Prince Aric faces his biggest threat to date when the Hunters arrive on Earth to destroy the X-O Manowar armour. But despite their violent and destructive approach, Robert Venditti’s script begs the question: is X-O Manowar our biggest threat?
Armor Hunters, Valiant’s summer crossover event, finally began this week. Through solicits and preludes this is what we know so far: the X-O Manowar suit is but one of several sentient armours throughout the vast reaches of space.
A small group of Hunters has been tracking down and destroying the armours, which they claim to be the greatest threat to the civilisations they inhabit. We also know that their quest to thoroughly destroy the armours means that they “decontaminate” the worlds where the armours have been hiding.
At the end of the prelude story included in X-O Manowar #25, the Hunters had lost another of their members in a fight with an alien armour, before exterminating the rest of the life on the planet and making their way to their next target: Earth.
Armor Hunters #1 picks up immediately where the prelude left off: at a secret Russian military base, soldiers are attacked and killed by Quartz and Helix, two of the party of Hunters, who had tracked the armour signature to the underground facility. What the Hunters discover is a red herring: the Russian facility houses multiple replica armours devoid of sentience – “empty shells”, as Quartz calls them.
Prince Aric is summoned by the American military in response to the attack on the Russian base, and he attempts to get information out of the army’s hostage, Malgam. Aric’s interrogation is cut short, in part by Malgam’s own hysteria at the revelation that the Hunters have already arrived on Earth, but also by the interruption of Primary Reebo, the Hunters’ leader, who hacks the compound’s communications.
After attempting – albeit briefly – to negotiate the surrender of the X-O Manowar armour, Primary decides a show of force is a better tactic, demonstrating his resolve by unleashing a devastating attack on the population of Mexico City.
With only four issues to the title, it’s no surprise that Armor Hunters leaps out of the gate so quickly. What is surprising is how quickly Robert Venditti has flipped the script in terms of how we view the Hunters and their mission.
In the preludes and lead-ups to this event, the team has been portrayed as villains with delusions of heroism – believing their genocidal mission to be a necessity against the threat of the armours. The portrait painted in Armor Hunters #1 is quite different. It is one of a group of heroes desperate to save the universe from the armours; a team whose morality and compassion have been eroded and broken with each successive battle. Fallen friends and a destroyed Control have left the small group alone, weary from their fight and willing to sacrifice what’s left of their nobility to end their struggle once and for all.
The proof is in the scenes featuring Primary Reebo. Beneath the callousness of a commander who orders an unprovoked attack on a massive civilian population, Venditti shows us a character who empathises with the resistance of Prince Aric and the military.
His plea to turn over the armour peacefully is a final vestige of a soldier who is exhausted not only by his own fight, but also the destruction he has had to leave in his wake. Perhaps the defiant response he received is too close an echo of all the other worlds he has had to destroy, and so he ends the conversation and switches to attacking from space, a much less personal tactic.
Doug Braithwaite’s art is solid, though he seems more at home with landscapes and computers and aliens than he does with regular human beings. It is because he captures the detail of the book’s fantastical elements so well – in particular the anguished physiology of Malgam and the cataclysmic destructive power of Gin-gr – that the more realistic elements tend to come across as bland.
Special mention goes to Laura Martin’s colours, which prove to be the single greatest visual strength of the issue. From the cold glow of alien computer screens to the brilliant sunlight over the Nebraska hillsides, Martin deftly navigates the various locations and emotional tones of the book with ease.
That being said, this issue comes down to strength of story. What it does so well is force the reader to recognise that we do not, in fact, truly know the full capabilities of the X-O Manowar suit. We know much about its user, Prince Aric, and are confident in his morality, but the suit remains a mystery. Venditti exploits this doubt and uses it to transform the Hunters from villains to antiheroes, although their version of antiheroism has itself been transformed by their calamitous mission.
Nevertheless, Armor Hunters #1 seems to point readers towards a single, nagging question: what if the Hunters are right about the armours?
Robert Venditti (W), Doug Braithwaite (A) | Valiant Entertainment, $3.99. June 11, 2014.