(w) Dennis “Hopeless” Hallum (a) Emilio Laiso (c) Ruth Redmond
It’s time for another X-O Manowar #1, the first since Matt Kindt’s acclaimed run came to an end. To say that this new series is tonally different from past X-O series is an understatement, taking on a more lighthearted and traditional “superhero” tone. As a first issue, writer Dennis Hallum and artist Emilio Laiso do a good job establishing this new status quo for Aric of Dacia, seeding in conflict that should drive this series while also leaving reader curious as to how we arrived at this.
Since Valiant returned in 2012, they’ve relaunched X-O Manowar three times. The first was their initial launch title for “The Summer of Valiant” by Robert Venditti and Cary Nord. Running 50 issues, that series served as the backbone for the universe that Valiant was working to build. The second was 2017’s X-O Manowar by Matt Kindt. That series began by dumping Aric into a totally new situation that seemingly ignored the events of Venditti’s series, only to eventually tie in to the character’s past in later issues. It appears that Hallum is employing a similar approach, as there is little recognizable to what came before. It’s an approach that may bring in new readers, but alienate the publisher’s core readership that thrives on connectivity. Unlike Kindt, who had developed years of goodwill with readers, Hallum is a new face to the Valiant Universe and may have to work harder to earn their trust.
A pillar of X-O Manowar is the relationship forged between Aric and his sentient armor, Shanhara. Their relationship is one of symbiotic benefit and mutual respect. And their communication isn’t full of quippy dialogue, pop culture references, or colloquialisms – especially on Shanhara’s part. Yet that is how Hallum has chosen to represent their relationship, as if Aric and his armor were interchangeable with DC’s Booster Gold and Skeets (spoiler alert: they aren’t). There is a way that Hallum could have gotten readers to that point, by taking what came before and slowly incorporating quips and modern references as Shanhara grows more accustomed to today’s culture. But he doesn’t want to put in that work, which is unfortunate because he has shown to be a great writer in the past, such as his Spider-Woman work at Marvel. This results in the gravest sin for X-O Manowar #1 by presents a fundamental element of the character completely wrong.
New readers probably won’t get hung up on that, other than maybe thinking X-O Manowar is a Booster Gold ripoff (he’s not). That’s good, as there’s a lot to actually like in this issue. Aric spends much of the issue being proactive, patrolling the planet in his X-O armor much like he did at the end of Kindt’s run. Though it will be interesting to see how they deal with a Schon-sized plot thread that on the surface appears to be dropped, it is a nice change of pace to see Aric trying to interact with people that aren’t the military or his Visigoth brethren. It makes for a fun twist on the fish-out-of-water story that’s been done several times with this character that also explores how “normal people” may perceive him.
Hallum exposes some of the sillier, day-to-day elements of Aric that have not been explored. He is a Visigoth prince, but that title was left behind in the 5th century. Having left the new Visigoth territory (established back in Venditti’s run), this issues ask how would he go about his days? The answer, it seems, is like that of a homeless person. He wanders the streets and he eats in alleyways. The only difference is that when he wants food he can use his suit to go hunting for deer in the wilderness. His battle instincts tell him to act first, think later. The results, as shown throughout the issue, are mixed. Though he does “stop the bad guys,” he also causes needless property damage and has a… tense relationship with local law enforcement. Despite all the progress Aric has made to acclimate to modern life, he still has a long way to go.
As Aric spends more time with new people, he does begin to develop new relationships. While the idea of Aric joining in a pickup game of basketball with local teens is bizarre, it is indicative of his attempts to better understand the world as it now is. He struggles with modern norms and mores, and gets frustrated by new technology. It is uncomfortable to see a character typically shown to be strong and unwavering to falter under innocuous circumstances, but if executed well it could be a great development for Aric in the long run.
Artistically, X-O Manowar #1 is a good-looking book. The publisher has been moving away from having a “house style” by bringing in fresh, new artists with a range of styles, and Emilio Laiso is one of them. A previous collaborator of Hallum’s on Marvel’s Spider-Man: Velocity, he has developed an impressive resume in short order having also worked on Star Wars, Robocop, and Hack/Slash. He is able to bring the same frenetic energy of those works to X-O Manowar. His lines are crisp, and his characters are expressive. If there is a hiccup, its the occasional weird face that can take the reader out of the book. The colors from Ruth Redmond are in spots a little too bright and vibrant for this type of story, and she adds some odd definition to the characters in moments. However, when she is on, X-O is gorgeous. The aforementioned deer-hunting is arguably the best-looking sequence in this book, showing the visual potential that this title possesses. More work of that quality will go a long way as the series progresses.
X-O Manowar #1 is a confounding issue. It’s both serious and comical. It’s action heavy and character-driven. But ultimately, the legacy of a title is the journey the character takes over the course of a story. To that end, Aric journey will be tied to the relationship he forges with a local teen named Desmond, and Desmond’s mom, only referred to as Ms. Morris here (a first name will likely reveal itself is Issue #2). This trio does harbor similarities to another tale of a time-displaced character with a penchant for property damage – the 1991 film Terminator 2: Judgement Day. That movie took the T-800 from the original film, made significant changes to its characterization and motives, and ended up being as celebrated its predecessor. Because of that, hardcore Valiant fans should exercise patience with this title. This may not be the X-O title longtime fans yearned for, but it may end up being one they appreciate all the same. As for new readers, hopefully the next few issues lean more on the character’s history, because the discount Booster Gold act can quickly wear thin.