by Robert Venditti, Lee Garbett, Stefano Gaudiano and Moose Baumann
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Objectively, injecting a ninja into a story makes said story 150% more awesome. That’s just science. When the ninja in question is Valiant’s technologically inclined mercenary super-spy, Ninjak, well…modern day statistics are simply incapable of properly analyzing the coolness let loose in Robert Venditti’s second volume of X-O Manowar, “Enter Ninjak.” Beyond the appropriate thrill of the reintroduction of one of Valiant’s premiere characters, this collection is a story of contrasting personalities, worldviews and times. Stunningly illustrated by Lee Garbett, Stefano Gaudiano and Moose Baumann, it is also a tale about the nature of war and loyalty. Long gone is the age of facing your enemy head-on, swords facing front ready to plunge deep into the awaiting blood warm masses on the battlefield. Instead Aric of Dacia must come to terms with being the last remaining soldier of his people in a world where finesse and strategy win the day. Aric, of course, promptly deals with his culture shock and loss by plunging his lightning sword deep into the awaiting blood warm masses atop the headquarters of British Intelligence. He’s having a hard time with it, okay?
Free from his captors, but with no semblance of home to be found, Aric now finds himself aligned, albeit tentatively, with a traitor to the Vine. We learn more about the “plantings”, the young sleeper-cell Vine scattered about various planets around the universe, and the sudden Earth shattering (literally, like full on destruction) stakes now at play because of the shanhara armor bonding to Aric. And, blessedly, we have Ninjak. Sent by plantings situated in high-levels of MI-6, Ninjak is tasked with recovering the holy armor and its time-displaced inhabitant. Shurikens are thrown, faces are blown off and allegiances are tested as the story continues to build a deep mythology for the Vine and the looming threat of the planet’s annihilation. It all moves at a blistering pace, pausing at just the right moments and never sacrifices storytelling for wow factor.
Venditti takes the well-worn comic book construct of two popular characters engaging in fisticuffs only to form an uneasy alliance to take on a greater threat, but subtlety shifts the focus onto further developing his protagonist. While it would be easy to label this a “superhero” book, at this point Aric is no hero. Highlighted through flashbacks and honest dialogue, Aric is somewhere between a brooding savage Hulk and an honor-driven Wolverine. Superimposing his bloody straightforward methodology against Ninjak’s cloak and dagger efficiency serves to further shape Aric’s brutal anachronistic nature. He’s still a character you can empathize with, he’s lost so much that his desire for both solitude and revenge ring true. Much like the first volume, the density of world building on display is engaging and a blast to discover. Since the setting isn’t wholly aboard a colony ship adrift in space, what we get of the Vine here is more insight into their past on Earth and it is some solid sci-fi. One brilliant bit of art and writing is seeing the Vine prepare for invasion in a training sequence involving precision target practice: it is brutal. Alexander’s use of a fruit to explain Vine culture to Aric is phenomenal and yet another example of contrasting natures: Alexander’s duality as a Vine who more closely relates to humanity, the complex Vine being essentially equal to the plants they worship and Aric’s entire understanding of the world being centuries behind. It’s all great stuff and that’s not even mentioning the secret rocket canons that emerge from the roof of MI-6 because obviously.
Lee Garbett’s on art duties this time around and he absolutely nails the tone of this book. Action flows from panel to panel seamlessly, backgrounds are detailed and they are some really creative camera angles in every scene so even the quieter dialogue heavy scenes capture your attention. His restrained line captures both the hard expressions of angered warrior and spider-faced alien as well as the wide-eyed curiosity of a young girl. And Ninjak’s redesign is dead-on; it’s sleek, functional fun with just the right amount of homage to the original. It’s perfectly complimented by the brushed shadow inks of the returning Stefano Gaudiano who masterfully maintains a continuity of style from the previous volume, while also allowing Garbett’s style to differentiate itself. Moose Baumann’s colors are once again an essential asset to the storytelling; his palette tasked with presenting military jungle operations, shadowy warehouses, vast expanses of space and sunsets atop the roofs multiple international cities. Especially vibrant are the soothingly glowing scenes of the Vine gatherings. Bottom line: there is not a single misstep by this trio of artists clearly jamming in harmony on this arc.
Through two volumes Venditti and crew continue to build X-O Manowar into one of comic’s strongest titles. Volume 2 paves the way for what will unquestionably consist of good old fashioned massacring, but what’s found within right now is more great character work paired with stellar art. The surface of Aric’s new place in the world has barely been scratched and his new brother-in-arms Alexander is a great addition to the cast. If you were a fan of the launch story, feel confident that nothing lets up in the sophomore volume and the flagship Valiant title continues to be steered by very capable hands. Plus, come on, ninjas!
[amazon template=add to cart&asin=0979640997]