode) as an acknowledged disadvantage in a fight.
None of the other Valiant heroes prior to the Visitor wear a cape, and Faith’s particular use of one can be pointed to as real evidence of Valiant’s long term stance. This wasn’t just something Layton made up on the spot to market a book. It was a character design that purposefully went against the artistic and conceptual principles of the Valiant Universe and Valiant publications. Why? It’s really hard to say. Because it’s not clear until you’re actually reading the book that it’s anything other than capitulation to the zeitgeist. Even I, who have spent two months doing a deep dive Valiant immersion and loved every minute, approached this book with no confidence that it would be anything but a sad, sad sellout. Do I feel guilty about that? Yes. But it’s what the outreach visuals were telling me.
More puzzling still is the two or three-issue villain, Mech-2000. Mech-2000 is a stuntman in a suit built by an SFX team. Their practical work for an upcoming film was rendered moot when the film was cancelled in favour of a fully digital-effects picture. They go a little off-script and decide to manufacture a supervillain by using their experience in rigging and building and yadda yadda to live-fake some superpowers and heavy artillery. Mech-2000 himself(/themselves) isn’t all that relevant in the long run but he looks like this.
I don’t know that this makes a lot of sense. He looks like a Liefeld joke; pouches, things coming off his back, clenchy teeth. It’s not quite OTT enough to be an Image parody, so it just seems to represent Image generally. And Image was certainly a capitalist’s dream: entrepreneurs who struck golden oil and inflated a bubble with it, a smash and grab that they also (mostly) managed to channel into a viable ongoing profit machine. There are certainly plenty of comments in the 1994 documentary that implicitly pit Valiant against Image ideologically, and the 1993 fiasco that was the Valiant/Image crossover Deathmate does nothing to suggest any feelings of corporate friendship. But the effects team are analogue effects experts (like Valiant), dismayed to lose their work to digital artists (like Image) and their villains. There’s some variety in the extent of their villainy, but even the best among them are involved in engineering a fake public suicide and wasting the time of a public-serving superhero. There’s definitely something being said here, but I don’t know what it is.
I do know that the Visitor is also (he’s a hard worker! He’s covering so many bases!) a pretty interesting reexamination of the Superman premise. The Visitor, for a good ten issues, is apparently an alien, new to Earth, new to human society, and somewhat beyond it in a way that allows him to live to help and be kind, and to experience a dismay that does not stop his help or his kindness when he is regarded with suspicion and a media smear campaign. The campaign against his good name, of course, is funded in secret by bribes from Toyo Harada. Capitalism, corruption, and how they define reality, a Superman in Spider-Man’s shoes, but without a human face to show the reader how (in his similarity to them) he doesn’t deserve it. The Visitor doesn’t have a “normal” life to be ruined. He lives in an abandoned Mission church with a young Tibetan monk, and all we see of his tiredness or sadness is seen through his featureless, alien face (mask), or the descriptive narration of his friend. Chan is also culturally displaced, but he has a private life of meditation, self-sufficiency, and intimate community, and no public life at all; he is used to a quiet life away from many people, and he chose it as his lifestyle.
The comic makes some effort to interrogate how an alien superman would be received by 1990s Americans, without Clark Kent’s empowering PR alliance with a Lois Lane or a Perry White. It shows people in need with both positive and negative responses to his presence, and the existence of a positive whisper-network contrary to negative public reports without implying that Superman will always ultimately be alright, because We Know Superman (or even Spider-Man) is Good.
The Visitor vs. the Valiant Universe, that two-issue introductory story, features a great many Valiant heroes ganging up to try to kill the Visitor, because he’s mistaken by one of them to be an enemy. The rest join in without properly investigating why their friend is in a fight with a new face. It’s a “why don’t you just TALK to him” story without the infuriating sense that there’s no reason for them not to just talk to him—there’s an obvious reason. They made an assumption, and they were arrogant. Valiant’s traditionally grey heroism works to its advantage, as almost always, by allowing these characters to behave unreasonably without the narrative going bald and tearing through in its rush to make marketable excuses for its bankable protagonists. They’re not “supposed” to be “perfect,” and so when they aren’t—when they try to murder an individual whose only impulse is to save lives and protect humans—it’s about fallibility as a negative human trait, not fallibility as a narrative accessory. Throughout his own limited series the Visitor suffers for human fallibility, and what turns that fallibility—that potential for being wrong—into practical impact is manipulation by the rich.
Comics? Relevant? No. What a crock. The year of The Visitor wasn’t 1994, and it was only barely 1995. In a way, perhaps the year of The Visitor is any year in which the desire to make money and sustain absolute control subsumes the ability to respect life. Check your watch: is the year of The Visitor right now?