Dysart Plays the VIllain's Game as Valiant's "Imperium" Unfolds

The first arc of Valiant's "Imperium" was titled "Collecting Monsters," and for good reason -- each issue added a new character to the ensemble, resulting in a terrifying group of villains, mercenaries, aliens and monsters being inserted into the war between Toyo Harada and anyone who steps in his way. Writer Joshua Dysart and artist Doug Braithwaite leaned into the political, high-stakes battle of wills with consummate ease, making Imperium into a fascinating, tense new series for Valiant.

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With the second arc now underway, CBR News spoke with Dysart about working with incoming artist Scot Eaton, curating the "monsters" who appear throughout the series, and the sci-fi influences which have blended into his story.

CBR News: In "Imperium" #1, you compare Harada to X-O Manowar, who attempted a coup in his series a year or so ago. Do you think he's starting to skate closer to being an anti-hero than an outright villain now? Does he have any awareness of himself as a monster?

Joshua Dysart: I think a more pertinent question is, does anyone actually see themselves as a monster? Ultimately, the reader has to decide what they think about Harada and his actions. It's my role to create the character and stay true to him as I write him, but the reader has to ultimately decide what's actually right and wrong in his actions. Harada has murdered people, imprisoned them, assassinated world leaders and robbed whole nations blind.

He's also changed the world with his technology, built comprehensive medical breakthroughs, and spent billions on improving third world nations. It's tricky, the physics of power and the complications of good intentions. My job is to raise the ethical questions that make him an interesting character, not to answer them.

Harada is playing his hand very carefully in the series right now. How do you view him as a leader? What defines his style of command?

In "Harbinger," Harada was a man with carefully laid plans that had been decades in the making. He was a composer of huge, Machiavellian arcs, like a classical composer of an epic work. But that all fell apart. Now he's more like a jazz musician; he knows how he wants the song to end, but he's forced to improvise his way towards that vision.

He's been thrown for quite a loop by the loss of his global corporate conglomerate, and he's trying to gain real control again over the world, but one of his weaknesses (or is it a strength?) is that failure doesn't slow his roll, if you know what I mean. He never retreats and regroups. Harada always doubles down. He has fewer resources and less control over the global economy than he has ever had in his adult life, yet now is when he decides to make his biggest play. He's got balls the size of Texas.

This next arc sees him start to get even more proactive. What are his goals as we head into issue #5?

His immediate current goal is unlimited, clean, free power for all humanity. Seems simple enough, right? One of the intentions behind this book is to play with supervillain tropes. And one of the most classic tropes is the villain who tries to take over the world. This book, in part, is interested in the day-to-day struggle of that goal. In most stories the villain has one big world-threatening plan that is meant to transfer power in fell swoop, but this is a story about the long haul of it all.

You're joined by artist Scot Eaton in this next part of the story -- what do you feel his art has brought to the series?

Scot has this lovely traditional illustration line, so in turn I've really tried to create a more traditional action narrative for him to sink his teeth in to. Much like the "Collecting Monsters" story arc (issues #1-4) was designed to capitalize on Doug's storytelling strengths, so my team-up with Scot should be a pretty fun ride that's very different from "Imperium's" establishing issues. I can't really write the same way for each different artist. I believe it's my job to service the artist, so it's not just the look of a book that's impacted by an artist change. The change affects the story down to its very roots as well.

Director Kozol is theoretically the main opponent to Harada right now, but it looks as though he's really starting to lose control of the situation. How has your approach to Kozol changed over time, seeing him be more and more isolated?

I love Kozol so much. I think Kozol is a very smart, very funny, very amoral individual. Like so many of the characters that are not otherworldly or supremely powerful (Gravedog for instance), Kozol is playing a tricky game against people and creatures that are far stronger than him. I think this makes him super fun to write. He's absolutely out of his league this time around, but then, that's when Kozol is at his best.

I'm not sure how he's changed, though, since I first introduced him in "Harbinger Wars." He certainly has more responsibility than he's ever had, but I don't think he's the kind of individual that "grows" emotionally, you know? But it's fun to watch him scramble to survive in this world of super beings, don't you think?

Harada's team has become a team that represent the opposite of the Renegades team, in a way -- each character comes from what would be a traditionally "villain" origin story rather than a "hero" beginning. Was that a conscious choice?

That was totally a conscious choice. Absolutely. I hope that both "Harbinger" and "Imperium" are bigger than just their meta-intent, but nonetheless, "Harbinger" was an intentional riff on superhero tropes, in that way "Imperium" is utterly tied to some pretty basic villain cliches (dictator, robot, super powered terrorist, killer alien, mad scientist). The fun, the creative exercise, is in rebranding those old ideas in a new and fresh way. It's like playing the blues. Everybody uses the same three chords. It's what you do with those chords that matter.

Why did you decide to establish focus characters within both Harada and Kozol's teams? It could've been easy to just do an "assemble the team" story for Harada, but here things are much more blurred and expansive.

Exactly! That's it entirely! It's not easy to really explore nuance and character in comics. Not because the medium isn't good at it, but because we simply don't have a lot of space to do it, at least not in these monthly, mainstream action books. But if you take the time, if you pace it out, if you keep the story rolling (I don't think that what I do is decompression, because my books are always pretty dense) and you really use the story as a delivery mechanism for character first, and plot and high concept second, then you can get the reader invested in the characters in a relatively short amount of time, even the space of a single issue if you do it right.

And that's the hardest, and most important thing about fictional storytelling: Getting the reader invested in your characters.

I'd like to look at some of these new characters -- and the one I'd most like to ask about is Angela because, frankly, she terrifies me. How did the design process for her come together? She looks innocuous, but then you read the character and realize, well...

Thank you. She's amazing. But she's a perfect example of writer and artist working together to create something that neither person could have created individually. First came my general concept. I wanted a "Mad Scientist." I didn't want it to be jokey or goofy. I wanted a totally unethical and frightening character.

One thing I haven't talked too much about is how each of the first four issues are actually love letters to my favorite sub-genres of sci-fi storytelling. And each issue is also dedicated to a specific character (or two). So Harada's story is issue #1 and that's Utopian sci-fi. Gravedog's story is issue #2, and that's military/espionage sci-fi. Issue #3 is Sunlight on Snow's story, and that's A.I. sci-fi (we compressed LV-99's story into it a little for space, so we still need to tell LV-99's story. I think LV-99 is the less beloved character right now specifically because of that). So issue #4 was to be Angela's story, and I knew that I wanted it to be cosmological materialist horror in a Lovecraftian vein. So I had to ask myself how we could achieve that.

What's scary about the idea of Angela as a character, to me, is the concept of this good person, an educated idealist, who is then possessed by a great and horrible force, something that isn't even evil...but worse than evil, utterly lacking in any moral alignment whatsoever. That really appealed to me, and I built Angela out of that. But she wasn't singing to me just yet, if you know what I mean. Doug took over the design and while I had asked for a black woman with no eyes, Doug also gave her these utterly beautiful Massai-like features. When we see her with her eyes, as purely human, she's an incredibly gorgeous, tall, kind-seeming woman. But the simple removal of her eyes changes everything.

The next aspect of the character, the one that I think makes her the most frightening thing in the book, is her emotionally flat persona. But my initial idea was that she was always gleeful and happy to be causing so much pain. I felt that her curiosity was so strong that she took joy in grotesque discovery. But the more I wrote her...the more I wasn't sure if smiling Angela was working or not. So I reached out to Doug and asked him what he thought about her body acting. I gave him a couple of ideas. One of them was the idea of her registering no emotion at all on her face...ever. He chose that idea and invested in it in a way I never could've. When he turned in his first Angela pages for #4, they were a revelation. Utterly genius.

It was at the moment that I finally, totally understood Angela as a character. Doug is at least 50% of the success of that character coming off as nightmarish as she does.

A mirror reflection to her appears to be Lord Vine 99. Whereas she looks like a human but houses something else, Lord Vine 99 appears alien but seems to be developing some sense of human purpose? What's going on inside that mind right now?

As I mention above, that's the one character story we didn't have time to really tell in the first arc. And there will be a much deeper exploration of LV-99 in future issues. So, hopefully, we'll answer those questions in time. But yes, you're right. LV-99 isn't nearly as alien, not really, as Angela is. To me, it's one thing to be genetically bred for a purpose by an alien civilization, as LV-99 has been, but it's quite another to be a trans-dimensional shambling scientists possessing multiple minds across numerous shifting dimensional planes. That's more than alien, that's utterly unimaginable.

Gravedog has been another standout character -- the straightforward no-questions-asked mercenary who starts to ask questions. What does his inclusion, straddling both sides of the conflict, add to the storytelling, for you?

"The straightforward no-questions-asked mercenary who starts to ask questions," I like that. Nicely put. I adore Gravedog. Of Harada's team, he's the most grounded in the political realities of the world. He's the scrappiest too. And now he's flirting with this new idealism. But he's being tossed and turned by the storm of life and his own circumstance. He wants to assert his freewill, but that in-and-of itself is a battle for him. He's never believed in a single idea that he's fought for. He's poetic and brutal and has done heinous things in his past. He's also beautifully sad. Just another "type" of villain in the end in our little game of baddies.

Perhaps the fan-favorite character so far is Sunlight on Snow, a robot who insists there's more going on inside than processing. When did that concept first come to you?

That was all part of the original idea, the notion that one of our villains would be an artificially intelligent robot. People fear A.I., if there's A.I. in stories, it's rarely a good thing, and I'm just bored of that. I wanted to create something unequivocally good. I wanted to suggest that with extremely high functioning computation comes an ethical foundation, not moral ambiguity or philosophical relativism, but clear thinking about the uniqueness and beauty of sentient life in the face of a vast, cold, unrelenting universe.

I guess I'm just over the bad robot concept and fell in love with the inherent contradiction of the most human character in our book being utterly artificial. It's kind of that simple, really.

It's interesting that so far, Harada has mainly been a force in the background, instead of front and center. What does his presence impose on the world? How heavy does his shadow fall?

I really love writing Harada mostly through other people's eyes. It gives him a more mysterious weight. Then, when we do go inside his head (so far, Omegas is the only storyline that he actually narrates, and he shares that narration with Peter) it has even more power for the reader. We're trying to keep Imperium expansive and political, but also keep it personal and pulpy. And that's a tough balancing act that relies heavily on the shifting perspective in the narrative.

So yes, Harada does cast a great shadow across the world, and all the stories are about him in one way or another. If we can convey both the macro and micro of Harada's struggle, even through the eyes of others, then we've succeeded with our story.

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