The Barack the Barbarian (Issue 1) Review
If you heard there was a comic book called “Barack the Barbarian,” odds are you thought it was going to be a cheap money grab, juxtaposing Barack Obama with the Conan the Barbarian comics he’s said to collect. Turns out you’d be wrong. Barack the Barbarian, subtitled “Quest for the Treasure of Stimuli!” is a decent little book, combining tropes from such disparate sources as Conan, Mad Magazine and A Canticle for Leibwitz.
The first clue this might have some substance to it was seeing the name of Larry Hama attached as writer. Hama has a genuinely unusual background in the arts. He’s appeared on an episode of M*A*S*H and an episode of Saturday Night Live. As an artist, he’s drawn issues of Iron Fist and John Carter, Warlord of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs other major character, besides Tarzan). He’s probably best known for having written long runs of G.I. Joe and Wolverine comics. And yes, he does have a few Conan scripts under his belt.
What we end up with is a book that can be read on a few different levels. At the most base level, you have a Conan-esque heroic fantasy quest. The stranger wanders into town and goes after the treasure. Move up a level and you get to the selling point: political satire. Think punny, Mad Magazine or Saturday Night Live jokes juxtaposing current political figures into Conan/Lord of the Rings archetypes. On the third level, by far the most ambitious, we have a framing narrative that evokes both the more recent Conan comics and the classic satirical science fiction novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz.
When Dark Horse Comics revived Conan a few years back, they emphasized the mythic aspect of Conan, introducing a framing sequence of a (crooked) vizier telling the tales of Conan’s rise from barbarian to king so as to educate (in reality distract and manipulate) his prince. On the other side of the spectrum, A Canticle for Leibowitz is a post-apocalyptic satire where books were burned, knowledge was lost, and history was misremembered to the extent that a nuclear war was reduced to a magic-aided dispute between princes and a shopping list was misconstrued to be a holy relic.
Barack the Barbarian is a legend being told to children, sitting around a fire in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic world. Cars are referred to as “wheeled sleds pulled by dead dinosaurs,” for instance. So in a very real sense, Barack the Barbarian appears to be the 2008 election misremembered as a legend of heroic fantasy, which in turn lends itself to political satire.
The satire is also one of minutia. Your cast of characters include Barack the Barbarian, Manny (Rahm Emmanuel recast as a particularly weasely adviser who knows how the city works), Red Sarah (Sarah Palin recast as Red Sonja, but swapping the chainmail bikini for a wolf’s pelt), Hilaria (Hilary Clinton as a sort of Amazon princess) and The Despot Boosh (you can figure that one out for yourself). Past the giggles of the recasting, Hama’s busy sending up Palin’s tendencies to want to shoot off her mouth and go on the offense and John McCain’s failed attempts at restraint; the disillusionment of Hilary’s feminist followers; and Obama’s seeming inability to get flustered.
Nothing particularly deep in the humor, though you will have needed to pay attention to the election’s actual storyline to get all the jokes.
This is a moderately amusing book that might be something entirely more literary depending on how the device of the mis-remembered legend works out. The second issue promises “Lost in the Labyrinth of Pundits,” which follows the descent into “The Pit” at the end of issue one. Personally, I’m looking forward to the skewering of cable TV icons. If this sort of send-up sounds like your thing, it’s worth picking up.