Of strange tales and Valiant universes
During the great darkness of the 1980s, an undescribable emptiness loomed over ( or within ? ) the intellectually barren landscape of the mostly-silly American comic books. The same old superheroes from the golden and silver ages were still going on about their business, endlessly repeating slight variations on tired, inane themes*. And as the bored public of geeks and nerds demanded something new, the heroes suddenly turned bad. It was not about doing the right thing anymore, like those tired do-gooders Superman and Spider-Man, who still annoyingly refused to resort to killing, but about getting things done - and looking cool while doing it. Following the example of Batman, but crossing the line he never did in his war on crime, a new breed of protagonists - not particularly fit to be called heroes - made their way onto the boxed pages, and the blood flowed around bewildered Marvel fanatics, while the confused DC multiverse imploded in a Crisis of Infinite Earths. Creators that had long been restricted by the oppressive Comics Code Authority said a collective "up yours", and fractured the boundaries between right and wrong. It would all soon lead to the Infinity War, the Age of Apocalypse and Kingdom Come.
But meanwhile, still in the 1980s, some noble minds, inspired by the spirit of golden age creators, started spinning counterclockwise and pondered some more what ifs. Among these were two guys named Jim Shooter and Bob Layton who, having failed at placing the highest bid to acquire Marvel Comics, founded their own universe and called it Valiant, published through Voyager Communications Inc. This new enterprise attracted the master storyteller Barry Windsor-Smith, best known for his work on Conan the Barbarian and, later, the long-awaited revealing of Wolverine's origins in the Weapon X graphic novel.
As the Valiant universe took off, it coalesced around core heroes which Voyager acquired from the defunct Gold Key Comics, namely Magnus, Robot Fighter and Doctor Solar, renamed Solar, Man of the Atom - but also Turok, Dinosaur Hunter, originally published by Dell Comics in the 1950s. Turok, Son of Stone remained a sort of outsider, not joining with the rest of the Valiant line of heroes until after Unity, and would one day become the lone torch-bearer of the Valiant universe following its eventual collapse, taking his lonely crusade all the way to the upcoming 2008 version of Acclaim video games, having spawned in the process a variety of properties bearing his namesake. The other core books from Valiant were: Archer & Armstrong, Eternal Warrior, Harbinger, Rai, Shadowman, and X-O Manowar.
So what's this Unity I mentioned? Ah well therein lies the real story... you see, Valiant stories started out in two separate time frames, one part of its universe unfolding in the present-day ( the early 1990s, in this case ), and another in the far future of the year 4000. So in order to have their present characters interact with their future ones ( and, in the case of the immortal Gilad Anni-Padda, meet himself ), the company published a line-wide crossover called Unity, spanning the eight titles of the Valiant universe in eighteen issues during the summer of 1992. It was a momentous event, and a truly epic story, as heroes from all time gathered in the Lost Land to foil the insane plans of Mothergod, who attempted to entirely rewrite reality so that her nemesis, Solar, would not come into existence. During the course of the saga, many events played out, dramatically altering the destinies of all heroes involved. Of particular importance was the birth of Magnus, revealed to be the son of Kris and Torque, two of the Harbinger kids from 1992, and taken to the future at the request of the geomancer, so that the mutant child may play the pivotal role in the Malev War of the early 41st century, along side Rai and the Future Force.
Following the immense popularity of the Unity event, the mainstream comic book media ( led by Wizard magazine ) took notice of Valiant and the demand for pre-Unity back issues skyrocketed. In a brief glorious era surrounding 1993, Valiant comics became the hot item for collectors and speculators, driving the value of the rare first issues to absurd heights. The company felt confident they could expand beyond their core titles, and thus proceeded to put out a constant stream of less-and-less inspired series: Turok, Bloodshot, H.A.R.D. Corps, Ninjak, Timewalker, Armorines, The Second Life of Doctor Mirage, Psi Lords, and Secret Weapons. To maximise profits, Valiant even sped up its most popular titles to a twice-a-month schedule, further dilluting and straining the creative talents responsible for producing the line of comics. This new direction reflected that all was not well behind the scenes, especially as the Valiant founder Jim Shooter was dismissed by Triumph ( the venture capital firm financing the comic books ), reportedly for stubbornly resisting Valiant's unchecked expansion.
At the height of its popularity, and the speculative boom plaguing the industry, Valiant entered a high-profile cross-over with Image Comics entitled Deathmate. The story originates in a strange scene from the classic Rai #0, where Solar splits in two different beings, struck by the grief of accepting his love's request that he stop keeping her alive artificially. After the split, an unburdened version of Solar leaves to explore unreality, and meets with Void, the cognizant silver-clad oracle from Image's WildC.A.T.s series. Bound by an inescapable attraction, the two become lovers and their mating causes the amalgam and eventual destruction of both universes. The six-part storyline, divided in a prologue, four main books ( blue, yellow, black, and red ), and an epilogue, features the imagined deaths of almost all main characters, and ends in an uneasy alliance as the two greatest heroes from each universe, Solar and Supreme ( the cheap Superman rip-off created by Rob Liefeld ), team up with the nefarious Master Darque, who controls necromantic energies and the psychopathic being known as Doctor Eclipse. Unsurprisingly, the albino necromancer ends up betraying the heroes and encouraging the mating of split-Solar and Void, in order to collect the death energy of both universes' anihilation. But Darque's ambitions of ultimate power are foiled as Solar manages to form a protective bubble that safeguards the space-time continuum. The heavily-promoted project did relatively poorly, plagued by extended delays on the Image side of production. The entire event heralded the beginning of the end for Valiant Comics.
The Valiant creators attempted to resurrect the original enthousiasm by proceeding with a new Unity-style mega-event entitled the Chaos Effect, which introduced a mysterious new character called The Visitor, perhaps the last spark of genius in the crumbling Valiant universe. Found lifeless by monks of a remote asian temple, the masked man is nursed back to health, watching the events unfold as heroes once again gather to close a dimensional rift menacing Earth. In the subsequent short-lived series, the Visitor's sudden mediatic exposure is first perceived as an alien menace and he is confronted by other Valiant heroes. He defeats them all, even proving himself capable of withstand Solar's best shot, but had no malevolent intentions. At the end of the series, he is finally revealed to be a future version of Sting ( Peter Stanchek ), the Omega Harbinger who had led the teenage superheroes in present-day continuity before his climatic confrontation with Toyo Harada and his mysterious disappearance. So it is revealed that the Visitor traveled back in time from an alternate reality where Harada had achieved his plans of world domination, aided by the young Peter Stanchek veiled in a disguise and acting as Harada's lieutenant, the Harbinger. The Visitor dies in the battle against the Harbinger, but still manages to convince his young, brainwashed self to rebel against his master.
Meanwhile, back in the real world (1994), sales of Valiant books were dropping at an alarming rate so the men in suits at Triumph decided to cash in on the previous successes. Thus, Voyager Communications Inc was sold to the video game giant Acclaim Entertainment, thereby ensuring that the soul and creative force behind the once-great Valiant books would be irreparably crushed. After a bumbling but relatively profitable initial run, Acclaim renamed Valiant as Acclaim Comics in 1996, and proceeded to eradicate every remaining spark of life from their comic books, with a steady stream of titles too bad to merit being included in everything. Starting to wonder why things weren't going so well, Acclaim had the brilliant idea of simply starting from scratch, rebooting some the old franchises so they could best adapted to video games later on. Acclaim took the insult even further, creating two entirely separate lines of comic books, Windjammer and Armada, the latter of which attempted to bank off licensed properties, most notably Magic: The Gathering. Acclaim struggled to sustain its comic book ventures throughout the later half of the decade, but by 1999 had simply cancelled most of its titles. It all ended with a pathetic last gasp, as the desperate corporate entity re-hired Jim Shooter to produce Unity 2000, a hopeless attempt to replicate the early 90s success by remixing the original universe ( now known as VH1 ) with the mess Acclaim has since made ( known as VH2 ). Shooter, however, used this last high profile window to reveal Acclaim for what it was, creating new supervillains that mimicked the original Valiant heroes. The plug was pulled before the story arc could be completed, and in 2004, after a slow agonising death, Acclaim filed for bankruptcy.
In 2005, Acclaim ( soon to become Acclaim Games with a renewed focus on second-rate video games ) auctioned off the rights for the original Valiant characters, and a reformed Valiant Entertainment Inc took over. Its first book was released in august of 2007: Harbinger: the Beginning, a deluxe hardcover edition collecting the first seven issues of Harbinger, all remastered using computer coloring, along with the never-before seen origin of Toyo Harada ( the psionic businessman with a messiah complex who masterminded the Harbinger foundation ), illustrated by Bob Hall.
sources: personal recollection, wikipedia, valiant fan sites,
and the secret archives of Doctor Strange, sorcerer supreme.