Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Trade Waiting - American Barbarian by Tom Scioli

What happened to good old fashioned fun? Most of the entertainment we absorb feels the need to have some gravitas behind it for us to deem it relevant, and in a day and age where we are literally bombarded with product on a minute by minute basis, maybe that is the only way to get your work noticed, especially in the cut-throat world of comic books. But with weight usually comes the loss of wide eyed wonder, something that is all too often overlooked in the world where each book promises ‘Earth-shattering conclusions!’ And that ‘Things will never be the same again!’ The question is, why can’t you have both? Why can’t our entertainment be both fun and important? Evidently Tom Scioli feels the same way, as shown by the recent release of his web comic, American Barbarian, into a new hardcover edition. Does he succeed in nailing both? Find out after the jump.

American Barbarian
Story and Art by Tom Scioli
Published by AdHouse Books

American Barbarian tells the tale of Meric, youngest of seven sons and bestowed with the Star Sword, an object of immense power. (Aren’t they all?) Against Meric is the nefarious Two-Tank-Omen, literally a giant pharaoh with tanks for feet. What follows is Meric’s quest for revenge due to the death of his family and the lengths he will go to achieve this. (Including but not limited to pretending to be a part of Two-Tank-Omen’s crew and tearing it apart from within.) Along the way he meets allies such as siblings Uli and Ullson, and makes some startling discoveries about his family, and the disappearance of his eldest brother.

American Barbarian is dense, not in dialogue but in scope, with Scioli throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. The plus is his hit to miss ratio is very high, albeit fairly obvious crowd pleasers such as robot knights, dinosaurs and, wait for it, robot dinosaurs. This gives Scioli an excuse to show off his greatest asset; composing easy to follow, entertaining and bombastic fight scenes, a task that he does with a relish and tenacity that few in the industry can attain.

Scioli wears his influences on his sleeve. The main one being, quite obviously, Kamandi but there are large doses of Conan, He-Man and Mad Max added to the pot also. The feeling of a positive nostalgia is inescapable, particularly with the purposeful yellowing of the pages, making them look like pages from a late silver age comic that you have rediscovered in your loft. In fact, the only tell tale sign that this is a modern book is in Scioli’s surprisingly humourous dialogue. Far from being out and out comedy, the humour in American Barbarian is subtle yet never fails to raise a chuckle, particularly when thought bubbles are used to show what is going on in Meric’s head. A personal favourite is when he realises that Uli and Ullson are in fact brothers and sisters rather than lovers and Meric thinks ‘Thank the god’s of my fathers, I thought that douche was her boyfriend.’ Possibly not that funny in a real world setting, but in a post-post apocalyptic world? Hilarious.

Anyone who has read Godland knows that Scioli’s art is heavily indebted to Jack Kirby and the same can be said for American Barbarian. Unlike Godland, where he is straight up homaging ‘The King,’ with American Barbarian Scioli is more using Kirby’s style as a touchstone; something to give the book a consistent look while exploring different approaches and styles. Scioli has no problem changing his style even on a panel to panel basis, case in point when after Meric’s family have been seemingly slain and he carves ‘revenge’ into his finger tips, (with exclamation points used to fill out the final three fingers,) Scioli uses paints and a lack of any black lines to show the reader that there is more to him than being a Kirby super fan. Another good example of this is when Meric is fighting robot dinosaurs and Scioli has the scene completely coated in blue with thick black lines to show the figures involved; a technique that has a little of the Frank Miller about it. The page that deserves the most praise though, is a double page spread that shows Meric storming a ‘moving city.’ The spread shows the entire inner workings of the city as you follow Meric running through the structure, taking out guards as he goes. This page alone needs a couple of minutes to absorb the action that is going on within.

 Using a flat, bright colour palette, Scioli has given American Barbarian look that wouldn’t be too out of place in an Eighties Saturday morning cartoon, making the announcement of DC’s new Master’s of the Universe series and the creators involved seem completely moot. (Not to write off a book before it has even been released but how amazing would Scioli be on He-Man?)

Apart from the obvious stylistic choice, there are two things that make this book and in turn Scioli’s approach to art a love letter to the greatest comic artist of all time. First up, all of his characters are drawn with a manic energy and an urgency that is pure Kirby, threatening to jump off the page at any given moment. Even when talking to each other the characters look like we are half a second behind them leaping into action. Secondly and arguably most importantly, like Jack, Scioli is an idea machine. Literally every page will have an idea, or a character, or an inventive panel layout, or even a line of dialogue that will have you marvelling at his creativity. This, even more than the playful artistic homage to him, is the sort of thing that Kirby wanted out of the creators that came after him.

As is the norm for the publisher, AdHouse have gone over and beyond the call of duty with the presentation of American Barbarian. Smaller than regular comic size yet larger than the digest format, the book is wrapped in a beautifully sturdy hard cover with, echoing another AdHouse book Afrodisiac, just a shot of Meric’s battle ready face, sans words, on the front cover. The cover, even without words, dares you not to pick the book up and have a look inside and succeeds in making American Barbarian stand out from the rest of the product on the shelves. Once again Chris Pitzer and the guys at AdHouse have shown themselves to be the little publisher that could. Their output is small but every one of their releases, regardless of genre, have been of the highest quality. The AdHouse logo, like the Fantagraphics ‘F.B.I’ and Top Shelf’s Olive, is quickly becoming a sure sign of great comics.

Verdict – Buy It

Yes, you can read it online for free, but when a presentation is this beautiful why would you want to? Scioli isn’t breaking any new ground but he is fully aware that being dare I say it, fun, is an intrinsic part of comics and he nails it with a panache that few have. A lot of creators, and publishers for that matter, could learn from Scioli. An irony as his greatest influence was the man that created the vast majority of characters that said publishers are using to rehash the same old stories time and time again. With American Barbarian, Tom Scioli has created something that is new, has legs and is entirely his own. And that would have made Jack proud.

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David said...

I love that picture made me laugh for hours. I am posting it on facebook

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