Review: X-O Manowar Vol. 1: By the Sword trade paperback (Valiant Entertainment)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

[Review by Doug Glassman, who Tumblrs at '80s Marvel Rocks!]

Everything that happens in X-O Manowar Vol. 1: By The Sword occurred by page four in the first collection of the series' 1990s run, X-O Manowar: Retribution. However, this isn’t a case of a decompressed comic; instead, this is the kind of origin story that the character should have always had. For the Valiant relaunch of X-O Manowar, writer Robert Venditti went through the original run, found the parts that worked, and emphasized them to make the rebooted version successful. The idea of a fish-out-of-water superhero works better once we know who he actually is; a full issue goes by before ancient warrior Aric gets abducted by aliens, instead setting up his role in the war against the Romans. It’s not too complex, but it’s much more background than Retribution ever gave him.

One key change, if possibly unintentional, is that Aric is smarter this time around. It was hard to gauge the classic Aric’s intelligence because he was still learning English, but even his internal monologue sounded a little ... dulled. The new Aric is a competent warrior and strategist; his flaw in battle isn’t a lack of intelligence, but an excess of anger and pride. He’s a prince who badly wants to be king in a very violent warrior society and who is protective of his people to the point of making foolish choices. This set of flaws will guide much of the later action of both this book and the whole rebooted Valiant universe. Venditti uses the armor’s established telepathic abilities to catch Aric up on the passage of time without overly-clunky exposition.

His foes have also received a major upgrade. The old Spider-Aliens are now known as “The Vine," and the change is explained well. In one of the coolest bits of world-building I’ve seen in comics, the Vine worship fruit, kidnapping slaves from other worlds to use as slaves in their star-bound orchards. This is a much better origin than “they want to take over Earth and eat humans." Further issues delve into the religious practices of the Vine, including what they do -- or don’t do -- with the fruit and how it relates to the Manowar armor. While the Vine do have allies on Earth, By The Sword sticks with some of the Vine aboard the ship which captured Aric, including a conflicted priest and a ruthless captain. The only complaint I have is that no matter the artist, the Vine all look alike, so it’s hard to tell who’s who unless they’re wearing a specific outfit. (It happens in Predator comics all the time too.)

This new origin also explains why Aric was able to find the world’s most powerful suit of armor in the middle of a random spaceship. It ties into the Vine’s religion: whoever dons the armor is prophesized to be their savior. Each brave warrior takes their turn trying on the armor, and in turn, it kills them. The fact that Aric can wield the armor, known as Shanhara, and is dead-set on destroying the Vine is something they hadn’t accounted for. Thankfully, the Vine have lost the dreadlocks and pot-bellied suits, gaining a creepy redesigned face in the process. The armor itself is a little slimmer than before but still recognizable as a modernized X-O Manowar.

Since a common description of X-O Manowar’s premise is “Iron Man plus Conan the Barbarian," Valiant Entertainment made the smart move of bringing in Cary Nord, previously the artist on Dark Horse’s Conan title. Nord was the biggest artistic name in the relaunch and Venditti gives him many opportunities to prove that he can draw far more than just barbarian hordes. While I enjoyed Conan, I thought the color was a little washed out, and switching to new colorist Moose Baumann helped to create clearer artwork. The cover of the trade makes it look like the armor has switched to a white-and-yellow color scheme, but rest assured that it’s still blue-and-yellow in the comic.

One of the most interesting tropes on TV Tropes is called “Growing The Beard," referring to how Star Trek: The Next Generation got better around the same time as Will Riker grew a goatee. I find it interesting that Valiant Entertainment is fitting that trope in both ways, as not only are the revamped titles so much better, but beards factor into many of the character redesigns. In the old Valiant, Aric was mostly clean-shaven; here, it’s reversed, with him clean-shaven in his youth and then growing it out during his time aboard the Vine ship. Toyo Harada, the chief villain of the Valiant line, and Armstrong of Archer and Armstrong are also sporting beards. To me, it’s a sign that Valiant is aiming at an older audience while other comic book companies refuse to age their characters.

Essentially, X-O Manowar: By The Sword and the modern series render the previous series obsolete. Valiant Comics was ahead of its time in a declining industry and I believe that they did the best that they could with their resources and talents. It’s fun to look back at their old work, and I understand why the old Valiant books are beloved. But Valiant Entertainment’s version of X-O Manowar blows the old version out of the water. Its pace is far more even, its characters are far more well-defined, and there aren’t offensive caricatures like Ken running around. Valiant does have a lack of representation when it comes to characters other than straight white males, but that comes from a need to bring back as many of the old concepts as they can, and the original line-up wasn’t exactly minority-laden either. The reinvention of Livewire as an African American and the upcoming launches of Rai and Doctor Mirage have set out to address this deficiency.

Now that I’m back to reviewing good comics, next week I’ll finally take a look at Midnight Nation. Until then, Happy Passover!
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3 comments:

  1. Thanks for another informative Valiant review. After picking up the first trade of Archer & Armstrong based on your recommendation, I went on to check out the first trade of X-O Manowar. I found it both enjoyable and totally accessible, given that I was unfamiliar with the character's past. Valiant seem to be doing a top job not only writing these books for newcomers but also making sure each title stands independently within the shared universe. That said, I enjoyed spotting some of the connections between the first trades of X-O and A&A - I was totally unaware of the mention of The Vine in A&A until a recent reread. Given the small number of Valiant books currently being published, I feel like I can read the whole shared universe without having to spend a lot of time and money. I'm going to give the first trades of the other series a go and see what sticks. Hope you review more Valiant books in the future!

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    1. I really enjoyed that little easter egg in "A&A" as well. The Vine haven't really come up as part of the Sect dealings, but they've been mentioned a few more times, and with the "Armor Hunters" story coming up, I wouldn't be surprised if that happens sooner rather than later.

      As for more Valiant, the review of the first "Quantum and Woody" trade goes up on Wednesday, and I'll be reviewing more throughout the year.

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  2. I second the Valiant review. I was obsessed with the first year or two of the original Valiant universe back in the early 90s, before the company turned to shit, and Valiant Entertainment has done a stellar job of reviving the characters in a tight universe. I don't buy floppies but eagerly wait for each trade. The fact that I can get a new one every two or three weeks makes me happy. X-O may be the flagship title (and, it seems, the only title that will make it past issue 25, at least for now) but everything else Valiant publishes is unique and fun. They are filling out different pockets of the universe and its timeline and it's been fun to watch.

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