Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]
When exploring the rise, fall and resurrection of the Valiant characters, one of the natural places to start is X-O Manowar. As much as I enjoy Archer & Armstrong, very little of its original run is collected affordably, while X-O Manowar: Retribution clogs comic book store shelves and vendor bins to this day. Some copies even come with a free copy of the X-O Database, an Iron Manual-style guide to the armored hero. The Retribution trade was published a few years into the title’s run, as evidenced by a two-page spread in the middle featuring all the characters who had appeared in the title so far. These include bionic dinosaurs who sadly don’t make an appearance here.
Four of Valiant’s major creators are at the heart of these first four issues: Jim Shooter, Bob Layton, Steve Englehart, and Barry Windsor-Smith. Layton was the main generator of the X-O Manowar concept, but he was so busy with other Valiant titles that he never really got a chance to write for his own co-creation, instead providing finishes for issue #1 and inks for issue #2.
In a perfect world, Layton could have brought in David Michelinie so that the two could resurrect their partnership on another armored title. Instead, the writing duties fell to Shooter and Englehart. I don’t have much to complain about with Steve Engelhart, but Jim Shooter, despite being an excellent editor and a source of good concepts, may be one of the worst dialogue writers in comics. You can tell when the two switch off because once Shooter starts writing, everyone talks in exclamation points! It’s such an annoying trope that I could only get through four issues of the original Secret Wars before giving up!
Shooter and Englehart give the reader no time to learn the basic idea of what’s going on: namely, that a Visigoth from the 5th century, Aric of Dacia, has been abducted by aliens. Instead, the comic opens with Aric already fighting against a Spider-Alien; he’s back on Earth in the present day by page six. The plot moves forward at a breakneck pace so that what could be an entire four-issue arc is told in about forty pages. Normally I wouldn’t harp on about this so much, but Shooter was infamous at Marvel for promoting the idea that every issue was a new reader’s first issue, so basic plot points had to be restated over and over, often to a book’s detriment. For proof of this, count how many times “Midgard” is defined in Walter Simonson’s The Mighty Thor. Don’t do it as a drinking game. You’ll conk out before the third trade. How funny that Shooter ignored his own rule once he started his own company.
The writers made some questionable choices in setting up Aric’s status quo. What could have been an interesting supporting cast -- the South American villagers who find him after he crashes -- were killed off as soon as they’re introduced. Instead, we get Ken ... one of the most blatantly offensive gay caricatures I’ve ever seen. He’s a member of the Spider-Aliens’ Orb company on Earth who basically falls in love with Aric at first sight. In one sense, this could be subversive, perhaps invoking Steve Trevor’s infatuation with Wonder Woman. But that doesn’t excuse how swishy, whiny, and useless Ken is. He helps Aric adjust somewhat to modern times, but the armor arguably does more through its mental link.
As for the Spider-Aliens, they make for okay foes. From what I understand, they become a much bigger threat later, but here they spend too much time bickering to really be an effective organization. Their grand plan to trick Aric is to dress up in ancient costumes, a ploy I enjoyed in the German film Good Bye Lenin but that's out of place here. They’re ushered out to make room for appearances by Toyo Harada and the Renegades from Harbinger (who aren’t properly introduced either). Harada does bring in Sniper, a man whose arms can become a variety of guns by attaching extra bits to them and who is awesomely arrogant about it; I hope they can revive him and make room for him in the upcoming Armor Hunters crossover.
What also helped set Valiant apart from other publishers in the '90s was the art style, which kept much of the '80s Marvel style pioneered by Layton and Windsor-Smith. Sal Velluto and Mike Manley pencil the third and fourth issues, but they’re so in tune with the house style that it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference. One plus is that the female head villain, Lydia, turns out to not have a shapely female body once her clothes are ripped off; instead, she’s a Spider-Alien all the way through, and I admire the resistance to indulge in some cheesecake. One minus is that the Spider-Alien minions look ridiculous. Their visored helmets are rendered silly by their dreadlocks and their armor makes them look potbellied. Also, the computer coloring is a little off, but that was universal in the early '90s.
There’s a hardcover version of this trade, X-O Manowar: Birth, with more issues, including an issue #0 which probably provides a better start. I know I’m complaining a lot, but X-O Manowar: Retribution has the seeds of greatness. You can get it for a penny on Amazon or shell out the full three dollars to get the Database with it, which has a cool see-through acetate diagram to show the armor’s various layers. For me, the title truly bloomed with the 2012 revival, which I’ll get to very soon, and it’s fascinating to read both versions. First, though, I’m going to take a look at a classic Image book. If you know your comic book history, then you know what I’m eventually getting to, and yes, it won’t be pretty.