Conan the Barbarian returned to the pages of Marvel Comics more than two years ago in what was promised to be a revival of sword & sorcery comics, which last saw a heyday in the 1980s when both Warlord and Conan were still popular monthly series. Unfortunately, like nearly every series following that decade the explosion of new Conan material has simply produced more of the same—reproductions of Howard’s familiar take on brutal men slaying thugs, challenging magic, and bedding women. Even as a reader who appreciates the past work of Mike Grell and Barry Windsor-Smith, it all feels too derivative to merit much attention. Thankfully, Barbaric #1, from writer Michael Moreci and artist Nathan Gooden at publisher Vault Comics, recognizes that repeating the past is a surefire recipe for mediocrity and provides the first exciting new sword & sorcery series to hit comic book stores in many years.
Barbaric centers on Owen, a Conan-like barbarian in a world filled with familiar fantasy tropes (e.g. multiple humanoid races, an abundance of magic, gladiatorial combat) cursed to “do the right thing” as it’s defined by his talking, bloodthirsty axe. The premise clearly defines its own conflicts as the anything-but-noble Owen is compelled to help others and forbidden from crossing nebulous moral boundaries. It’s also a concept that can be presented without much exposition as the debut issue gracefully introduces readers to its very strange world with only a single flashback sequence.
While the genre elements are plenty recognizable, Barbaric’s tone and style are unique and will likely intrigue readers who would otherwise steer clear of niche. It embraces modernity from the very start as the opening page produces purple prose only to rebutted a moment later by Owen’s response: “Fuck this shit.” Dialogue is modernized to make the text more accessible, which in turn allows for Barbaric to more easily define a modern sense of humor and politics. It is an incredibly funny book, too, regularly making use of long pauses and Owen’s own dry responses to deliver guffaw-worthy lines. It’s far more engaged than most comics of its own ilk as well, taking a funny stab at “trickle-down economics” very early in the story.
As well as the debut issue differentiates itself from the tone and storytelling of similar comics, it also showcases the enthralling aesthetics that made its predecessors so popular. Gooden does not ape past greats, but his appreciation for the likes of Grell is clear. He populates pages with a diverse array of humanity making every background an invitation to explore.
Violence is depicted with intense ferocity as both weapons and body parts are hewn into pieces. The cause-and-effect relationship portrayed in the final action sequence is particularly noteworthy as it embeds a great deal of information into the action, like a witch’s unique abilities, never requiring a single word to explain what is occurring. All of this is enhanced, in turn, by an excellent set of core character designs—each of them instantly distinguishable. Even a handful of inconsistent portrayals never slow the issue’s pacing.
Gooden’s artwork invites reluctant readers to revel in the genre elements and Moreci’s modernized take on it ensures there’s plenty to hold the interest of new readers and old, comic-collecting battle axes alike. There is a genuine appreciation for what came before, but never an ounce of nostalgia to be found on the page.
Over the past several years, direct market readers have found a new surge of sword & sorcery, but they’ve nary contained a new idea. Barbaric #1 breaks that trend by producing a familiar barbarian and world with an entirely unfamiliar approach. It is boisterous in its style, brutal in its combat, inventive in its plotting, and consistently hilarious amidst all of that. The result is a comic I am very much looking forward to reading each month as Barbaric finally reintroduces ambition to one of comics’ most revered genres of yore.
Published by Vault Comics
On June 30, 2021
Written by Michael Moreci
Art by Nathan Gooden
Colors by Addison Duke0comments
Letters by Jim Campbell
Cover by Nathan Gooden and Addison Duke