Review of Barbaric #1 or Come for the talking axe, Stay for the eternal asks
Words By Dominic Loise
Published June 30, 2021 by Vault Comics
Barbaric #1 from Vault Comics asks the question: what puts a character on the path to act selflessly? Writer Michael Moreci crafts a perfect set-up: a hedonistic barbarian cursed to perform acts of valor. Three witches show Owen the Barbarian an afterlife of eternal damnation for a life misspent on drinking, fighting, and physical pleasures if he does not follow through on his penance of accepting any plea of distress. And since this is a barbarian comic book, Owen is given a talking axe—that gets drunk on blood—as his moral path guide.
Nathan Gooden’s art style demands attention. He captures the moment when Owen is shown his damnation in a fluid transition, the reader flipping the page to see a sea storm turned into Hell. Gooden switches the tides of raging waves effortlessly into the fiery infernos of the afterlife as Owen is given a vision of what awaits him should he not agree to the witches’ curse. Gooden’s pacing reflects Owen’s internal debate about whether it’s worth taking the plunge into Hell and facing the devil he knows or surviving the storm and serving out the curse.
Gooden’s artwork flows past panels in the blood-soaked battles and sword and sorcery of the world of Barbaric. In the arena battle that opens the comic, the panels are both interlocked and scattered on a two-page spread to give the reader a sense of how quick Owen is when fighting in battle. Gooden’s pacing can, at other times, capture the slow burn of a speedy kill in scenes where characters’ deaths come so swiftly that they have not yet realized what has happened.
But it is in the slow moments that Gooden shows the depth of Moreci’s characters. This barbarian named Owen is not a parody character. Gooden’s artwork gives Owen time to show his moments of frustration, lamenting, and brooding as he is bound to the curse, as well as his rage when he is acting in service of the curse.
Owen isn’t the only one whose face makes an impact. As each battle scene increases in mayhem, the forged open fangs of the talking axe grin and its tongue licks its teeth after each slice. These facial expressions highlight the complexities of Moreci’s characters and even make a talking axe into a believable supporting character.
Owen the Barbarian is not on a hero’s journey to go down in legend. Moreci sets Owen up as someone who never wanted to do anything more than be a barbarian because it is his nature. But in fact, Owen does not celebrate his achievements. In a tavern scene after an arena fight, Owen overhears someone else taking credit for one of his previous adventures. The axe, drunk on blood from the arena, taunts Owen that this armor-clad man is telling his tale. Owen hates the man’s false bragging, but Owen does something selflessly against his nature without prompting from the axe or the curse—after the braggart leaves, Owen reacts to the shouts of an angry mob wishing to burn a witch, demanding that the mob “stop murdering women” and explains in his own way that what they are doing is wrong instead of just attacking them.
These moments hook me as I begin to wonder whether Owen is slowly getting ahead of the curse with his selfless actions in small ways, and I am certainly intrigued to see what Moreci has planned for the long game. For me, the book takes a look at the existential question asked most Sundays about nurture and nature: What causes our selfish and savage actions to become less self-serving and when do we start thinking outside of ourselves to instead put others first? Is humanity good because of a threat of judgment in the afterlife or are we good to benefit each other in the here and now in order to avoid living in a barbaric world?
To find out the answer, I recommend adding Barbaric to your pull list at your local comic shop (Issue #2 released July 28th, 2021) to follow Owen the Barbarian on this cursed journey every month from Vault Comics.