When I was growing up in the 1980s and 90s, there were two big comic companies, DC and Marvel. Very little has changed. Now we have Image, metamorphosing from a garish pastiche of the big two to the incubator of great creator-owned work. Dark Horse has become a steady presence, churning out Hellboy/BRPD among some other small titles.
When I was a kid, I remember seeing Valiant Comics, the company owned by wunderkind Jim Shooter. The stories of his career in comics are legendary: a teenager sick in the hospital brought some Legion of Super-Heroes comics, wrote and sent in pitches, and ends up a writer on the series while he is still in high school. By the 1990s, Shooter was a very established writer and editor, particularly due to his run as “the boss” at Marvel Comics. He oversaw the Claremont/Byrne X-Men run, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Walt Simonson’s Thor, and many other iconic periods of Marvel characters.
In 1989, Shooter gathered enough investors to strike out on his own with Valiant Comics. They initially began with licensed material (WWE, Nintendo) but broke into the superhero market. In 1992, Shooter was ousted by his board. The video game developer/publisher purchased the company in 1994, turning the line into “Acclaim Comics.” By 2004, Acclaim filed for bankruptcy and with it went the Valiant line. In 2012, after a lengthy court battle to figure out who owned what from Valiant, the company was relaunched into the current incarnation: Valiant Entertainment.
Many of the characters from the 1990s were back, albeit with rebooted and updated origins. As of this writing, I’ve read 27 volumes of this line and will be talking in generalities about each series. After my writing catches up with my reading, I will likely focus on specific trades. For this first article, I’ll be talking about X-O Manowar and Archer & Armstrong.
X-O Manowar (Volumes 1 thru 5)
Writer: Robert Venditti
Artists: Cary Nord, various others
Aric of Dacia is a Visigoth living in the 5th century, and his hatred of the oppressive Roman Empire knows no bounds. In the midst of preparation for battle, a mysterious new enemy appears and abduct Aric and number of his comrades. They quickly learn this is The Vine, an extraterrestrial race of spider-like beings. Aric is forced into a slavery more brutal than he could have imagined under The Vine but continues to rebel. He discovers that The Vine worship over Shanhara, a living suit of armor and they hold a prophecy that the one who can handle it will be a figure of power in their culture. Aric ends up bonding with the armor, much to the disbelief of The Vine. However, the head priest tries to convince them to accept him. A battle ensues, and almost all of Aric’s fellow abductees are slaughtered. He makes his way back to earth and learns, that due to time dilation traveling in space, he has missed 1,600 of history and is in a world that has no memory of him.
X-O Manowar can be summed up as Conan the Iron Man. It is a series that has no shortage of action with every volume full of combat between Aric, The Vine, and the armies of the Earth when he finally returns. And while the basic concept seems simple, it is also very clever. The fish out of water story can always be interesting when done right and the story of Aric’s assimilation (or lack thereof) into the modern world is a very interesting one. The opening pages of Volume 1: By The Sword to an excellent job of believably establishing his relationship with his father and wife. So, when he finally makes it back to Earth only to find her dead, the heartbreak resonates with the reader.
X-O Manowar will not change your life but it is an excellent introduction to the Valiant Universe. It manages to hook the reader with an engaging concept. It never takes itself too seriously and has fun with the high adventure that comes naturally from this world. The Vine are brought back into the series in a very smart way that also stabs deep in Aric’s heart. Other characters, like the stealthy British spy Ninjak are reintroduced at first as an adversary then ally. Ninjak plays a role in the storyline that surrounds the world’s reaction to Aric’s arrival. Writer Venditti makes sure to get across that our hero’s return is not going to be welcomed and it realistically shakes up world politics and international security.
Archer & Armstrong (Volumes 1 thru 3)
Writer: Fred Van Lente
Artist: Clayton Henry
Obadiah Archer is the son of wealthy religious fanatics who, along with his many adopted brothers and sisters, has been raised to be weapon. Now of age, he is tasked to into the sinful den of New York City to assassinate a man named Armstrong and retrieve pieces of a powerful artifact called The Boon. What Archer is unaware of is that Armstrong is actually the ancient Aram Anni-Padda, one of three Sumerian brothers gifted with celestial powers. The two turn from enemies to allies when Archer learns a dark truth behind his adoptive parents and about a global conspiracy that seeks to use The Boon is enslave humanity.
This is one of the more fun Valiant series and one I enjoy a bit more than the others. Things are very political from the get go and seem to harken back to the Occupy Wall Street movement with the major international financial institutes actually being fronts for ancient occult orders. Everything is played light and fun, but with genuine dramatic stakes. Van Lente is, of course, a playful fan of conspiracy theory because he works in almost every one I can think of. There is even a little wink to the Dan Brown hidden messages and evil Catholic Church tropes.
Part of Archer & Armstrong is also to set up two key figures in the Valiant Universe from its first incarnation: The Eternal Warrior and Geomancer. The Eternal Warrior, who will be discusses in more detail in a later post, is one of Armstrong’s brothers. The Geomancer is a title that passes down through the ages given to those the planet chooses to be it’s defender. The third Anni-Padda brother was the Geomancer of his era. The seriousness and nobility of these two brothers is juxtaposed for humor against Armstrong who decided to use his gift of immortality to carouse, get drunk, and hit on women. As the series progresses he is inevitably forced to fight for a greater cause though always with reluctance. This slovenly nature plays against Archer’s fanatic devotion as a superheroic Odd Couple.
Next time: Harbinger and Bloodshot