Like the current incarnation of Harbinger, Joshua Dysart is just as engaging as the narrative he writes. His personality has the pull of a singularity and his words the density of its dark matter.
In this first part of our interview, Dysart talks about how he came onto the Harbinger relaunch, revealing one of the most intelligent and cogent stories captured in this space. Be warned. You may need to open up another browser to keep up with the complexity of discussion. Wikipedia won’t be enough.
Catching up with him at the Long Beach Comic Con, his energy immediately pervaded the conversation. Despite the heavy dialogue, he’s a man full of laughs and smiles that doesn’t take himself too seriously. If anything, his attitude is infectious and quick to put you at ease.
Socio-economics, geo-political backdrops, and a highly perceptive sense of the human condition are just a few of the ingredients Dysart has added to the new Harbinger. His hyper-engagement with the issues of the day puts him in a rare space for a comic book writer and conveniently placed him in the crosshairs of Valiant Comics as they plotted their rise back into relevance.
“I got an e-mail from Warren Simons who is our head editor,” says Dysart. “It was a bit of a perfect storm. He had read the first trade of The Unknown Soldier and really liked it, and I believe that the story is that Chris Gage, who is a friend of mine in the industry, had recommended me as one of the writers he should look at. He was kind of getting hit on both sides.”
Recognized by those in the know as a powerful storyteller with a camera-like lens for capturing the grittiness of real-world narratives in the realm of fiction, Dysart’s body of work tends to be grounded in real issues. Like Pete Stanchek resisting Harada’s overtures, Dysart wasn’t completely sold on writing for Valiant and its fantastical universe.
“At first, I was a little stand-offish about it,” says Dysart. “I didn’t really see why the industry needed a rebirth of Valiant right now. The market was contracting… Contracts were being re-negotiated, and I thought the last thing the industry needs is another publisher to come in here and throw a bunch of money around and resurrect a bunch of titles.”
More David than Goliath, Valiant wasn’t gearing up for a Harada style acquisition of the comic world. In a relaunch more inclined towards substance than style, Valiant was able to overcome any misgivings Dysart had about the direction they were headed.
“I was wrong, and did stick with Warren, mostly because of his attitude and how he approached me,” says Dysart. “Now I’m really, really happy that he did. I love having Warren as a creative partner. It was a great decision on my part.”
If there was ever a case of a title choosing its writer instead of the other way around, Dysart’s recruitment into writing Harbinger fits the bill to a tee. A gentle nudge in a certain direction by a persistent editor didn’t hurt either.
“I don’t want to speak out of turn, but I feel like he (Simons) always meant for me to be on Harbinger, and he was playing some sort of diplomatic game because he said, ‘I’m going to send you a bunch of different properties, and I want your take on it.’”, says Dysart.
In what amounted to a matriculation in one direction, Simons threw the entire kitchen sink at Dysart. Almost like a game of Russian roulette, each chamber was blank except for a bullet marked Dysart = Harbinger.
“So he sent me a whole bunch of properties, I did one paragraph tales on how I would approach it,” says Dysart. “Some of them needed vast reinterpretations in my opinion. Some were pretty golden as they were, but the whole time he kept being like ‘Look at this property Harbinger. Look at this property Harbinger.’ And I remember Harbinger from back in the day, but I wasn’t really a big Valiant reader at the time.”
Dysart’s explanation of his initial reluctance for writing Harbinger says a lot about his headspace at the time Valiant approached him.
“I was a big Archer & Armstrong fan because of Barry Windsor-Smith, but the other books I never really clued into,” says Dysart. “I read Harbinger, and it wasn’t my first choice, especially after Unknown Soldier. I wanted to do something fun, and I didn’t see how you could be true to Harbinger and not make it about a bunch of kids who had daddy issues or something. That’s sort of what the book demanded, but he just kept on with the Harbinger thing.”
For readers not familiar with Dysart’s work on The Unknown Soldier, he crafted a story that tackled the subject matter in a way that most comic writers would never consider. He went to East Africa for a month conducting interviews and researching the armed conflict in the region, which is extremely strong subject-matter. It’s those sort of qualities that Simons saw in Dysart’s approach, making him the right fit for the story.
“I feel like he just sent me through this exercise to look at the properties, but eventually he broke down and was like ‘Look, I just think you’re the dude to do this,’” says Dysart. “It’s like…okay. So it wasn’t my first choice. Once I started to sink into it, I began to see why his instincts were spot on from the start.”
Flash forward to now. While Dysart’s run on Harbinger had been faithful in many ways to the original series, there is a decidedly different feel to the story that reflects the socially aware sensibilities he brings to writing.
“Even though I had a desire after Unknown Soldier to do more escapist work, I am not by nature an escapist writer,” says Dysart. “Harbinger, in my opinion, demands a certain degree of engagement with the issues of our time. I think that’s when it started to click with me.”
While the previous incarnation of Harbinger dealt with a large-scale saga, pitting the usual components of good against evil, Dysart’s iteration of the series casts an inward glance at American society. The fertile soils of American discord provided him with something new to add to the conversation of Harbinger.
“I really do have something to say about the baby boomer generation not getting off the stage,” says Dysart. “I really do have something to say about the younger generation coming to their own identity and not being co-opted by the previous generation. So I actually have something to say about this. I think that’s when it really started to clue in with me, and that’s what Warren was looking for. I think that Warren knew…”
There’s a point where the rubber meets the road in the process of developing a story. Dysart has made Harbinger his own with his ability to take abstract observations and convey them in implicit and explicit elements of what has turned out to be a generational struggle based upon to competing ideologies.
“I really do think what we’re seeing is a generational conflict of the likes we’ve never seen in human history,” says Dysart. “The baby boomer generation…no generation has maintained control and power over information…pop culture like in the way the baby boomers have. The fact that they retain all of these resources and the fact that the baby boomers have the ability, both technologically and resource-wise, to create a better world and didn’t.”
Looking back at the narrative Dysart has developed over the last five issues, the essence of his take on Harbinger becomes easy to see.
“Now, you have another generation coming up, and that generation has got to fight like no generation ever has previously in the history of the species to have their own identity, to not be co-opted by passive means, and all this other stuff,” says Dysart. “I think ultimately that’s what Harbinger is about.”
Dysart’s position in this generational struggle isn’t necessarily biased either. A Generation Xer, he occupies a liminal position between the two generations symbolized by Harada and Pete.
“You know, my protagonist is a kid who is put into a mental institution, rightly or wrongly, is medicated to the point of addiction on pills, and when he finally forces freedom through an anarchic act, he then becomes co-opted by a corporation,” says Dysart. “That is what the current, young generation is dealing with, and that is what Harbinger is about. Harbinger should be a youth book. It should be about youth culture.”
Check back in with Comic Booked for part two of our interview with Joshua Dysart as he talks about how all of these issues play into the world building of Harbinger while breaking down the characters of Harada and Pete Stanchek. Also, he explains where the story is moving and what’s in store for Harbinger now that the first arc moves into the Renegades arc.