Christmas Comics Cavalcade: X-O Manowar #26 (Valiant Comics)

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This week on the Christmas Comics Cavalcade, we’re looking at X-O Manowar #26, written by Rob Johnson and Jorge Gonzalez, with artwork from Rik Levins and Mike DeCarlo, published by Valiant Comics in December of 1993. Cover price was $2.25.

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Valiant Comics was an outfit which began by publishing new stories featuring classic Gold Key/Western characters like Magnus: Robot Fighter and Solar: Man of the Atom, eventually extending into brand new characters specifically created for the company. Print runs on the early Valiant comics were relatively low for the era, especially on those original properties. This spurred massive collector interest in the books and for about five years, Valiant gave Marvel and DC Comics a run for their money in terms of market share. Ultimately, Valiant sunk into a morass of intellectual property missteps and irrevelency when the comic company was bought by video game giant Acclaim.

Most of Valiant’s stable of characters were not regular reading for me as a kid, but I was a fan of X-O Manowar. The high concept of the series involved Aric of Dacia, a Visgoth warrior who was abducted by aliens. During his abduction, he came into possession of a highly advanced, sentient alien battle armor. He escaped his captors with the armor but as a consequence, ended up displaced in the 20th century. X-O Manowar was essentially “Conan as Iron Man,” which made for a fitfully fun read.

One of the hallmarks of the Valiant Universe was an incredibly tight inter-company continuity between titles. While Marvel and DC comics were curating a continuity between dozens of titles, the overseers of Valiant only had to worry about coordinating a maximum of 12 books. To wit, something that happened in X-O Manowar would become a plot point in Bloodshot or Eternal Warrior, and so on. In the go-go collector market of the 1990’s, this attention to continuity detail encouraged comic buyers to keep apace with EVERY one of Valiant’s titles, lest they miss out on some small aspect of the story. As such, all of Valiant’s comics in December of 1993 were holiday themed issues with a decent amount of continuity between them. I had originally (and over ambitiously) wanted to look at a whole BUNCH of the holiday themed titles published in this month, but I decided to focus on X-O this year. Perhaps we’ll look at some of the others sometime in the future.

“The Gift” is different from most issues of X-O Manowar in that it doesn’t focus on Aric Dacia. Instead, writers Johnson and Gonzalez took the seasonal opportunity to tell a story about one of the members of the book’s supporting cast of characters.

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Ken Clarkson began the book as Aric’s guide in the 20th century, helping him acclimate to his futuristic surroundings. Over the first 20 issues, Ken went from confidant to potentially treacherous thorn in Aric’s side. As the panel dutifully recaps, Aric created a synthetic X-O Manowar arm for Ken to protect him from some injuries… but it also served as a means to keep tabs on the guy. In most superhero stories, a member of the supporting cast would be delighted to inherit some kind of extra-sensory superpowers in the way Ken has through his armor. Instead, he looks at it as a curse and burden.

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Although the book never dealt with it in a big way, Ken Clarkson was somewhat remarkable during the 1990’s in that he was gay. Gay supporting characters in comics were often relegated either to being a mincing fairy stereotype or a cautionary tale of some kind. What was so interesting about Ken is that while many writers would have lean in a bit heavily toward either of those tropes, Ken was always shown to be an absolutely capable character on his own right. His sexuality was part of his character… but it didn’t define his character and that was a rare thing during this era.

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Aric needs Ken as the duo are currently running Orb Industries, a conglomerate they took over from the aliens who had captured Aric (I know, it sounds stupid, just go with it).

The story’s rising action involves Benito Carboni, a generic mobster who appears across a wide band of Valiant books this month, putting a hit out on Aric.

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Using sexpot Abigail Sawyer to entrance Aric at Orb’s Christmas party, Carboni has Sawyer drug Aric and leave a holiday present on his lap – a bomb.

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Despite Ken’s problems with Aric, he summons the X-O armor, which quickly cycles the toxins out of Aric’s system, leaving X-O Manowar ready for action

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…and leading to a bit of holiday ultraviolence.

As with last week’s book, the Christmas themes are merely window dressing for a regular issues of the comic. I liked how this story dovetailed with some well-worn tropes of the holidays (forgiveness and moving on) while not beating the reader over the head with them. The title of the story, “The Gift” relates both to the extra “gifts” the X-O armor bestows on Ken and the “gift” that Aric gives Ken on the last page

…which brings me to the major reason I wanted to wright about X-O #26. I was especially intrigued by the sexual politics of this comic. The markers in this story are undeniable. Ken is essentially rendered impotent by Aric via the X-O Armor. Aric places himself and his company in extreme danger with the prospect of sexual congress with Abigail. His sexuality gets them in trouble. Look at the above panel, and the oh-so-subtle placement of the Christmas present for evidence of that.

The only person who is then able to save Aric is Ken, who has been “unmanned” by Aric, the armor, and by his own sexuality, at least in terms of this genre of comic books. Abigail presents no “threat” to Ken, allowing Ken to step in and save the day.

While none of this is more than subtext, it’s clearly easy to read if you’re looking for it.

It is also therefore fitting that the story should end with Aric allowing Ken to escape the armor’s power.

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A decently nice sentiment for the holidays.

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