Exposition. It’s a hard thing to work into a story without seeming obvious, forced, or unnatural. In films, specifically genre films, exposition is usually taken care of via a character who acts as an audience surrogate, someone thrown into a complicated situation who needs the proceedings to be explained to them (and, by extension, the audience) in layman’s terms. Think Ellen Page in Inception or Madeleine Stowe in 12 Monkeys.
When DC introduced the company-wide tie-in crossover event Crisis on Infinite Earths (which would, incidentally, change the comic book industry forever), it was intended to clean up 50 years of continuity problems – time paradoxes, origin discrepancies, parallel universes overlapping, et cetera. It was also a messy, complicated affair, and near-impossible to sort out, for readers and creators; Crisis‘s intended tidying-up fell apart almost immediately after the series concluded.
To help audiences along, DC established a character who would act as an audience surrogate for this ambitious project: Harbinger, a.k.a. Lyla Michaels, an earth girl rescued from drowning and given powers like flight, energy bursts, duplication, and, rather conveniently, something called “cosmic awareness.” This cosmic awareness allowed Harbinger to be the gossip queen of the DCU: she had dirt on everyone and was on hand at critical moments to give detailed explanations of the plot to anyone who would listen. She was part historian and part journalist, derived from a character Marv Wolfman intended to call the Librarian. Here was her first in-costume appearance in the pages of Crisis on Infinite Earths #1:
She survived the events of Crisis and went on to play an integral role in the Millenium crossover two years later, upon which she joined the New Guardians, a loosely Green Lantern-affiliated superhero team intended to represent all nationalities on earth.
During this time she established a friendship with Starfire, a member of the New Teen Titans. Their adventure in Teen Titans Spotlight #19 is what leads the alienated Harbinger to find a home amongst other superheroes:
After this, there was a New Guardians monthly series. It stunk, was borderline racist, and lasted 12 issues before being cancelled, thus ending DC’s weirdly pandering late-’80s attempt at multiculturalism.
About 15 years passed before Harbinger made any significant appearance in mainstream continuity, showing up on the island of Themyscira after Wonder Woman decided Supergirl needed to be trained by her warrior sisterhood of Amazons:
How Harbinger ended up with the Amazons, how long she’d been on Themyscira, and what her function was there is never really explained (whoops – turns out it was explained in Wonder Woman: Secret Files and Origins #3, my bad) but in their short time together, she and Supergirl managed to establish something of a close bond:
Note that bottom-right panel there, with Superman holding a dead blonde woman? Readers are supposed to think Supergirl faces some imminent life-ending threat. And, indeed, a few pages later it’s heavily implied Supergirl has been killed in battle…
…until a simple flip of the page reveals it’s Harbinger that’s been killed. Surprise! She’s blonde, too! And, when drawn by artist Michael Turner, physically identical to Supergirl! It’s simply a matter of coincidence she and Supergirl both went missing at the same time and were completely off-panel while a giant battle was raging on! Batman and Superman are really upset about the death of someone they haven’t seen or spoken to in 15 years!
To summarize: Harbinger was re-introduced so that she could die in a one-page fake-out designed to make readers think (for one page!) that Supergirl had been killed.
She returned six years later in Blackest Night, as a member of Nekron’s army of the undead:
What’s strange about this is that Harbinger is showing up in the pages of R.E.B.E.L.S., hunting down random members of the Sinestro Corps (“She’s been hunting corpsmen everywhere,” one character says. “She’s damn good at it.”)
But…why does Harbinger give a rip about Sinestro or his team? She was killed by Darkseid’s minions, not Sinestro’s men. And if Black Lanterns are resurrected according to their ability to prey on the emotional connection they have to the living, why is she not terrorizing Supergirl? Or Starfire? (Starfire would eventually join the cast of R.E.B.E.L.S., but not until several issues after Blackest Night). Harbinger’s appearance seems more like a flimsy way to connect Blackest Night to the original Crisis on Infinite Earths than something that grew logically and organically out of the story.
She does have a nice character moment right here, though:
In conclusion: I’m not arguing that Harbinger was an awesome character everyone loved who didn’t deserve the unceremonious fate that Jeph Loeb had in store for her. She was a connection to the greatest comics event of all time and she did have some interesting powers – teleportation, encyclopedic knowledge of the DCU, the ability to multiply herself (the latter of which apparently slipped her undead mind during Blackest Night.) Her origin story was pretty similar to Superman’s (old life destroyed, alone in a new world) and certainly someone could’ve written some decent stories about her. Chalk this one up to wasted potential.