In light of our recent celebration of Jack Kirby’s birthday, it’s apparent that comics are still living in his shadow. It's nearly impossible to create a pure action superhero comic without channeling Kirby. His methodology of building and exploring a fictional world is so tightly woven into the DNA of American superhero comics that Kirby’s influence is evident in just about every publication today.
X-O Manowar Vol. 3: Planet Death displays the Kirby influence at its most extreme, and at its most subtle.
X-O Manowar features a grand, universe-spanning story, deeply embedded in religion, mythology, and comic book style cosmology. X-O gives off the feeling that the backstory is both being made up on the fly as we watch it develop, while at the same time every detail has been meticulously planned from the outset. It seems like the creators are both improvising and playing from well composed sheet music – a tricky but rewarding technique which fans of Kirby’s Fourth World trilogy know all too well.
In this volume, the Visigoth prince Aric, who has previously been abducted by aliens and placed in a powerful suit of armor, finally sets out to exact revenge on his kidnappers, the Vine. Turning his back on an invasion of Earth, Aric takes the battle back to his oppressors on the Vine home world of Loom. What follows are several chapters of intense destruction, as well as the collapse of an entire society at the hands of one ruthless warrior from another world.
Hairsine and Cary Nord's art is obviously influenced by Kirby: it's impossible to create the action scenes that Nord produces – massive battles with armies, collapsing walls, intense fury and an almost supernatural trust in violence to solve the day – without seeing Kirby’s imprint on the genre. The very best pages seem as if they could have been sketched by Kirby himself, and are beautiful in their intensity.
In that way, the storyline seems as if it might have come from an old issue of Thor or Fantastic Four, but these smart creators take X-O in a direction that is specifically theirs. In one sequence of pages we learn the history of the Vine people and their holy relic, the X-O suit. These pages boast an ornate design, which is a beautiful contrast to the brutalist design of the rest of the book.
Hairsine and Nord are pitch-perfect in depicting action sequences and with subtle character work. Their portrayal of Aric is so vivid we feel as if we can relate to his anguish and rage despite the fact that he comes from a society that is far more brutal than our civilized Western world. The source of this depth is as much in the writing as the subtle energy endowed to him by the artists. Aric is not a complicated character, but he still has complexity – as evidenced in a moving scene where he finds himself reunited with his best friend, who has been kidnapped and abused for years.
This all feeds into a sense of appropriateness to the story elements. It's appropriate for Aric to be an agent of revolution, and it's appropriate for him to be the chosen one in the Vine religion. The X-O suit is an instrument of great destruction, but is only fated to be worn by the man that the suit selects to don it. When Aric begins destroying the entire Vine civilization, the reader is presented with a morality play. On one hand, Aric is the selected one, like the hero who is the only one who can wear a magic ring, so his actions are by nature right and true. On the other hand, he kills thousands, destroys a world, and does so without looking back. Aric is a Visigoth through and through. He's brutal because viciousness is hard-wired into his heritage and his upbringing. That brutality combined with the X-O prophecy makes Aric unstoppable.
X-O is one of the most satisfying comics on the stands because so many story elements flow out of smart character design and world-building. Aric is a fascinating lead, and this book takes him on a spectacular journey. The journey is all the more powerful because it's resonant of many other powerful comics that have come before. You can see traces of Jack Kirby in this comic, but X-O gains its strength because of Venditti, Nord and Hairsine.