Barbarians: A Handbook for Aspiring Savages

A comic review article by: Zack Davisson

A bad book in a bad genre. This is just a bad book. Bad in concept. Bad in execution. Bad in editing. Bad in art. Really, the only redeeming feature is the Barbarian Film Guide in the appendix. I had no idea that many barbarian-themed films were made. 

The frustration of every Robert E. Howard fan is the public stereotype of Conan as a stupid, brutish and violent thug. People who have actually read the Howard stories know that; while Conan is a primal, instinctive figure; he is also cunning and intelligent, a polyglot who can speak and read multiple languages, and a leader of men who can set ranks and maneuver armies. He could probably beat you at chess.

Barbarians: A Handbook for Aspiring Savages just goes straight for the stereotype.


I don’t mind the stereotype when the joke is funny. Lothar of the Hill People, Conan the Librarian, and Groo the Wanderer are all prime examples of the parody done right. The problem with Barbarians: is that the joke isn’t funny, and it goes on for far too long. 

This is one of those parody "guide" books that pop up from time to time, like survival guides for zombie attacks or ultimate guides to ninjas.  The book focuses on "modern" barbarians, so you get Grute Skullbasher living in Vegas, or jokes about barbarians dealing with Algebra and Christmas. There is no real rhyme or reason or theme; author Chadwick just tosses in every random barbarian reference he can, like Genghis Khan juggling camels on a unicycle (really) or Ookla the Mok from Thundarr the Barbarian. Along with Mongols, Orks, Picts and Australians. Republicans are, of course, modern barbarians, even though they are the opposite from everything he describes. 

Chadwick discusses the role for women in a barbarian culture, which is essentially to shut up, be raped, and like it. Like the Sex in the City parody Barbarian in the City, or in the description of Grute Skulllbasher’s wedding. And of course there are the obligatory goat jokes.  You really get the sense that Chadwick and Kemble aren’t getting a lot of action. Again, I realize it is just a joke, but the joke isn’t funny.

The art is terrible as well. There are lots of black-and-white illustrations accompanying the jokes, most of it about on the level you would find on someone’s Pee Chee or Trapper Keeper in high school. Bad proportions. Stiff figures. Square faces. Like the text, the art is strictly amateur hour. It’s really strange, because I have seen some of Joshua Kemble’s other stuff on the internet, and he looks like a capable graphic artist. But for whatever reason this stuff just doesn’t work.

I am not a huge fan of the "guide" genre to begin with. I would rather just have a straight forward book on the subject. But I have found some of them clever and a few actually informative. The best of the genre, like the Yokai Attack survival guide to Japanese monsters, work history and folklore into the guidebook style and work as actual books.  The Real Ultimate Power ninja website was good for a few laughs although I haven’t looked at it for years. 

Barbarians: A Handbook for Aspiring Savages doesn’t have any of that. It is a book to stay far, far away from. Unless you are actually stupid like the people described in the book. In that case, you might get a few chuckles.

Zack Davisson is a freelance writer and life-long comics fan. He owned a comic shop in Seattle during the '90s, during which time he had the glorious (and unpaid) gig as pop-culture expert for NPR. He has lived in three countries, has degrees in Fine Art and Japanese Studies, and has been a contributing writer to magazines like Japanzine and Kansai Time-Out. He currently lives in Seattle, WA with his wife Miyuki. You can catch more of Zack’s reviews on his blog Japan Reviewed or read his translations of Japanese ghost stories on Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.

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