By Rafer Roberts, Darick Robertson, Richard Clark, Diego Rodriguez
This is it. The long wait since last spring’s Renegade #4 is over. Harbinger Renegade #5 “Massacre Part 1” makes good on its name, and the fallout is devastating. The best offering in the Renegade title thus far, this dramatic issue creates a lasting impact on both the reader and the Valiant universe.
This is a solid story with good execution. It’s a rarity that readers can’t predict to a degree what will happen in a story, but writer Rafer Roberts’ Renegade #5 defies that convention. As Valiant has teased, a major character dies. Here is where the execution of the story stands out. This was not a business-as-usual-until-someone-unexpectedly-dies type of story, a trope with which most readers are familiar. Instead, the suspense level was kept high due to the uncertainty of the situation. Absolutely everyone was fair game, and there were few tells. This led to multiple surprises and “OMG” moments that left readers reeling – and anxiously gobbling up the next panel. It’s worth noting that the death is not a ploy to draw in readers, and it is not done cheaply. There is great cost in this death, and the events in this story are all-encompassing, impacting not just this title, but the universe as a whole. For those unfamiliar with how Valiant treats a character death, their approach is “dead means dead”. This is the reason why a death in the Valiant universe is so costly – snuffing out that light truly dims a part of their reality, forever closing the book on any future for that character.
That said, this story is going to upset some fans. Some may recoil from the character depictions or potential allusions. Others may be angry about fate. My take: given the circumstances of the story, the characters behaved appropriately and in-character.
There’s a blatantly obvious feature of this book that some may not realize until after they’ve finished absorbing the story. Since this is a spoiler-free review, we’ll ignore this and focus on the one character we’ve seen on covers and previews – Charlie Palmer. His characterization, and that of his team, is one with which some fans may take issue.
Put on your boots – we’re going deep here.
The story assumes that the reader is already familiar with the larger Valiant universe, including H.A.R.D. Corps (the Harbinger Active Resistance Division) and psiots. The H.A.R.D. Corps team is part of PRS (Project Rising Spirit), a corporate entity that manufactures weapons and tech, and offers the services of its operatives on black ops. This is the same company who was behind the Bloodshot program – a program so successful that it essentially made H.A.R.D. Corps obsolete. Until, that is, Bloodshot went rogue and attacked a PRS facility, freeing several captive psiots in the process. Some of those psiots were Generation Zero. At that point, the H.A.R.D. Corps team was reactivated. The resulting battle between the Harbinger Foundation, PRS, Bloodshot, and the original Renegades to regain these psiot “assets” is known as the first Harbinger War. It was a bloody battle with losses on all sides.
H.A.R.D. Corps is a team of humans cybernetically enhanced to use software that temporarily grants them psiot-like abilities such as flight, shields, and neural spikes. They are kept from going rogue or from being captured and exploited by means of a bomb in their head. If they die or are captured, the bomb explodes the tech implants. If they attempt to leave service or disobey – boom. It’s good motivation. Bear in mind that these people signed up for the program. They are recruits. Each had their reasons, but it was voluntary. Once they are part of the program, PRS owns them, but they were offered the choice, something that neither Bloodshot nor the psiot children they kidnapped (like Archer) never had.
Charlie Palmer is a veteran who achieved the rank of major. Though he is no longer in the military, he is often referred to as “Major”. It’s important to note that the H.A.R.D. Corps is not affiliated with the U.S. government or military. PRS (now reformed with a different company name that I will let you discover for yourself) works for whomever can pay. There is no political affiliation or slant to their involvement. We’ve seen their anti-psiot tech used by world governing organizations throughout various titles including Imperium.
Palmer was introduced into the current Valiant universe in Harbinger Wars #2. He was a solitary individual who lived a life apart, mainly because he said he felt like he was going to snap and kill someone, likely due to PTSD. Retired from his work with PRS, he was reinstated with little choice in the matter, tasked with capturing the Gen Zero psiots. Or as he bitterly put it, to “kill hostage-taking kids”. While it’s evident he did not relish the role, he knew as well as anyone that these “kids” were not harmless civilians.
During Harbinger Wars #3, his team brought the pain to Gen Zero and the Renegades, but not without losses of their own. He had an “us or them” mentality during the warfare. It wasn’t until Bloodshot and the H.A.R.D. Corps that we got to see behind the iron mask, getting to know the man rather than the leader. This is a good example of Valiant’s shades of gray – Palmer is essentially a good man, but his missions for the mercenary PRS were often morally murky. He’s also not immune to grudges. The decades-long battle between PRS and the Harbinger Foundation has colored his worldview, particularly against those he has faced in battle.
This time out Palmer is depicted as especially hard-edged. He’s got his game face on, and he’s a bit of a dick. Given the circumstances, his attitude is justifiable. I’ve debated with a colleague about his portrayal and that of his team mates. We’re on opposite sides of the fence. He felt they lost their shades of gray. While I agree that Palmer appears brusque, it fits both the situation and his personality. We’re not given any warm-up or foreplay – he jumps right into the hot seat, so readers don’t get to see those shades of gray. This isn’t Charlie Palmer relaxing over small talk. What we get is an efficient, intelligent man carrying the responsibility for the lives of his team. He’s not a monster, but he’s on a dangerous mission. Does this slant the story against him? Not necessarily. He may not be as sympathetic a character, but he is what he’s always been: a man with a job to do, dealing with violent hostiles. He’s lost countless team mates over the years in battle with various psiot groups. Palmer has a cross to bear, but the story doesn’t portray him as morally corrupt. Writer Roberts helps us over the morality bump by establishing Palmer’s care and worry for his people, letting even new readers recognize that this man is not a one-dimensional killer. In fact, his first objective is to apprehend, not kill, which he attempts to do multiple times until his back is against the wall. That M.O. has been same in every encounter we’ve had with Palmer.
Harbinger Renegade focuses on psiots and their place in the world. It’s been a powder keg from the beginning.
As for the whispers that Valiant has an agenda at work behind this story, I call phooey. Valiant’s agenda is to write engaging stories and sell comics. Period. They are not in the business of promoting real-life revolutions or condemning the U.S. government or military. Their creatives may choose to employ the trends and news of our world into the stories (like bath salt abuse, racism, Putin), but not to sway the public opinion. Even their most basic characters show more than one side. Valiant has not given up its ability to show the good within the bad or vice-versa.
Let’s take a look at the larger picture that Valiant has created leading up to this story. Across the world, the existence of psiots has been revealed. They are feared. Potential psiots have been outed. Some are being hunted. Some are being enticed by those that would use their abilities for their own purposes, such as Renegade’s Solomon. Harada has forcibly over taken part of Africa and is pursuing his utopia by whatever means necessary. Gen Zero has taken over the town of Rook. Even beloved hero Faith is considered a cold-blooded murderer. Psiot-dampening tech is being used around the world. If Secret Weapons is any indication, it’s not a banner time to be a psiot. To be fair, many of them have earned their dangerous reputation.
The last time we saw H.A.R.D. Corps was in the pages of Imperium. Still a part of the PRS, they were working a mission with Livewire paid for by a coalition of world governments to intercept a supply shipment for Harada’s zone. They took on Harada’s monster squad, including the traitorous former H.A.R.D. Corps member Gravedog. Their mission was a failure, and several members were injured, including Palmer. After that, nothing but crickets until Renegade covers featuring Charlie Palmer were revealed.
Harbinger Renegade focuses on psiots and their place in the world. It’s been a powder keg from the beginning. Most of what we’ve seen thus far has been focused inward – seeing how the various groups interplay and determining allegiances. This story widens that viewpoint, giving the readers a look from the outside in. Without spoiling the specifics, we’re shown opposing factions. Each has valid reasons (in their mind) for their actions. Readers witness how the various leaders interact with their teams, and how they react under fire. For the character who dies, we’re given a bit more of those Valiant shades of gray, briefly seeing what that person is like outside of ruthless battle. This is fitting given that this book becomes the character’s swan song, granting them a humanistic moment to balance their more barbaric ones. Here to, I don’t feel that this was a device done to force the reader to root for one “side” over the other.
While there’s no politic agenda in play, the book reflects some of the pervasive mindset documented in social media regarding the polarizing “us or them” statements. There is some parallel as well to the “patriots” and “terrorists” mentality, though this story causes readers to question those definitions. After all, each combatant has what they believe are valid reasons for what they are doing. This tricky place is where readers find themselves in Harbinger Renegade #5. Valiant is not forcing you to choose one side or the other. They aren’t tar and feathering anyone. This is akin to mom and dad arguing. Each may have wronged the other, and each has their point. Failure to recognize the grayness of this story’s scenario is on the reader. I watched the story unfold feeling like my hands were tied. I could see how each group – in my personal opinion – was both right and wrong in their stances and actions. I struggle with the notion of doing something wrong to force a right, and the current state of the Valiant universe makes readers confront this concept. In this story, there was no room for concession, and we witness the result of such rigidity. Ultimately, I felt shock and grief for both sides. There was no winner here, in battle or in the readers’ hearts. If anyone is portrayed as a villain, it is PRS and the corporation that rose out of its ashes. Everyone else in this book is forced into playing by their rules.
Harbinger Renegade tells the story of an underground movement, and the art evokes that guerilla warfare mentality. Artist Darick Robertson gives the book an indie-feel. His characters are almost exaggerated in their expressions, which lends energy to the scenes. In some panels, characters border on the grotesque, elevating tension in the reader. Robertson’s style works well with the story. Inker Richard Clark and colorist Diego Rodriguez round out the creative team. Their work adds much texture and grittiness to the book, aiding both the underground feel and chaos of the battleground. Rodriguez uses cool colors during the confrontation which make the warm shades of fire and explosion hotter and more impactful. His colors blend together, adding to the depth and reinforcing the idea that the situation cannot be viewed with the clarity of single-mindedness. This is in nice contrast to the boardroom of the former PRS corporate entity, where colors are clear and bright. This visual cue lets readers know there isn’t any gray to this organization.
Harbinger Renegade #5 is a powerful, complex story and a powder keg of emotions. The story will stun readers. This book is an absolute must-read for fans of the Valiant universe. The ramifications of this story change everything.