Welcome back to The Valiant Tangent, the longest running column whose goal it is to chronicle some of the stories and characters of Valiant Comics and the things that made them not only cool, but some of the greatest of all time. This article marks a new direction for the Tangent as we begin to explore some of Valiant’s other well-known character creations. This article we’ll start to examine Valiant’s armored barbarian, X-O Manowar. Whereas Solar deals with theology in the nuclear age, and Magnus is science fiction politics, X-O Manowar is a straight-up, in-your-face, balls-to-the-wall, brutal, high-energy action comic.
And holy shit, it is awesome.
First, just a few things before we get into the actual story. I grew up as a Marvel kid. When I first started reading comics I lived, breathed, ate, slept and dreamt Marvel. To me, their characters were the “real” ones, and the universe they lived in was equally real to me. So when new comic companies with new characters and locations started popping up, I always considered them to be secondary. (This was before I woke up and realized that a good story is a good story wherever it comes from, and that it’s not the characters that solely make good books.) My skepticism towards new comic universes went a step further, and I would always try to compare their new characters to my (at the time) beloved Marvel ones. Okay, so which guy is their “Wolverine”? Is this one supposed to be “Spidey”? Sometimes I’d throw in some DC characters, because let’s face it, every comics universe has to have their own “Superman,” right? And if there is a dark and brooding vigilante, well naturally that’s gotta be “Batman”. And the most obvious one of all would be if a new company created a hero that wore a suit of armor. Duh…only Iron Man can do that. Everyone else was just a copy. So when I first heard of X-O Manowar, of course I immediately thought that it was trying to be Iron Man. I soon came to realize that there were a lot of similarities. And it was because of those similarities that X-O soon became one of my favorite books ever, and made me never think to compare it to Iron Man again. Let me explain.
I love Iron Man. LOVE it. It was one of my all-time favorite comics and one of my top 3 favorite characters ever. Maybe one day I’ll tell you who the other 2 are. Iron Man #225 – 237 (“Armor Wars”) is, in my opinion, the greatest Iron Man storyline ever (it’s probably no coincidence that it also features the greatest armor ever– the red and white Silver Centurion armor). Part of what made this story so special was the love and care of the characters shown by the creators, David Michilinie, Mark Bright and Bob Layton. As any true Iron Man fan knows, Michilinie and Layton are pretty much synonymous with the character. I soon learned that I would read whatever these guys put out, no matter what it was. How fitting then, that I later discovered that Bob Layton was one of the founding fathers of Valiant. Not only that, but X-O was one of his creations! Suddenly this Iron Man rip-off didn’t seem like so much of a rip-off. I decided to give it a chance. Yes, the main character wears a suit of battle armor that has many offensive and defensive capabilities. Yes, he flies. Yes, he is the head of a worldwide company. But the similarities end there. Trust me when I say that this is completely different from Iron Man. But at the same time, it is just as good, and in many ways, even better. Bob Layton certainly had a lot to do with that. You can see the love that he has for this character, and for Iron Man as well. X-O in no way diminishes the greatness that was Iron Man back in the day. There is plenty of room to love both armored heroes. I know I do. And hopefully, you’ll learn to also.
We’re almost ready to dive into this series, but before that I want to give you a heads up as to what to expect and as to the part that this comic plays in the tapestry that is the Valiant Universe. During the course of these first issues, you’ll be introduced to the first alien species of Valiant Comics. There will also be a mini-crossover (2 pages, in fact) with a character that we’ve spent a lot of time talking about. You’ll also see the hidden first appearance of a future Valiant hero. Some of the characters you’ll meet will seem very familiar, and others you’ll get to know in even greater detail in future columns. And of course, X-O Manowar is very closely tied to the other comics that we’ve discussed in previous columns. As to just how…well, wait and see. It might surprise you.
And with that, let’s start this thing!
X-O Manowar #1
Written by Jim Shooter and Steve Englehart, Penciled by Barry Windsor-Smith, Inked by Bob Layton and John Holdredge, Colored by Jorge Gonzalez
As soon as you open the comic and look at the first page you know that you are in for one hell of a ride. This could be, in my opinion, one of the greatest splash pages of all time. (In fact, it might be the best. But that’s just me. What do you think? Drop me a line and let me know your favorites.) We are immediately thrust into the action. The page shows a long-haired naked bearded man holding some sort of vaguely ax-looking blunt metal object in his raised hand. In his other hand he holds the head of what looks to be a gigantic spider wearing goggles. Around him are more of these spider-creatures, and one of them has a futuristic-looking gun aimed at the nude man. The man seems to be beating the spider in his hand with the metal object. There are three quick captions, and they read, “This time, I have a thing to break the hard-skins with! This time, their juice flows–! This time, I will kill them all!”
Welcome to the party, pal.
The human throws his weapon at the spider with the gun, piercing its flesh and killing it. The human, in captions, says that, “they fear to make fire-light, lest they harm their house, but I have harmed it!” Fire-light in this case means lasers. The human’s name is Aric, and he is the hero of our story. Apparently, these spiders have been feasting on Aric’s blood, what he calls “juices.” But now that he tore loose the metal object, Aric has spilled the spider’s juices. In English, that means he made them bleed. But Aric will not drink their blood. He is not like them. He looks at his hand, and we see that a crude map has been carved into his flesh. The next panel cuts to an exterior shot. We are in space with the Earth below us, and there are large oval shaped spaceships in orbit. Aric, it seems, is on one of these ships! Cut back to Aric climbing through passageways and tubes. He is looking for something, something that will give him, as he calls it, a hard skin like the spiders. The blood of his opponents dries into a hard crust on his flesh, almost like a second skin, and Aric loves it. It certainly seems that Aric is a hunter by nature. He thinks in basic terms, and is, for all intents and purposes, a barbarian.
Finally Aric gets to his destination and finds what he has been seeking. To us, it looks like a metal helmet with a matching vest plus two metal gloves that are stuck to the wall. Surely this can’t be what he needs. It won’t cover his body, and it is too heavy an object to wield in battle. Suddenly a spider appears, or as Aric calls them, “a Hard-Skin.” (Incidentally, allow me to introduce Valiant’s first alien species, the Spider-Aliens. You’ll be seeing a lot more of them soon, most notably in the next few issues of Solar.) With nowhere to run, and nothing to fight with, Aric is trapped. He remembers that the person that carved the map into his hand, the “Map-Giver”, told him to find a ring and pull it loose. Aric sees a ring sticking out of the metal vest and pulls it free. Immediately the metal pieces start to cover Aric, the gloves going onto his hands, the helmet covering his head, boots appearing and sliding onto his feet, and the vest itself folding over his back and covering his torso.
Metal strips appear between the boots and gloves and the vest, effectively covering every part of Aric’s body with metal. The boots, gloves and torso are solid metal, but his arms and legs are molded to resemble muscles. Imagine those images of the human body from biology class. Take off the top layer of skin and you see muscles that look like they are in strips over your bones. That is what the Aric’s armor looks like. The Spider-Aliens start firing their weapons at Aric, making him think that what he found must be important if the aliens are willing to risk shooting in an enclosed space. He thinks that it must be a “good skin.” The lasers bounce off of Aric’s new armor, and he wonders if lasers would bounce off of their skin. At once Aric’s armor shoots energy beams from its gauntlets, blowing a huge hole in the side of the spaceship and sucking out dead Spider-Aliens at the same time. Aric looks at his glove with wonder, deciding that this indeed is a “good skin.”
Aric goes through the hold that he just created. He is now in space looking down at the Earth! It doesn’t scare him. He merely thinks that the outside looks different than he remembers. Suddenly, the ship (what he calls the “house”) makes more fire-light at him. He wants to go to the “fangs” that are shooting at him, and the armor responds by flying him to them so he can tear them loose. This causes a huge explosion that destroys the ship and sends Aric hurtling towards the Earth. Finally, he lands in a bank of snow, completely protected from reentry by the armor that he wears. Happy that he destroyed the aliens, he takes the armor off and starts to walk away, hoping to find civilization. We next see Aric walking into a village in the tropics. He sees villagers and notices that they are soft-skins, but they are not like him. They chatter in a language that he does not understand, but he will take their food and kill them if they do not run away. But they don’t run away. In fact, they bring him more food, and seem to treat him with respect.
A quick sidebar. That was an awesome opening sequence. This entire issue is probably one of the most cinematic comics I have ever read. I can easily see this on the big screen as the opening to a huge summer blockbuster. It doesn’t hurt that Barry Windsor-Smith is the artist, either. Anyway, back to the story.
The next scene takes place in the Chrysler Building in New York City. Three really creepy looking people (one female and two males) discuss the destruction of their “ship” as well as their “fleet.” It seems that these people are, at the very least, working for the Spider-Aliens. But why are their fingers so long? And why do they look so sinister? The destruction of the ship has stranded them on Earth. On the positive side, they have tracked the X-O armor to Peru, where it landed while being worn by Aric, whom they call the “primitive.” The female says, “The primitive has the ring…so he controls the X-O.” But the other males in the room feel that he does not have the brains to fully comprehend the power that he wields.
Cut back to Aric in what we now know to be Peru. He is dressed in the clothes of the villagers and has taken to some of them. He is picking bananas when a woman and a small boy walk up to speak with him. They speak to him in Spanish, and to Aric it sounds like “spring thawed brooks.” The woman hands him something to drink, and it is here when we see Aric actually speak. He uses a very rudimentary and phonetic version of Spanish, and his “gracias, Maria” comes out as “Grrha-sis, M’rrha!” Another interesting point to be made is that when the Peruvians are speaking, we read it as Spanish. Typically in comics, if a character is speaking in another language, it is written in English, and there is a small editor’s note saying that the word balloons are translated from whatever language they are speaking in. But in Valiant, what you see is what you get. The characters are speaking Spanish, and that is how Aric hears them, so our mind’s ear should hear them exactly how Aric does. It’s just another way to relate more to Aric, so we know exactly what he is experiencing. There is a minor exception to this, and we’ll get to that in just a moment.
So Maria and Aric have a moment together, and Aric wonders how long it has been since he has known the love of a woman. Just then a jeep pulls up and one of the villagers offers Aric a ride to the city. Viaje is a word that Aric understands to mean “trek,” and Aric hopes that this “trek” will help him find a wizard to tell him where he is and how he can get home. As Aric rides away, the young boy motions for Maria to look to the sky as some sort of flying machines that resemble helicopters appear on the horizon. Surely there can be nothing evil about that…
When next we see Aric, he is walking through another part of the village when the young boy that was with Maria comes running towards him, shouting his name. Aric grabs the child and asks him “Kay ess?”–another of Aric’s phonetic use of Spanish. The kid tells him, in Spanish, about the helicopters that came from the sky and killed everyone. Aric doesn’t understand the words, but he gets the meaning–something bad has happened. He runs back towards Maria’s village with one thing on his mind–hard-skins! Somehow the Spider-Aliens must be part of this. When Aric returns to the village, he sees the corpses of the townspeople scattered all over the place. They look hollow and frail, something that Aric has seen before. These villagers were sucked dry by the Spider-Aliens. Aric blames himself for not protecting these people when the aliens attacked and gets an even bigger shock when he sees Maria’s severed head stuck on top of a stick in the ground. In her hair is something that Aric recognizes: a small metal piece that he has seen before in the Spider-Aliens’ ship. The object starts to make noise, and a voice comes out of it. It is some sort of transmitter, and it speaks to Aric in his own language. This is the minor exception I referred to earlier about how language is represented in this comic. This particular word balloon is written in English, but to Aric it sounds exactly like his own language, whatever that might be. Incidentally, just from the way Aric looks, he’s probably Nordic, or German. Imagine a grungy looking Thor with a beard and you’ve got it. Anyway, the voice tells Aric that whoever killed the villagers has the X-O armor. They want Aric to leave the ring where he is and walk away in order to save his friends from further harm. Aric may be primitive, but he is smart enough to know that the aliens, the hard-skins, fear Aric, because they threaten him instead of trying to kill him. They fear the ring that he wears. He knows that the ring is part of the good-skin. The ring communicates with Aric in some sort of nonverbal mental way, and it tells Aric where the good-skin is…somewhere north of where Aric is currently located. With revenge on his mind, Aric starts walking north.
Let’s take a time out to review what we know about the X-O armor. Not much, actually. We know that it is very powerful, it can fly, a ring controls it, and that it somehow communicates with its owner in a telepathic fashion. Pretty soon we’ll learn a lot more about the armor, and believe me when I say it is the furthest thing from Iron Man that you can think of. Where did it come from? What are its full capabilities? How is it powered? Can anyone use it? All of these questions will be answered in time. For now, just know that Aric wears the control ring, and wants the armor back.
The next scene is in Northampton, Massachusetts. The vaguely human-looking beings from the Chrysler Building are walking through a warehouse. The female’s name is Lydia, and she is talking with one of the males that were in New York with her. They are discussing Aric and the armor, and the male seems worried. Lydia tries to calm him by saying that Aric, or the “barbarian,” is stupid, even by Earth standards. There is no way that he can walk to Massachusetts from Peru. The male maintains that Aric has tasted the power of the X-O armor, and will stop at nothing to get it back. We see that they actually do have the armor itself in some sort of stasis field in the warehouse. He mentions that the armor fights to be free and to join the person with the control ring.
Back in Peru, Aric has spotted the Spider-Alien troops that destroyed his village. He sheds his clothing for extra speed and maneuverability, and steals a laser gun from one of the aliens. He hates the gun, but he figures that “if they make fire-light for the hard-skins, then they’ll make fire-light” for him too. He starts to wipe out the spider-like officers. After finding some larger, more destructive weapons, Aric destroys more helicopters and many more Spider-Aliens.
After the carnage he wanders into another village, this one a little more city-like than the last one. Two hookers try to get his attention from a balcony. One of them, a blond white chick, speaks German (and the balloon is in German), and Aric notices that she speaks in a language that is much like the sounds of home.
Okay, so Aric is originally from Germany, or somewhere close to that country. By the way, Aric is still walking around naked with a laser rifle slung across his back. It’s just funny that our hero is barely clothed throughout much of this book.
As he’s listening to the women a Spider-Alien attacks him! They start to grapple, and the alien sinks its teeth into Aric’s shoulder, but this alien isn’t one of the poison spiders. Aric grabs the alien’s head that is clamped on his shoulder and twists its neck, killing it instantly. Aric turns when he hears a voice, and we see a short thin man watching the action. He seems to be applauding and then goes over to Aric to check his wounds.
Allow me to introduce the next major character in this series. His name is Ken Clarkson, and we’ll be learning a lot about him as the series continues.
Ken ushers Aric into his bungalow and puts him in a bath to clean him up. It is clear that Ken finds Aric very attractive, and not-so-subtlety tries to get Aric to join him in his own bed. Naturally, Aric doesn’t understand a word of what Ken says, but he understands that Ken wants to help him. Aric thinks that Ken is a wizard and will help him find the armor. The next day, Ken realizes that someone is after Aric, so he shaves Aric’s beard off, buys him a suit, and then they both fly out of the country in a commercial jet. Aric trusts Ken, but even still, when Ken notices Aric’s ring and tries to touch it, Aric smacks Ken’s hand away. No one touches the ring except for Aric.
Once the plane lands in New York, Ken slips away to make a brief phone call. He calls Lydia and her cohorts! Ken is working for them and betrayed Aric! He must be leading Aric into a trap! He starts to steer Aric towards a car, but Aric wants to go north, because the ring is telling him that is where the armor is. He grabs Ken and thanks him for helping Aric get this far. With only a knowledge of very rudimentary Spanish, Aric grabs Ken in a bear hug and says, “Grhha-sis, Mee-go!” I’ll let you figure out what that means.
Ken then starts explaining to Aric why he is doing what he is doing, trying his best to justify his actions to himself. But it turns out that Ken has a conscience, and as he leads Aric out into a parking area he tells him to run, and that he is walking into a trap! Suddenly, we see Spider-Aliens all over the place. They realize that Ken has betrayed them and start shooting at both Ken and Aric. One of the lasers hits Ken in his left arm and severs it at the elbow! By the way, this is a really bloody and graphic comic. There will be body parts, blood, organs, bones, and all sorts of other gross things. It’s really cool!
Anyway, Aric drags Ken to safety and then runs towards the aliens. He stops in front of what seems to be gasoline trucks. The Spider-Aliens are riding these vehicles with guns on top, kind of like tanks, but with lasers and other alien technology coming out of them. They start firing, and a shot hits the gasoline truck, and it explodes right behind Aric! Aric survived the blast, but he is trapped under the wreckage of the truck. He still hears the voice in his head say “north”, but he is trapped. He wonders if the good-skin can hear him like he hears it. He lifts the ring to his mouth and shouts, “vi-a-je!” Cut to a shot of the X-O armor in Massachusetts, and the armor starts to break out of its stasis field! It curls up into itself and becomes a large metal sphere, probably around the size of those Pilates balls that you see in gyms. It bursts out of the warehouse that it was being held in and quickly flies towards New York, and more specifically, towards Aric.
I want to discuss something that might seem minor to some, but, at this point in the story, it is huge–the lettering. When the armor flies to New York, the panels have captions of Aric’s thoughts. He says, “The voice in my head! It no longer whispers ‘north!’ I can hear it clearly now–crying ‘yes! Yes! YES!‘”Each “yes” is in its own separate caption box, and the font gets bigger with each one. It’s as if you can almost hear Aric shouting the word in excitement. I mentioned earlier that this issue is extremely cinematic, and this is just another way that this is illustrated. It’s a full-senses comic. We see the beautiful art, we hear (in our mind’s ear) the sounds, especially when we read captions like this. And here is an interesting fact: Valiant comics smell good. There, I said it. Maybe it’s the paper they were printed on, or the ink that was used, but the comics had a distinctive smell to them, one that I always associated with these good comics.
Okay, so maybe I’m a freak for smelling comics. Like you’ve never done it.
Anyway, the armor flies to where Aric is trapped under the truck, and it smashes everything in its path. It finally reaches Aric, and we are then treated to a huge panel of the armor enveloping him as he prepares to kick Spider-Alien ass.
Once Aric is in the armor, the fight isn’t even fair anymore. He flies towards the tank-like machine and rips the guns right off of it. He sees an alien sitting at the controls, and when he hears its voice, Aric recognizes that it is the same voice that came from the piece of metal in Maria’s hair. This is the alien that killed her and drank her blood! In a violent two-page battle, Aric destroys parts of the machine and finally gets to the driver inside. He yanks the driver out, and with his armor-covers hands, Aric literally squeezes the life, and the “juice”, out of the now very much dead Spider-Alien. The actual squeezing death takes place over four panels, with each one containing the word “Die!” in a caption that grows in font as the alien gets closer to death.
The alien forces have been utterly destroyed by Aric, a barbarian with high-tech armor. Lydia and her alien allies know that something must be done, and they now truly fear what they mistakenly referred to as “the primitive.”
Aric goes to Ken and comforts him. Now that Aric has avenged both Ken and Maria, he can try and find Ken a healer for his injured arm. Finally, Aric knows that he can never again be without the armor. It is his new skin, his second skin, his good-skin, and they will never be apart from one another again.
And there you have the first issue of this intense action comic. Where do we go from here? What’s next? Well, we still have a lot to learn about the armor and about Aric himself. Will he always be just a “dumb” barbarian? Will he learn English? What about Lydia? How does X-O fit in with the rest of the Valiant Universe? What role will Ken play? Some of these questions will be answered in the next article.
I hope you enjoyed this trip down memory lane, and I hope that you enjoyed X-O too. Join us next time as we flesh out X-O’s origin a bit more. There will be lots more gore, lots of violence, and lots more of this cool-looking armor.
Thanks for reading!