Inside Valiant's Sci-Fi Prison Break Comic 'Psi-Lords'

Writer Fred Van Lente talks about the latest addition to the comic book universe.
Courtesy of Rod Reis/Valiant Entertainment

What brings together four humans with no memory of their previous lives, an alien prison planet and the oldest beings in the known galaxy? The answer can be found in the title of Valiant Entertainment’s latest comic book project, launching this summer: Psi-Lords.

The new series is, in terms of title, a revival of a comic book property from the 1990s incarnation of Valiant, but creators Fred Van Lente and Renato Guedes are creating something altogether new for the series, as a group of humans find themselves in an unfamiliar environment with two different missions before them, both of which might be at odds with each other.

Psi-Lords is the latest series to be announced by Valiant since the 2018 acquisition of the company by DMG Entertainment, following titles including Livewire, Bloodshot: Rising Spirit and the upcoming Incursion. Most recently, the company announced "Breakthrough," a slate of four new series intended to demonstrate Valiant's diversity in terms of both character and genre. 

Van Lente, who has worked on multiple Valiant projects in the past — including Archer & Armstrong, Ivar, Timewalker, Generation Zero and War Mother — talked to Heat Vision about what to expect from Psi-Lords, and also just who (or, perhaps, what) the title actually refers to.

How did the project come about?

I know it’s something that Valiant has been keeping in its pocket for a long time, and it’s a very cool honor for the guys to ask me to run with it. I had been developing a couple of other things for them, but a couple of ideas, they said, "You know, this might actually go better with this other property we have, called Psi-Lords." I was like, "Go on…." [Laughs.]

I knew that this was a beloved property; it was [Harbinger and The Life and Death of Toyo Harada writer] Josh Dysart’s favorite Valiant property, and it’s cool to get to play in that sandbox.

This version is a very different concept from the original incarnation of Psi-Lords. Were you given particular direction from Valiant about things they wanted to see, or to stay away from?

Only on the very broadest level. I’d read the entire original series and, sort of like how my Archer and Armstrong was very different from the original version, similarly, there’s a lot of Easter Eggs from the original in this one, but nothing that a new reader would need to understand.

I always like to say, continuity is a flavor of sauce. It’s there to enhance your enjoyment, but not there to overwhelm the meal, you know what I’m saying?

You respect what came before, and you’re respecting the fans of that work, but you’re not letting it take over the work.

I’m a reader, first. I was a reader before I became a writer, so I feel like it’s somehow cheating not to acknowledge the history of it. If you quickly jettison what your predecessors did with [the property], it’s really not playing the game correctly. For me, it’s a challenge to find ways to incorporate the past into whatever I want to do in the present.

Digging into what this Psi-Lords is, it feels very sci-fi, more than superheroes, in terms of concept. How does that play into the book itself?

Psi-Lords is very much a science fiction prison break story. Four Earth people from very diverse backgrounds wake up to find themselves inside an alien prison the size of a planet. It’s the size of the planet, and they’re actually inside the planet, so they can’t just grab a rocket ship and fly away. They basically have to figure out how to work together, and work with the other species inside the prison, to help find a way out.

They also have this other mission — and this is a little bit spoilery — in that they’re supposed to find these ancient beings called Psi-Lords, and that is the reason why they’re there in the first place.

I’d also compare it to Lost. My greatest hope is that readers will get each issue and then go online and trade ideas and fight about what it means, what their own theories are, and then the next issue will demolish some theories and create some new ones, you know? That’s what I’m most excited about, seeing readers try to solve this mystery along with the characters.

You said that there were ideas from different pitches that ended up coming together here. Could you unpack that a bit?

Well, the Psi-Lords themselves are these ancient psychic beings that are sort of sexier Lovecraftian beings. We haven’t really seen a lot of gods in the Valiant universe, and the Psi-Lords are the closest to gods that anyone has actually seen yet in that universe, in terms of age and in terms of power. But they’re locked away in this space prison along with our heroes, and our heroes are going to be encouraged to let them out again but at a certain point, it’s going to be, "Is this a good thing or a bad thing? We want to get out, but should we really be doing this?"

One of the things I like about your Valiant work is that you’re never just writing about what you're writing about. In Archer & Armstrong, there was the “1%” crime gang, there were cults, there was lots of things in there under the surface. Is that the case in Psi-Lords?

That’s a good question. I’m still trying to figure that out. What I’m discovering is that, not to use a superhero cliche, but the story is about power. It’s about personal power, divine power, and political power — this is very much a grand space opera saga with lots of different factions fighting each other.

It’s about the ethical use of power, and when you have characters as powerful as ours are, and they’re newly coming into that, they’re trying to figure out what are the limits of their own abilities and their personal ethics. Some of them are a bit more willing to use force than others, and that causes conflict in the group.

That’s what really excites me, is that it’s really [a story] about, "What are our responsibilities to each other, in terms of power relationships?"

You’ve done a lot of work with Valiant. What is it about the publisher that brings you back?

They have a lot of strong core concepts, and I don’t want to get too grandiose in comparing it to [Stan] Lee and [Jack] Kirby and [Steve] Ditko in the ‘60s, but there’s a similar run of interesting concepts: X-O Manowar is Conan meets Iron Man, Archer & Armstrong is this insane conspiracy buddy book, Shadowman plays sax, it’s all amazing. Coming from the 1990s, it’s almost unique in that it all still holds up. There are these strong core concepts. And Psi-Lords is no different.

The concept behind the series feels simultaneously large enough to be open-ended and like a very coherent story that will come to a definitive conclusion. Can you talk about the structure of the book at this point?

The story arc that kicks off the whole series is about a year long and has a definitive end. But it ends in such a way that — I don’t want to belabor the TV analogy too much, but it ends in such a way that I actually know what the next “season” is. Each yearlong story has its own self-contained arc.

I like things that end. I like beginnings, middles and endings. With Valiant, we have a very specific 2019, 2020 plan, that goes beyond the Psi-Lords book itself — hint hint — but there’s no reason why we can’t continue this series afterward.

Psi-Lords launches in June.