Robert Venditti and Cafu’s “X-O Manowar: Valiant 25th Anniversary Special” #1 is actually an origin issue of sorts; not of Aric of Dacia, but instead of his sentient armor, Shanhara. It’s a story that would have been right at home in a zero-numbered issue, though issue #0 was already given to the story of Aric’s own origin last year.
The inside front cover provides the usual credits and character recap regarding the bond between Aric and Shanhara, which will probably be skipped by many readers, but this time the recap sells the very premise of the issue, especially when followed up with three enticing words: “Who was Shanhara?” Regular readers will immediately realize that’s a very good question, if they haven’t asked it of themselves already. Venditti obviously agrees, and he tells a worthy origin story of a young, plague-stricken girl from millennia ago, who was both victimized and saved by her father’s unusual experiments, which lead to the creation of the armor that eventually bonded with Aric.
The story leads off with Shanhara and her father’s escape from a sick and ugly planet, which Cafu and colorist Brian Reber richly render with Apokolips-like fiery towers and darkened skies; the inside of their escape craft is likewise dark and claustrophobic. With Shanhara now out of danger, Venditti takes the opportunity to introduce her and her father to readers, where the nature of her illness and salvation are revealed as well as both her father’s motivations and mistakes. Cafu renders dad and daughter as clearly human but adds some slightly alien touches, such as the way the armor saves her life by bonding to her and her father’s dreadlock-like beard. Cafu and Reber get to really stretch out when the alien Vine race are introduced, and the armor gets to display its capabilities.
The title of the comic isn’t the only piece of time-spanning trickery used; Venditti and Cafu employ a similar one-page, four-panel time lapse tactic in two different instances. The first and shorter instance conveys how little has changed over a long period of time and, on its own, largely goes unnoticed other than as a device to facilitate movement of the story. The second, though, spans a much longer period and skillfully shows both how much things have changed in one regard, but remained almost completely static in another. The second instance, in fact, practically explains the connection between the Vine and the armor that has been integral to much of the main series on its own. With this very simple ploy, the creators give this millennia-spanning yet single-issue story a grandiose and epic feel.
The standard cover by Cary Nord as colored by Reber is an appropriately iconic image of an armor-bearing Aric, with vignettes of several of his foes and supporting cast, few of whom are featured in this issue, though they still convey the vast expanse of the character’s history both within continuity as well as in real time. Reber’s shading of Aric, which uses the same color of the ground he’s standing upon, evokes a kind of statuesque, timeless feel that exemplifies the character’s millennia-old existence.
Venditti leans a little too hard on the whole “Chosen One” motif while wrapping up the issue, but it leads to the introduction of Aric near the end and Cafu and Reber’s rendition of him in action with the armor for the first time caps off the story with an epic conclusion. “X-O Manowar: Valiant 25th Anniversary Special” #1 is an essential chapter in the X-O Manowar mythos, both as a key moment in the character’s history and as a worthwhile reading experience.