By Anna Peppard
I didn’t like X-O Manowar #1. At first, this confused me, because there are plenty of things in this comic that should appeal to me. It’s chock full of what I like to call Gender Stuff: meaning, in this case, that it stars a frequently naked, largely speechless male protagonist whose interior monologue is very preoccupied with spilling and sucking bodily fluids, which he refers to as “juices.” And symbiotes and sentient armors are always (always) sexy. Mere human companions have nothing on succulent second skins that weave themselves into your flesh, making you bigger, better, and infinitely extensible. They sometimes drain a little lifeforce, but that’s a small price to pay for the liquid touch of an empathically shapeshifting machine/plant/alien who knows you better than you know yourself and loves you like its life depends on it, which it often does.
X-O Manowar #1 also features a sympathetic gay character co-written by Jim “there are no gays in the Marvel Universe” Shooter. It’s hardly a perfect portrayal and certainly doesn’t absolve Shooter of anything, but still—this stuff should interest me. And intellectually, it does. Emotionally, however, this comic left me cold. I wasn’t even seduced by the delicately craggy pencils of Barry Windsor-Smith finished by the staider hands of Bob Layton and John Holredge—a harmonious contrast ideally suited to this story about clashes and conflicts between nature and technology, human and animal, past and future, and the alarmingly fragile boundaries between those supposedly discrete concepts. This is a thoughtful and often beautiful comic book. Yet here I sit, unmoved. Because as much as I love Gender Stuff, I don’t always love certain kinds of male fantasies. And this comic is certainly kind to those fantasies.
Take the opening scene where the protagonist, a time and space displaced Visigoth barbarian named Aric, first acquires the X-O Manowar armor. Rivulets of green fluid—the “juice” of the spider-people who are this story’s main antagonists—drip from Aric’s acres of bare flesh as he stabs and claws his way through hordes of enemies and into the narrow cylindrical corridors of the spider-people’s spaceship. The corridors get pinker the closer he gets to the womb-like central chamber housing his prize—the armor that lets him punch an exit wound in the spiders’ egg-shaped ship. Aric doesn’t understand the armor’s technology. He only knows his naked body is soft, his enemies are hard, and the armor is harder. The word “hard” is repeated ad nauseum in this comic book, including eight times within the interior monologue that narrates the first three pages. It’s most often used to describe the spiders, who Aric calls “hard-skins.” But it’s also used to describe everything, spider flesh as well as weapons, beds, armor, and sometimes emotional states, the kind that help a man survive.
Aric’s acquisition of the Manowar armor reads like a form of rebirth. Although rebirth fantasies aren’t exclusively male or masculine, this one’s pretty phallic, reading specifically like a fantasy of self-birth. Our protagonist and supposed identification figure violently expels himself and becomes harder because of it, a self-made man untainted by the feminizing shame of a human womb’s life-giving labor. Babies are soft but Aric is harder than hard.
But being hard is hard work. Upon arriving on Earth circa 1993, Aric promptly finds a female helper who’s just as promptly fridged so he can realize the consequences of both wearing the Manowar armor and rejecting it. This woman, Mariah, is mutilated by the spider-people so Aric can feel feelings while cradling her severed head, and so we can feel feelings while watching him, secure in the knowledge that all these feelings are properly manly since Mariah isn’t a person—she’s an idea, and that idea is the burden of manhood. In this comic and so many others, manhood is like power—it makes you special in a “cool kills” kind of way but also requires tireless vigilance. Which is why you need armor and why you must never lower your guard, whether it’s for a nice human woman, an evil spider-woman reminiscent of Milton Caniff’s Dragon Lady, or a solicitous yet duplicitous man with “birdlike” features, a penchant for patterned shirts, and the name of everyone’s favourite dude doll—Ken.
I don’t know who wrote what in this comic, which plot choices or lines of dialogue originated with Shooter or co-writer Steve Englehart. But speaking as someone who’s read that Shooter-penned story where a duo of lasciviously evil gay men threaten to rape Bruce Banner at a YMCA, the introduction of Ken smacks of Shooter. Ken openly objectifies naked Aric, “clucks like a woman over [his] wounds,” then takes him home and draws him a sweet-smelling bubble bath. Aric, rendered vulnerable by his nudity; his wounds; and his ignorance of the world, stares uncomprehendingly at the bubbles as Ken drapes himself over the side of the tub, smiling a suggestive, close-lipped smile while trailing a hand through the water. The scene is tense in all the wrong ways; Ken reads like an opportunistic predator who’s extra scary because he’s gay.
To be fair, Ken is more than he seems. We’ll learn later that his motives are complex; he betrays the bad guys to save Aric’s life, and Aric saves him in turn. And while Ken does make a noble sacrifice to keep the big white hetero hero safe, he survives the “bury your gays” trope, playing a prominent role in subsequent issues. It’s also worth noting that Aric, befitting a guy out of time, isn’t homophobic in the parlance of 1993. Aric knows Ken is attracted to men but associates this with wizards—men who are different, but with power that’s worth respecting. Your mileage on that will vary; making minorities magic is another trope-y minefield.
It’s also fair to ask who Ken is here for—whose fantasies does he serve? I like a few of the frames where Ken is looking at Aric, not lasciviously but knowingly and a bit longingly, like he recognizes the techno-barbarian for what he is—a generic man in a generic mansuit purveying generic fantasies about being generically male. But these moments aren’t in the script; they’re in the artists’ naturalistic styling of Ken and the ways they spotlights his gaze, inviting us to look at Ken looking and look where he looks. These were among the only moments in this comic that moved me, the only times I didn’t feel lonely in my own looking or seeing.
So why don’t I like X-O Manowar #1? It’s not because it’s male or masculine, or because it says the word “hard” 25 times in 29 pages. I’m a known connoisseur of fictional penises; phallocentrism isn’t necessarily a turnoff. But after reading this comic five times closely and many more times loosely, trying to pick up the vibe of the thing separate from my tendency and training to read too much into everything, I realized—I’m fighting the basic fantasy at the heart of this comic. Which is partly the fantasy of being hard, but specifically the fantasy of having armor. This is an armor story, not a symbiote story. The armor is, primarily, an object, not an agent—something Aric uses but doesn’t love.
I’ve never really wanted armor, not even when I was a kid who wanted a sword (the fencing kind, for showy swashbuckling which I assumed precluded killing). I’ve also never been able to want it. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the appeal. Problem is, I can’t imagine it saving me. In fictional worlds born of patriarchy, women can be hard but never impenetrable. Almost every female superhero has been threatened with sexual violence, and most of the prominent ones have been victims, invulnerability be damned. Aric’s vulnerable sometimes, but only sometimes. Other times, he’s wrapped up in a fantasy of impenetrability I can’t wrap my head around. A harder skin might foil Aric’s enemies, but it’s not enough to foil mine. Or so I’ve been led to believe.
When women get armor in male-centric genres, it usually emphasizes our apparently essential femininity and femaleness. Roman lorica segmentata gets refashioned as miniskirts, chainmail becomes sequins on a string bikini, chest plates are molded in the shape of our breasts (or someone’s breasts, maybe, I guess). There are, of course, exceptions, and the right chainmail bikini can hoist the patriarchy on its own petard. But it’s hard, and hardness isn’t always sexy or worth it; sometimes it’s just hard. A suit of armor that covered my legs and stomach and protected my breasts instead of fetishizing them might protect me for a while, and that’s a worthy fantasy. But the fantasy is either too fantastical or not fantastical enough. Either way—it’s too hard for me to imagine.
There’s a version of X-O Manowar #1 that dreams bigger, deconstructing toxic masculinity by making a barbarian give a care—about other people, about community, and about his own preconceptions and physical limits and what they mean to his gendered self. Or by having him fuck his armor, a possibiltity that’s teased on the page where the armor “wraps around him like a bear skin” and the one where it cries out a series of increasingly orgiastic yeses as it comes to Aric’s need. (The latter was, without question, my favourite page of the comic.) But I’m more convinced by the version of this story that’s about conquering the feminizing threat of technology, and how the best man for the job hails from a brutal yet idealized past when only some men are real men but all women are objects. Maybe Aric is different. Or maybe he’s simply special, in the long tradition of men being special because they’re the right colour, size, and temperament to wear or wield a double-edged weapon without being unmanned.
Part of me envies the fantasies Aric embodies. But another part of me is grateful they don’t appeal to me, because his power isn’t worth the anxieties that nurture it. Who cares about hard or soft when you can be fluid? And when you have to be, because binaries breed wars and man’s got enough of those.
X-O Manowar #1
Writers: Jim Shooter and Steve Englehart
Artist: Barry Windsor-Smith, Bob Layton and John Holdredge
Colourist: Jorge Gonzalez
Anna is a writer, talker, and PhD-haver. She’s published widely on representations of race, gender, and sexuality within a variety of popular media genres and forms, including action-adventure television, superhero comics, professional wrestling, and sports culture. She’s the editor of the anthology Supersex: Sexuality, Fantasy, and the Superhero and co-hosts the podcasts Three Panel Contrast (a monthly discussion of comics classics) and The Oh Gosh, Oh Golly, Oh Wow! Podcast (a weekly, issue-by-issue re-read of Marvel’s classic Excalibur series).
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