Acclaim Comics, 1996, 22 pages, $ 2.50
By the standards of its time, X-O Manowar seems like a reasonably well-made superhero comic. By the standards of 2010, it's mainly notable as an example for a very specific kind of superhero comic that only happened in the latter half of the 1990s. What's to follow, consequently, is more a carbon-dating exercise than a review.
X-O (and, in case you're wondering, I've got no idea what that stands for) is one of those hero-in-high-tech-armor books that clearly evoke Iron Man, but whose creators went to great lengths to not-really-obscure the fact by taking a bunch of aspects and changing them in ways that make it different from Iron Man. One of X-O Manowar's co-creators is veteran Iron Man writer/artist Bob Layton, incidentally.
The first X-O Manowar series was launched in 1991, amid a sudden deluge of superhero titles released by publishers like Image, Malibu or, in this case, Valiant Comics, which were all somewhat similar to the books that Marvel and DC were doing, but still somehow managed to sell upwards of half a million copies per issue. X-O Manowar volume 1 lasted about 60 issues, then Valiant was bought by videogame company Acclaim, which resulted in a revamp of the comics line.
It's not a bad crew that new editor-in-chief Fabian Nicieza got together—besides Mark Waid and Mr. Nicieza himself, Acclaim also had writers Kurt Busiek, Garth Ennis and Christopher J. Priest in its stable. You could have done a lot worse, in terms of promising creative personnel.
On the other hand, the North American direct-sales market had just collapsed in a major way, of course, so it's not surprising, with hindsight, that X-O Manowar lasted 22 issues. Mr. Nicieza threw in the towel and quit Acclaim in 1999, and Acclaim Comics never really recovered after that point. Right now, most of its assets seem to be in the hands of a company called Valiant Entertainment, with a funky rights situation on at least some of them. (Quantum & Woody, for instance, according to its co-creator Mr. Priest.)
For Mark Waid, this is a rather minor work. Mr. Waid, arguably at the height of his popularity in 1996, had made his name with his work on The Flash, Captain America and Kingdom Come, and I assume it's no coincidence that the cover copy on X-O Manowar #1 reads "Operation: Rebirth"—also the title of a collection of his first Captain America arc, released a few months earlier.
Broadly speaking, X-O fits right in with the renaissance of traditional superheroes that was going on from around 1994 through 1999 as a reaction to the "grim 'n' gritty" era introduced by Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Brought about by books like Marvels, The Flash, Captain America, Kingdom Come and JLA, this wave of efforts culminated in 1998 with Marvel's "Heroes Return" relaunch of Avengers and Iron Man (both written by Mr. Busiek), Captain America (again, after a year-long interruption, written by Mr. Waid) and Fantastic Four.
Like those titles, X-O Manowar strives for a more traditional, less gloomy take on the genre. There aren't a lot of shadows here, the art is pretty and bright and colorful, and the heroes, unlike those in the early 1990s when every major character seemed to be eaten alive by angst and moral uncertainty, are HEROES who DO THE RIGHT THING, period.
More specifically, the concept is a mix between Iron Man (a guy in a high-tech armor) and Green Lantern (the high-tech armor is a mysterious, possibly alien artifact, in possession of the U.S. military; the guy is a hot-headed test-pilot archetype).
The book is unapologetically action-oriented. It gets right into it and doesn't dwell much on, say, character motivations or the agenda of the villains.
Half of the story takes place in a military bunker where people have expository conversations introducing the characters and the concept, and informing the reader that there are villains to be fought. The other half is the actual fighting, which takes place in the desert outside the bunker.
There's no information on the villains, other than that they come in gigantic, futuristic space ships with smaller fighter jets shooting laser beams, and have been picking off U.S. military bases. If all of this strongly reminds you of Stargate and Independence Day, I'm with you.
It's not terribly original or brainy territory so much as a mash-up of familiar superhero and sci-fi things that were popular at the time, and the ludicrous set-up and characters don't stand up to any sort of scrutiny if you stop to think about them.
Then again, the book is made in such a way that you're not inclined to think about them very often, if this is the type of thing you like. It's a smart way to construct all-action book, really. The justification for everything that's going on is kept to a bare minimum, and everything's hermetically sealed, logically, in order to keep you from questioning any of it while it's happening: us here, them there, go fight!
The storytelling is strong enough to pull it off, a lot of the time. I think this is the earliest work I've seen from artist Sean Chen to date. It's not very distinctive, but oddly enough, it seems more attractive and powerful, more flashy and in-your-face than much of his later work. Maybe what I'm seeing is the influence of inker/finishing artist Tom Ryder, a frequent Valiant artist who disappeared from comics in 1998 and briefly resurfaced at CrossGen in 2002 and 2003.
X-O Manowar also disappeared from the racks in 1998, but the look of the book didn't. It was snatched up by Marvel instead, and re-absorbed into the DNA of one of its major inspirations: When Kurt Busiek's Iron Man debuted the same year, the artist was Sean Chen, and the letterer was Comicraft's Dave Lanphear.
What goes around, and all that.