By Robert Venditti, Lee Garbett, Stefano Gaudiano, Moose Baumann
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Oh, Aric. Look at you, propelling yourself higher and higher towards the sun like an alien-armor adorned Icarus, completely oblivious to the lesson in hubris about to be doled out. Tsk Tsk. More than just a rage-fueled journey by a pompous, bull-headed man out of time, “Homecoming” shows Aric trying to fight back history itself and salvage the semblances of a father’s wish and a people’s land. Robert Venditte re-teams with artist Lee Garbett for X-O Manowar volume 4 and together set the stage for the upcoming conflict in Unity, but not before plunging you into the battle one man is willing to fight to reclaim the past. You can never go home again, my ass.
Eighteen issues in, it’s beyond apparent that Robert Venditti is now synonymous with X-O Manowar. His Aric is THE Aric. It’s not just his understanding of the character’s loss and anger and wrath, it’s the soft touches he sculpts Aric’s growth. We’re at this point in “Homecoming” that the pieces fit exceptionally well into a larger plan, one known from the outset. The first two volumes set up the breadth of tragedy and the immediate mental ramifications that laid the foundation for the outburst of vehement catharsis found in “Planet Death.” And what does Venditti do now that Aric has laid waste to his oppressors, to their entire world? He simultaneously softens Aric while bringing him to his most ruthless point. Here we see a king with the best of shortsighted intentions wear a crown far too large for his head.
Venditti lays bare what drives Aric to be so stubborn so as to refuse to accept the readily apparent changes in this world he now occupies. After losing everything, he’s just returned to Earth with a renewed vigor and hope that there’s a second chance to be the savior he always strove to be as he ran headlong into the fray. Through beautifully crafted flashbacks to his childhood, we see the boy Aric once was and the father who spoke to him of the wonders and honor of their home and of what makes the Visigoth people what they are. These scenes are a delight beyond just the intended humor of seeing the “mama’s boy” Aric once was because they tell the all too familiar story of a people stripped of their identity (violent though it may be). As his father waxed poetic about Dacia, the unfortunate truth of being torn from it was harsh and Venditti shows that the only way for the Visigoths to stay alive was to keep moving. So now, here in this volume we see that young boy inside Aric scream at him to stop moving. Set down roots here, take back what is yours and deliver your people to the paradise that little boy heard so much about. No more moving to another’s drum beat, nuclear weapons be damned.
The story moves fluidly, with a surprising lack of grand scale action until the very end, but Venditti really does well to make the majority of this volume a thematic character examination. Despite rocking amongst the descendents of his people with a full-bore “Am I not merciful!?!?” attitude, we also see Aric put down his guard, literally take off his invulnerable shield of armor, to get close to Saana who serves to a role to him as perhaps a shallow-replacement for Deidre, that wife lost millennia ago. To be fair, it would be nice to see Saana be more than a stand-in for Aric’s primal urges and emotional crutch, but while she’s not completely void of agency, there isn’t too much more to her character at this juncture of the story. It would be nice to see a woman in this title be a true match for Aric, either physically or mentally, but there’s certainly still plenty of time to see Saana develop.
As with any over-confident ruler, Aric is blind to the dissenters bickering in his midst and the understandable resentment of the Loam-borne Visigoth’s former leader, Volo. Vou only live once, y’all and he ain’t gonna take this sitting down. Before that inevitable conflict though, Venditti made sure to inject Valiant’s resident wiseman/brutally efficient killing machine, Gilad the Eternal Warrior into the story to highlight the thematic struggle of the reaching from the present to capture the past. The teacher-student dynamic between these two hulking warriors is spot on, spoken in terse dialogue that hides an ancient wisdom and a foolish desire. Aric almost reaches an epiphany if it weren’t for his all-consuming anger as he admits to Gilad, “It’s all right to be afraid of the future.” What he fails to pair with that sentiment is very much what his former teacher wishes he’d learn most of all, that the past is past. It is however, hard to rationalize that when you see your people’s identity reduced to mere trinkets, their lives artifacts behind a pane of glass to be gawked at and forgotten. Also very difficult when you wield the most powerful weapon in the universe like a coat, so that’s pretty understandable too. Save for that aforementioned hubris that Venditti skillfully ensures is coming his way.
Lee Garbett returns this arc, having last been on the title for the second arc featuring everyone’s favorite purple-clad master ninja. Garbett is such a perfect fir for these characters and this world with the great bulk he adds the figures, a sharp heft that squares their jaws and ridges their shoulders with. These are massive, imposing figures, slightly blocky, that somehow still flow with elegant fluidity as they raise their swords or launch themselves skyward or even outstretch their hand to a singing bird. His line is thick and confident, but never used overbearing, instead it’s used to great effect as it frames a softened range of facial expressions or the silent tranquility of a landscape only to have it seamlessly add the right amount of weight to all that’s rendered. Few can depict smugness as well as Garbett does with such a conservation of lines. While it’s all a pleasure to look at, the initial eight-page flashback to young Aric’s childhood is really a marvel of richness between the palpable beauty of Dacia and the range of expressions depicted.
One of the requirements for doing a book starring an armored protagonist is an appropriate sheen and glimmer to the textures found therein and Moose Baumann continues to masterfully control the lighting of this title. Beyond just the gleen of the manowar suit, Baumann has a great eye for the mood of each scene allowing for characters to pop when necessary in a bevy of color against starker backgrounds and keeping things flat up front when the blended beauty of the natural backdrop demands the most attention. As always the orange and blue of Aric is bold and smooth, but the aforementioned flashbacks are awash in a subtle autumn palette that provides a comforting nostalgic touch. The contrast of darkened military rooms, aglow in a haunting electronic red only bolster the emphatic open cerulean blue skies they transition into. Baumann continues to deliver the atmospheric transitions between small and big and huge, explosions and forests both, as his colors tonally match what Venditti and Garbett are throwing down on the page.
“Homecoming” builds to an emphatic end, but the growing beats of tensions that bring you there are worth the price of admission. Aric has come a long way and is still tragically short of realizing the potential of his father, his uncle, his former teacher and of his people. The quiet moments are the ones to relish here, the dreams of a bygone age sought after, but doomed to be forever out of reach. X-O Manowar reminds you why this Valiant resurgence is so successful, even when things aren’t erupting in violent glory. If you’ve loved the series up till now, there’s nothing signaling a bump in the road. Instead, it’s the same great, reliable and emotional trip leading you to Valiant’s home. #VOLO
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