Review- The Summer of Valiant

I was never a Valiant reader during their hey-day in the early ’90s, but word of mouth and an interest in the artwork of  Cary Nord convinced me to give  the first issue of X-O Manowar a shot a couple weeks back and it did not disappoint. What follows is a review of all Valiant’s titles up to and including Archer and Armstrong, which is due out this week.

 X-O Manowar: As a history nerd with a passion  for   late Roman antiquity I had a lot of fun reading the   story of a Visigoth warrior who is kidnapped by aliens, bonded to a seemingly living, possibly sapient, suit of high tech armor and transplanted to the modern age. While it does take three issues to get this far into the plot, Robert Venditti’s deft pacing and Nord’s dynamic illustration give X-O a cinematic quality that many feature films lack.

The story of Aric of Dacia is unfolded with such skill that every panel drives the reader onto the next and there are details a-plenty to reward multiple readings. Every issue thus far has left me salivating for the next while delivering a satisfying reading experience in itself, and nothing presented feels extraneous or unnecessary.

My only problems are with the art. Nord’s layouts are exceptional as always but the inking doesn’t always complement the pencils. At it’s best the style is reminiscent of Hal Foster’s Prince Valiant, but sometimes you’re tempted to suspect that Nord was replaced with a fill in mid-page. In all fairness to the inker, the combination is never less than competent, professional quality but I am inclined to believe that Nord is at his most potent when his pencils are allowed to stand for themselves.

Writer: Robert Venditti  Artist: Cary Nord

Story: 9,  Art: 8,  Average: 8.5

Harbinger: Harbinger has proven to be the hardest of the Valiant titles for me to review. This is because although it has the potential to be really terrific, there are several highly problematic elements that lead me to believe it could just as easily become truly terrible. The first two issues introduce us to Peter Stanchek, a teenager who can hear people’s thoughts. Peter is being courted by the mysterious Toyo Harada and his Harbinger Foundation even as he being hunted by the sinister Project Rising Spirit.  There is an ambiguity to everything that paints the story in some very nice shades of grey. While this is not a problem in itself, writer Joshua Dysart is skating a very thin line between a good book and a bad one.

Harada could find himself falling into one of the equally negative  twin stereotypes of The Wise Kung Fu Master or The Yellow Peril Villain. Peter, who uses his powers to make the erstwhile girl next door fall in love with him before sleeping with her, is an even more troubling case. To Dysart’s credit Peter’s physical relationship with Kris is never really visualized on paper so the act of rape is merely implicit and you can’t accuse him of using it to stimulate the libidos of a bunch of sweaty fan-children. Still, it remains to be seen whether this act will have real and appropriate consequences. Otherwise the story is competent. Events are a little too protracted for my tastes but while I would have liked another issue or two of Peter and his psychotic friend Joe on the run I’m aware that the story really begins when Peter is taken under Harada’s wing. I’m  also not entirely clear on why a pack of  psychic dogs attacking Peter at one point.

Khari Evan’s art masterfully captures the vicissitudes of teenage emotion but it does tend to turn the adults into cartoons with a more limited range of rage, grim determination or boredom depending on their function within the plot.

Writer: Joshua Dysart Artist: Khari Evans.

Story: 8.0 (cautiously optimistic, ask again in six months) Art: 8.5, Average: 8.5

Bloodshot: Of all Valiant’s launch titles Bloodshot was the one that interested me the least. The original always struck me as a thinly veiled attempt to cash in on the success Image was having at the time with their edgier heroes. The revamp didn’t seem to add much to the mix and I don’t know that I would have read this if we didn’t get me a free review copy. That being said I was pleasantly surprised.

While the basic premise (kick ass government hit man finds on a quest to find himself) has been done to death in everything from Wolverine to the Bourne franchise, Duane Swierczynski manages to put enough of a  spin on it to keep things interesting and even throws in some subtle world building that ties in nicely with Harbinger. In his hands Bloodshot becomes less of a murder machine and more of a character you can really sympathize with. He’s helped along by the art. Arturo Lozzi’s pages are just plain beautiful, (though they are in the minority) and Manuel Garcia displays a flare for freeze frames of sudden, violent, action that John Woo or Quentin Tarentino might have if they were photographers instead of film makers. Unfortunately while there is a good story reason for the shift in artists, it is a little bit jarring for the reader  on the first pass.

Overall Bloodshot is a good if somewhat familiar book, especially for Wolverine fans who can’t be bothered with any of the bazillion he carries right now. It’s the sort of book  might buy if it was available, but wouldn’t go out of my way to track down.

Writer: Duane Swierczynski  Artists: Manuel Garcia with Arturo Lozzi
Story: 8.00  Art: 8.25 Average: 8.12

Archer and Armstrong: Now this is what I’m talking about folks. Archer and Armstrong is shaping up to be the real deal, a comic so good I have to think hard about bad things to say about it. The storytelling, both graphic and textual is spot on from page one and doesn’t miss a single beat.

The story feels a bit like someone gave Stan Lee a copy of Steve Jackson’s classic board/card game Illuminati and told him to go crazy. In one issue Fred Van Lente introduces to a web of secret societies with conflicting agendas revolving around the god machine that caused the biblical flood, a  drunken immortal (Armstrong), and a young martial arts master who was raised in a Bible theme park (Archer). Van Lente isn’t afraid to be funny in a way super hero writers generally aren’t these days, and the humor has just the right amount of satirical bite to it (one of the aforementioned secret societies is called the One Percent and members wear bear and bull masks to conceal their identity). At the heart of it all is an epic that begins in ancient Sumer and continues into modern Manhattan and combines themes of power, immortality and brotherly love (or the lack thereof).

Clayton Henry’s artwork is the best of the Valiant line by a wide margin. His style is clean and approachable. It expertly captures the very different personalities of the leads without giving short shift to on the countless ‘extras’ who populate the backgrounds. This guy is really something and it’s a shame he hasn’t had work on something bigger before now. Hopefully this title will mark the start of a meteoric rise to fame and fortune for writer and artist alike.

It’s worth noting that while I got a free review copy, I plan on buying the trade as soon as it’s available. This book is just that good and worth every penny

Writer: Fred Van Lente Artist: Clayton Henry

Story: 9.0 Art: 9.0 Average 9.0

So there you have it: four titles and four reviews. While I have some issues with the new Valiant Universe as a whole I’ll leave those for another posts once the last of August’s issues have been released and the “Summer of Valiant” is properly concluded. For now I think it’s fair to say that anyone who loves super heroes but has been disappointed with the New 52 and shudders at the thought of Marvel Now should give each of these titles a try. It’s good stuff.

Valiant Entertainment provided free copies of X-Manowar #3, Bloodshot #1, Harbinger #2, and Archer & Armstrong #1 for review.