THIS REVIEW OF BARBARIC: AXE TO GRIND #1 CONTAINS MILD SPOILERS.
by Clyde Hall. He’s a barbarian as leonine as he is caustic, cursed to do the “right thing” and help those in need. She’s a witch who always has a weapon at hand—or anatomically handy thanks to a wide-ranging set of mystic tattoos. They’re joined by a chatty, hemo-cognoscente magic axe with a drinking problem. Together Owen, Soren, and Axe are Barbaric, and their second volume of adventures begins in Axe to Grind #1. It’s not a moment too soon. Since the first volume made my Top Ten of 2021 list, it’s a return I’ve eagerly anticipated, like Axe surrounded by Bloodless Ones, cleaving his way to a rare and sanguinary target.
That’s not entirely accurate. I picked up a copy as soon as Barbaric: The Harvest Blades one-shot came out earlier this month, returning to the tabletop RPG-like scenarios of scribe Michael Moreci. Don’t misunderstand; he’s not world-building here. He’s establishing characters you want cracking equal parts wise and heads as part of your dungeon-delving party. Companions you go inn-crawling with once back in the civilized climes of West Gronkfort. Owen and company mince meat, not words, and it’s bloody funny. Both. Bloody and funny, just like being along with a veteran group of salty, plain-speaking gamers on an ill-advised quest that promises sufficient treasure. Avarice overrides better judgement.
You see the same spirit in The Harvest Blades. It also provides insight to the barbarian’s pre-curse and pre-Axe adventuring party—including his brother, Steel, who joins Owen and Soren in Axe to Grind #1 after requesting their help at the end of the initial Barbaric run.
This second volume launches immediately after the end of Barbaric #3 with a heated vampire battle on Steel’s behalf. What follows is a journey in pursuit of an old foe, an Orcish warlord who shares history with the brothers. Along the way there’s economy-sized undead, majestic seaborne leviathans, and humanoid speed-flaying. Each encounter comes with signature gouts of blood spackle, a hallmark of Axe when he’s making helping those in need the most eviscerating experience possible.
It’s been roughly a year since the last Barbaric entry apart from the one-shot, yet the creative team misses few beats resuming the tempo of bloodletting, trauma bonding, and cynical musings that has come to define the title. Those seeking high fantasy court intrigues or subtlety are on a path to disappointment. But for those who appreciate solid storytelling involving protagonists with boots-on-the-dungeon-tiles experience, hard-bitten survivalists who’ve endured to become serious opposition for even the most powerful and unholy forces, welcome home. This is the most ribald and raucous fantasy fun you can have without rolling dice.
Much of the credit belongs to Moreci for maneuvering a narrow narrative gorge between strong character-building and the unseemly (but perfectly appropriate) lifestyle of those adventuring into places angels would grant a wide berth. Dialogue could easily slip from funny to offensive, but somehow it doesn’t. Given what Owen and company are looking at in any outburst, we’d likely use the same words so how can we fault him or Axe? The violence and gore’s excessive, but again, appropriate to the situation. Those balances, a fine example of Moreci’s writing chops, keep this book grounded.
That elusive balance owes equal credit to Nathan Gooden’s art. Nothing demonstrated this more than The Harvest Blades one-shot; while Robert Wilson IV did a compelling job, the lack of Gooden’s aesthetic was sorely felt. Gooden makes unbelievable threats—be it pit fiends, kraken, or vampires—creditably alarming and ghastly. In fact, they inspire empathic reactions for what these characters encounter. In partnership with Moreci, Gooden creates potent sequences of perdition-level peril and payoff.
The muted and darkened tones of colorist Addison Duke lifts the book’s graphics to the next level, where unpleasant memories carry yet deeper hues and soul-dimming dread. Jim Campbell’s letters give a bloody and besotted Axe his perfect visual voice, lending queasy nuance to the fighters who cleave their way to a blood-soaked surface and into daylight. The combined result is one of those perfect comic book combinations: Moreci, Gooden, Duke, and Campbell form a creative force elevated by each contributor so that the loss of any single part immeasurably lessens the final product. Together they’re one of the finest teams currently working a title for any comic book company.
Come for the bloodletting. But don’t be shocked finding yourself sticking around for the bonds formed between characters, those caustic adventurers who still harbor hope for better lives beyond curses and afflictions. That aspiration won’t lessen the voluble swath through which they cut walls of flesh both human and inhuman, of course. But in Barbaric: Axe to Grind #1 you’ll appreciate the depth of insight running alongside the book’s many depths of carnage.
Vault Comics / $4.99
Written by Michael Moreci.
Art by Nathan Gooden.
Colors by Addison Duke.
Letters by Jim Campbell.
Barbaric: Axe to Grind #1 is available now. To find a comic shop near you, click this. Issue #2 is currently slated for a September 21 release.