Tuesday, 20 August 2013

American Barbarian by Tom Scioli Review

Remember kids’ cartoons from the 80s and 90s? If, like me, you grew up in this era watching shows like Thundercats, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, Bravestarr, and so on, you’ll remember them fondly. Maybe the nostalgia for these shows has made you go back to revisit them as an adult – and if so, then chances are you re-watched the shows with a grown-up’s mind wondering what the hell you were thinking when you first saw this rubbish and thought it was good! 

American Barbarian is like one of those shows. Writer/artist Tom Scioli was a child of this era and his book is basically a paean to those incredibly imaginative but badly written, nonsensical shows that filled up Saturday morning TV schedules. It’s also a tribute to other pop culture touchstones of this era like Star Wars and Mad Max, and of course Jack Kirby’s Kamandi comics, and maybe it’s the Kirby illustration style Scioli emulates that makes the connection between this book and 80s cartoon shows stand out so sharply. 

The story is daffy in a charming way – Meric is our hero, the American Barbarian, who has red, white and blue hair (!) and bears a strong resemblance to Thundarr the Barbarian, even down to wielding a shimmering sword. When fighting an Egyptian-looking villain whose two feet are tanks (!!) called Two Tank Omen (like Tutankhamun, geddit?), Meric’s many brothers and father are killed. Devastated, Meric sets off on his quest to revenge his fallen family on a colourful adventure across the bizarre post-post-apocalyptic (!!!) American landscape. 

It doesn’t feel right to critique this comic on the writing and story like I would most other comics, mostly because that isn’t really the point of the book. Narratively speaking, the story is all over the place; the characterisation is corny as hell; the dialogue is predictable and flat; based solely on this, the book is a dud and is the reason I compare it to those 80s cartoons. Watching those TV shows now, the dialogue is ridiculous, the stories make no sense, and so on, but we loved them once, bad writing and all. It’s the art I love so much in this book, and the knowingly over-the-top silliness of the story that gives Scioli the opportunities to draw such amazing pictures, just like the great character designs, landscapes, and stories from shows like Thundercats and He-Man. 

That and the presentation of the book is really something. Though it started out as a web comic, it’s nicely bound in a lovely hardback and the pages smell great and feel high quality. It’s books like this that make me choose print over digital because you’re getting a tangible work of art for your money as well as the comic itself. 

But I can understand readers who didn’t like this book – like I said, it really is a case of style over substance. At numerous points in the story, I not only didn’t know what was going on but I didn’t care either. It’s basically all about the great art and the references, which would be fine if this were a painting, or a series of paintings, but it’s not – it’s a comic and therefore needs a strong narrative that grips the reader, and oftentimes a good script, and frankly it possesses neither. 

American Barbarian is Tom Scioli’s imagination, uninhibited and unbridled, let loose on the page and the result is a glorious mess. If you can get past the weak writing, and you’re a fan of Kirby art and 80s/90s cartoon TV show craziness, you’ll get a lot out of this one.

American Barbarian

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