Joshua Dysart’s Imperium, published by Valiant Comics and drawn by Doug Braithwaite, has taken comics into new territory. Beware that this interview may contain minor spoilers.
Already known for his socio-political awareness, Dysart picks up where Harbinger and Omegas left off by turning his full attention to Toyo Harada – one of the most engaging and complex characters to grace comics. And by extension, Imperium has become one of the most ambitious comic titles on the market.
Harada is no ordinary villain. In fact, it’s arguable that he’s simply a man with a plan and vision that would bode better for humankind. But that razor thin line where ambition turns to villainy is where Dysart lives with Harada. While Dysart has now come to write the definitive take on Harada, he’s had some help in bringing his take on him to Imperium.
“I had several different ideas for my next step at Valiant after Harbinger,” he says. “But the concept of Harada running a team of super villains was one that Warren (Simons) and I had bounced around a lot over the last year while we were wrapping up our first monthly. When the time came, I wrote down all of my different ideas and let Valiant editorial decide what was best for the company at that point. Imperium grew out of that.”
In Harbinger and other Valiant titles, Harada has had a pervasive presence as a result of his behind-the-scenes manipulation of the global chess board. And with that, there are new opportunities to view Harada from a different angle. Dysart simply dived in.
“There is joy in every character, of course,” he says. “So I’m pretty open to work on anything, believing that I will find what’s interesting about that character through the process of creating the narrative. With Harada, of course, I’d already done so much work on him that he waltzed into the pages of our new book completely formed. So there’s a real comfort level I have with writing him and his world.”
With Harada’s grand plans, he’s been a distant character in some respects. However, one of the new opportunities in developing Imperium has been the shifting the perspective on Harada.
“Also, we are very rarely in Harada’s head,” Dysart says. “Mostly he’s viewed through the eyes of others, Omega’s is the only real exception to that, and there is a joy in that distant exploration of him too. Also, he just begs for the epic science-fiction take. Science-fiction is my favorite genre as a reader and for years I’ve been trying to do science fiction comic books.”
Dysart tried to get a science-fiction focused book together at Vertigo, but the timing wasn’t right. A recent infusion of science focused titles has helped turn the tide though.
“Now we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a science fiction heyday in comics and I finally have a book in which I get to put all of my love for the genre,” he says. “In fact, if you really look at the first four issues you’ll see that each one is an exploration of a specific science-fiction trope or subgenre, starting with utopian fiction, then military sci-fi, then A.I. speculation and lastly, with issue 4, horror science fiction. So I finally have a book that I can craft into a love letter to the genre.”
As a medium, comics have always had a number of heroes to be the lead in a majority of titles. Valiant and Dysart have gone a decidedly different and possibly risky route by taking a genre like science-fiction and letting a villain lead head and define a title as much as Imperium does.
“…I’ve always been more drawn to the “villain” than the hero, which isn’t a super unique thing for a writer, but nonetheless,” says Dysart “to me a hero’s intentions are difficult to aspire to, but they’re easy to understand. A villain, however, to keep that character interesting you have to really focus on your own moral and ethical code, and dive deep into yourself to find in search of complicated, but truthful motivation. You have to find the villainy in yourself.”
Dysart believes most villains in fiction have soft motivations. An example he points to are the Marvel movies.
“They are to-a-tee characterized by boring, poorly motivated villains,” he says. “So I like that challenge. Also, playing with some standard villain comic book clichés has been super satisfying -robot, alien, dictator, mad scientist… and my new addition… terrorist. Throw all of that stuff together and add a dash of politics and you a get a book that may be a little overstuffed, but is a hell of a lot of fun to write.”
Dysart is a well-traveled person, having journeyed to Uganda and the surrounding region in his research for the Unknown Soldier. Africa is a setting he has used again, particularly Somalia.
“Somalia was chosen as a location because it’s all part of a larger play for the continent of Africa that Harada is making,” says Dysart. “Africa is resource wealthy but has very little true self-governance in the global grand scheme of things. Harada wants to change that. And from that position, he feels he can change the world.”
In Imperium, Harada has used Somalia as the beachhead to create a post-scarcity society that is utopian in nature. A strong theme on the haves and have-nots figures into Dysart’s writing. One element of his travels has influenced this.
“The only thing about my travels that have informed my ideas of a post-scarcity society is that I have seen so much of the opposite, a great deal of resources flowing to the very, very unethical few,” says Dysart. “So in that regard this book is partly a wish fulfillment narrative. Most of my travels have been in extremely compromised communities. I’ve been in three war zones and visited two mega-slums and have spent time in some extremely rural communities. I’ve seen some of the worst poverty in the world. And every time I come home to the States my tolerance for our inherent entitlement in this society weakens just a little.”
While he says that Imperium has a degree of wish fulfillment, it has resonated with fans for its ability to take on issues affecting humanity on a global scale.
“So this book is sort of a very comic-booky way to create a benevolent dictator and build fictional technologies that would allow us to create a better world,” he says. “It’s not a real how-to book, sadly, but also, I’m not escapist enough to keep from addressing the inherent contradictions and absurdities in my own wish-fulfillment narrative either… so all of that awareness of the contradiction between being pro-democracy but secretly longing for a dictator makes it into the book as well. That’s ultimately what makes Harada a villain, because I’m aware that he’s a manifestation of my worst and least sustainable desires.”
How much of Dysart’s writing is allegorical in comparison to how he addresses the politics of the human condition is where a blurring of the lines occurs, making it hard to tell where reality and storytelling meet.
“That varies from project to project, so it’s a pretty hard question to answer,” he says. “For instance, Unknown Soldier was absolutely about the politics of a very specific patch of ground. But at the same time, I made sure to make it a universal story. To, in a way, connect it to the Western political reality… which doesn’t take that much contortion, to be honest. The West is very often indirectly, and often directly, responsible for many of the problems across the continent (as is China). With Imperium it’s a far more broad take on global society as a whole, and even that is wedged in-between a great deal of narrative that is simply there to be fun and big and strange and have no genuine attachment to the real world.”
Sunlight on Snow, introduced in Imperium, is quickly becoming one of the most compelling characters in comics with the interesting contrast he cuts against Harada in terms of humanity. It is a character unlike any other with its blend of compassion and A.I.
“I, like all of us who are even remotely clued in to the technological and philosophical thrust of our times, am fascinated with idea of artificial intelligence,” he says. “I’m not sure if I truly believe that binary code can actually get us there, or if it does, if A.I. thinking have any semblance to human thinking at all, most likely not, but if we speculate past all of that, then things get really interesting.”
The influence or inspiration in the development of its character comes from an unusual angle. A.I. being feared has become a standard trope of storytelling in science-fiction, going on a solid 50+ years of making humans a bit nervous.
“Sunlight on Snow comes from my absolute boredom at the depiction of A.I. as something to fear,” Dysart says. “And look, maybe we should be afraid… smarter people than I have called the alarm on the potential devastating effects of a technological singularity, but I just don’t understand why something that could compute so clearly would choose animosity as its default.”
Indeed, but with scientists like Stephen Hawking and inventor Elon Musk sounding the alarm, there is a steady chorus of naysayers. Perhaps their concerns only consider a human mode of analysis.
“I think doing morally complicated things is a human concept that is attached to the fact that our central data system is made of meat, an astonishingly complex computer, the brain, but also pretty prone to both minor and major malfunctions,” Dysart says,. “A true transsentient being would see no use for animosity. So Sunlight on Snow comes from that place. From a longing to create a pacifistic A.I. in fiction and a sort of exhaustion over the “dangerous robot” style of story-telling.”
As a result, Dysart has managed to take two seemingly disparate genres and blended them together into something unique.
“Imperium is a strange animal,” he says. “It’s Jack Kirby meets Brave New World if Huxely had more faith in humanity. Because of that, the balance between the Kirby and the utopian politics can be tricky. I want to embrace both. I want to show how humanity could, given super sci-fi technology, achieve true universal equality for all… but I want to show that while blowing shit up – sicking killer aliens on robots and basically just having a huge laugh all the while. In regards to everything this book is trying to do, it might be both my most ambitious and my most morally questionable yet.”
As Imperium finishes its first densely layered arc, Dysart still has plenty in store for readers in for the long haul.
“I’d love to see it go for some time,” he says. “There’s a lot I want to achieve and I prefer to move slow and unpack stuff, so right now I’m building it out for the long haul, but if the call comes in tomorrow that we have to shut the book down because of low readership, then I also have an exit strategy. It’s the same model we had for Harbinger.”
Harbinger, while critically acclaimed with a rabid and devoted following, lasted 25 issues before Valiant went in a new direction.
“I see people all the time say that we always planned on a two-year run, but that’s not true,” Dysart says. “If the book had done gangbusters we would’ve kept going. It’s a business, in the end. And, I don’t entirely know why, I guess because I’m not very market friendly as a writer, but my books are never big hits.”
That begs the question of why Dysart and his stories haven’t found commercial success commensurate with his critical acclaim.
“They get great press, they have loyal readers, publishers are excited to work with me and over time the things that I have written gain more and more popularity, but it’s always a slow build with me,” he says. “So I never expect anything to last more than two years. I wish it were different, but I fear I’d have to change the way I write for that to be, and I’m not really willing to change the way I write in exchange for more success.”
With the recent announcement by Valiant that they are getting into the movie business with financing arranged for Bloodshot and Harbinger movies, a new set of fans may find their way to Dysart just yet. Questions about who will be cast in the film have been a fan topic, but Dysart remains nonplussed about it.
“I don’t really understand why comics are turned into movies in the first place, to be honest,” he says. “And the excitement that it generates betrays a love of character over form and medium amongst the fans. So all this means that I never think about my comic books as movies, and I have a very hard time separating the look and feel of my characters into real people, or channeling an artist’s style into a director’s. Someone else needs to figure that stuff out. Once I’m shown some suggestions, I’m sure I’ll have an opinion, but I don’t create comics with that in mind and I don’t really watch movies that way either… thinking what comic artists should adapt them. Also, just politically, since real people will be attached to these films, that’s not a game that I want to play. I want to support whoever gets the gig.”
That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have an opinion over what parts of the story he has crafted over the past couple of years make the transition onto the big screen.
“As far as which part of my writing I’d like to see in the stories…My characters, faithfully represented as real people with real concerns would be lovely,” he says. “I’d like to see my desire to ground things in my work make it into the movies. I’d like to see my distaste for high-stakes storytelling and my love of the personal moment translate into a big superhero movie. The fight doesn’t have to be for the whole world… it can just be the soul of one poor drug-addled boy who has never really been loved and has too much power. Let Marvel and DC jerk off to saving the world. What if we make a superhero movie about saving the soul? Now that could be something.”
It’s that sort of attitude and sentiment that has helped earn Dysart a devoted following. His fans connect and relate to these real characters. Ask him who his favorite character to develop or create is, and it’s like asking a parent who their favorite child is.
“I couldn’t even begin to answer that,” he says. “Give me a day inside the head of any character and I’ll come back saying that’s the one I love the most. But I know which one is the most important. And that’s Faith.”
Without a doubt, Dysart’s take on Faith has reached legions of comic readers looking for a character more true to life and representational of a significant number of fans.
“Faith is more than a character in a comic book,” he says. “She’s a representation of a previously unsupported group, heavy women, who have, as far as I know, never gotten to see someone who looks like them be the superhero in any medium. They’ve seen representations of themselves be funny, or be the butt of the joke, or be the villain, or even be sexually fetishized, but straight up “save the world” biggest hero on the planet stuff? Never.”
And that in itself could have significant ramifications on the portrayal of female characters in superhero movies to come.
“If there is a Harbinger movie, as all indicators suggest that there will be, then a large actress will get to be a major superhero,” he says. “If that happens then my part in bringing her back will have been the most important thing I would’ve achieved in my career.”
Those are encouraging words for a writer who has been on record regularly that he doesn’t have as much enthusiasm for superhero films as the average movie goer.
“Well, to riff off of what I said above, there’s only one reason the world needs more superhero movies. And that’s Faith,” he says. “If they can use these films to give people something good and genuine… not just escapism, not just spectacle… if they can give the world Faith and she can save the day… if they can give the world strong leading women and other underrepresented heroes, then those movies will have earned their right to exist. If they offer just a third “aesthetic” take on the superhero story, Marvel’s shiny amusement and DC’s dark nihilism being the other two, then they’ve failed. I think my collaborators and other writers and artists and editors at Valiant have created something far more modern and genuine than Marvel or DC movies provide right now. If that makes it to the screen, we’re golden.”
Imperium #4 is due out in stores today.