All said and done, Aric of Dacia missed out on some 20% of human history, the last 1,600 or so years. And let’s be honest, this last 20% has pretty much been the best of it. Vietnam, Iraq (twice), the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Holocaust it might have been, but these last 16 centuries have also seen Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, the Enlightenment, the American Revolution… And maybe more importantly for Aric, the fall of Rome, and the rise of popular culture as a driving social force that came along with the rise of the mercantile class in Renaissance Italy. Aric, the protagonist of X-O Manowar you must understand Dear Reader, finds himself at war with Rome. They’ve taken his wife as a slave, they’ve lain waste to his township, they’ve slain his father. The year is 402, AD.
Except of course it’s not. Before the end of the first issue, Aric finds himself, along with a group of fellow visigoths, captured by the Vine and forced to slave away aboard a mothership drifting in deep space. It’s aboard the Vine vessel that Aric causes an ancient prophecy to be fulfilled when he dons the X-O Manowar armor without being killed by it first. With a single word, the Manowar transports Aric back to Rome. But time has passed. And post-Einsteinian relativistic effects have kicked in. And it is the year 2012. AD.
Minus some science fictionality here and there, Aric’s journey is already a mythic statement. Not so much a statement about an individuated human being still locked into a quest he cannot complete, fighting a foe that no longer exists, but a mythic statement at a species-level. A mythic statement about ourselves, and about the rapid climb our species has come to make, these last 16 centuries. And Aric is an everyman in this, our interlocutor for reexamining this rapid climb. Minus some science fictionality here and there, Aric could well be the protagonist from a Tom Waits song.
We know the tropes well. Or at least know them well enough. Aric slides into place with that soulful, near-penitent killer from “Hoist that Rag”. Or with the Peter Pan-esque man in “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”. Or with that slightly older man, now staring down middle age, trying to navigate his family in “Cemetery Polka”. As with any Tom Waits protagonist, there’s a central tragedy to Aric. And ironically with Aric, this tragedy is not the alienation of having been catapulted through time, but the double alienation of the very technology that catapulted him.
In perhaps the most moving moment in “Then & Now” (this fourth issue where Aric is finally flung forward into 2012), the X-O “uploads” the last 16 centuries of history into Aric’s mind, in a single moment. Uploads these “memories” to savage effect. There’s a deep sense of loss of place in time, one that artist Cary Nord visualizes beautifully, and one that writer Robert Venditti communicates crisply. It’s the explosion of complexity that Aric needs to deal with. Just a few months ago, relatively speaking, his fellow visigoths could feel proud of having mastered battering rams. Now, it’s not the full scope of human history, it’s not our iPhones, it’s how we use them to tweet and beyond that, how we use them to self-engineer through social media.
There’s a haunting sense I get as I read and reread and reread the book. It’s the idea that between Robert, and Cary, I’m seeing X-O Manowar for the very first time. X-O Manowar as I should have seen it, Back Then. This isn’t the first Manowar. Some two decades back now, Valiant burst onto the scene with this title and others. And within a few years, the publisher had captured around 20% of market-share.
20% of market-share at a time when the “Big 2” (DC and Marvel), still held upwards of 70%. Compared to just a few years prior, when they controlled nearly 100%. What had changed was Image. Seven creators, artists primarily, walked away from selling their talent to either Marvel or DC and went independent. The move sent shockwaves through the industry. But a few months later, already the cracks were beginning to show.
But of course, they weren’t the cracks you’d initially have expected. It wasn’t that the books weren’t selling. It was the stories conspired around the art. Valiant changed that. With Valiant what we saw was not only the return to story-oriented comicbooks, but the promise of what DC and Marvel still held a monopoly on—a fictive universe, with moving parts and characters borne only by the imagination.
And now, 20 years on, at an almost unimaginable distance from where it first began, I’m beginning to feel like I’m reading Valiant for the first time. Because X-O Manowar is Valiant’s story, as much as it is Rob’s own story. Rob tells me last year, on the release of his magnificent The Homeland Directive, “I write because I look for challenges”. Rob had written a female lead in Homeland, because that’s something he’d never done before. Aric’s story is almost point-for-point the same—a human being thrust into the new. As it is Valiant’s, a company emerging again now, no longer in the false contestation of art-driven comics versus story-driven comics.
If you’re reading Valiant for the first time, if you’re reading X-O Manowar for the first time, if you’re reading Rob for the first time, I envy you. This is the start of a great adventure, not only because Aric is a great character at play in a rich setting, not only because you’ll be prompted to plunder Valiant’s past (available on comiXology), not only because Manowar is as much the story of how Rob has come to be the writer he is today. No, this is the start of a great adventure because all of these elements together will produce something entirely new. Like the mercantilism of Renaissance Italy led unexpectedly to the idea that popular culture rather than high culture could become the driving force of a society. And idea expressed so elegantly in Lorenzo de Medici’s letter to his son on Giovanni’s appointment as Pope Leo X.
At their hearts, Valiant and X-O Manowar both, have always been about the evolution of the establishing into the unexpected. And that’s why, a singular mind like Rob’s is needed to tell the tale of a man catapulted into the future, 16 centuries.