When the most recent and critically acclaimed run of “X-O Manowar” concluded last year (created by writer Robert Venditti over a remarkable 50 issue run), the closing pages of its finale served as a prologue for a new direction for series protagonist Aric. It showed the time-tossed Visigoth solider sitting atop a throne on an alien world, grizzled and scarred and surrounded by corpses and blood. Now, a new volume of Aric’s adventures by writer Matt Kindt and artist Tomas Giorello seems to be picking up what that epilogue foretold its the gripping and grimly engrossing X-O Manowar #1.
The story opens with Aric living the simple life of a farmer on the planet Gorin. Aric of Dacia began his life as heir to the throne of the Visigoths, battling Roman legions. Aric’s life would have been brutal under any circumstances, and likely short, but he was abducted by aliens called the Vine and taken into space. He only managed to free himself by bonding with the sentient X-O Manowar armor. From here, Aric eventually returned to 21st Century Earth and tired to re-establish his kingdom in the modern age.
The opening pages of the issue find Kindt and Giorello showing us an Aric who lives in some measure of peace after embracing the life of a farmer on Gorin. However, war is on the horizon, as soldiers from the local Azure Nation are warring against the repressive Cadmium Empire. All Aric wants is to be left alone with his lover Schon; clearly he’s had his fill of conflict. But he can’t deny that the war will soon reach him, and sure enough, Aric is abducted by Azure Nation troops and pressed into service as little more than unarmed cannon fodder on a suicide mission.
Kindt and Giorello begin their run on the character with a solidly entertaining first issue. X-O Manowar #1 benefits from some full-bodied world-building, creating a setting that feels lived-in and robust. It’s an effective merging of space opera, war movies, super-hero tropes and the sword and sorcery style of Robert E Howard. There’s a pulpy earthiness to this issue that really clicks, and gives the issue much of the flavor and tone that serve it well. When Aric is sent into battle, the action feels chaotic, intense and kinetic in all the best ways, which serves to separate Aric and his adventures from your typical super-hero space opera pack.
The story also intrigues with its approach to Aric himself. Though he’s a terse and somewhat closed-off character, he’s not too grim or moody. Kindt’s smart to initially depict the character in an intimate and kind of touching conversation with Schon that serves to humanize him. This makes the second half of X-O Manowar #1, with its action heavy focus and laconic protagonist, have more value and impact as we feel we know at least a little about Aric and what’s important to him at this point in his life. Even if you haven’t ever heard of the character before now (and I’m pretty close to that, having read some issues here and there and done a little research for this review), you still feel like you know him and where’s he’s coming from.
If there’s a weak point to the issue, it’s in the formulaic plot that forms the starting point of the series. Frankly, haven’t we seen the story of a weary bad-ass soldier pressed back into battle against his better nature too many times before, whether in a war story, western or espionage thriller? I feel like the script doesn’t really offer much of a variation on that very familiar starting point. But, there’s a reason why this trope get used, and Kindt does execute it very well and with more economy than most. He uses just a few pages to get us to understand why Aric can be satisfied with the hard yet almost bucolic existence into which he’s opted. The struggle between how a man like Aric wants to live versus what a man like Aric is built for is a potent one, and it probably will always resonate with us. Kindt is smart enough to position the armor Aric hates but needs as a physical representation of this dichotomy. This doesn’t change the fact that I saw every beat of the issue coming, but even the familiar was executed with enough verve and skill that I still enjoyed every moment.
A lot of that has to do with Giroello’s terrific art, aided by Diego Rodriguez‘ lush colors. There’s so much gorgeous work on display here it’s a feast for the eyes. The issue combines the influences of science-fiction and earthy fantasy so well and in such a confident and detailed way that each page is frame-worthy. Giroello’s style for the issue evoked John Buscema’s work on “Conan,” for example, and given the setting in which Aric finds himself, I’m certain that’s no accident. But there’s a European quality to the issue as well, which gives the book a fluid and painterly atmosphere. The action is laid out superbly, going the battle scenes a real sense of kinetic energy and impact without being confusing. The result captures the chaos of battle without losing focus on following Aric’s journey.
Despite a plot that I found pretty familiar, I really enjoyed X-O Manowar #1. Its grim tone, strong characterization and gripping setting overcame the fact that the arc of the issue was a story we’ve seen before. The art is superb and Kindt really seems to have a strong vision of where he wants to take his protagonist, and it might not be anywhere good in terms of Aric’s conscience. However, as a successor to one of the most acclaimed runs on one of Valiant’s signature characters, X-O Manowar #1 is off to a hell of a start. 8/10
X-O Manowar #1 will be released on March 22, 2017.