Time again to return to the pages of X-O Manowar, and just in time for his second-to-last issue (for now, anyway). "X-O" has been the longest running Valiant series since the big relaunch in 2012 and it'll be strange to see this book be gone from the lineup. Still, fifty issues is nothing to sneeze at. Marvel hasn't had an Issue 50 for a while now and DC only had around ten books hit that milestone last year just before "Rebirth." Kudos.
Why this issue in particular, though? Why would I not go back to the very beginning just before the very end? Because I don't care about that kind of poetry. Instead, we're looking at Aric's first encounter with the rest of the Valiant Universe in the form of Ninjak! This is also Ninjak's first appearance in the reboot, so that's also kind of important (+1 points for getting this out just as the Ninjak web series is still being rumored, holla for your home boy).
This story basically plays out like how most people think a fight between Batman and Superman would go, but also goes to show the basic weakness of any super-hero that relies on their armor for their combat. The follow-up issues explore these themes more in depth through the interactions between Ninjak and Aric, and it's actually a really good arc to read if you're curious about both characters. Neither of them would interact against until Unity came to be, so it's fun to see this all go down before they cross paths, and swords, again.
What's also good to note for this book is that almost all of the variant covers are great. I know I don't normally talk about covers in my Valiant reviews, since I still hold to m desire for you to experience these books yourselves, but each cover sort of jumps out at you and heavily hypes up Ninjak's coming appearance in the book.
In terms of story, this is actually a terrific jumping-on point for the series. Like all of Valiant's books, it begins with a text recap of the events of the previous four issues. Luckily, most of X-O Manowar before this is just Aric being kidnapped, retrieving the armor, and escaping to run back to a much changed Earth. Everything else is presented very nicely in the book, as we see just how displaced Aric is and how brutal a warrior he still is.
Much of this story revolves around Aric just existing on Earth. An early subplot of the X-O Manowar story was that the Vine, an alien race that kidnapped him and was holding the armor for their own purposes, left "plantings" on Earth in the 5th century so they could continue to monitor the Earth. Nowadays these plantings have become major military figures and when Aric returns they become the leading men in the charge against him.
I like that idea. It opens up the Valiant Universe--although I don't think this has really been explored in full--to a full sandbox of historical titles to mess with. The Vine could have molded society in small ways that would eventually lead them to the position they are in now. After all, who could know? They communicate telepathically, and since they're in charge the people below them will listen blindly anyway. It's another theme of the book and actually creates a moral dilemna later on in the arc for Ninjak.
Aric himself is featured mostly in the two big fight sequences of the book, but is also seen twice before just walking around what used to be his land, which is now modern day Romania. He mourns for the loss of his people and reminiscence on a time with his wife. It's a touching scene that instantly makes you relate to him as a character, as a man not only out of time but just out of touch with everything he once loved. He was a great prince and almost king, and to see all of his people just suddenly vanished and be replaced by strangers is a jarring experience.
Not helping are several others trying to kill him. Of course it's the Vine doing it, but the book seems to imply that Aric's presence on Earth would not be welcomed anyway. Sure the Psiots (the super-beings I mentioned earlier) would come around shortly and be persecuted by the government, but this was the first major supernatural event to occur. Prior to this, Gilad the Eternal Warrior fought and lost to the Immortal Enemy and Ninjak did encounter magic, as would Archer and Armstrong and all those guys, but this was a small-scale stuff. Things in isolated areas that wouldn't attract attention.
A man falling from space in a suit of armor wielding a magical energy sword? Yeah, that'll probably grab someone's attention.
Aric doesn't necessarily develop much as a character here but the idea of him being a man separated from his people and surrounded by enemies is very much played up in his encounter with Alexander Dorian, one of the Vine plantings (that may or may not be all-in with their ideals, it seems). Aric is protective of the armor as he should be but more-so gets angry because of what the Vine did to his people, not so much for pursuing him.
He's desperate and isn't thinking straight, though when Ninjak does arrive some of the early flaws in Aric's character to come to light. He's brash to the point of outright ignorance. He's little more than a meat-head about several situations, thinking he can simply overpower Ninjak and Alexander to get what he wants. Sure it could work but combat has evolved. Aric points out how cowardly it is for Ninjak to hide, but that's what you call strategy. Sometimes being forward works but other times, if you have the right tools and mindset, it works out.
Here is the parallel I mentioned between these two and Batman and Superman. I think a fight between Batman and Superman is less equal because in most situations Superman will win that fight. Contrary to popular belief, Superman isn't an idiot. He knows how to fight, he's being doing so for years. Batman may be more advanced, yes, and have the proper weaponry to fight against Superman, but Superman will naturally just win. Less so with Aric and Ninjak. Superman is combat savvy due to the many enemies he's faced over the years, but Aric has faced a few different types of enemies and nothing more.
The Romania's fought with swords and shields and spears and bows/ arrows. Their enemies fought similarly. He's never encountered someone with a katana or a gun or poisonous darts. They're foreign to him. In a straight battle against Ninjak, Ninjak has the upperhand due to experience. We don't know this in the comic, and wouldn't know it for a while, but Ninjak trained under several different styles of fighting and knows how to defeat each one both physically and mentally. He can outsmart his opponent and trick them, sort of, into defeating themselves. If it comes to pure power? Aric wins, X-O suit or not. But if we're talking strictly combat, who could win out of the two them: Ninjak wins.
This also brings up the argument of super heroes and their suits. Batman is capable of fighting in and out of the suit, just as Superman, Wonder Woman, and Captain America are. I'm sure Aric has a well-above-average strength level and could easily top any WWE event if necessary. But he relies on his suit way too much. It becomes a problem for superheroes when they rely on their armor more than on themselves. There's a difference between Batman having the tech on him and Tony Stark having his armor. Bruce Wayne, and by extension Colin King, is prepared for any fight due to his mental training. He can use his surroundings carefully to pull the advantage to his side. Tony Stark, and by extension Aric of Dacia, need their armor to be at their optimal level of combat. It can become a crutch if one isn't ready.
Good writers know how to exploit this and make it a part of the story to show that the hero isn't born in the suit, but is made of the man inside. Such is the case with most people who use power armor around them (except I still don't think Tony Stark is a great superhero, sorry but I don't care). Aric of Dacia uses the suit in honor of his fallen people and wears it as a taunt to his enemies. The problem comes from an abuse of power, and the closing moments of this comic show what happens when you just rely too much on one thing. The encounter between Ninjak and Aric goes about as well as it could for one of them and as bad as possible for the other with little in-between.
Ninjak's appearance in this book is sort of the highlight, though I really like the confrontation the two have. My only issue, having now gotten to know the character for the last two years and a couple dozen comics, is that he comes off as a cold-hearted killer with no sympathy on his side. This just isn't the case, but I understand that Robert Venditti probably wanted to paint him in a more villainous role this issue.
The art, done by Lee Garbett, is as good as ever for X-O Manowar, giving each character succinct expressions and features. Ninjak and Aric's armory is draw well with great detail and all of the Vine creatures look like menacing space Cthulu creatures. There's a good bit of blood in this comic, too, as if Garbett or Venditti really just had a blood fetish for them when they created it. I guess it adds to the realism, but, it's just weird to see blood in a superhero comic sometimes.
If you're looking for an introduction to two prominent and interesting super-heroes, I'd say this is definitely the place to start. The remainder of the arc is wonderful as well, and this is simply a great jumping-on point for new readers. You're sympathetic toward Aric while kind of needing some space from him as he is a bit ruthless. Ninjak has a nice introduction in terms of his style, not necessarily character motivation, and the ongoing mystery with the Vine is presented well here.