Alternative Superhero Universes: 1990’s Valiant
“The nineties were…a time in comics.”
“The nineties were…a time in comics.”
by Angela Cainen
The nineties were…a time in comics. A tumultuous time, a time when creators were gradually breaking free of the many decades of superhero history and creating new things, some of which were good and some of which were so terrible we do not speak of them. You know what I’m talking about.
Among the good things was Valiant, a company which had an interconnected universe, vast in scope and ambition and full of a whole new roster of heroes who would worm their ways into the hearts and minds of the Valiant faithful. It all started with Jim Shooter’s failed attempt to buy Marvel, because what do you do when you fail to buy an existing superhero universe? You just create your own! Valiant came into being literally at the start of the 1990’s and as a result its universe contains every 90’s comic trope you can name (and probably several you can’t). While Shooter’s attempt to buy out Marvel was not a success he did manage to poach several Marvel creators including the great Barry Windsor-Smith.
Interestingly, this new universe launched not with new exciting characters but reboots of the old ‘classics’ Magnus Robot Fighter and Solar Man of the Atom. Of course they were given a classy 90’s makeover – more violence, more muscles, more tight spandex. Gold Key comics had gone out of business and their sad demise was Valiant’s absolute gain.
Original heroes soon followed. Rai was the very first; hailing from 41st Century Japan, Rai was a title passed down the generations, that of a sword wielding protector. Next came a Visigoth named Aric of Dacia; taken by aliens, only to escape and become X-O Manowar. Rounding off the first wave of characters were The Harbinger Renegades, a bunch of angry teenagers fighting the Harbinger Foundation (in the pages of Harbinger), and Shadowman, aka Jack Boniface, battling the supernatural in New Orleans.
From the start this was an interconnected universe where characters would interact with each other and guest in each other’s books. For example, Shadowman was introduced in an early issue of X-O Manowar and even Turok Dinosaur Hunter (another former Gold Key hero) would be introduced in Magnus Robot Fighter.
Unity covers by Frank Miller, 1992.
However, it was only in 1992 that Valiant really hit their stride with a massive crossover event, introducing new heroes and cementing others in the event that was UNITY. I feel it has to be put in caps because this was an event that spanned every book in the range, every character cropped up, new characters were introduced, there was gore, sex, violence, possible incest, teen pregnancy, the past, the present, the future, alternate worlds, alternate realities, and DINOSAURS.
It’s a huge epic that shows the very best of Valiant, and the very nature of 90s comics. There’s only one era where a plotline could involve a woman turning evil after being a victim of abuse in some kind of space vortex, then going on to kill an alternate reality version of herself, kidnapping the baby son of said alternate self, creating a whole new universe where she raised him in a very creepy way, but it’s also Solar’s fault?
I can’t really tell you the actual plot in it’s entirely, even after reading every issue several times and doing so whilst having the wiki summary to hand. I mean it’s vast and sprawling and it bounces around characters and locations. I never knew how much I needed to see a man being bitten in half by a cyborg dinosaur until I read it.
UNITY is an event that befuddles, will insult a fair few readers and yet there is something undeniably beautiful about the crazy artwork and the characters coming together. There’s something to be said for the introduction of new characters – Archer, Armstrong, the Eternal Warrior and his ward the Geomancer – into this melee that really established them as being just as important as any of the other heroes and part of the same universe.
Plus there were trading cards of the key moments. Which did not help me understand it any better.
My favourite Valiant book from this era is Archer and Armstrong. Archer was brought up by evil cultists to murder Armstrong, but decides instead to avenge the wrongs of his evil parents by teaming up with the man who should be his mortal enemy. Their dynamic is great and their comedy edge helped give variety to Valiant books and show the range of the universe. Also, in keeping with earlier introductions, Armstrong’s brother Ivar aka Timewalker (he walks…through time…) would appear first in his brother’s title, keeping up the interconnected universe where they wandered in and out of each other’s lives.
Post-UNITY, even more characters were introduced as the universe continued to grow and expand. Bloodshot, the nanite powered tough guy with a past, got his own title from the start. However, Ninjak, the playboy skilled Ninja assassin, appeared first in Bloodshot. And the H.A.R.D. Corps (don’t get attached) first appeared in Harbinger tracking down those pesky renegades.
Even though there is an interconnectedness between series’, the heroes all have their own style and tone. From the antics of Archer & Armstrong to the struggle of the Eternal Warrior and the supernatural burdens of Shadowman. This is a universe that includes men flying about space, men hunting dinosaurs, but also teenage friendships, secret government agencies, government suicide style squads and ninjas. Yet they all logically exist together in the same universe. It’s not seamless all the time but it works, and it works because from the start this universe was designed that way. It was meant to be a world, a new world that readers could explore from the very start. It was a solid idea and it was one of the strengths of the company, even after Shooter’s departure.
Valiant did attempt another big crossover event, this time working with Image in the Deathmate series, that doesn’t seem to have a numerical order, but is coded by colours and may or may not be continuity. It’s even harder to explain than UNITY and that takes some effort. Needless to say it wasn’t as good as UNITY.
Valiant went from strength to strength for a few years, until being bought out by Acclaim. The Acclaim period is peak 90’s…as in the comic existed solely to sell video games (something of a simplification but still true). Whilst some gems were created (notably Quantum and Woody) other choices were so awful that you only need to whisper the words ‘Acclaim Comics Ninjak‘ to a Valiant fan and they will simultaneously weep and cry out in pain.
Yet the first incarnation of Valiant was there for that first half of the 90’s.
I cannot recommend 90’s Valiant in many ways. The treatment of the female characters isn’t great, it is hyper-violent and gory at times. However it is a beautifully nostalgic trip, it’s a perfect universe of the 90’s, a universe borne into a world where comics were courting the adult audience but Valiant was still a universe that encouraged readers to grow with it.
Also they did foil variant covers and those truly are a thing of beauty.
Valiant was a brave new world setting out in a brave new world and whilst many experiments of those times failed, Valiant’s short but bright success stands out as one of the truly underrated universes.
And did I mention the foil variant covers?
While the 1990’s might feel like a wild and distant past, many Valiant series’ are still pretty easy to pick up in singles through the second hand market. There’s also been a range of ‘Classic Omnibus’ reprints over the last few years, including Archer & Armstrong, Ninjak and X-O Manowar…among others.
But right now the easiest way to check out some of these classic books is through ComiXology, they’re even organised into this nice little section Valiant Classic!
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