ADVANCE REVIEW: Barbaric #1 by Moreci and Gooden

Barbaric #1
Written by Michael Moreci
Illustrated by Nathan Gooden
Colors by Addison Duke
Letters by Jim Campbell
Published by Vault Comics 

I wish I could quantify or adequately describe what it is when a comic series has it, that je ne sais quoi that immediately hooks me and makes me not just say "I liked that" but say "I'm in." Whatever that alchemy is, I'm happy to say it's present in the first issue of Barbaric from the excellent creative team of writer Michael Moreci, artist Nathan Gooden, colorist Addison Duke, and letterer Jim Campbell.  I'm not typically that much of a fantasy comics person, but I'm very much intrigued by what the creative team sets up in this first issue. There's a great deal that seems fantastical, but people feel real and grounded. It's a violent, vulgar, blast of a series and I'm excited for more.

If you're a Barbarian, your goals in life are probably relatively straightforward: 

  1. Crush your enemies.
  2. See them driven before you.
  3. Hear the lamentations of their women.
Power and riches for yourself and your tribe/clan, crushing all those who oppose you, etc. These are things to strive for. Your goals are probably not to roam the lands killing people - not for personal gain and glory (which would be cool), but rather, in the name of promoting justice and "doing good".  Well, this is the situation that Owen the Barbarian finds himself in. Owen was going along, living his best Barbarian life (murdering and pillaging, drinking, sex, etc.) when he has a curse placed upon him . He can either go to Hell immediately and suffer eternal punishment and face those who sent there - OR, he can go around writing wrongs and doing good, never refusing to help those in need.  And now he has an enchanted talking axe that craves blood but also tells him who does or does not deserve to die (like Jiminy Cricket, but an axe, and very murdery). 

We first meet Owen in Barbaric is in his role as an executioner in the community of Gimesh. After consulting with his Axe, he determines that two of the three condemned people are worthy of death, and let's the third one go. He also metes out lethal justice to the cleric figure who is organizing executions in the name of his god. From there the story flashes back to Owen's adventures and his encounter with the three witches. We rejoin him in a pub, where he hears a commotion involving the impending public execution of a Witch. He steps in to help the Witch (though she is more than capable of getting herself out of this situation), and she asks for his help in dealing with a very big problem, and we see Owen's next mission. And it's a doozy.

This first issue of Barbaric is such a blast of a comic - a raunchy, vulgar, funny, super-violent story (like if John Wick was also really funny in addition to its many other virtues).  For me to really like this story means it has to clear a higher bar than it might for other people. I'm just not much of a fan of fantasy stories. I never played D&D as a kid (or an adult), I liked the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter books and movies, but that's about as far as I go. I just don't care about dragons, wizards, trolls, magic, etc. (if you talk robots and time travel, then you'll have my attention).  So, what I'm telling you is that even if you don't particularly like fantasy stories - maybe even particularly if you don't like fantasy stories, you ought to give Barbaric a chance.

Why? I'm glad you asked. I think it’s because this story feels less to me like a “fantasy story” than it feels like “a strong story being told in a fantasy setting”. Some fantasy stories have turned me off because the characters feel stilted, or the world building feels overly intricate or baroque, and the story feels bogged down in details that just don’t interest me. But right from the beginning this story grabs me. This is a fantasy setting of orcs and goblins and witches, but fundamentally it’s a story about a bad man who must redeem himself by meting out justice. The fantastical elements feel well-done, but this could also easily be a story told in the old west, or feudal Japan. And maybe that’s why I like it so much, it has a strong Western/Samurai vibe to it. 

From the beginning it’s clear that Moreci and Gooden are out to tackle big ideas, as well as tell an entertaining story. Our guy Owen is a Barbarian, but he’s an astute social observer. Within the first few pages he calls out religious hypocrisy and points out the fundamental unfairness of punishing poor people in a society that does nothing to address their poverty. This is a violent, brutal society, but even Owen and his magical murder Axe can see that someone doesn’t deserve to die simply because someone else says they do, or because it would set an example to deter theft. To be clear, Owen and his Axe are not community organizers marching in the streets. But I appreciate that trenchant observations about religious hypocrisy and social inequality inform the book from the get-go. 

It’s an insightful, funny, entertaining story. But the reason you should pick this story up in comic form (apart from the simple fact that that’s the format it’s in) is the art. I was *completely* unfamiliar with Nathan Gooden’s work before this book but - pardon the vulgarity - HOLY SHIT he’s a great artist and this is exceptional work. This comic bursts with life (and death!) and energy thanks to the work of Gooden and Addison Duke on colors.  Gooden has a fantastic style. Each artist has their own distinct style, but Gooden's work made me think of a combination of the visceral detail of Jerome Opeña combined with the angles and energy of Sean Murphy. It's incredibly compelling, muscular, brutal linework, an immensely appealing style. Not to be super cliche, but it's very metal.  Owen is a fearsome being. He’s being an imposing and not only that he clearly looks like someone who could kill you with ease, and he acts that way as well. The talking axe is also a thing of beauty in this story. Well, not beauty in the traditional sense. But, if it’s possible to really effectively convey facial acting and emotion in a terrifying-looking talking axe that looks sort of like a skull, then Gooden does that effectively.

Gooden doesn't just have a terrific linework, he is (most importantly) a a terrific sequential storyteller. From the very beginning of the story, Gooden does a great job establishing a sense of scope and place. We follow reaction from the very beginning of the story where Gooden conveys a real sense of place in a very short amount of time, and also provides a sense of scope of the size of the arena that the characters are in. From there I thought that the “camera” following the characters move from one to another in a very appealing way. And once the action begins, I appreciate that Gooden very clearly conveys a sense of the brute force and strength and speed of Owen in combat. Conveying action that is fast AND furious AND brutal AND not hard to follow is not an easy task (and not one that all artists can pull off).

Gooden has a fantastic artistic partner in Addison Duke. From the very beginning of the story, color really informs and creates the sense of place in the comic. In the first part of the story, which takes place in more of a Mediterranean seeming area, the washed-out colors convey a sense of desert and heat and dusty atmosphere. Duke nicely uses color to convey differing distances in some of the panels above, contrasting the closeness of the cleric figure with the distance of the audience. And Duke‘s usage of light and shadow really also help to convey the fearsome nature of Owen in the story (as he has a grizzled, almost stone-like muscular appearance), and bring him to life as a terrifying figure.  I also appreciated Duke's color choices with regards to the various characters in the story. This is not our world, and the diversity in the colors of the characters conveyed that this is its own, interesting world populated by diverse set of beings. And the overall sense of quality of the book extends to the excellent lettering from Jim Campbell (no surprises there). There are some fun, appropriately barbaric-looking lettering choices in the comic that are additive to the story.

Barbaric number one really does have that it factor that makes me very excited to read more. There’s tons of bloody action, humor, smart ideas, and some heart. This is without question the best debut I've read this year. 

Barbaric is coming out this June and available to pre-order now.