Review time! with American Barbarian
Tom Scioli’s American Barbarian (from AdHouse Books for $19.95) is an odd duck of a comic. On the one hand, it’s pretty awesome. On the other hand, there’s not much too it. I honestly don’t know how to review it as I sit down to type this. I mean, I liked it a lot, but it’s kind of hard to write about. That shan’t deter me, though!
The premise of American Barbarian is simple. After a catastrophe (the characters call it the “great clusterfuck”), America has been reduced to a post-apocalyptic madhouse, as we learn on page five: “Roving mutant armies, legions of the risen dead, renegade robots, wild herds of genetic supermen, roving citadels on wheels, science experiments run amok, swirling matter-devouring black holes, re-animated dinosaurs, the sewer people of New New New York …” Basically, it’s a crazy place. The American Barbarian is a young man named Meric, the youngest of seven brothers, who with their father are the defenders of one of the kings who has risen up in this world. Meric, of course, turns out to be a one-in-a-million fighter, heir to something called the Star Sword, which he’ll use to fight evil. And, of course, there’s a new evil coming, a “tank-hooved demonic pharaoh” named Two-Tank Omen. No, I shit you not. He’s a giant pharaoh and his feet are tanks. He attacks the kingdom, kills everyone except Meric, and so of course the young barbarian swears REVENGE! He carves the letters into his fingers (using the final three for exclamation points, because he’s that serious!) and spends the rest of the book fighting against Two-Tank Omen. He gains allies, naturally, he almost has a relationship with a young lady named Uli but is too busy being a parody of Conan to really think about getting busy with her, he fights all sorts of weird things like old, ugly gods and robot dinosaurs, he makes use of a time machine, and he kills a lot of odd creatures. All in a day’s work for the American Barbarian!
As I mentioned, it’s very hard to review this book from a story standpoint. It’s ridiculous, but because Scioli plays it totally straight (there are a few jokes, but he never mocks the story itself), it gains a certain odd nobility. It’s a parody of Conan and every post-apocalyptic story you can think of, but Scioli is so relentless about it that it never cracks. If you’re going to write such an obviously ridiculous story, you have to go to extremes – either you have to completely acknowledge the goofiness of it all or you have to dive in completely. Scioli picks the second path, and while it makes the book even more ridiculous, it also makes it a lot more enjoyable. I mean, Two-Tank Omen has tanks for feet, and nobody finds this strange. If you’re willing to commit to that, you should enjoy American Barbarian. If not, it’s tough to get through the first few pages.
Similarly, if you’re not a fan of Scioli’s Kirby-influenced art, you’re not going to like this book. I love it, however, and just looking at this book is a treat. At certain points, Scioli puts in splash pages that appear painted with watercolors, and those don’t really work, but his pencil work is phenomenal. His imagination is wonderful – obviously, Two-Tank Omen is a great villain, but Scioli populates the book with all sorts of bizarre creatures whom he manages to humanize through their dialogue – they’re just grunts doing their thing, and while they’re working for the bad guy, we get the sense that it’s just a gig, and they go home after their shifts and watch television and drink shitty beer. Scioli doesn’t scimp on the double-page spreads, either – he packs each page, especially the big spreads, with a ton of visual information, and it makes reading the book a lot of fun. In one instance, he draws a giant wheeled citadel (one of those ones we heard about earlier) and shows it as a cross-section. Inside he draws Meric moving from room to room beating up everyone on board. It’s wonderfully plotted out (even though for some reason Scioli goes onto the next page with it, which breaks up the magnificence of it a bit (it’s not even one full page on-line, which I might understand), but it’s still an innovative and exciting way to show Meric’s skill. In another two-page spread, he shows Meric “surfing” along the robot dinosaurs’ necks in order to get to the rescue ladder that has been dropped down the hole in which he was thrown. Scioli’s colors are amazing, too, as everything is primary colors and stark contrasts, so that the world, while destroyed, doesn’t look terribly gloomy. It’s part of Scioli’s COMICS! sensibility, that even something as “serious” as this should look like a comic, and it even helps when Meric is in the pit with the robot dinosaurs, because the darkness feels darker because the rest of the comic is so bright. Scioli does a lot of cool things with the artwork in this book, some of which works (the lack of holding lines when lightning flashes over figures) and some of which doesn’t (the aforementioned watercolors), but the point is that he tries different things, and even when he doesn’t quite achieve what he’s attempting, you can feel the energy on the page. This comic never lets you go once you start, and that’s part of why I enjoy Scioli’s comics in general and this one in particular.
With those caveats, I can Recommend American Barbarian. Obviously, it holds true for every comic that it won’t work for everyone, but something as idiosyncratic as this comic is more likely to appeal to a specific kind of comics reader. If you’re a fan of Scioli’s artwork, this is a wonderful comic. If you’re thinking you’re going to get a deep story, you’re out of luck. Scioli sells the wackiness, but it’s still wacky. If you like that kind of thing, go check this out, either in print form or on-line. It seems that you can’t get the whole story on-line (although maybe it’s just on a different page), but you can certainly get a good idea about whether it’s for you!