The Valiant Tangent — X-O Manowar #1-4 (Retribution, Part 3)

Welcome back to The Valiant Tangent, the articles whose goal 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. We are continuing our close examination of the first four issues of Valiant’s armored hero, X-O Manowar. This column will take a look at issue #3, so if you didn’t read the previous two columns, do so now! Just click the links on the left side of the page. If you did read the last two columns, then let’s move onward!

As we recounted in the last column, issue #2 saw Aric destroy scores of Spider-Aliens before taking over their New York headquarters and gaining control of their computer systems. The issue ended with Aric, wearing the X-O Manowar armor, plugged into the Spider-Alien’s computer network while his partner Ken proclaimed victory of the aliens. What exactly did they win? What happened next? What does it all mean? Today’s column will answer those questions. X-O Manowar #3 also includes many “firsts” for this column. It will be the first time that X-O will fight an opponent that is not a Spider-Alien. It will also be the first intercompany Valiant Universe crossover of sorts between two major characters. As we continue this column and get deeper into the many storylines and characters that made Valiant so special, you’ll begin to see how everything connects with everything else. Valiant truly had a richness about it that came from the characters and stories, and how closely tied together everything was. With this column about X-O #3, I think you’ll begin to see exactly what I mean.

Ready? You better be.

X-O Manowar #3

Written by Jim Shooter and Steve Englehart, Penciled by Sal Velluto, Inked by Tom Ryder with Ted Halsted, Colored by Jorge González

The issue opens with a barely clothed Aric crouched on the floor in the fake throne room at the top of the Chrysler Building, munching on a turkey drumstick and reading a children’s book of basic words like “Cat” and “Dog.” The window next to him is broken and snow is blowing into the room, dusting the floor around him as the snow sticks. This is the room where Aric fought Lydia last issue, where the Spider-Aliens pretended that it was a throne room in a large palace. Since Aric defeated the aliens, he has now taken over their headquarters.

Aric is reading the book because Ken wants him to learn English. Speaking of Ken, we see him in another office of the Chrysler Building being examined by a doctor, specifically checking on his wounded arm. Let’s not forget that in the first issue of X-O Manowar, Ken’s arm was severed at the elbow by a laser gunshot by a Spider-Alien. The doctor tells Ken that his wound is healing nicely. The story that Ken told the doctor was that he accidentally stumbled into a laser at a factory. The doctor told him that, if you had to lose an arm, that would be the way to do it; the wound was nearly cauterized so the bleeding was minimal. We learn that Ken flew the doctor in from Boston because he was a specialist, and that as the new CEO of Orb Industries, he only wants the best. The doctor asks what Orb Industries actually does. He’s heard of it, but he is not sure what kind of business they are in. Ken tells him that his boss wants it that way. His boss, naturally, is Aric. You see, the Spider-Aliens created Orb Industries to be an international company to be used as a front for their activities on Earth. Now that Aric and Ken have control of Orb’s computers files and assets, they own Orb Industries completely. And since the world at large never knew quite who was behind the company, it was easy enough for Aric and Ken to take control. Essentially, what this means is that one of the richest and most powerful men in the world is a Visigoth from 2,000 years ago that can’t read or speak English—and that has control of one of the most powerful weapons in the known universe, the X-O Manowar armor.

Let’s acknowledge something here, something that you might already have noticed. Yes, Aric has a suit of armor and is now the head of a multibillion-dollar corporation. Sound familiar? Of course it does, but as we already know, X-O Manowar was partially created by Bob Layton, so any and all similarities to Iron Man are merely nods of appreciation. Believe me, Aric is completely different from Tony Stark, and Orb Industries is no Stark Enterprises. It’s fun to notice the similarities between the two characters, but it’s even more fun to notice the differences, and there sure are lots of those.

Ken walks into Aric’s new office to find Aric very frustrated. The children’s book has been thrown aside and Aric sits on the throne like a petulant child. It’s interesting to note that Aric is now speaking English (to a degree). He’s speaking like someone who is just learning a language, and he can get his points across, but his grammar and sentence structure is very childlike. Nonetheless it’s a marked improvement for someone who couldn’t speak the language at all weeks earlier. He’s learning incredibly fast. How far will his learning take him? Hmmm…interesting question. Anyway, Ken tries to calm Aric down by telling him (and the readers) exactly what is happening. The aliens were defeated and Ken and Arc are in charge. Aric wants to leave and find his home, but Ken tells him that his home doesn’t exist anymore. Naturally Aric doesn’t understand much of what Ken is telling him, but then again, how can you try to explain to someone who is basically a barbarian that they were abducted from Earth thousands of years ago by space-faring Spider-Aliens, and are now in control of a powerful suit of alien armor, as well as a multibillion dollar corporation? You try it one day and see how successful you are.

The next scene takes us away from New York and reintroduces us to someone who we’ve met before, but not in an X-O Manowar comic. It’s Toyo Harada, the man with highly powerful and dangerous mental abilities, last seen in Solar: Man of the Atom #3.Last we saw of him, Harada was seemingly blown up when his private jet crashed after a battle with Solar. But he survived, and here he is.

By the way, remember when I wrote earlier that this issue has the first Valiant intercompany crossover? Well, this isn’t it. Hold tight.

Harada is in his office reading a file called “The Sniper Project.” On a computer screen, we read that the project was initiated in Russia in 1970 and was designed to implant weapons on parts of the human body. The first subject died after a bionic malfunction, but the second (and current) subject lived and ultimately left the U.S.S.R. after Communism fell. The Soviets have no knowledge of his whereabouts, but Toyo Harada and his Harbinger Foundation do. He’s right outside Harada’s office, waiting to come in. It seems that Harada requested that this man meet him. As we saw in the Solar issue, Harada believes that he is mankind’s protector. Because of his virtually limitless resources with the Harbinger Foundation, as well as his mental powers, Harada knows that Spider-Aliens are on Earth, and that just isn’t acceptable to him. So he hired this Russian soldier (we’ll call him Sniper, but we’ll talk about that name in a moment) to go to New York and remove the alien threat. The fee is one million dollars.

Now, about that name. Originally, the Russian opponent was called “X-Caliber,” but his name was changed in the trade paperback to “Sniper” because, I guess, of some legal conflicts with Marvel at the time. This book came out in the early nineties, when just about every second or third title published by Marvel had an “X” prefix. The problem is that in some of the panels in the trade paperback, the word “X-Caliber” still appears. So we’ll be using “Sniper” and “X-Caliber” interchangeably.

Before Harada sends Sniper on his way, he asks to see his arms. Sniper rolls up his sleeves and shows Harada his bionic implants. He removes some sort of gun barrel from his backpack and attaches it to his arm, then demonstrates his weapons firepower in front of Harada. Apparently, Sniper can attach different weapons to his arms and use them interchangeably. It sure beats having to carry lots of heavy weapons around when all you have to do is carry little parts of each. Essentially, his body is the weapon. Harada truly believes that what he is doing is right. Is he really a villain? It’s hard to say. As we’ll see when we get further into his role in Aric’s life, Harada doesn’t appear as completely villainous as we might expect (but believe me, he’s no angel).

Back in New York, we see the X-O armor floating in Aric’s office in the Chrysler Building (which is what it does when Aric is not wearing it). Suddenly, a strange visitor flies through the window in a burst of colored light…he wears a red jumpsuit with a fallout shelter insignia on his chest, and he sports a visor like the X-Men’s Cyclops…it’s Solar, Man of the Atom! Yes, this is the crossover I was talking about. Solar flies to the X-O armor and has only just touched it when Aric bursts into the room. Aric shouts, “What you DO?!!” Solar introduces himself and tells Aric that the armor told him all about who Aric was and what he has been up to. Apparently, Solar chased the alien fleet into space and has been gone for a while, but he is pleased that Aric took care of the aliens on Earth while Solar was away. (The story of Solar flying out into space and fighting the aliens will be touched upon in greater detail when we get back to looking at more issues of his own comic.) Solar then excuses himself and flies off to learn more about what has been happening since he left to fight the aliens (which is about a month). Aric, not fully understanding who or what Solar is, puts on the armor and tries to chase after him. Aric thinks that Solar is a wizard, and since Aric is now Emperor of his castle, he thinks that Solar should be subservient to him. Exiting through a window, Aric flies over New York City to find Solar.

As has been mentioned before, when Aric flies in the X-O armor, he doesn’t do so like a stereotypical superhero would, that is flying horizontally with his arms outstretched in front of him. Instead, he is vertical, and is moving forward as if he was on a moving sidewalk at an airport. His arms are hanging comfortably at his sides, and he merely moves forward. Again, this is to differentiate Valiant comics from any others that you have read. Forget what you know about superheroes and villains and the world that they live in…Valiant is something new and unexpected, and was a breath of fresh air when the comics were first published.

As he flies over the city, Aric realizes that finding a wizard like Solar will be difficult because of the sheer size of the land. He notices Central Park and decides to land there because it reminds him of home—the open area, the trees and dirt under his feet are exactly what Aric needs. He takes off the armor and happily runs around in the snow. Unbeknownst to him, a street gang is watching him, thinking that the man wearing nothing but underwear is an easy target. They surround Aric, most of them wielding bats, knives and chains. Aric realizes that he is surrounded, and a smile breaks out on his lips. Finally, a fight where he can battle like a man, with no weapons except his own body.

The next couple of pages are of Aric single-handedly fighting and defeating the entire gang. He grabs their knives and uses their own weapons against them. They try to run away, but at the end of the fight they are all lying in pools of their own blood. They have been beaten, stabbed, sliced and humiliated. Aric triumphantly stands above them before putting on the armor to head home.

Once airborne, Aric wants the armor (or as he calls it, the “good skin) to take him back to the Chrysler Building, since he doesn’t know which building it is. Suddenly Aric is struck in midair by what appears to be bullets, which cause him to spin out of control and start to fall towards the ground! He commands the armor to stop falling and floats in midair trying to figure out what has happened.

Another interesting thing to note, and something that has been brought up in previous columns, is that when bullets hit Aric, there was no written sound effect. The only reason we know that something happened was because we saw something hit the armor in a few places. There was no “POW” or “KRAK” to let us know that a gun was fired. Again, these are not the comics that we grew up on, and the creators want us to use our imagination more than ever before. The reason why the writer didn’t include a sound effect was because in the “real” world, there are no sound effects. It’s almost as if reading a Valiant comics was supposed to be just like looking at something happening outside of your window. Sure, there are sounds, but you don’t see big letters appear in front of you when they occur. The sound is completely in your own mind. It sounds exactly like you think it does.

Aric thinks that his enemies form Central Park must be back, so he lands on the street to face them. But his shooter is no street thug—it’s Sniper! When he sees Aric, he says, “You are not what I expected, my friend, but there cannot be two flying men around the Chrysler Building!” Apparently, Harada told Sniper that his target in New York was a flying individual at that location. Sniper raises his bionic arms and starts firing at Aric. The bullets are very powerful and cause Aric to crash through the side of a building behind him.

At the same time, back in Tokyo, Harada is using his powers to see how the battle goes. Sniper (or X-Caliber, as he calls him in this panel) was only used so Harada can scout the alien’s headquarters through Sniper’s eyes, but Harada seems genuinely surprised that Sniper is fighting a man, and not a Spider-Alien. He wonders how much more he does not know about the situation.

Back in New York, Aric begins to fight back. He rushes Sniper and starts pummeling him. While they are fighting, Aric yells at Sniper using the only insulting words he knows. He shouts, “You a dog! You a cat!” I love those small bits of humor. So the battle continues and it seems they are evenly matched. Sniper shoots more firepower at Aric, and Aric responds by shooting his lasers. However, Sniper’s suit is made of protective material that repels even Aric’s lasers. The bullets start flying again, but this time the stray shots are ricocheting and hitting innocent bystanders! Ken, having run to the street after seeing Aric fighting from his office window, shouts at Aric to get his attention so he can see the pedestrians getting hurt. Aric sees them falling down and hovers in front of Sniper. He points to Central Park and says, “Trees! Come!” He wants to take the fight to where no one else can get hurt. At that moment, Harada, in Japan, is stunned. “My God,” he thinks. “That was not the act of an alien!” Sniper, not really understanding what Aric wants, starts to shoot even more firepower at Aric. The bullets are more of an annoyance to Aric, not really hurting him, but making it difficult to control the armor and get in a good punch. Sniper reaches into his backpack and takes out a small missile that he attaches to his arm. He calls it his ultimate weapon and fires point-blank right at Aric’s head!

After the dust settles, Aric is still alive, but part of the X-O armor was destroyed in the explosion! Small bits of Aric’s helmet crumble off and fall to the ground. Aric, now completely incensed that the good skin is broken, lunges at Sniper and grabs his arms. Aric covers the guns, but Sniper realizes that he must shoot for the sake of humanity. If he fires at this close of a range and the armor doesn’t give, he dies. But if he doesn’t try, the world dies (at least that is what he believes because Harada told him that he is fighting beings bent on world domination). He gives it a chance and fires, but the X-O armor is much stronger than he thought. Sniper’s own bionic arms explode in his face, and the Russian soldier is down for the count.

Aric, triumphant and not ready to end the fight, stands about Sniper, trying to goad him into getting up for more punishment. Sniper, meanwhile, is on the ground screaming in pain, not really able to get up even if he wanted to. Ken runs over to Aric and motions to him that Aric should carry him up and away form the scene. Ken doesn’t want people to see their faces, and decides to stay away from the Chrysler Building until dark, then sneak back in Aric’s broken window. Aric, meanwhile, wonders if the good skin is permanently injured. He and Ken fly away form the scene of the battle.

Over in Japan, Harada decides that there is too much about the situation that he doesn’t know, and that he must personally involve himself in these matters. He wasn’t expecting Aric to appear, and had no knowledge that he even existed. He stares out of his window and prepares to come to America.

And that is how this issue ends, with our hero slightly busted up and a major possible villain ready to make his presence known to Aric. What happens now? Will Harada fight Aric? Is the good skin broken? How will Aric fix it? Can he? What next?!

Stay tuned and be sure to check out our next column, where the answer to these and many other questions will be answered. Next issue, Harada meets Aric, and we, the readers, are introduced to a couple of awesome things. First, we have the first appearance of a future Valiant comics star. Secondly, we’ll meet a certain group of kids that have some pretty fantastic powers. They will star in their own book as well, but next issue they are going to give Aric trouble in a way only they know how. They are the kids from Harbinger, and I guarantee that you will love them.

Until next time, take care, and keep reading those comics!

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Stephen Pakula lives in the Bronx.

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