This week I read XO Manowar #1 from Valiant Comics. If like me, you’re not familiar with the character, XO Manowar was a hit indie comic from the early 1990s.
Created by Jim Shooter and Steve Englehart, both of whom have tremendous comic resumes, and designed by Bob Layton and Barry Windsor-Smith, two industry vets that were behind a number of classic Marvel characters, XO Manowar is the story of a Visigoth warrior prince named Aric, kidnapped from his home by aliens. Forced into slavery, he eventually escapes with the help of an amazing suit of power armour. He fights his way to freedom and returns home, only to discover that it is now the 1990’s, and everything he once knew is no more. It’s an exciting story and one that I wished I had read in its original run.
Valiant later relaunched the character in 2012 with a re-imaged backstory that kept some of the original story elements, but neither the original version of the character, nor the later reboot ever managed to get my attention, and up until a few weeks ago I knew next to nothing about the character of XO other than having seen occasional mentions of him in Wizard magazine back in the ’90s. In fact, to be completely honest, I only read this book because I got a free digital copy from the publisher. I wasn’t expecting much from it and I assumed I would be hopelessly lost, but hey, it was free, and new books are sadly in short supply right now, so why not give it a chance?
Which brings us to our question: was the book actually a good read? Was I hopeless lost and confused? Am I about to write about how terrible this book was for the uninitiated? Was my complete lack of awareness about the Valiant universe too big of a hurdle for me to overcome? Well read on, true believer and find out!
As a quintessential 90’s nerd, my teenage imagination was prime real estate for comic writers. My allowance was usually out of my hand’s and into the comic book dealer’s so fast I didn’t even need a wallet. The first job I got in high school was literally to fund my comic addiction. I liked my comics flashy, loud, and covered with holofoil. In short, I was an idiot; however, I was an idiot who read a lot of comics, mainly Marvel, Image, DC, and Dark Horse and I liked a pretty cover. I’d spend hours wandering the shops, lost in the flashy, jaw dropping, holographic artwork, debating to whether to get the new Punisher or the new Wolverine, digging through back issues, and snagging whatever the shiniest, flashiest cover on the shelf was.
And next to all those flashy books were books by Valiant Comics. Now, I’m not saying they didn’t occasionally have some flash to them. Valiant was actually the first publisher to do a chromium cover on a book, so they knew how to flash, but the artwork, well, it just wasn’t the same, at least to me. If you look at older Image books, with their loud, bold covers dripping with guns, girls, and guts, and compare them to older Valiant titles, the Valiant titles just don’t hold up. Valiant employed a lot of more traditional artists, and it really shows in comparison. Go look at XO Manowar #1 next to Spawn #1, and then take a moment to recognize that those were released less than five months apart.
Again, I’m not saying the Valiant books were bad, but it was the 90’s and I wanted flash and sizzle. Valiant didn’t seem to have that, so I largely ignored them as a publisher. I didn’t get the appeal, and with limited funds to spend I was much more interested in snatching up my other, shinier books than in trying something new that didn’t set my heart to racing.
The comic industry, on the other hand, didn’t ignore them like I did, and showered them with praise for their shared universe. Jim Shooter, one of the most important founders of Valiant, was given a lifetime achievement award for his work on creating the Valiant universe at the same ceremony where Stan Lee was recognized for his work on creating the Marvel universe. Despite my teenage ignorance of Valiant, they were seen by many in the industry as a real force to be reckoned with, which makes their later demise so much more tragic.
Sadly, as we know, the late ’90s were not kind to the comic industry. Due to a combined loss of market share, and a number of financial setbacks, by the early 2000s, Valiant had crumbled. Competition from Image and Marvel, not to mention the removal of Jim Shooter, cost them dearly, and by 2004 they had lost the rights to several of their original characters such as Turok and Magnus. For almost a decade Valiant Comics existed only in collected editions, and in the stories of failed comic publishers whispered about in hushed tones by comic book nerds everywhere.
That should have been the end for them, but new investors came in and Valiant eventually got its house in order and relaunched in 2012. This would have been a great time for me to finally get into them, but in 2012 I had taken a break from comics, so the new stuff they were doing, as well as the various reactions to it, we’re lost on me. When I later got back into reading comics a few years ago I didn’t even know they were still a thing. Occasionally I’d see a book by them on the shelves, but they just never really caught my attention, and it wasn’t until 2019 with the relaunch of Doctor Mirage that I even bothered to read a book by them. (I did enjoy Doctor Mirage a good deal, by the way).
So, knowing next to nothing about this comic universe, and having zero interest or connection to this particular character, was the first issue of XO Manowar worth it? The answer, surprisingly, is yes.
Let’s look at the official blurb from Valiant:
Harvey Award-winning writer Dennis “Hopeless” Hallum (Star Wars: Darth Vader–Dark Visions) and breakout star Emilio Laiso (Marvel’s Spider-Man: Velocity) unleash Valiant’s most powerful protector! Torn from the past and bonded with a living alien armour, will X-O Manowar become the hero the world needs? As a futuristic force arises to destroy the planet, only this ancient warrior king has the courage to stand against impossible odds!
I really enjoyed this book. The story made sense, the character was relatable, and at no point did I feel like my lack of knowledge about the character was preventing me from understanding what was going on in the story.
As it says in the blurb, our hero is a man out of time trying to fit in. The book opens up with Aric, the titular XO, defeating an alien that is attacking Earth. Fans of the classic series will recognize the alien as being part of the Vine, Aric’s original foes in the book, but new readers don’t need to know their entire history to get the main thrust of the action. While Aric is defeating this soldier, the reader gets bits and pieces of background that helps establish who the character is, but it is done in such a way that new readers will feel enlightened, not excluded. It’s a back story done right, especially for a character that doesn’t have the audience awareness of someone like Superman or Batman, and as I new reader I really appreciated that.
As exciting as the intro is, the opening attack isn’t really the main focus of the book. Most of the story is about Aric trying to find his place on Earth. He has tremendous superpowers and an urge to help, but he struggles to find a balance between his beliefs and the world he now inhabits. Again and again in the book we see him try to fit in and be a hero, only to have something go wrong, usually connected to his confusion about life in the modern world. As he struggles to understand his place in this world, it becomes clear that there are forces out to get him because of who he is. This first issue, however, spends more time letting the reader get to know the character then it does on developing the conflict of the story, and I think was an excellent choice on the part of the creative team.
Writer Dennis Hopeless has done a great job at developing an empathetic and interesting character, and he tells a story with him that is incredibly relatable for any reader. Emilio Laiso’s art style pops on the page in a way that keeps both 90’s me happy with the wonderful visuals, and modern me happy with how well the art tells a story on its own.
This is just a darn good comic, regardless of your background on the character. Like I said, I am not a superfan of this character, so I’m sure that others who are better versed in him might have a different take, but as a new reader I like what I saw, and since it will be a while before we have any new books hitting the shelves, I highly recommend you check this book out now, so you’re ready to jump on board with the rest of the story when the comic river flows once more.
Should you buy this book? I got a digital copy for free, and I still went out and bought a copy. So yeah, you should buy this book!