This is a review I wrote for Ain't It Cool News about the release of X-O Manowar in Hardcover, but it also reminisces about comics in the early 90's. I hope you like...
Most comic book aficionados will agree that the early 90s was a veritable shit storm of bad ideas. Countless polybags, card inserts, multiple covers, nonsensical crossovers and issues with sub par material virtually collapsed the entire industry.
Then there was Valiant.
While the major houses were focused on increasing sales volume and Image was launching the age of anatomical monstrosities, Jim Shooter and company were laying the foundation for one of the most complex, intricate and well crafted universes to ever grace the stands of local comic shops.
Valiant hooked me from the very beginning. Being a mild obsessive compulsive it wasn't the individual resurrected Gold Key titles like X-O, HARBINGER, SOLAR, ETERNAL WARRIOR and ARCHER & ARMSTRONG that intrigued me. Don't get me wrong: the dialogue was sharp and witty, and the rendered realism of the characters was a refreshing departure from "the beautiful people, the beautiful people" that were being sketched in other comic books, but what hooked me was the continuity.
This universe was tighter than a nun's vagina, and for a universe that covered all of human history from the beginning of civilization to the far distant future, this cross pollination of content was no easy task.
The first six issues of X-O MANOWAR, which can be found in this beautifully reprinted hardcover (along with a few other goodies) are a perfect example of this meticulous attention to a detailed universe and "ahead of its time" storytelling.
X-O kicks off seamlessly from the pages of its sister title SOLAR. Aric the barbarian is a man unstuck in time, cryogenically frozen for 1600 years and resurrected in the early 1990s. He awakens aboard a ship of spider-alien invaders; with the help of a mysterious cell mate and a diversion by Solar, he finds a way to abscond with the spiders' most advanced version of X-O Armor, the Manowar class. This "good skin", as Aric calls it, his barbaric mind only able to relate a technologically advanced war suit with a bear pelt, allows him to escape from the invader's ship and lands him on a planet Earth very different than the world he once remembered. This is the "what", the "how" is a story unto itself.
I mentioned earlier, during my schoolgirl adoration of Valiant's continuity, that the actual storytelling was a feat unto it self and truly ahead of its time. From characterization to the actual dialogue, the foundation laid down by the team at Valiant resonates even today; in fact, I often wonder if today's superstars could be telling their stories in the fashion they are without these books paving the way.
It seems today that a piece can't be socially relevant or accepted without the insertion of a token homosexual character. Well before "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" made fat mid-western hausfraus accept the gay culture, Valiant took the bold steps to make a gay character a pivotal focal point of the X-O story with Aric's right hand man Ken. However, unlike Marvel with Northstar, Valiant didn't turn this into a media event, nor did they feel the need to let Ken's sexuality define the character. At his core this human turncoat in the spider-alien organization is an opportunist, only taking sides with Aric once he realizes that this barbarian is going to lay waste to the entire spider-alien organization. It's easy for a writer to craft stereotypes, but instead of having Ken sachet across the panels humming show tunes, they made him into a real character complete with foibles and other personality traits apart from his sexuality. This was damn brave way back in 1992.
I will admit that Valiant's art is not to the liking of everyone, especially to those that weaned themselves from their mother's teat to the sour milk found in the breast of early 90s Image. I liken what Valiant brought to the table to the renderings of Frank and Quitely. Nothing was hyper-stylized, everything felt real. Valiant valiantly portrayed characters' flaws and wasn't afraid to show the weathering that Father Time inflicts on all of us.
In addition to chronicling issues 0-6 of the original X-O series, updating the colors and laying out the book on today's high gloss paper as opposed to the toilet paper of yore, Layton completes this saga with a brand new prequel tale showcasing the rise of the Spider-aliens, leader, Lydia. This is a nice denouement, but it's also a bit of tease.
I'm thrilled that Valiant is reissuing and enhancing all of their old titles in hardcover. I offer two suggestions, guys: go ahead and skip the deluxe edition of H.A.R.D.corps, but seriously consider a reprint of UNITY. I would also be ecstatic if you could once again resurrect these characters with new ground breaking stories.
In the tarnished crown of early 90s comics, Valiant was the jewel that sparkled with the beacon of promise that comics could still be great.