I’m having a hard time making up my mind about something at the moment. I can’t decide if Tom Scioli’s American Barbarian the best thing ever, or merely the best comic book ever?
Granted, my critical faculties might still be a bit stunned from the red, white and blue uppercut of the reading experience. I did just mainline a 260-page dose of 100% pure comics into my eyeballs over the last hour or so, and I might not have quite come down from the high that accompanies the reading of the book.
Of course, the fact that Scioli’s American Barbarian can have such a powerful effect on even the toughest, most-jaded comics critic is a sort of review in and of itself. I rarely find myself tempted to gush, and I even more rarely find myself surprised by a comic book, yet here I am, knocked on my ass, my head blown and second-guessing myself for being this impressed as I struggle to find the right words to communicate the perfect power of this work, which distills the best parts of the many virtues of the trashiest, old-school American comic books into their very essences.
This thing isn’t ink on paper, its ichor on nostalgia. It’s not just Kirby-influenced, it’s Kirby being channeled. It didn’t exactly make me feel like a kid again, but it made me feel the way I felt when I was a kid, reading comics for the first time and learning to love them.
So here’s the story. At some point in the far-flung future, after an event known as “The Great Clusterfuck” (the back cover refers to this as “a post-post-apocalpytic world”), the patriarch Pa and his seven red, white and blue-haired sons serve as the warrior guardians protecting a peaceful kingdom from a dangerous world.
Listen to Scioli’s prose, in the form of Pa’s narration of the threats they face:
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…
And now, rumors of a tank-hooved demonic pharaoh slowly gaining power.
That last one is Two-Tank Omen, a giant monster pharaoh with tanks for feet whose army of monstrous warriors is conquering the world, and conquers all but the youngest of Pa’s sons, Meric.
Swearing revenge, Meric carves the word into his fingertips with a blade, but since “revenge” only has seven letters and he has ten fingers, he carves “REVEN” on one hand, and “GE!!!” on the other.
With his birthright the Star Sword, which trails a red, white and blue rainbow in its wake, Meric sets out on an adventure so epic that only Jack Kirby could have conceived of and depicted it…well, only Jack Kirby and Tom Scioli, who has at this point has internalized not only Kirby’s style of character designs and rendering, but also the King's wild imagination, factory-like idea generation and, perhaps his most ineffable quality, his ability to draw things that feel right, even if they don’t look quite right (Scioli’s dinosaurs and horses, for example, don’t look all that much like the ones you’d find if you Google Image-ed dinosaurs or horses, but they say “dinosaur” or “horse”—well, actually, they say “DINOSAUR!!!” and “HORSE!!!”—louder and more effectively than the most photorealistic, representational drawing of either could).
There are some big melodramatic moments in here, although one will evoke a story from the Old Testament, and later ones will seem straight out of Speed Racer or your typical Silver Age time-travel sci-fi story. I found myself reminded of Kamandi and Conan, but sometimes by way of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. I thought of Thundarr The Barbarian and Blackstar, of Dungeons & Dragons and a pinch—like, just two or three grains—of Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit.
There’s a scene rather early on in the book where our hero conquer an entire city—one built into a gigantic tank—all by himself, and Scioli depicts it over the course of a three page spread in which scores of tiny American Barbarian figures are drawn running, bounding and battling their way through the “panels” formed by the rooms within the fortress vehicle and the implied moments in time that surrounds each little Barbarian sprite in movement.
Multiple images of a single character on a single page being used to simulate motion or action is an old, long-standardized element of American super-comics storytelling, of course, But Scioli has taken it to such hyperbolic extremes that he’s completely transformed it by multiplying it by a higher factor than anyone else would dare.
That’s American Barbarian in a single sequence—traditional comics with all of the familiar elements turned up as loud as the knobs will go, pedal-to-the-metal, flaming, screaming, guitar-soloing, ne plus ultra COMICS with a capital C, O, M, I, C, S and too many exclamation points, with “too many” here being defined as “the perfect amount.”
American Barbarian may not actually be the best thing ever, it may not actually even be the best comic book ever, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel like it is as soon as you close the cover.