When I offered to review Thrud the Barbarian, I must admit, I had not heard of the series. I jumped at the opportunity thinking, “Oh, like Conan the Barbarian – tons of epic blood and gore. This will be great!” Not that I’m a violent women, or so my counselor reassures me, just spunky. Well, when I opened the collector’s edition, bracing myself with eager anticipation for the graphic novel version of Dexter, I wound up reading something quite different . . . and a lot better.
Thrud the Barbarian is a hardbound collection of Carl Critchlow’s Thrud comic series, along with bonus Thrud Shorts material from Valkerie Quarterly and White Dwarf. I am sure Thrud and comic purists out there are seething at my ignorance, but I am glad I went into Thrud’s adventures unaware of what I would find, because it was such a pleasant surprise. I spent the night laughing to the point of tears rolling down my face. Carl Critchlow’s sense of comedic timing is pure gold. As a vaudeville and comedy purist, I can truly say that his writing, and particularly punch-line/button timing, is reminiscent of early SNL sketches along with Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin’s physical antics.
Thrud is the anti-hero, as most of the stories he wanders into unintentionally with no idea of his own involvement. He is an abnormally tall and muscular warrior welding a medieval labrys, and he has a teeny, tiny, little head you can barely see under his Viking-style horned helmet. Thrud is not the brightest hero or character to exist, but it is his stupidity that drives the action and humor. Critchlow sums it up best in one of his White Dwarf shorts where a director-like figure looks at Thrud’s destruction of zombies, aliens, and beasties and says, “Well—the Violence seems to be going ok — But I think we could do with a plot . . .,” to which Thrud responds, “OH – – Right!” and proceeds to decapitate his next creature under the sound effect “PLOT!” instead of the usual Splatt, Crunch, Mash, Skrunch, Blat, Thwop, Thunk, or Spam! Thrud’s only goal in life is the pursuit of beer, and god help you if you get in the way of his beloved. In fact, I’m surprised Thrud never became for Budweiser what the Marlboro Man was for Phillip Morris. Who doesn’t love a funny Budweiser commercial?! If you’re out there, Budweiser . . . Thrud want beer! NOW! (And, remember to send the endorsement checks to Christina Brookman.)
At first I was intimidated by the long, complicated names of characters and towns, thinking I would need to take meticulous notes to keep them all straight, until I finally realized none of that mattered. In fact, there is a part of me that wonders if Carl just had fun randomly putting vowels and consonants together to create the names, either as a commentary on fantasy literature or just because it was fun and witty. I’m guessing the latter or a perversion of both. Each chapter deals with a new town, new villain, and an elaborate plan to overpower the villain, cure the town’s problems, or find wealth in dangerous lands. It’s like Pinky and the Brain over and over, but a new group of characters plays the Brain in each “chapter” and Pinky inadvertently gets mixed up in the plan . . . usually because someone took his beer, spilt it, or offered him some. Thrud like beer! Throughout the epic journeys, the body count piles up, sometimes even by accident or misunderstanding, because let’s face it, it’s like letting a drunken two year old wield a battle axe. In the end, the town is left worse than where it was in the beginning, but you can’t help but laugh at the irony in each case. Critchlow ends each journey with a quick punch line, and then it’s done and the reader is left gasping for breath and reaching for a tissue box. I may have snorted and honked when I left, but I am really picky and critical about comedy, and Thrud has become my new guilty pleasure. It’s smart and well crafted, planned, and executed. The artwork, while not beautiful, is in no way unprofessional or subpar. It perfectly fits the mood of the novel: detailed, but simple, and cartoony with lovely snippets of hidden visual gags. This is a graphic novel you will want to read multiple times, as you will catch something new each time, be it in the text or the drawings.
I didn’t find the first two Valkyrie shorts to be of the same caliber as the rest of Critchlow’s writing. He tried to fit too complicated of a plot into a short bit and the jokes don’t land as well; however, it picks up with the third and only gets better from there. The shorts are best when the plot and action are simple: short, sweet, and to the point. It’s in these moments when you really get to know Thrud as he is used more, because the bits are so short and it is fun to see how his character developed over time. Carl Critchlow is truly a gifted graphic artist, writer, developer . . . mastermind. Through his sketchbook and the “original covers” for each chapter, you can see his skill as an artist through beautiful drawings with vibrant color. He clearly chose a style for the final look that fit his novel’s world. Thrud the Barbarian has a true concept that is executed both visually and verbally to create a world all of its own; a world where somehow, Thrud is our loveable, bumbling “hero” in search of beer. Is that so much to ask?