X-O Manowar Volume 1: By The Sword
Writer: Robert Venditti
Artists: Cary Nord and Stefano Gaudiano
Publisher: Valiant Comics
The first collection of the new X-O Manowar series focuses almost entirely on the character’s origin, which might make it feel a little too geared toward new readers. I should know: I am one of them. I didn’t read the original Manowar twenty years ago. I’ve never read the second series from Acclaim. I haven’t even played the videogame with Iron Man (is that the only cross-company comic book crossover to exist in videogame form?). I’m the ideal reader for this latest version of the comic: I’m coming in totally blind.
I expected typical sci-fi “superhero in a power suit” stuff, but in space, so somewhere between Iron Man and Green Lantern. I didn’t expect the comic to start with Roman legions wiping out a tribe of Visigoths. I never knew that X-O Manowar is basically Unfrozen Caveman Superhero, with a Roman-era barbarian warrior wearing a magic alien suit from the future. That’s a simple, but great, concept that immediately sets up a host of intriguing story opportunities for a talented and thoughtful writer. Robert Venditti’s previous books prove that he possesses both of those qualities, and nothing in Manowar makes me think otherwise.
Dropping us immediately into a battle right out of a Conan comic is a jarring surprise for those expecting a space epic. If Aric of Dacia’s single-minded goal of rescuing his wife from the Romans feels a little bit like every action movie and videogame ever made, it at least gives the character an immediately well-defined motivation. After Aric’s abduction, Venditti gives us a few glimpses of the aliens’ culture and hierarchy, and although, again, it’s fairly stock stuff, with mystical priests butting heads with faithless military leaders, it’s good to see the antagonists defined and explored beyond their own malicious deeds. That doesn’t always happen in comics like this, especially with evil aliens.
Cary Nord knows how to draw ancient guys with swords, and the first third of this book should be a nice little flashback for fans of his Conan work. He’s adept at the sort of realistic art found in old military and fantasy comics, but capable of fleshing out the savagery of hand-to-hand combat without obfuscating or overly stylizing the action. And Stefano Gaudiano’s rich inks are always welcome.
The only problem I have with this comic is how protracted the story is. This book collects the first four issues of the ongoing series, and Aric of Dacia doesn’t put on the Manowar armor until almost the halfway point. The story of his capture by aliens, years of imprisonment, and eventual prison revolt is important, but it would take up a single issue in any comic before 1997. I felt like the story was just starting to kick in by the time Aric fast forwards to the present day, still seeking the Roman legionnaires that enslaved his wife, but then the book ends. Origins are important, but after setting the stage the play has to start, and this trade drops the curtain after the first act. It probably works well as a periodical, where complete satisfaction isn’t always expected, but the trade paperback leaves me a little unfulfilled.