The influential ones for me when I was a kid, the prime barbarians, were Thundarr and He-man.
I credit Thundarr for planting the Kirby seed in my brain that would flourish into my full-fledged obsession with the work of Jack Kirby. The sci-fantasy vistas and the exotic creatures were unlike anything else. There was something, a gauzey curtain between my eyes and the real Kirby that lay beneath. I wouldn’t discover that wizard behind the curtain until college when I found out there was a dude named Jack Kirby who created crazy vivid fantasy worlds from whole cloth.
I liked the first year of He-man, before the cartoon. The He-man from the Masters of the Universe minicomics that came with the toys. He was a wanderer of the hills who consorted with a snake goddess, and fought dangerous beast-men. Castle Greyskull was a place of mystery, but also a place of danger where you could possibly commune with the gods, but more likely get yourself killed. The Alfredo Alcala art had an edge to it. Scary, but inviting.
The cartoon ruined Masters of the Universe. He-man was tamed. They brought him into cheesy superhero land, and gave him a twee secret identity. He was part of a domestic situation that I guess we kids were supposed to identify with, but left me bored and uninterested, looking elsewhere for that fantasy world buzz.
Illustrated mythology books filled the bill.
A giant Kirby comic. The Thor treasury that reprinted the ManGog story. Sure Thor had a lame secret identity, but he was just another tool in Thor’s arsenal. When his warrior maiden girlfriend Sif suffered a mortal injury, his doctor identity was able to heal her. After that you never saw Doctor Blake again for the rest of the 100-page story. This was amazing stuff. An extra-dimensional world that seemed to be based on a medieval warrior god culture, with superscientific elements referred to in mystical terms. One of the coolest monsters I’d ever seen in Mangog, and great sci-fi mind-expanding ideas. I didn’t know enough to think of this as a Kirby comic. I didn’t know enough to realize there were actual people who made comics.
Fast forward to my discovery of Kirby’s Fourth World, which seemed to take a quantum leap beyond Thor. This is what I was looking for. Crazed fever dreams direct from The Source.
Then there was Wally Wood and Archie Goodwin’s 8-page mini epic The Curse. A vivid, frightening, beautiful story. I sought out other Wally Wood sword-and-sorcery comics. I found a lot of good stuff, but didn’t find any I liked nearly as much as this one. The Wizard King seemed like it could’ve been the greatest thing ever, but didn’t quite come together for me.
The Conan books were pretty cool, but I didn’t really flip until I discovered Conan by BWS and Roy Thomas. I first saw them in badly-colored reprints. It didn’t do much for me. Then I checked them out in their original four-color newsprint form. It was a transcendent experience. The world of the reprints was a drab, turd-colored smear of blah. The original four-color books were glittering multicolored jewels. This combined with my discovery of BWS’s Storyteller series made me a fan for life.
Vanth Dreadstar by Jim Starlin is a more recent discovery for me. I’m still taking it all in, but so far it’s pretty awesome.
Now American Barbarian steps onto the stage to claim his place among the great barbarian warriors who came before him. Will he be the apotheosis of the barbarian genre, or another step along the way?
It’s early yet, but if you’re looking for the right soundtrack to listen to while you read American Barbarian, I recommend King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King. The title track and 21st Century Schizoid Man seem to work really well. Another one is Wolf Pack by Syd Barrett. (Pink Floyd is a good soundtrack for my comics in general, but seems to work better with UnMortals:The Myth of 8-Opus. Particularly Astronomy Domine.)
King of the Rumbling Spires by Marc Bolan (T.Rex). An obvious one: Tom Sawyer by Rush. The whole At War with the Mystics album by The Flaming Lips, particularly The Wand.
That’s about 9 hours worth of music and I’ve only had the series up for a week.