Trade-Paced: X-O Manowar: Retribution
by Steve Englehart, Jim Shooter, Bob Layton, Barry Windsor-Smith, Bob Layton, Sal Velluto, Mike Manley, Jorge Gonzalez Paul Autio
For anyone who is interested in reading the original iteration of X-O Manowar but would prefer not to pay $100 for the recently released omnibus, there’s a great alternative available in X-O Manowar: Retribution. This trade was actually produced by the original Valiant not long before the comics bust of the mid-1990’s, which had led to an excess of copies. It’s entirely possible to get a new copy for as little as a dollar on Amazon (or maybe even at your LCS). At that price, a trade would have to be incredibly poor in order for me not to recommend it; however, Retribution is a great deal of fun that would certainly be worth paying more than a buck for.
I’ll admit that I was a bit apprehensive going into the book. Like Paul, I’m a VEI reader who is only now going back and reading the “classic” Valiant titles. With Shadowman: the Spirits Within, there were no real expectation, because the VEI title had been so poor; however, the current X-O Manowar title being produced is so strong that, in my mind, it automatically set up Retribution for failure. My other concern, and this isn’t particularly fair on my part, is that my tolerance for ‘90’s comics is quite low. Obviously, there were plenty of great comics to come out of that decade, but it often seems like comics from that era tended to emphasis action over plot, and plot over characterization. While that is true to some extent for the this comic, writers Jim Shooter and Steve Englehart pull off an interesting feat: the first two issues of the book are so action-packed that the reader can’t help but be drawn into the book.
Readers of X-O Manowar vol. 1: By the Sword will no doubt be surprised that the entire plot of that trade is squeezed into a mere five pages of the first issue. When the story begins, the Visigoth barbarian is fighting the Spider-Aliens onboard their ship. He then comes across the Manowar armor, which he uses to break free. Once on Earth, he is assisted by Ken, who had worked for the Spider-Aliens but betrays them after falling in love with Aric. After the defeating the Spider-Alien leadership and taking control of Orb Industries, X-O Manowar then stumbles across the likes of Solar, Toyo Harada, and the Renegades.
Obviously, there’s a great deal that occurs in only four issues, sometimes to the book’s detriment. With so much going on, there’s very little room for characterization. Englehart and Shooter make Aric into a literal barbarian (even in his internal monologue, he speaks like an Indian in a John Wayne movie), being incredibly simple and single-minded in his pursuit of the Spider-Aliens. Ken is even worse, demonstrating just how far LGBT characters have come since the book was published in 1991. Even the Spider-Aliens are fairly generic, and the other members of the Valiant Universe are more or less dropped into the story without any explanation. Additionally, there are plenty of story ideas which could have been expanded upon (which is what Robert Venditti did during the relaunch), but instead the story blazes forward.
That said, because so many modern comics do tend towards (often excessive) decompression, it was somewhat refreshing to read such a fast-paced book. There are a lot of great action sequences and while the Spider-Aliens plot to defeat Aric in the second book is somewhat goofy, I did think it worked in the context of the book. It was really cool seeing how connected the Valiant Universe was beginning with the third issue. The writers demonstrate that the Spider-Aliens are a threat by having both Solar and Toyo Harada refer to their own battles with the aliens. Much like the current Valiant Universe, there were also some great Easter Eggs, with the fourth issue taking place in New Orleans. The reader essentially gets to see parts of Shadowman #1 from a different perspective, and the writers make it clear that the Spider-Alien Lydia was in fact Jack Boniface’s attacker.
Finally, the dialogue is worth mentioning. Englehart’s work is fine, but Jim Shooter’s is often awkward and clumsy. Valiant’s Editor-in-Chief is one of the most important figures in the company’s history, and his ideas and vision, along with Bob Layton, really drove the publisher in their first years. That said, it’s very easy to recognize which scenes he wrote because all of his sentences end with an exclamation point (thanks to Doug Glassman for pointing this out). That trope along with the caricature of Ken do more to date the book than anything else. Overall, however, Retribution still makes for a great read.
One aspect of this book that thankfully does not evoke the ’90’s is the artwork. In spite of the popularity of the Image-style at the time, Valiant continued to stick with the 1980’s Marvel aesthetic, which had been pioneered by the likes of Bob Layton and Barry Windsor-Smith. Although Windsor-Smith and Layton were really only involved in the first issue (Layton did provide inks for part of the second), Valiant’s house style was so ingrained that X-O Manowar‘s look never changes.
Further, the artists really deliver. While so much of ’90’s art was style over substance with muscles, pouches, and posing taking priority over good storytelling, Windor-Smith, Layton, Velluto, and Manley defy that stereotype by providing excellent layouts. The pace of Retribution wouldn’t have worked in less-capable hands. That said, some of the designs, particularly the Spider-Aliens, were lacking. Their design is somewhat interesting with the dreadlocks and the armor which gives their bodies a strange shape, but there is very little that feels threatening about them. Likewise, the Renegades were generic to the point where I had trouble differentiating Kris and Charlene and Aric and Torque. Granted, I have yet to read a single issue of the classic Harbinger series, so the fault could lie with Michael Manley, who drew the fourth issue.
While there’s definite flaws in the story, the bottom line is that Retribution is a lot of fun, and given the price, it’s something that should be considered a definite purchase who anyone who doesn’t already own these issues in another form.
Originally from ValiantCentral.com