Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 1941 historical novel I Am A Barbarian has been adapted to a long-running online strip, and these strips are now collected in a 236-page beautifully bound hardcover print volume.
The story, about Britannicus, a young slave who serves Caligula, future (mad) emperor of Rome from AD 37 to AD 41, was adapted to the comic strip “Sunday paper” format by writer Thomas Simmons.
I Am A Barbarian was originally written in 1941, while Burroughs was in the midst of a dark and unhealthy period in his life. It was not actually published until 1967 by Edgar Rice Burroughs Inc.
As our story beings, the central character Britannicus, “the great-grandson of Cingetorix,” is captured by Romans following an unsuccessful raid on the Belgae and made a personal slave of the young Caligula. From there, “Brit” has his hands full. The mercurial and spoiled Caligula is a demanding master, and his mother is pure evil. Nevertheless, for 25 years, Brit manages to finesse his way through the quagmires and landmines of the palace’s plots and schemes. He’s a survivor. But it’s a constant balancing act: making allies, defending himself, acting humble and courting favour. And when he falls in love with a beautiful Belgian slave girl, he’s made even more vulnerable!
The visuals by artist Mike Dubisch help us to imagine the world of ancient Rome: the chariot races, the gladiator battles, the streets filled with the wealthy, the soldiers, the slaves. Dubisch’s line style is detailed, and atmospheric. Splash panels of great action scenes and pages of tightly choreographed intrigue: betrayals and secret pacts. Dubisch chooses a dark earth-colour palette which further serves to add atmosphere: the dusty and muddy undercoat to the underhanded shenanigans. At times, probably due to dot gain, the transition of art intended for online viewing to being printed on uncoated paper causes the colour tones to become extra-murky. This means that we need to read the captions slowly, carefully, sometimes deciphering them out of the background sentence by sentence. But it’s not serious enough to be a deal breaker!
Writer/adapter Thomas Simmons keeps the story flowing: Britannicus grows up under the withering pressure of Caligula and his dysfunctional family, he hardens and becomes more resolute in his rebellion. For his part, Caligula becomes more and more driven and insane, declaring wars and funding them by seizing property, throwing citizens to the lions for entertainment, holding parties, and killing the guests. And he begins to further distrust Brittannicus.
I love the brutal ‘matter-of-fact’ presentation of life in Rome. Life is cheap. And it’s hard, bloody and unvarnished.
The art, narration, dialogue (lettering by Jamal Walton), and overall tone of I Am A Barbarian are really successful in weaving historical accounts into this suspenseful tale. While reading the book, I felt immersed, pulled into the story.
The setting was one that I was unfamiliar with, of course, and I think that played in its favour. As a reader, I was “disoriented” as I found myself in Europe in the year 14AD, among the chariots and swords. It was unlike the typical ‘sword and sorcery’ environment.
And as the story progressed and I got to know the characters, a reading rhythm started to emerge. Since I Am A Barbarian first appeared as an online strip, it has the “Sunday comic” format: each printed page represents one ‘Sunday’ section of the continuing arc.
To Simmons’ credit, there is very little recapping as we read, no large portions devoted to ‘the story so far.’ So, we are plunged into the narrative. It unfolds gradually, pulling us in, weekly episode by weekly episode, page by page. Even this rhythm, of course, is not set in stone; there are exceptional full page renderings of smoking ruins, crowd scenes and so on, interspersed with varying panel grids. It’s quite fascinating. I felt that there was a lot of visual variety here, keeping my reading based in history, yet unpredictable.
The spirit of Burroughs, that mid-century visionary, emerges in this volume, well captured, channeled, and pronounced here for new readers.