Robert Venditti launches a new, post-"Armor Hunters" era for Aric of Dacia in "X-O Manowar" #31, and reintroduces another holdover from the classic Valiant Universe: the Armorines. Along with artists Diego Bernard and Alisson Rodrigues, Venditti rolls out the new status quo, as Aric works alongside the United Nations to further gain their trust. Venditti immediately throws in a clever reverse twist, though, with the notion that Aric might have good reason to distrust the U.N., thanks to the manipulations of Armorines inventor and CEO Philip Zahn, who has his own personal agenda.
Venditti employs a now-common storytelling device to open the issue, starting things off at an undetermined time in the near future, and at an unknown location, before moving back to present day to eventually connect back to the issue's original point. It works especially well, as it's not as simple as connecting the dots in a different order; the time, and especially the location, of this opening scene come as a genuine surprise when Venditti brings everything together. It's also a surprisingly simple yet unique threat that Aric faces this issue, making Zahn, within the span of a single issue, one of the deadliest foes he has faced.
Every line of superheroes probably needs its super brilliant and filthy rich business exec / inventor archetype, and Philip Zahn is poised to fill that role for the Valiant Universe. His unabashed egocentric nature is straight out of Lex Luthor's playbook, and his personal eccentricities pretty much fall right in line with those of Tony Stark. Venditti nails these attributes, even if they seem a little too familiar. The true promise lies within Zahn's Armorines, who have yet to fully go into action.
Bernard takes a similar approach to past "X-O" artists; the layouts are simply and largely traditional, with no oddly shaped panels or other kind of distraction that draws attention away from the story. This selfless method serves Venditti's story well, and Rodrigues' inks give the entire issue a clean, polished look, making the issue look appealing without overshadowing the script. Bernard's pacing is brilliant; that second panel focusing on one particular handshake is there for a reason, and the momentary pause that this additional panel creates heightens the tension of Venditti's story. Colorist Wil Quintana plays along with Bernard and Rodrigues, keeping his colors subtle yet effective; they're bright when they need to be, like during a fireworks display, but are quietly appropriate throughout.
Bernard's look for the Armorines is deceivingly clever; all have a relatively similar, rather standardized armored appearance, but the armor on each individual wearer has slight dissimilarities. This is always a smart trick when the story involves needing to tell the characters apart; that isn't as necessary here, but the tactic gives the design of the team a kind of cohesiveness while still making it clear that each combatant has a unique set of capabilities.
Like so many individual issues from Valiant Entertainment, "X-O Manowar" #31 is a good place for curious readers to get started. It will also keep existing readers onboard with a strong start to a brand new story arc.