Don’t lose your head

Writer: Becky Cloonan and Michael W. Conrad
Artist: Liam Sharp

Yes, Valiant is back with another book, this time they’re relaunching X-O Manowar. I really enjoyed the last run of X-O. I liked the relationship between Aric and Shanhara. I thought it brought a nice, modern, groundedness to Aric. Having him interact with ordinary people, in an ordinary neighbourhood, underlined his humanity in a way we hadn’t seen before. This new run however does not do any of that. This takes him back to his roots as a prophetic space travelling character fighting Romans. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s been as aspect of the character since the very early days of his conception so it makes sense to explore that and a new run seems like a good time.

As a long time reader of X-O Manowar I knew exactly what was going on and why. I am trying to imagine what a new reader might make of this. It’s really hard for me to judge as I am so familiar with X-O’s backstory. This does feel a little more difficult for a new reader to get into than the last run as it plays with a more philosophical take on X-O than the previous run. Tonally it feels closer to Matt Kindt’s epic run of several years ago. It’s very much in that vein.

For those of you not familiar with the history of X-O Manowar here’s a brief history. Interestingly, he is one of the few characters whose 90’s background is pretty close to his 2012 incarnation (except there was more rape and beheading in the 90’s because it was the 90’s). X-O Manowar is Aric of Dacia. He is a Visigoth hanging around in the early 5th century killing Romans, as they are his mortal enemies for reasons. He would have been lost to the mists of time and history had he not been captured as a slave by the alien race the Vine. Toiling aboard their ship in deep space time passes on Earth but not as quickly for Aric. He ends up bonding with, and stealing, the sentient and powerful armour Shanhara. Now going by X-O Manowar he battles the Vine as he finds himself returning to a very different Earth than the one he left behind centuries ago.

If you’re thinking that sounds a bit like Thor meets Iron Man with Captain America then you would be close but Aric is more than that. He’s also something of a dick. I dare anyone to read the entire run of X-O and not come out of it wanting to slap Aric several times. In a way that’s what makes him a good character, he’s flawed but he tries. He wallows in self pity but still gets the job done. He’s not always easy to like and frankly if it wasn’t for Shanhara he would be both dead and probably less likeable.

This issue absolutely nails the relationship between Aric and Shanhara. It’s my favourite aspect of this new take on the character. Shanhara is the one who cares for Aric, who sees who he can be and pushes him on. Here they are in space and they only have each other. No matter how melancholy Aric gets Shanhara is there as both a physical and emotional support. That’s what really makes the armour special, the fact that it is an entity, alive and a being bonded to the wearer.

That and the power the armour hold is why so many are after capturing or killing Aric and taking Shanhara. The pair have fought off various attempts before. The attempt in this latest run comes from, and I don’t think this is too much of a spoiler, an old Earth enemy reimagined for space. I guessed it was space Romans very early on but it’s always nice to get confirmation. It lends a sort of almost supernatural air to things. The art is coloured with blacks, whites, greys and purples which invokes, intentionally or not, that other Valiant hero Shadowman which is probably why I get the supernatural vibe.

The art overall feels like it has a mysterious, almost magical, feeling. It feels slightly blurred, giving a painting like impression. There’s a clear departure here from the art of the previous run that was much more in keeping with the usual Valiant house style. This art feels more experimental, reflecting the strange space setting with bold use of colours. There’s the blacks, white and greys in some panels with liberal use of reds and oranges in others, the ones that focus on Aric. The planet that Aric and Shanhara land on is white, cold and generally inhospitable. The art underlines the bleakness of the situation and Aric’s general mood.

In fact the mood generally is well expressed with both the colouring and the choice of panels, some of which are small and keep things tight, contrasting with larger panels that give more scope. There’s diagonal panels giving glimpses of Aric’s past and panels which break up larger images. It flows nicely and does work well to reflect the different moods and feelings of the characters, especially Aric. There’s also solid designs of alien creatures, which is always a bonus.

This book was delayed from last year and was the wait worth it? Well mostly yes. It’s not my favourite X-O but we are only one issue in. There’s been some really strong X-O Manowar books stretching right back to 2012 and Robert Vendetti’s run. This is a solid take on the character and one that holds a lot of potential. It’s drawing on some of the classic X-O history and tropes and very much understands both those things. I’m looking forward to more and hopeful of what we’ll see in future issues.

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