Posted by Don MacPherson on June 9th, 2008
X-O Manowar: Birth hardcover
Writers: Jim Shooter, Steve Englehart, Bob Layton & Jorge Gonzalez
Artists: Barry Windsor-Smith, Sal Velluto, Mike Manley, Mike Leeke, Steve Ditko, Joe Quesada, Bob Layton, John Holdredge, Mark Moretti, Tom Ryder, Kathryn Bolinger, Ted Halsted, Ralph Reese & Jimmy Palmiotti
Colorists: Chrysoula Artemis, Rob Ruffolo, Anthony Castrillo, Jorge Gonzalez, Paul Autio & John Cebollero
Letters: Jade, Ken Lopez & Sorah Suhng
Cover artists: Sean Chen & Bob Layton
Publisher: Valiant Entertainment
Price: $24.95 US/$26.95 CAN
Flashback 15 years, and Valiant Comics was riding high in the comic-book industry. It was a boom time for the business, and Valiant threw its hat into the ring at just the right time (but ultimately, at just the wrong time). Valiant is back, and to mark its return, it’s published this collection of X-O Manowar comics from 1992 and 1993. I’m not sure why Valiant Entertainment opted to turn to X-O as its coming-out party, though I suspect it might have something to do with the fact that one of the issues collected here featured early work from artist and now-Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada. (Correction: I’m told this volume was preceded by a Harbinger hardcover.) I’d never read an issue of X-O before, and I was surprised to find a truly novel and fascinating premise at the core of the storytelling. Unfortunately, the execution leaves a lot to be desired, which comes as a surprise, given some of the stalwart creative names involved in the crafting of the story. The plotting lumbers forward, often without bothering to provide key background information or logic, and the art is inconsistent at best.
Centuries ago, an advance invasion force of Spider Aliens abducted a Visigoth warrior named Aric. Today, he emerges from stasis to wreak havoc aboard their orbiting ship. He stumbles upon a powerful weapon — the X-O Manowar armor — and it gives him the power he needs to kill his captors and to destroy their ship. As the aliens work to get the X-O armor back from the confused warrior from the past, he finds an ally, Ken, a onetime minion of the aliens, who’ve been hiding in plain sight on Earth. Meanwhile, other superhuman forces mistake Aric as another alien pawn and launch attacks of their own to repel the coming invasion.
Look at those names in the credits listed above. Barry Windsor-Smith. Steve Ditko. And while Bob Layton’s name may not be mentioned with the same sort of reverence, he’s second to none when it comes to illustrating the adventures of armored heroes. Despite those talents, though, the art in this book rarely rises above the level of the simply mundane. There are hints of Windsor-Smith’s style that make it through the layouts for the one issue to which he contributes, but there are none from Ditko in his issue. The design of the X-O armor is a bit awkward, though I have to admit the various artists all depict it consistently. The designs for the Spider Aliens are awkward as well, sometimes even looking rather goofy. Quesada brings a more stylized, dynamic look to the mix, though it comes rather late in the run.
It’s not until the second chapter and later when the main protagonist’s story comes out. The reader is left scratching his head throughout the first chapter, wondering how this primitive warrior came to be in the present, killing alien invaders. Ken’s quick shift in allegiances and loss of a limb is handled so casually so as to defy belief. On top of that, several chapters incorporate other Valiant characters — such as Toyo Harada, the Harbinger kids and Solar — into the plot in integral ways, yet little background information is provided to fill the readership in on who they are.
This volume also contains a new story, an origin story for an alien villainess by the name of Lydia. It’s a smart marketing move, as it not only instills the promise of more new Valiant material, but it might serve to entice fans of the source material to seek out this collected edition. Unfortunately, the story focuses on a one-dimensional, distasteful character. I had no interest in it, but I soldiered through the short piece anyway. I found little new and little interesting.
The book has its strong points. Aric’s gradual struggle with language and culture shock make for much more interesting conflicts that his explosive firefights with alien spider creatures. Furthermore, the premise itself — a primitive, violent man plucked from his own time and thrust into a confusing future — is an original one that sets X-O Manowar apart from other super-hero properties. Nevertheless, that strong foundation isn’t enough to get the reader to ignore the shoddy construction that rests on top. As an archive of some recent comics publishing history, there’s some value in this X-O hardcover, though. I was certainly curious about the book, though I wonder if the back issues reprinted within might not be available in discount bins in a number of comics specialty stores. 5/10