By Michael Aushenker
Night. A teenager with latent telekinesis abilities, on the run from a shadow organization. Helicopters swoop down. Agents close in. The teen unleashes his psychic wrath, demolishing all comers with his cerebral blast.
No, this is not a scene from “World War Z,” “Pacific Rim” or any of your $250-million would-be blockbusters but the opening of a $4-issue of Valiant Entertainment’s “Harbinger,” a comic book series written by Joshua Dysart.
“‘Harbinger’ is a superhero book, but it’s also very, very character driven,” Dysart told The Argonaut on the patio of his walk-street home near the Venice Boardwalk.
In addition to the “Harbinger” series proper, of which the next issue, #14, comes out Wednesday July 24, Dysart’s four-issue spin-off “Harbinger Wars” – the writer’s first crossover series – concludes with the July 17 nationwide release of issue #4. From his home office, Dysart scripted “Harbinger Wars,” co-written by Duane Swiercznski, with art by Clayton Henry and Pere Perez, combining his series with another Valiant title, “Bloodshot.”
“Josh is genuinely interested in the human condition and that’s what makes his work so strong,” said Mike Wellman, a freelance comic book writer and co-owner of the Manhattan Beach comics shop, The Comic Bug.
Penciled by Khari Evans with inks by Stefano Gaudiano, “Harbinger” tells the story of teenager Peter Stanchek, the most powerful psionic of his generation, caught in a power struggle between the mysterious organization, Project Rising Spirit, and billionaire Toyo Harada, the fellow psiot behind Harbinger Foundation. As Harada assists Stanchek in harnessing his telekinesis to a possibly unscrupulous end, Stanchek escapes, activating fellow dormant psiots in the process, including childhood crush Kris Hathaway and the overweight Faith Herbert. Dysart’s dialogue breathes life into this motley crew of super-powered misfits, evoking writer Chris Claremont’s iconic 1970s-‘80s run on “The Uncanny X-Men.”
In 1989, a group, including recently fired Marvel Comics Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter as its editorial head, launched Valiant Comics. Shooter, who imported veteran Marvel artists, produced titles “Archer & Armstrong,” and “X-O Manowar,” and created and wrote the original “Harbinger” series in 1992. By 1994, Acclaim Entertainment purchased Valiant’s catalog for $65 million. The characters enjoyed a fleeting flirtation as video game properties.
Cut to 2012. With one executive from that original group and Warren Simons now heading editorial, Valiant resurfaced as Valiant Entertainment, and with it, those original titles re-launched with new talent.
That’s where Dysart came in.
For the last dozen years, comic books have become the go-to source material for Hollywood’s blockbusters. Marvel and DC are enjoying a golden age – in the multiplexes, not on paper. While the success of superhero epics such as “Spider-Man,” “The Dark Knight” and “Man of Steel” should be translating into more comics sold, in fact, the comic readership has dwindled in recent decades. In 1980, Shooter at Marvel routinely canceled books that dropped to 100,000 copies per month; in today’s market, that’s considered a top-tier hit.
While not moving Marvel- or DC-sized numbers, Valiant’s books, especially Dysart’s, have been selling consistently. “Harbinger” debuted in June 2012 with 32,111 copies sold and has since stabilized to the 12-14,000 level. “Harbinger Wars,” debuting in March with 18,729, sold 15,930 copies of #3, becoming Valiant’s May top-seller.
Overall, Valiant has been happy with Dysart’s performance, announcing in March at Wonder Con Anaheim that Dysart had signed with them exclusively.
Originally from Corpus Christi, TX, Dysart always preferred the funkier, hipster vibe of Austin. As his Facebook page attests, Dysart enjoys engaging in discourse and debates over politics, pop culture and other topical issues.
But Dysart is no hipster. He’s not complacent or content in finding (or dissing) the “next big thing.” In 2008, after the Warner Bros.-owned DC Comics (home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and Marvel Comics’ direct competition) hired Dysart to revamp the World War II comic “The Unknown Soldier” for its mature Vertigo imprint, Dysart, rather than rehashing the original’s jingoistic patriotism, developed a child guerilla soldier spin exploring the generational circle of violence in Acholiland, Uganda and the war between the Lord’s Resistance Army and Ugandan People’s Defense Force circa 2002.
He purchased a ticket to fly to Africa and, at personal risk, met with child soldiers in Northern Uganda – which he says was all in the name of research and self-edification.
Some say what lends texture to Dysart’s writing is his lack of interest in comics as inspiration. An avid reader whose politics often fall left of left, Dysart is a major cinephile and a lover of all music, from classic rock to Kendrick Lamar.
“He has a way of getting in and walking in his character’s skin like no other writer out there,” Wellman said. “That’s his mutant ability.”
Dysart aims to infuse his hired-gun assignments with personal invective. Making initial industry waves with the 1990s indie “Violent Messiahs,” Dysart wrote two series of “Make 5 Wishes,” a manga conceived by pop star Avril Lavigne, and (closer to Dysart’s musical tastes) a graphic novel inspired by Neil Young’s “Greendale” album, drawn by fan favorite Cliff Chiang. Fueled on Young’s association, the latter charted on New York Times’ best-seller list. Dysart also wrote a spin-off officially sanctioned by “Hellboy” creator Mike Mignola.
So given his diverse, eclectic freelance resume, why sign exclusively with Valiant?
“What they have offered me is super-rare in comics as they exist,” he said. “To be on the ground floor of a brand new company that is super ambitious gives openings for people who come in and help build their world. You can’t do that at Marvel or DC anymore.
With Valiant, Dysart said he finds the best of both worlds: “A new start-up with recognized properties that they can take a completely fresh attack on.” He aspires to create characters and storylines that will still be revered in 60 years.
While he said it would be “naïve” to suggest that Valiant does not have ancillary ambitions involving other media, Dysart feels Valiant has committed itself to creating “really good comics for comics’ sake. (Valiant Executive Editor Simons) comes from comics. That’s not true of all the other companies.”
Given his individualism, it’s no surprise the writer, a bachelor in his early 40s, gravitated to bohemian Venice, his home since 2001.
“My daily life is completely structured by the place that I live in,” he said. “I got rid of my car. I ride my bike. I put my bike on a bus if I need to.” Unlike other L.A. neighborhoods, “we’re living on top of each other, especially down by the beach, which creates a sense of community.”
Dysart has an idea for a creator-owned book he wants to do, derived from real social issues a la “Unknown Soldier”: “I’d like to do the same for Venice Beach. Take a pulp narrative and really, really work hard to capture in comics what’s interesting about this community. I love Venice, but I feel every day slightly more alienated by the gentrification.”
“Now we’re starting to see corporations coming on the boardwalk. I don’t want to talk about it like it’s a tragedy, it’s natural, but there’s a rich history here that people are trying to maintain. It’s the last beach a community of multi-class residents where there’s ethnic diversity, a class divide. That’s what’s changing. That’s what we’re losing.”
For now though, Venice retains some of that old comic-book color, he says.
Dysart will sign his books on Friday, July 19, 1:30-3 p.m. and Saturday, July 20, 12:30-2 p.m. at Mile High Comics, booth 5523, at San Diego Comic-Con, 111 W. Harbor Drive, San Diego.