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

Welcome back to The Valiant Tangent, the articles 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. I hope you all had a great 4th of July with lots of burgers, hot dogs and beer. We are finally wrapping up our examination of the first four issues of X-O Manowar. As always, let me remind you that if you did not read the previous columns (or if you want to go back and re-familiarize yourself with characters and storylines) you can always click on the links on the left side of this page. We’re going to jump right into this issue, so if you have any questions, hold them until the end or check out some of the older columns. Ready? Let’s hit it.

Last time, we thoroughly looked at issue #3, where Aric, our armored hero, was brutally attacked by Sniper, a super-powered assassin hired by Toyo Harada. During the course of the battle, the X-O armor was injured, and parts of the helmet broke off, much to the surprise and dismay of Aric. Despite this setback, Aric prevailed, and Sniper was incapacitated. This month’s column is all about issue #4, the final issue in the first X-O Manowar storyline, “Retribution.”

Lots of interesting (and very important) things happen in this issue. Probably the most important is that we’ll be getting our first glimpse of the super-powered group of teenagers that we’ll soon know as Harbinger. Another exciting thing is that we will see the first appearance of a future Valiant Comics superhero, one that we’ll discuss in more detail somewhere down the road. More on that in a bit…

Hang on tight; we’re about to take off.

X-O Manowar #4

Written by Steve Englehart and Bob Layton, Penciled by Mike Manley, Inked by Ralph Reese and Tom Ryder, Colored by Jorge González and Paul Autio

Just like last time, the issue opens with Aric sitting on his throne in an office, high up in the Chrysler Building. The window is still broken form a previous battle, and snow is piled high on the floor. Ken, Aric’s partner and somewhat-guide to the modern world, is reading from a folder. The folder is filled with information about Toyo Harada, the man that sent Sniper to kill Aric last issue. (He is also the man that tried to kill Solar, and if you click one of the “Solar” column links on the left, you can read all about that too.) This scene’s main purpose is to bring the reader up to speed about what has gone on before in the comic. It’s basic exposition, but (as is usually the case with Valiant Comics) it is done in such a way that it doesn’t seem boring. I mean let’s face it, exposition is when we, as readers, are given information that we need to know about the story in order for us to fully understand and enjoy it. And that’s an important thing. Every issue is potentially someone’s first comic, and there should be enough information in it for anyone to understand right away. Some creators might balk at the idea of adding exposition, claiming that it takes up space that could be better used to move the story forward. I can see where they are coming from, but that is why Valiant’s exposition works—because it is creative. If a writer can’t find a way to cleverly include exposition, then he or she really needs to work on their creativity a little more. Typically, these scenes have people talking to one another, but in Valiant books, even talking-head scenes have a way of capturing our attention. In this case, it is when Aric tells Ken what he is thinking. What makes this somewhat special is that Aric is getting much better at speaking English. His sentence structure is awkward, and his grammar stinks, but we get the gist of what he is saying.

Anyway, Ken tells Aric what we already know. That Harada has been keeping tabs on the Spider-Aliens’ activities for a while, and sent Sniper to attack Aric because he thought that Aric was working for the aliens. Ken also sums up Harada nicely when he says, “He’s incredibly wealthy, incredibly powerful—involved in a vast pattern of behind-the-scenes manipulations on a global scale…he’s a world power.” As we’ll learn once we get deeper into the Valiant Universe, he is much more than that, but this is a good starting point when trying to understand Harada.

At that moment, a computer console in the office starts to buzz. On the screen pops a human face. He announces himself as Todd Bevins, Mr. Harada’s personal assistant. It seems that Harada has captured an alien communicator and figured that using it would be the easiest way to contact Aric and Ken. Bevins apologizes to Aric and Ken for the terrible misunderstanding that occurred with Sniper. He claims that Harada was unaware that Aric was not affiliated with the aliens and has taken steps to rectify the situation. The screen changes, and in place of Bevins we see Sniper being cared for by doctors. Bevins also says that Harada has provided health care to the victims of the battle, and family members of those that died have been generously compensated. Mr. Harada wants to meet Aric and Ken in person and discuss his view of global peace. He invites them to New Orleans, where they can discuss matters face to face while enjoying Mardi Gras. Before he signs off, Ken tells Bevins that they would get back to him with their decision. As soon as the communications line goes dead, Ken warns Aric that they are not ready to face Harada yet. He is too powerful and they need time to plan. Aric, however, feels that he is powerful too, and that if Ken will not join him, then Aric will go see “Em’prer Harada” himself. Ken reluctantly agrees to accompany Aric to New Orleans.

Okay, this is where it gets interesting, specifically when it comes to this column. Hovering outside the broken window of Aric’s office is a girl wearing a red spandex suit and cape. She has been listening to the entire conversation, and flies down to street level where four more people wait for her. There are three girls and two guys. They seem to be in their late teens to early twenties. One of the guys is tall and big, like a bodybuilder. Allow me to introduce you to Harbinger. And this is why it gets interesting: we will not go into great detail about these characters in this specific column. You’ll learn their names, and you’ll get an idea of what they can do, but that’s about it. We’re not going to spend too much time on them now because they will be the focus of our next few columns. For now, however, they will just be supporting characters in this tale, and you’ll learn about them as Aric learns about them. What he’ll know, you’ll know. And next column, it will all make sense.

So, back to the story. This flying girl (her name is Zephyr, by the way) confirms that Harada was involved in the incident that took place last issue. One of the boys tells the rest of the group that now is the time to strike at Harada. He wants to stop him before he becomes “dictator of the world…for our own good, of course.” The group of kids walks away, planning their next move.

The next scene takes us into a private jet chartered by Orb Industries. One of the perks of controlling a multi-billion dollar corporation is that you can fly first class whenever you want, which is exactly what Ken and Aric are doing on their trip to New Orleans. In fact, the X-O armor itself gets its own first class seat. Ken asks Aric about the armor and whether it was permanently damaged in the fight with Sniper. Aric tells him “Good skin ears fall off. Start growing new ears soon.” That’s a nice bit of information about that armor that we didn’t know before—it can regenerate. Does it have limits? What else can it do? Good questions, and ones that will definitely get answered… eventually.

So Aric and Ken land in New Orleans and immediately go to Harada’s office building. On the elevator ride up, there is a woman reading the newspaper in the background. The headline reads “Mysterious Killer Sought in French Quarter Knifings”. This has nothing to do with Aric and Ken, but it has a lot to do with another Valiant title that we’ll talk about in just moment. This one panel is a great example of how intertwined the stories and characters of the Valiant Universe are. More on that in a bit…

As they step into the office, they are greeted by Toyo Harada himself. One of Harada’s bodyguards tries to frisk Aric, which isn’t the greatest idea ever. Aric, you know, being a barbarian and all that, doesn’t like to be treated that way, so he starts to fight the guard. Harada steps in and tries to calm everyone down. He says that there has been too much fighting between them and that it must end. He starts to tell Aric about how he became aware of the aliens on Earth and started a campaign against them. He falsely thought Aric to be working with the aliens because of his armor, and for that he apologizes. He wants to know Aric’s involvement in all of this. Aric, much to Ken’s chagrin, decides to speak to Harada himself, even with his broken English. What follows are a couple of pages of Aric telling Harada everything that has happened to him up to that point in a way that only Aric can. Harada, for his part, understands Aric perfectly. Aric tells him that the aliens kidnapped him, but he found the armor (the “good skin”) and destroyed the aliens with it. Now Aric rules the “sky castle” that the aliens worked out of. He asks Harada if he understands. Harada replies with, “The spoils of your victory belong to you…as long as you do not oppose me.” Don’t you love thinly veiled threats? Ultimately, Harada and Aric reach an understanding, and they make peace between them. With business concluded, Harada suggests that they all go out on the town to experience Mardi Gras. Aric loves the idea and very much wants to find women.

They go to a jazz club where a talented young saxophone player is on stage. And in this one panel of the musician, we have an historic moment in Valiant history. The sax player, unnamed and never seen or brought up again in this issue, will become an incredibly important player in the Valiant Universe. This panel is the first appearance of the hero known as Shadowman.

Let me talk for a moment about the significance of this. You see, back in the day, Valiant had a way of making what was seemingly the most minor of events turn into things of great importance. For example, first appearances of characters. If you read some of my earlier columns you’ll notice I mention that almost every panel in every issue has some significance to other panels and other Valiant comics. In this case, the sax player becomes the star of his very own book (and we’ll discuss that book at some point down the road). There was a time when issues containing first appearances were worth a lot of money (depending on the character, of course). What made it even cooler was that unless you read all the Valiant books at the time, you’d never know that this one panel meant anything special at all. Not once is it advertised or hinted at that this character will become someone important. If it had been a Marvel book, you would have seen it plastered all over the cover and in numerous places in the book. “Next issue—the first appearance of a brand new hero!!!!!!!” Not so with Valiant. They don’t even mention it later on in the Shadowman book. Sure, they might reference the story with X-O, but it would be in context, and the reader would have to connect the two together. This subtlety is one of the main things that I love about Valiant. You will never see blurbs on covers or in letter pages stating, “This issue…a hero dies!!!!!!” It always makes me shake my head when I see stuff like that in solicitations for some of today’s comics. I understand that the publisher wants people to buy their books, and that it is a way to get people excited, but I don’t understand why they would reveal the things they do. If a character dies in a storyline and I’m expecting it and waiting for it to happen because I read that it would in a solicitation, how is that death supposed to have any significance or impact for me? I would much rather be surprised, wouldn’t you? Again, this boils down to creativity. And this goes to the editors or marketing people that write solicitations and cover copy—be creative! Don’t give away everything…save some surprises for us. Surprises—genuine ones that are really unexpected—are part of what I loved about comics as a kid, and still do. It’s rare to be surprised in this age of internet scoops and message boards, but every now and then it can be done. I just wish it were done more often.

Harada, Aric and Ken sit at a table and Harada orders a round of drinks. While Aric chugs his down, Harada secretly swallows a pill. Aric gets up to find the men’s room, and suddenly feels slow and disoriented. Apparently the drink was strong… too strong for Aric. The pill that Harada took countered the effects of the alcohol. When Aric returns, Harada takes him and Ken out onto Bourbon Street where they can experience more of the festivities. Suddenly, the Harbinger kids attack them!

Harada, retreating into the background, radios his men and tells them to close in on the kids, but not to fire until he gives the order. It certainly sounds like Harada knew the kids were there all along, and with his superior mental abilities that’s probably a sure thing. It also seems that he has used Aric as bait, because once Aric sees the kids attacking, of course he is going to retaliate. He’s a barbarian, after all. A drunken barbarian, at that. Aric jumps in front of Harada to protect him. The big strong looking guy form the Harbinger group easily knocks Aric away.

Before we get any further, here is a quick rundown of the Harbinger kids and their powers. Like I said earlier, we will go into great detail next column, but for now, this should be all you need to know. The big strong guy is Torque, and, naturally, he has super strength. The flying girl is Zephyr (or Zeppelin as her team sometimes calls her), and guess what…she flies! One of the other girls is called Flamingo, and she can create fire on her body and shoot it from her hands. Think the Human Torch but without being able to fly and not looking so “fiery.” The third girl is named Kris, and she is just a regular human. She has no powers. The final member of the team, and its leader, is called Sting. He has mental powers like telepathy and telekinesis, very similar to Harada’s in fact. He also happens to be my absolute favorite Valiant character ever, but more on that next issue.

Aric gets knocked down by Torque, so Ken opens the duffel bag that has the X-O armor in it. Once the armor is on him, Aric starts to feel much better and less drunk. As described before, the armor helps make Aric think clearer. Now fully armored, Aric jumps in the middle of the fight and does a good job of holding his own against the Harbinger kids. He starts kicking Torque’s ass, so Sting steps in to help. Aric shoots his lasers at Sting, but Sting easily blocks them with his mental powers. He then telekinetically lifts Aric so Zephyr can smash into him. Torque grabs Aric and throws him into a nearby house, smashing everything in his path.

Flamingo follows Aric into the house and gets surprised when Aric wrenches a water pipe free to douse her flames. The flames don’t go out, but now the area is covered with steam from the boiling water. Aric easily knocks Flamingo out and starts to beat on Torque again. Sting steps in again and tries to use his telepathic powers to get into Aric’s mind. His tampering makes the X-O armor sluggish, but Aric, strong willed as he is, manages to knock Sting out.

Knowing that they are losing the battle, Torque picks up Flamingo and Sting and carries them to a car where Kris is waiting. Zephyr grabs onto the top of the car and the kids make their escape. Harada’s forces want to give chase, but Harada tells them to stand down. He will get the Harbinger kids eventually, but for now their attack has served his purpose. He walks to Aric and expresses his gratitude for the protection that X-O gave him. He tells Aric that he is in Aric’s debt, and that he can be a powerful ally in the future.

Harada and his men take their leave, and Aric and Ken are left to their own devices. Ken decides to go back to New York, but Aric wants to enjoy New Orleans some more…especially the women. They go off separately and have their own fun.

So what have we learned? Well, for starters, an interesting relationship between Aric and Harada has begun to take shape. We’re still not entirely sure what Harada is up to, but we know that he is powerful, and not just in the superhuman sense of the word. We’ve met the Harbinger kids, and (at least based on this encounter with them) we’re not sure what their motives are, and if they are truly the “good guys.” What this issue does is set up some important relationships and storylines, and once we delve further into the Valiant stories, it will all become clear.

As always, thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed reading about X-O Manowar as much as I enjoyed writing about it. Next column, you are in for a treat when we look at Harbinger. It’s like X-Men, but with a Valiant twist to it. I promise you’ll dig it. I’ve always considered the first four issues of Harbinger to be some of the most well-written comics ever, and I highly recommend reading them, if you haven’t already.

Last column, I mentioned that this time we would be revealing the winner of the X-O Manowar fan art contest. Well, we are going to hold off on that for a little while longer because of some cool ideas that have been thrown around here in the Valiant Tangent offices. We won’t go into too much detail right now, but let’s just say that cool and exciting things are in the works, and the fan art has a lot to do with it. More on that soon…

Shameless plug moment!

In about two weeks, Danny Fingeroth’s Write Now! Magazine #13 goes on sale, and I think you should totally pick up a copy. The main reason is that it is a wonderful magazine about the art of writing for comics, and has terrific resources for anyone interested in that field. The not-so-main reason is that I wrote an article about adapting Japanese comics into American ones, and I’d love for you all to check it out. I hope you like it.

That’s all for now…see you next time when we explore Valiant’s first team book, Harbinger!

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Stephen Pakula lives in the Bronx.

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