The Delinquents: A Beginner’s Guide to ‘X-O Manowar’ and ‘Ninjak’
Valiant Comics' shared superhero universe is smaller and less familiar than those of its major rivals, but even a small shared universe can offer a lot to learn about. To help those readers looking to take the plunge into the Valiant Universe, we’ve assembled our own team of delinquents to break things down. Steve Morris knows Valiant inside out; J.A. Micheline is new to the universe. Micheline has the questions, and Morris has the answers.
Over the last month Steve has introduced JAM to the superpowered Harbinger team and the brainwashed assassin Bloodshot. For the next assignment, though he set JAM homework of a more cosmic nature --- the flagship Valiant series X-O Manowar. If that wasn't enough, it's also finally time to talk about the British Enigma that is Ninjak. She gamely accepted the mission --- and now they're back to talk about it!
Steve: This time out we're looking at two of Valiant's more prominent characters: X-O Manowar and Ninjak. Now, X-O Manowar is a man in a space suit with a weird name while Ninjak is a ninja spy who has a silly name. Before you started reading either of them for this column, what did you think about them just as concept? You've seen what they look like, and seen their odd names. If you weren't doing this column, do you think you would ever have seen these books on the shelf and thought, "Yeah, I'm going to try out an issue of Ninjak this week"?
JAM: Yes and no. I have to answer "yes" because I actually did try Ninjak #1 some months back. I'd heard good things about it and I was curious how that could be possible, since the name Ninjak was, in a word, ridiculous. If I hadn't heard positive things from other people, I doubt I would've bothered. (And, at least on that first read, the first issue didn't do anything for me.)
X-O Manowar, though? Honestly, that name didn't faze me. If I can accept the Martian Manhunter, then I can accept X-O Manowar. But weird-almost-pun-but-too-lazy-
Steve: You've accepted Martian Manhunter? I never accepted Martian Manhunter. We'll come to Ninjak later on, and see if reading the whole of the first arc changed your mind or not. Firstly, let's take a look at Valiant's flagship character: X-O Manowar.
X-O Manowar is a story about Aric Dacia, a man from Roman times who... well... do you want to explain what happens with him?
JAM: Oh, man. Okay, so X-O Manowar. Basically, Aric Dacia is a headstrong Visigoth who is leading his people in a fight against the Romans in the fifth century. In the midst of this fighting, he and several of his comrades are captured by an alien race called The Vine and held in space for several years. Aric eventually leads a rebellion against The Vine and manages to steal their greatest weapon, a powerful suit called the Manowar.
And as though that's not complicated enough, he then goes back to Earth and discovers it's 2012 and that he's been gone for some 1600 years.
So, in short: this is a 5th Century Visigoth with a hyper-advanced and superpowered suit formed with alien technology... displaced in 2012.
I could take the first two layers, but the third one was what really did my head in. When he finally arrived in 2012, I just laughed because honestly what the flipping hell.
Steve: This was the first comic Valiant published when it returned in 2012. You'd think there might be easier concepts to start with as we move out the gate, but no: a Roman-hating space German who gets kidnapped by aliens and then steals a suit of space armor to escape. It's an absolutely lunatic story to start with --- but when you read it, how did you feel about the narrative, overall? Do you even feel like the story came across as weird? Weird stuff happens, but the style it's told in is somewhat muted, at times, right?
JAM: The premise is quite literally out of this world, but to be honest, the narrative is pretty pedestrian. All the beats the story hits are the ones that you expect, with no subversion whatsoever. Headstrong Visigoth who loves his wife as much as he hates the Romans? You know what's coming after that. Captured by aliens who have this powerful suit that has killed anyone who's tried to put it on? Gee, I wonder how the protagonist is going to escape his captors. Even by the time we're back on Earth in 2012, everything goes the way it is supposed to go. Nothing thrilling, nothing new.
Many will argue that some of our most beloved stories, some of the most acclaimed comics fall into a relatively familiar arc or pattern of action. They'd be right. But what's lacking here is an effort to distinguish this character who has been put in this particular situation. Aric doesn't have a personality beyond "the displaced protagonist whose wife is dead." I said this about Bloodshot last time, but it's even more true about Aric: he is an archetype and not a person. Bloodshot at least had a narrative excuse. I don't know what's going on with Aric beyond, well, inadequate hustle.
It should have been weirder. It should have been a lot weirder. It shouldn't have been a mashup of every low fantasy story I've ever read with every space opera I've ever seen. Too many tropes and not enough innovation. Premise is not enough.
Steve: I suppose it probably doesn't help that Aric is basically by himself for each storyline --- he doesn't particularly have a recurring cast to bounce off, so without that you have a lot of internal narration and interaction with background characters. X-O is a series that was designed to tell a very long-term storyline, so some of the things you mention here do get addressed later on. The wife, for example, gets a one-and-done issue later on, while the third arc (which wasn't read for this) sees him come to Earth in a more overtly villainous role.
There's a bit of Captain America syndrome at play, I guess. He's the main character because he has to be, but because he's the main player and shows up everywhere, his personality comes across as somewhat generic at times. He's in a lot of different comics, and you can sense in some cases that the writer is struggling to know what Aric is like. There's a miniseries written by Ales Kott called Dead Drop, which has a focus issue on X-O Manowar, and you can tell that Kot really finds it difficult to make the character dynamic.
The thing is, you've read two full trades of the series by this point --- you shouldn't have to feel that you need to read more before you can get the full idea of what the book will be. But it feels like you're saying that's the case? That you just don't know what the book is about, why it's telling the story, what makes it so important that this tale be told?
JAM: Aric being by himself or even his being a main player doesn't explain or justify his being so empty. This was Valiant's first comic in almost ten years. That's an opportunity that DC and Marvel will never have again unless they too decide to close their shutters and not come back until 2025. (Which, to be fair, might improve things for everybody, depending on the angle.) Valiant could have done almost anything they wanted, but they ran with the expected.
Captain America is frequently bogged down by decades of canon and hundreds of people trying to write him without stepping on any toes --- and still I don't think any creator should get a pass for making him bland. X-O Manowar reads like a risk-averse comic, when it should've been nothing but risks. I'm sure it's not all on the creators; corporate comics tends to mean minimizing unknown elements. Nonetheless: you've got the keys to the car. Drive.
In theory, I should be interested in a character who has spent eight issues as a hero turning out to be a villain, but in the bigger picture it just reads as another way that Valiant is building on premise rather than character. I can hear the conversation in the board room now: "Ancient Roman type character goes into outer space to get a power suit and comes back to present-day Earth and you're rooting for him and you're rooting for him and then, gasp, he's the bad guy."
Do you see what I'm trying to say here? I get what the book is about and I get why the story is being told. On the surface, this seems like it should be a pretty original and different comic. The elevator pitch is good, if not, great. But that's all the comic is --- an elevator pitch. There's nothing else happening there.
Steve: Were there any moments in the comic that you enjoyed? I'm wondering if there's anything in the concept or material here that could get you excited if it were done differently. Or was it a case of, it started with you not being interested, and there was just never a moment where it managed to gain your attention and get you interested in the story?
JAM: Not really, no. I think the concept is fine but the execution was stale. Like I said, the pitch is great. Time displacement compounded with alien power tech suit leaves a lot of room for interesting story and exploration. But nothing about the first eight issues dealt with that material in an interesting way. It's totally surface level.
Steve: This ties into some of your thoughts on Bloodshot and --- perhaps --- Shadowman as well. There's a layer of personality on the surface, playing off established genre types and character conventions to give readers a generic sense of who these heroes are. But then, underneath that, there's not much more going on than that surface level sheen. Do you think that's fair? So far, has Valiant offered more than a few leading roles to characters who aren't much more than the sum of their parts?
JAM: I sort of agree, but I don't think it's fair to put it on the characters' shoulders.
The only character who I think may have had a tiny narrative flaw is Bloodshot, just because it's harder to establish background and personality when he keeps changing --- but that's not really true, since most of the time we spend with him is after he finds out the scientists have been lying to him. The characters aren't doomed from their premises; I just don't think the creative teams did enough to make them compelling.
The presentations of Shadowman and Bloodshot were both guilty of this, while having other redeeming features, but X-O Manowar's showing was the biggest offender yet.
Steve: Well then this should be interesting, because midway through the issues of X-O Manowar you read, a character comes in called Ninjak.
Now, Ninjak is a ninja, yes, but he's also a British secret agent and his real name is Colin. He gets sent after X-O Manowar in the second trade, before appearing a few years later in his own ongoing series --- which we'll be getting to in a moment. Given your disinterest in X-O Manowar, how did you feel knowing that a character called Ninjak was going to show up next? And did you respond to the character once he actually showed up?
JAM: I was actually getting kind of depressed about this column because I'd already been so negative about Bloodshot, and then here came more negativity about X-O Manowar. I'd read Ninjak #1 when it first came out but found it wasn't for me, so I was disappointed that I'd have nothing good to say about this round of Valiant Comics. When they brought up Ninjak in X-O Manowar, I tried to suppress a groan. And when he finally did show up he was just as flat as everybody else.
So then, I started reading the actual Ninjak comics --- and honestly, Steve? I really, really liked them.
Steve: Tidy! What was it about the ongoing Ninjak series (or at least the first arc) that got you back in, after teetering so close to the edge of disinterest in Valiant?
JAM: I think it's right up my alley re: spy comics and aesthetics. I think a good percentage of what turned me off about Ninjak so solidly in his appearances in X-O Manowar was his really strange get-up, which put him about two steps away from Scorpion or Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat. Much less charm and much more half-baked assassin stuff.
Whereas the solo series is all about the charm. I'll be frank: it is pretty standard stuff when it comes to secret agents. I wouldn't sell someone on Ninjak based on its subversion of tropes or its doing something new with the genre. It's not quite classy enough to be James Bond, but not quite cheeky enough to be Grayson, but it's somewhere along that plane.
I mean, we've got a doomed love story here, an unwillingness to disclose personal history due to past hurts, cool and confident spycraft. You might have difficulty seeing this through the screen, but my eyes have turned into enormous hearts, basically.
Steve: Just to explain: the main story is set in the present, as he attempts to take down a current-day crime syndicate --- starting with a guy in Japan who has an assassin-at-arms called Roku. Her hair is sharp as ribbons and, uh, incendiary, and I'd say she's essentially the only character other than Ninjak to get a spotlight in these issues.
JAM: I will tell you that I'm not loving how Roku is portrayed at some points. What is with the lack of clothes in favor for being wrapped in ribbons? She does wear proper clothes most of the time, but for a good two issues she's got this ribbon thing going that is totally inexplicable. I'm fine with us not getting an extensive amount of backstory or personality from her --- and I did really enjoy the quick origin story we get in issue #4 --- but that physical presentation with no other strongly distinguishing aspects was not what I needed.
Steve: Ninjak is drawn by Clay Mann, which means Roku is drawn to be an unbelievably athletic and attractive model --- as is the wont of all characters drawn by Clay Mann. I wanted to ask about his work especially here. What did you think of it? It's a different style to the stuff that Valiant has offered elsewhere, something a bit more fluid and energetic, I suppose. Do you think that helped win the series over a little more for you?
JAM: Well, I'm in two minds. On the one hand --- yes, definitely. The art style worked for me. Sometimes it does feel a little bit dated --- which I think is more to do with Ulises Arreola's coloring than Mann's pencils/inks --- but I think that slightly dated feel contributes to the aesthetic of the comic. Ninjak is following an older-style of spycraft storytelling and there are a ton of references to the past, to older books and older films, so it's all fitting in nicely.
There are also scenes with really kinetic coloring--I'm thinking of the first fight between Roku and Colin (the name Ninjak is still ridiculous, I'm sorry) here and how much I liked the reds and purples working with each other. There are also a couple of really cool things that happen with the storytelling. I particularly like the move the team uses for one issue that opens like an old-style comic --- and then sequences into a character actually reading that comic and in the end, acting upon it. Very cool.
The 'other hand,' though, is still that damn outfit of ribbons for Roku. You see her in other outfits, certainly, but I really get hung up on that one because I don't understand why that one exists beyond an opportunity to objectify her. And actually the fourth issue, where we get her origin story, she spends the entire thing wearing that again.
The fourth issue isn't Mann on art, though, it's Juan Jose Ryp, Marguerite Sauvage, and Butch Guice, with Arreola still on colors. I actually love the art for Roku's section a lot, but the ribbon outfit is still a problem. I don't know whether that costume's reappearance is a result of writer Matt Kindt's script or a decision between the artists, or some combination of the two, but either way I'm not into it. Even if the excuse is that it's the way she appeared in the comics before the relaunch --- who cares?
And it goes beyond Roku's outfits, actually. Roku is the lone female character with any semblance of agency in the story and the female handler/love interest whose plotline exists for the purposes of man-pain.
The other female characters appear as decorations. In issue #1, they're lain across a male character in various states of undress, with the same function as pieces of art in a lobby. And then, worse, in issue #2, you see them at a party in similar states of undress, except this time more in the vein of costumes, and mixed in with tigers and monkeys and other wild animals? It just underlines the point that all of these women are just meant to be looked at, as though it were a zoo. The men get to talk and do things, but the women? Sexy lamps at best.
Oh and then, of course, this happens at a party in Tokyo! Because how weird and wacky are Japanese people, right? They dress women up in weird costumes and have wild parties with animals because Japanese culture is so weird.
Man, this comic is such a problematic fave the more I think about it.
Steve: The first trade, which we read here, tells only one mission for Ninjak --- an infiltration. He sneaks into a company, gains the trust of the boss, and attempts to then tear the business apart from the inside. One thing that choice means is that we have another Valiant series set in a completely different part of the world, and I think our first long look at Asia. Valiant's comics are not restricted to America, which is pretty great, although sometimes they tend to depict the world is less convincing ways than others as a result.
As you mention, Kindt's writing (and perhaps particularly Mann's artwork, which doesn't always tend to have these characters look Asian) hits and misses, often at the same time. Is that what you're thinking when you say this is a problematic sort of book?
JAM: Yeah, I should be specific because I hate when people use the word problematic without describing. What I mean is, firstly, that women are either highly objectified in the comic or exist specifically for male ends, and secondly, that there's definitely some appropriation of Japanese culture going on here.
Specifically with the Japanese stuff --- I think all the representations of Japan in the first trade are highly fetishized. It's this pattern of representing Asia in a way that exoticizes it, and points out how wildly different (and usually with an undercurrent of 'weird') Asian cultures are as compared to the West. The first issue opens with a samurai movie and in issue two you have that weird party. Issue three has a sumo wrestling match where it seems like at least one of the wrestlers is white/has red hair. And then even beyond that, you have the boss's kind of stereotypical origin story of his own that also falls into the "ooh mystical Asia" kind of sense you get.
It's just kind of audacious, because on the one hand, ninjas and Japanese culture are good enough for MI:6 (and by extension, this Western creative team) to borrow for the protagonist, but not good enough to be represented in anything but an exaggerated manner otherwise.
It's the same thing for Roku. I'm assuming that she's Japanese. Roku is Japanese for six, and her last name, Rokubi, means Six-Tails --- probably a reference to the Kyuubi, the Nine-Tails Fox spirit in Japanese mythology. But then you look at her, and she has red hair and green eyes. In other words, it appears to be fine to borrow aspects of Japanese for a "cool aesthetic," but a cool or weird aesthete is about all we can expect in terms of proper representation. Asian culture, Japanese culture, isn't something that you can just cherry pick for an outfit or a character name. Not while we still have the problems we have.
And I want to be clear about this: I really really liked Ninjak. It was fun (and funny!) and sleek and cool. I definitely intend on reading the rest of the issues, even if you don't end up assigning them as homework. But that's because I was able to look past a lot of the stuff that was happening with race and gender in it. Many, many readers may not be able to do the same thing.
All the best parts really are when they lean away from the ninja stuff and just stick to the spycraft. (I really wish we could be rid of that Mortal Kombat outfit.) And also when they subvert the assumed male gaze and focus on Colin's physicality. I think part of why I was turned off #1 when I first tried it was (a) Roku's ribbon outfit and (b) the angles and positions they put her in while wearing said outfit. I think the book learns a few tricks from Grayson, though, and focuses a lot more on Colin after that. There's much more available for the androphilic reader going forward.
Steve: I’m really excited to go find a dictionary and work out what androphilic means.
If X-O Manowar struggled to make himself a character you were interested in, is it fair to say that overall Ninjak proved to be the reverse? Despite being steeped in obvious ideas - he's a ninja and a spy and British (I choose to think that being British is at least as notable as being a ninja or spy) --- he proved to be a character with a surprising amount of substance, and personality?
JAM: Yeah, he's charming. I have been charmed. Colin is a charmer! I am here for his quips and his confidence and his pretty-typical-lost-the-girl background.
Oh! And also, the stories about his childhood are really great. This is actually what I'm talking about when it comes to personalizing an otherwise trope-y story. Firstly, you've got a guy who's pretty easy to like (and actually isn't overtly misogynist, which is a big deal when it comes to the James Bonds of the narrative world).
But secondly, you've also got these anecdotes about his home life that are extremely unique. Even if the thing with the female handler is a bit tired and even if the weird distance between him and his parents is typical, the specifics of the interactions between him and his abusive guardian are something I haven't seen before. They add a really dark dimension to Colin's character and show exactly how resourceful he is.
So, in short, yes. Effort --- effort that pays off --- is actually made to formulate Colin into a human being with a history, with motivation, with... character. He's much more of a person than Aric or Bloodshot or Jack Boniface. I want to know more about him. And I want him to be okay!
Steve: The last few comics have seen kidnappings, genocides, murders, brainwashings and rape. It’s been tough, and I don’t want you getting the impression that Valiant is all about horrible things happening to dour anti-heroes --- no no, there’s a whole new world of silly fun comics within the Valiant Universe that we haven’t even touched yet!
You want to have some character? Then I’m going to give you two of Valiant’s biggest characters. That’s right: it’s time for Archer and Armstrong!
One’s an immortal legend who has society literally chasing them in hot pursuit every single day; the other’s an earnest and naive chap who doesn’t swear --- it’s basically Micheline & Morris: the comic!
We’re going to race straight into Fred Van Lente and Clayton Henry’s knockabout romp for our next feature, so get thee to the comic store and pick up Archer & Armstrong #1-13 if you want to follow along next time!