X-O Manowar (2017) is the ultimate embodiment of classic pulp concepts in a modern comic. The most recent incarnation by writer Matt Kindt, with different artists depending on the arc, has been pure, off-the-wall, action. It has a great mix of elements: strange aliens, strange devices, and a barbarian character goes into relentless battle that escalates with every issue. It’s everything that fans of classic pulp would love to support. People who love Conan or Burroughs or Moorcock should be absolutely thrilled with Valiant Comics’s 2017 relaunch of the character. Looking back, one can’t help but wonder: has the character always been this classic of an archetype, and has the execution been up to these pulp standards?
I investigated more of X-O Manowar, starting with the 2012 relaunch of the new Valiant Comics, because the 2017 iteration, while a good jumping on point, made me want to know the backstory for this character. In 2012, Valiant started with a new, redone origin, a new history, making it completely unnecessary to go back further than that for the character. This is where the current canon begins for what valiant fans call the VEI Universe. They ended X-O Manowar with 50 issues and some specials, culminating in 13 graphic novels (the 13th is unnecessary as side vignettes that don’t play into the storyline), a good amount of material to read through.
The origin of X-O had a nice story of Aric of Dacia, a Visigoth prince, taken along with a number of other of Visigoths as slaves by an alien race called The Vine. The Visigoths were enslaved on the alien planet, doing hard labor and being beaten by their tyrannical masters. Aric escaped, and came upon this sacred armor they worship as a second-coming, sword-in-the-stone type of relic. Anyone who can wear it successfully is said to bring about salvation for the Vine and a new era of peace and prosperity. A very cool, pulpy concept by itself. All Vine who have attempted to wear the armor have died excruciating deaths thus far, creating quite a bit of fun suspense. When Aric dons the armor, he becomes X-O Manowar and returns to Earth. When he does, he finds it’s the 21st century, and everything has changed.
The character develops from there, but the first few arcs are really dealing with the barbarian in modern times, and with sci-fi technology. It’s really cool, and the issues fly by. They introduce Aric to a couple of the other Valiant heroes to create a shared universe, and then we’re back into action with aliens. Later arcs deal with rescuing Visigoth slaves and bringing them to Earth to resettle. The flow, however, is a lot more like modern comics than the new 2017 relaunch. It does take 5-6 issues to tell a story. Robert Vendetti does it well, but not quite in the pulp style that captivated me with the new series.
Later volumes, after the “Armor Wars”, I found to be lacking the sense of wonder of the early books. They play on overdone comic tropes and go into copy mode. A storyline sets up a generic corporate villain who seems to have no good motivation or depth. The pace drags out to fill a graphic novel, and it falls into the traps we see far too regularly in modern books. It’s better than Marvel or DC as of late for sure, but lost some of the greatness that made those first several arcs shine. Later arcs seem to copy the current iterations of the Green Lantern Corps (which Vendetti also writes, so I see how that got blurred), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and even a storyline that apes Galactus from the early FF comics. I didn’t find any of the stories bad, but they lost a lot of the creativity that made the first volumes great.
Which means it’s good they did a relaunch. The relaunch is disconnected from this past arc, you don’t need any of it to enjoy it, though the background with Aric’s origin does give a reader some further appreciation. It’s simple, a man thrust into battle for aliens because he has no choice but to survive. It’s beautiful on its own.
Reading the VEI version begs the question of: what about the original X-O Manowar from 1992?
I haven’t read every issue in the series, which lasted for more than 69 issues, but I picked up the trade, Rebirth, which contains issues #0-6. A trend in the 90s were to have an issue #0 come out through something like Wizard Magazine that gave a prequel to the original story, some varied in quality more than others.
The first issue thrusts the reader right into action. At this point in the 2012 version, it would have been about issue #3. We see Aric get armor within the first couple pages, he’s much more barbarian-like than in the new iteration, barely understanding what’s going on, calling it “the good skin”. He busts out of an alien ship, blowing it to pieces. He then lands back on earth. The armor is controlled by a ring here, needing both elements to create the X-O. There’s an evil corporation led by an alien masquerading as a human who goes to hunt him down. It goes really crazy from there with tons of action. Instead of the Vine, these aliens are just shape-changing spiders. There’s very little background to them. The main villain Lydia has vampire fangs, which is not explained until later stories. It’s just pure evil vs. a barbarian man on the run, naked in the snow, using his manliness to overcome government operatives, giant corporations, big tanks and devices, aliens, you name it. In some ways, it’s more pulpy and cool than even the 2017 version. The art is not nearly as slick, however.
Each issue has a storyline, which I miss about older comics, and sets up storylines for future issues. Jim Shooter and Bob Layton are responsible for the writing, some of the best of the old guard of comics before it became a movie tie-in industry with stories that have no consequences. Everything X-O does has consequence, and he tears through corporations, meets has a nice crossover with Valiant’s Harbinger in issue 3, and continues on. I’m quite compelled to go back and obtain all of the issues after reading this. He can barely speak English even through the first of the arc. When he wears the armor, it translates for him, and makes him understand. Something about the pure barbarian element in this that doesn’t exist in the modern version so much is really compelling.
But Issue #0 is really what shines. This goes into the past of how he got to the alien ship, showing his life in the Visigoth world, and what happened. It’s a different storyline than the 2012 version for sure, and though I really like the Vine culture that was set up in the new version, this story by itself is better. I love how they were able to do a bunch of pages of no dialogue to communicate pure action and disorientation from the Visigoth perspective. This goes down as one of the best comics (in conjunction with issue 1) in history because of its adept understanding of pacing.
In both versions of X-O Manowar (2017 being a continuation of 2012), being true to oneself and one’s people and fighting like a man with honor against objective evils is what sets the character apart from other modern books. It’s something we rarely see in the fiction world or in comics anymore. X-O Manowar inspires great sci-fi and fantasy, blending the two genres because of the Visigoth/barbarian past with the alien/tech future. This is the kind of stuff we used to see in science fantasy pulp magazines that is missing from a lot of fiction today.
I implore readers to check out both the new arc, and the 1992 version at the very least. Perhaps there is some hope for modern comics after all.
Jon Del Arroz is known as the leading Hispanic voice in Science Fiction, blogging about sci-fi, geek culture and free speech to more than 10,000 readers per week. His debut novel, Star Realms: Rescue Run is nominated for the Dragon Award for Best Military Science Fiction and his most recent book, For Steam And Country is hailed as the hottest new steampunk series of 2017.