For almost four years, we’ve called X-O Manowar the best of all comics.
We’ve done so on the weekly twitter feed, we’ve done so in reviews, we’ve done so in casual conversation and while making recommendations. There’s a very simple reason for this: it is the best of all comics.
Originally, X-O Manowar was part of the first Valiant line up back in the early nineties. Those comics were fairly decent sci-fi fare, and pretty decent for their time, but I wasn’t a fan. Solar: Man of the Atom, Shadowman, and Magnus: Robot Fighter were my go-to Valiant books back in the day. X-O was just kind of there.
Back in the mid-nineties, Acclaim – the failed video game company that practiced many of the same sound business tactics that EA seems to like – bought Valiant and relaunched their comics. The less said about the comics that came out of that era, the better. Seriously, there’s a reason Acclaim went bankrupt.
For example, there was a crossover video game in the late nineties, X-O Manowar / Iron Man. It was terrible. It was a thing I sneered at – along with every reviewer of the era! – and that was the last I expected to see of the character.
The world was supposed to end in 2012. The Mayans predicted it, but what people don’t understand is that the Mayans didn’t predict an ending, they predicted a change – something so radically different that they could not explain or express it.
Valiant Comics relaunched in 2012, and they started with X-O Manowar.
I remember walking through Emerald City Comic Con that year, and meeting the new Valiant Crew. They had trades for Harbinger, Bloodshot, Archer & Armstrong, and X-O Manowar. We’ll get to the former three later, because they are all excellent books, but it was X-O Manowar that immediately caught the eye and imagination.
The set-up was simple: a viking from sixteen hundred years ago named Aric of Dacia mistakes aliens for Roman Legionairres and attacks them. This tells us a few things about him right away: that he is brave and he is an idiot. He is abducted by these aliens, taken to an alien world and made a slave, and there he leads a revolution that should doom him and those that stand with him – but instead he is chosen by the living armor that those aliens worship as a god, and becomes as a god himself.
Let us take a moment to step back and consider that. This simple story marries low-concept fantasy to high-concept science fiction, effortlessly. We don’t see earth for a while after Aric is taken. Instead, we see how he suffers, how he is tortured and does not bend. He refuses to break, refuses to stop, and his stubbornness inspires those around him.
He is a simple but noble man, born into a violent era and a perfect example of the best sort of person to come out of that time and place. We see this in those early stories, the price of not having a home, of being at war all the time, of never being able to stop. We see that his people have families, that they struggle to lead the best lives they can, but are crippled time and again by the evils of imperialism.
That’s some pretty impressive themes to explore, and everything described so far is nothing but world building. I’ve just brushed across the first six issues of what is now thirty-eight issues strong, and getting stronger by the chapter: more character depth, a further exploration of mythology and ethics and morality, of the temporal context that informs those worldviews handled with a careful respect.
We often say that Valiant Comics has the market cornered for mature storytelling, and X-O Manowar is the perfect example for that: everything that happens in this book has weight, reason, and consequence. Every decision made matters, and everyone evolves.
Not really understanding what has happened, Aric accidentally teleports back to earth. He’s not aware that sixteen hundred years have passed, so when he attacks Italy it’s a major world problem. Eventually, he’s made to understand that no one even remembers his people, that no one could even find Dacia on a map. He refuses to punish the modern world for the sins of the past, and finds himself without purpose.
Various world powers try to make contact with Aric, who is wildly disinterested in the modern political landscape and, truly, is incapable of understanding it. He does, however, find proof of alien infiltration among the people he does have contact with.
The same aliens that took him have infiltrated human society and have helped shape it for the past dozen centuries. The aliens on Earth get in contact with the home world, recognizing the suit Aric is wearing as their deity, and this leads to a serious religious schism. The distant aliens launch an invasion of Earth, which goes poorly for them, as the aliens of Earth throw in with Aric and try to defend their new home.
Back in space, the religious aliens enter into conflict with their military, who try to destroy Aric and the armor that has chosen them. Aric goes to free his people and lays low the military of this alien place, and here’s where we see how much Aric has grown: instead of destroying the aliens, or enslaving them the way they enslaved him, he helps the defeated aliens rebuild. He ends their empire and helps them make a better society, then takes his people and goes home.
And here’s where his ignorance of the modern world again cripples him. Yes, he’s powerful – powerful enough to conquer an alien civilization all by himself, powerful enough to bludgeon his way through nearly anything – but he has no means of understanding the world in which he finds himself simply because it’s more alien to him than that of the world he was taken to.
So, when I say he goes home, I mean exactly that: he returns to where Dacia was and settles his people there, starts them farming, and the world reacts erratically. There’s different nations and different political powers in play, and all of them have something to say about how this situation is handled. Many of them don’t understand what’s happening, and Aric isn’t very forthcoming. A world war, which is a concept Aric can barely grasp, nearly erupts around him because of his decisions.
Look at how much we play with here: personal and cultural alienation, the corruption of the global political theater, the interplay and evolution of moral bias on a cultural level through the ages… there is no other comic that manages to touch on so many concepts with as much depth and consistency as this one does. It’s a conversation starter, with every issue and storyline being fodder for deeper issues that effect us all in real life.
And if that isn’t your thing, there’s still a viking in space armor running around blowing things up with lasers and melee weapons made of energy.
The artwork is what we’ve come to call Standard Valiant, which tends to be a spec or two above the standards of other companies. Body types of different kinds are portrayed and given a sense of density and motion, body language and facial expressions are carefully considered and conveyed. This feels like a whole other world, one we’re lucky enough to get a glimpse into, a place with enough variety to be more than the paper that it’s printed on.
How strong is X-O Manowar, as a comic? Strong enough to base an entire line of comics on. Entire characters and teams have gotten their start in the pages of X-O Manowar, like Ninjak or Unity, and even Imperium owes as much to X-O as it does to Harbinger. Aric showing up anywhere is a sign that things have gotten serious, because everyone in the Valiant line of comics knows who he is and what he represents.
Interesting and evolving characters and mythologies? Check. A real world basis for the various things that happen in the book? Check. A book with enough depth to handle tragedy and comedy, pathos and ethos, considered violence and attempts at pacifism? Check, check, and check. The sheer scope of the comic promises that nothing here will ever end, because it can’t.
Aric’s story is an epic, following a warrior, a slave, a wanderer, and a king. It speaks of the responsibilities owed by a nobility that is worth following. It is a tremendous piece of work that we cannot recommend enough.
And this is why it is the best of all comics.