May 23, 2017

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REVIEW: American Barbarian


American Barbarian
Written and Illustrated by Tom Scioli
IDW Publishing
Here's what you need to know about American Barbarian, the insanely great (and kind of insane) graphic novel from Tom Scioli. The hero and his family live in a post-post-apocalyptic America and the titular Barbarian Meric (along with his father and brothers) have red, white and blue striped hair. The family has served as counselor and protectors to the kings of New Earthea. The relative peace of the Fortress in which they live is destroyed with the arrival of a seemingly unstoppable foe; he's a giant evil pharaoh named Two-Tank Omen (you know, like Tutankhamun) with tanks for feet. Just to repeat, EACH OF HIS FEET IS A TANK. IDW recently published a paperback edition of American Barbarian, I strongly suggest you pick it up.  

Scioli is one of the best, most interesting artists in comics today. His figure work, design sense, DIY aesthetic, they're all very recognizable. Scioli's style very much feels like an homage to the work of Jack Kirby, and I think the intent there feels very evident. Scioli is very much playing with the toys that Kirby created. In Godland (with writer Joe Casey), Scioli explores out-there cosmic science fiction that's evocative of the Fantastic Four and the Celestials. In American Barbarian, Scioli tells a story that feels like an homage to Kirby's Kamandi crossed with Conan the Barbarian
American Barbarian: The Complete Series
More than just the linework and style or even the subject matter, what Scioli conveys in his work that serves as a great homage to Kirby (and makes for a great comic generally) is the constant sense of bombast and action that comes across in the art. Character movements are exaggerated, larger than life. Even when the characters are perfectly still, they look they could leap or explode into action at a moment's notice. Scioli's skills as a sequential storyteller are first rate. He uses innovative and varied panel layouts to keep the story moving, and brings as much of a sense of motion and energy as you can bring to a static medium. I'm reminded of the work of Mike Allred, not with respect to the specific art style, but more with respect to Allred's ability to use exaggerated action and motion to tell an exciting tale that works both as a dynamic, emotional story, and is also meant to be evocative of great silver-age work (being "over the top" is a feature, rather than a bug).

Scioli's linework certainly feels evocative of Kirby, but it feels like Scioli takes what made Kirby great and pushes it in a more indie, underground ad absurdist direction. His characters feel even more stone-faced and cartoony, and less like they're meant to be "realistic" than faces that Kirby drew. They actually feel like drawings of heroic action figures come to life (Scioli really perfects this style in his wonderful Transformers vs. G.I. Joe comics). His design work in American Barbarian is fun and absurd; he's got no interest in what a "realistic" post-apocalyptic society would look like. There are monsters and robots and dinosaurs, and they all have a great deal of personality and detail and life to them.  

Scioli's colors also pop off of the page. There's a ton of bright colors, and jarring color combinations that really convey the strangeness of this world. There's an interesting contrast between the bright colors and the off-white pages on which the comic is printed. The effect is to make this comic feel like an aged, timeless artifact. Scioli's attention to detail also extends to entertaining (and sometimes hilarious), hand-drawn sound effects lettering that feels like an integral part of the art.
 
American Barbarian: The Complete Series
What also distinguishes Scioli as a storyteller (in addition to his engagingly absurd art) is his goofy sense of fun and humor (present in American Barbarian and his other comic work).  A villain named Two-Tank Omen. A lion-man with a robotic face named Gali-Leo. The whole comic is full of great and ridiculous puns and jokes, occasional juvenile humor (such as when Meric grabs a giant monster by the proverbial laser-shooting balls and uses those as a weapon to kill the monster). 

Scioli's idiosyncratic sense of humor really puts his stamp on American Barbarian and makes this much more than a Kirby homage. American Barbarian is action-packed, hilarious, bombastic, and surprisingly moving. The numerous little touches in this book make it feel like a labor of love. I give it my highest recommendation.