Like the old summertime annuals from a couple generations ago, "X-O Manowar Annual 2016" #1 evokes the feel of something truly special. Series writer Robert Venditti and artist Pere Perez take the lead with a full-length main story preceded by a short prologue. Three other creative teams also deliver some worthy backup features, giving readers their money's worth with over forty pages of story content.
From the first day of their relaunch, Valiant has been the comic book publishing equivalent of a welcoming committee for new readers, ever-vigilant to the always present possibility of newcomers discovering their line of stories. This comic typifies -- and, in fact, exemplifies -- that discipline, kicking off with a concise and easily consumed single-page origin of X-O Manowar, aka Aric of Dacia, which is nicely detailed by J.G. Jones. In the span of six dense but efficiently laid out panels, rookie readers will find everything they need to know about the character before plunging into the rest of the issue, and all without coming across as repetitive for the existing fans.
"Heritage," Venditti and Perez's main story, tells the tale of a young Aric as his family and the Visigoth clan flee pursuing Romans. Colorist David Baron paints a compellingly moody opening that gives way to a brighter (if cozier) look at Aric and his mother as well as the warm interior of the wagon that serves as their home. As transient as it might be, the nature of a family's home is the topic and lesson of Venditti's story, and it's one that is clearly key to Aric in his formative years.
Perez and Baron's execution of Venditti's story is nothing short of beautiful throughout its twenty-one pages. Perez captures the snug confines of the family's mobile home, as it were, as well as the expansive outdoors once the clan sets up camp. Baron's colors capture every mood just as well as Perez' lines, especially the wondrous sense of beauty and tranquility through the various seasons. Interestingly, Perez also uses the same unusual panel layout across three pages, which promotes a sense of stability for young Aric and heightens the emotion of Venditti's story when the inevitable tragedy occurs.
Perez nicely foreshadows these dire events, yet also manages to add to the tension of Venditti's plot with the mere turn of a page. Venditti's emotional script also evokes hope when he establishes Aric's highly resilient nature, despite his lifelong threat of war and constant uprooting thanks to his clan's nomadic ways. Venditti also adds flavor to his script with some nicely written and inviting period-sounding dialogue.
Amy Chu and Mike McKone's "The Prisoner" is a better-than-average backup feature, starring the Valiant Universe's G.A.T.E. Commander Jamie Capshaw. Chu's script is competent and the plot offers up a bit of a surprise at the end, making for a story that's mostly pedestrian over the course of its eight pages. McKone gets to exercise his skills with the many different facial likenesses Chu's story requires.
Jody Houser and Adam Gorham's "Taking a Meeting" features marooned Vine alien Commander Trill, pokes a little fun at Hollywood and sets up a conspiracy theory straight out a Hollywood film that almost seems convincing. The disdain and discontent in Houser's Trill is palpable, and she nicely establishes the character for her now-ongoing "Faith" series. Gorham's art is a little cruder by the standards of the previous stories, but the story doesn't suffer for it.
Venditti and Roberto de la Torre wrap up the issue with the picturesque "The Torment," an agreeable pseudo-origin of the Vine and the sentient Shanhara armor, but the four-page story is largely a setup for the upcoming arc in the main series. Nonetheless, "X-O Manowar Annual 2016" #1 delivers a beautiful full-length story plus some nice bonuses; it's a shame that such a comic only comes around once a year.