X-O Manowar has such a great idea at its center that you have to wonder if it’s almost a stupid idea.
Imagine a Visigoth warrior from 408 A.D.– a Conan type of warrior with a deep sense of both honor and vengeance – who’s kidnapped by a group of spider-like space aliens one fine day. For a thousand Earth years he’s held prisoner on the aliens’ ship, tortured and enslaved and becoming ever more enraged. Finally the warrior rebels and escapes the alien spaceship when it comes back to Earth – that he and grabs an amazing alien super-suit in the midst of getting away. Donning the “good skin”, as he calls it, the warrior plunges through the atmosphere of Earth and lives – but finds himself in the world of 1992 rather than 408. He’s a feral man in an iron suit set loose in the world of today. What does he do? How does he change and how does the world change around him?
You can imagine all kinds of spectacular adventures that might follow, or all kinds of existential confusion, or maybe even a satire of modern morals and morays in a comic with such a brilliantstupid central idea. And in fact, X-O Manowar has all of those – or at least our current version of X-O has a few of those different concepts floating around that give his character and series some weight. This ’90s version? Well, this is where the answer gets a little weird.
As I’ve discussed a few times in this series, the Valiant Comics of the 1990s were a strange line of comics. They were created, from their initial conception to their long print runs, to depict the world outside our window with only a handful of new elements added. That helped some of the better Valiant comics, such as Harbinger and Bloodshot, to have a grounding in our world that helped readers relate to the characters and their settings.
In X-O Manowar this approach works sometimes but at other times it feels like only a small portion of the series’s potential is being reached, like a great artist who’s forced to use canvases that are too tiny for his grand visions.
This series starts out promisingly enough, as Aric slowly learns English and gets dragged – kicking, screaming and shooting laser fire — over the idea that he will ever assimilate in American society. It’s amusing, in a Conan-in-the-20th-century sort of way, to read Aric’s jumbled language as he talks, the odd names he gives everyday things, and the instinctive way he learns to use his armor. It’s a delightful paradox that this primitive warrior almost immediately is able to control a tremendously sophisticated suit of armor and get people working under his command and control despite the fact that he’s centuries out of time. There could be some clever satire in an idea like that in a Caveman Lawyer sort of way.
But it’s not long – basically, after the giant time-spanning crossover Unity, in which Aric fares leads and army and fights some mechanical dinosaurs (because who doesn’t love a mechanical dinosaur?)– that this book takes a turn that’s not quite surreal (because it’s so prosaic) but more…hmm… unexciting anyway. Because our man Aric soon learns to speak English very well and soon installs himself as head of a multinational technology corporation. He becomes a slightly less polite version of Tony Stark, more or less, and X-O kind of drifts into a delightfully pedestrian mediocrity that somehow also fits Valiant’s approach to their comics. With solid but not flashy writing, mainly by Jorge Gonzalez, and equally pleasant but unchallenging art by Mike Leeke, Jim Calafiore, Rik Levins and more, X-O Manowar becomes mainly solidly enjoyable mid-ranger hero action.
I’ve used the analogy before in this series that Valiant Comics were like a pleasant action TV series of the 1990s, and the middle issues of X-O Manowar in this massive volume fit that description well, I think. There are a few places where it breaks out, with the alien invasion three-parter “Seed of Destruction”, by Bob Layton and Howard Simpson, being an exciting widescreen exception, but many of the stories to be found in this omnibus are like the third season of some long-lost hero TV show that ran six seasons and occasionally shows up on some obscure basic cable channel: it’s a pleasant watch, you don’t need to know much to spend some time with it to enjoy it just fine and the series doesn’t stick to your bones.
There are some standout issues, though. I already called out “Seed of Destruction,” which is a delight with its space gladiator battles, armored battles among the stars, and the macguffin of a way for the suit to reproduce itself. There’s a wacky, bright, flashiness to that storyline that made me chortle in happiness a few times.
Another intriguing storyline happens when Aric is briefly away and his assistant Randy Cartier puts on the suit herself. When we watch Cartier’s experiences in the X-O armor, we see how badly it can destroy the lives of the people who wear it. Cartier is a security officer, and a good one: smart, emotionally strong and with a good support system. The armor destroys her strong mental self-image by causing Randy to remember events that were devastating to her. We get to see her exhilaration when flying in the suit into the ionosphere, but just as quickly we witness the brutality of a fight she gets into and the tough mental battles she has to go through in order to justify herself. In doing so, it adds depth not just to Cartier but also to Aric in reflection, as a statement of his amazing inner strength, as well as a portrait of just how powerful this armor actually is. It’s an old trick but a powerful trick to show the strength of a main character to show how other people handle the same circumstances; writer Gonzalez handles that well here in one of the best stories in this 31-chapter collection.
However, appearances to the contrary, Aric is changed by the armor and we see that in the best story in this massive collection. After the events of Unity set him lost in time, Aric found himself back in 408 A.D., in his home lands, fighting the Romans. At first, of course, Aric is elated that he is back home, and Aric is seen as the conquering hero, albeit a conquering hero in “Satan’s armor”, as one of his men says. Quickly, though, we see that his amazing armor and his unbelievable life experiences have changed Aric. In a world of horses and spears, the X-O armor is absurdly out of place. He can wipe out entire Roman legions without breaking a sweat, which engenders fear not just in the Romans but in his own people. His friends and even his lover become terrified of Aric, and when the great warrior shots off the arm of one of his most trusted advisors, there’s the feeling of unfettered power out of control, of the idea that power without a check is the most frightening thing of all. The story ends in a moment of tremendous despair, paralleling similar events the same month in the transcendently bleak Rai, and this once arrogantly prideful warrior finds himself broken.
X-O Manowar is a fun lost series of the type that Valiant was known for. It’s not flashy but it’s fine. And fun.