Dead Hand makes a serious dent on the Valiant Universe with "X-O Manowar" #35, even though the collective is still light years from Earth. The sentient robot hive establishes themselves as a formidable threat as they begin their mission to wipe out all sentient life in the galaxy in order to eradicate armors like Shanhara, which it considers a virus. Robert Venditti and Diego Bernard split this issue into a race against time and a knock down fight between Aric and Dead Hand that leaves X-O fleeing from the scene to recover.
Venditti pushes Aric's greatest failures up against him once again, forcing the king to relive his powerlessness as a group of beings he has sworn to protect are once again taken from him. This time it's Loam, homeworld of the Vine, whose high priest must evacuate a small contingent of survivors from the doomed planet. Venditti shows us the emotional rainbow the characters experience in the face of unstoppable doom; the priest is broken and defeated, wallowing in sorrow and self-loathing as he is unable to protect his people. Once again, he watches as an outside force appears on Loam and attempts to lay waste to what is there. He is now the reluctant face of an entire species, adrift in space. Meanwhile, on Loam, Venditti shows us a smaller face of tragedy as Aric, unable to do anything but watch the devastation, comforts a woman named Jhukka as she expresses her fear to him and is comforted in her final moments.
Diego Bernard delivers the tragic scene as page-wide panels, showing the breadth of the destruction across world. Jhukka's final scenes, as Aric begs her forgiveness, are powerful, balanced with the Vine's jump to ultra light speed and the woman disintegrates in his arms. X-O, fueled by rage, quickly learns that this is yet another fight that will rely on strategy over brute force. Venditti loves to force Aric, a man with a thirst for violence and the most powerful weapon in the universe, into situations that force him to use those tools last.
The fight is interestingly awkward, as the Dead Hand -- an unstoppable force of destruction clever enough to ignite the star nearest to Loam in order to destroy it -- resorts to fist fighting when Aric arrives in its home. It's an understandable reaction given the genre of this comic book, but it still reads awkwardly when Aric is picked up by a giant robot hand and punched repeatedly. One would think the collective would have a better idea of how to handle a situation such as this. Bernard, whose work looks rushed in some places, works to make the fight interesting with stylized panel layouts, but the affair is over quickly and Aric is left to regroup and re-strategize on the Vine homeship. Venditti gives us this scenario as a maturation of the character, who would once have tried to tear full force through the entire collective before being overcome by their stronger numbers. "X-O Manowar" has been the tale of a man learning to put aside his pride for a greater good and this is another step in that direction.
As the second chapter of a longer story, this was a fitting place for Venditti to display the power of the new foe. It had to be something big in the wake of "Armor Hunters," and decimating the Vine was a clear sign that this is an adversary with whom to be reckoned. Moving forward, the challenge is maintaining a threat that large for the remainder of the story, but this has been a book that has consistently shown it knows how to raise the stakes in exciting ways. X-O is ready for revenge, but what is the mental state of the Vine Priest? Given his tragic reaction, one could see him lean in for revenge or collapse into the arms of the Dead Hand, as he has now found that the god he worshipped, Shanhara, is but one of many in the universe. Though it's only part of a longer story, "X-O Manowar" #35 is still easy enough to jump into thanks to a fast-paced script and clear storytelling.