Sunday Slugfest: Joe the Barbarian #1

A comic review article by: Thom Young, Jason Sacks, Danny Djeljosevic, Chris Kiser, Dave Wallace
Joe the Barbarian is Grant Morrison’s latest Vertigo project, a series that sees lonely and socially awkward teenager Joe Manson drawn into a fantasy world that provides him with valuable escape--both literally and figuratively.

Joe is a creative high school kid who doesn't fit in with his peers; he's the victim of bullies. Additionally, Joe has Type 1 diabetes and his dad died in Iraq. However, one morning he wakes up and things seem very different.

"Chapter 1: Hypo"

Jason Sacks:
Danny Djeljosevic:
Chris Kiser:
Dave Wallace:
Thom Young:

Jason Sacks:

You probably already know all about Grant Morrison, and I'll get to his writing a little further down in this review. I want to start this review by discussing Sean Murphy's artwork in Joe the Barbarian #1. Murphy's illustrations are the perfect complement to Morrison's writing; together the two create a quiet sort of magic.

You can see some of the interesting techniques that Murphy uses in this comic by looking at his cover. There's an interesting juxtaposition of a painterly fantasy landscape in the upper left, military grave markers in the central left, and a more grainy depiction of Joe's bedroom to the right and lower left.

The gawky and awkward figure of Joe in the center of it all. Dozens of toys cluster at Joe's feet like supplicants begging for attention, and he's holding a sketchbook and pencil in his left hand--almost trying to hide them from the reader. There are holes in Joe's chinos, and his jacket is perhaps too long in the arms. The bottom part of the bedroom image has large dots on it--similar to the dots that were used for non-primary colors back in the days of four-color comics.

It's a great cover because it really summarizes the main character of this issue in one image. We can tell right away that Joe's an awkward figure, a kid whose own weird complexities are preventing him from fitting in. He's a dreamer, but he's trapped in his own awkward reality.

Inside, Murphy continues delivering compelling artwork. He brilliantly captures the kind of run-down and awkward world that Joe lives in. In the first few pages, readers easily feel the uncomfortable distance between Joe and his mom while they're riding in their drab and outdated small car. These two people seem to live in different worlds from each other. The mom has no idea what Joe is drawing in his journals, and Joe isn't really paying any attention to the problems that his mom is having in keeping the family's house.

With its relentlessly energetic style, Murphy's art often reminds me of Paul Pope's work--full of small moments made larger through use of deep detail and perfect realization. For instance, the scene that spans pages 4 and 5 is drawn in a way that maximizes the power of the image being conveyed. On this double-page spread, Joe is dwarfed by a large oak tree shedding its leaves for autumn. The crosses from military graves surround Joe and seem to enwrap him as they stretch to the distance like a prophecy for future pain. The city is in the far distance, but it feels a million miles away from Joe's meditative tableau.

As for the script by Grant Morrison, Joe the Barbarian is an unusual work by the author. It's quieter and not very wordy.

Morrison has always created extremely dense scripts, but in this one he's content to allow Murphy to create a mood. It's an intriguing change of direction; Morrison has always been more about the Big Event than small emotions, but here he lets mood prevail.

It's delightful that Morrison allows himself to slow down; in doing so, the story acquires a thoroughly realistic quality that we seldom see in Morrison's writing. This effect is as far as possible from Morrison's hyperactive and universe-splitting work on JLA and Seven Soldiers. Those series rarely would waste a panel in establishing mood, while this comic gives readers five sumptuous pages of Joe coming home from school to an empty house.

Those panels showing Joe coming home are quiet, but they're not padded. They give readers context for Joe's life and a feeling for why Joe seems so ill at ease.

Though he obviously lives in present-day America--there's a reference early in this issue to cell phones--Joe's house seems a place frozen in the 1980s. It contains old furniture that is long out of fashion, beat-up old heaters, and nasty shag carpeting.

In his bedroom, Joe seems to have an old computer, which we don't see him use, and his only video game system seems to be an old Atari that is connected to the television next to his bed. His room also contains a pet white rat, posters of the solar system, and a bunch of action figures and military toys that seem to symbolize the uncomfortable childhood debris that Joe has allowed to dominate his life.

When he flashes into a fantasy world where Transformers, GI JOE figures, and private eyes gather, Joe is informed that "this fairytale's on a one-way trip to Hell." It's impossible to tell if Joe is having a bad reaction from forgetting to take his insulin injection or if our young protagonist is really transported to this imaginary land. This convention of playing with reality feels like classic mind-bending Morrison--with universes that fold into other universes.

This issue may end up just being the quiet opening chapter for a traditional thrilling, universe-spanning Morrison comic--and that would be pretty enjoyable. However, I wouldn't mind it at all if the next seven issues were equally as quiet as this one.

In its own way, this issue is as interesting as any issue of Final Crisis or Batman and Robin. It's great to see Morrison write something quiet for a change--and Sean Murphy may be the perfect artist for this sort of story.

And hey, the thing's just a buck! Isn't it worth a stinking dollar to read a really great Grant Morrison comic?

Danny Djeljosevic:

Has anyone noticed that Grant Morrison isn't taking any part in this "Blackest Night" hullabaloo? As a proponent of utopian superhero comics, we can assume he has a low opinion of comics full of wanton zombie rape when, in reality, all you need are beautiful hyperpop Batman stories that will still make sense to posterity in the 30th century.

Joe the Barbarian might be as close as Moz gets to "Blackest Night" if you read it as a meta-commentary on "maturity" being forced on children's concerns. When Joe enters his fantasy world due to insulin deficiency, he's faced with action figure mainstays like G.I. Joes, Transformers, and even Batman--all of which have become adult concerns as their fans have grown up to desire more "mature" stories based on their childhood playthings. That Joe's toys are experiencing the threat of ultimate evil at the same time that the DC universe's toys are having necrotic firecrackers strapped to them is surely no coincidence.

The dialogue from the faux-Optimus Prime on page 19 is ridiculous: "PLAYTOWN burns from TEDDY BEAR ALLEY to STARBASE HEIGHTS. And the drains are CHOKED with guts and stuffing." However, these lines are no worse than watching Green Lantern and The Flash battling the rotting corpses of their friends risen from the grave to murder.

Yet all this meta-talk is but one layer, as the book would be quite rubbish if that was all there was to it. Instead, Morrison and artist Sean Murphy mostly use the first issue to depict the life of a 12-year-old outcast--the best example being the sequence of Joe's after-school routine told across five pages. Simply put, he gets off the bus, walks home, and enters the house.

However, that sequence is presented so that the depressing, minute details of the routine (through the front door, up the stairs, drop the backpack, climb the rope ladder) give us the sense that Joe does this every day.

Speaking of Murphy, this high-profile work with one of the biggest writers in comics should give the artist the exposure he deserves. The "routine" scene alone shows his talent as a sequential artist, but his linework is especially great--with perfect renditions of objects that have strict geometries (cars, houses) while organic figures like people and trees are rendered in a looser, scratchier yet extremely consistent style (the faux-Transformer, it seems, is a combination of the two). The effect is the creation of a physically real realm.

All of this great work is given additional yet vital mood by colourist Dave Stewart's use of earth tones, making for a comic that feels like a rainy day when you're stuck inside the house and the world only succeeds to depress.

Chris Kiser:

In recent interviews, Grant Morrison has acknowledged the challenge of writing original and engaging superhero stories--a genre in which the audience “knows” at the outset of any conflict that the heroes will ultimately win out and the status quo will be restored. He has described his own stories as merely attempts to trick readers into forgetting this fact--luring them into the notion that the good guys have finally met their match.

It’s a technique that was put on good display during Batman RIP, and it essentially formed the thematic backbone of Final Crisis. At this point in his career, Morrison should be considered a master at making the prototypical superhero plot feel fresh and unpredictable.

However, can the same be done outside the superhero genre in a tale where the central characters are self-described stereotypes? How can the familiar conventions of a shy outcast facing schoolyard bullies be made to feel like something genuine rather than rehashed?

Joe the Barbarian is Morrison’s answer to this last question. Such potential clichés avoid that pitfall as long as they’re backed with a heavy helping of heart.

The titular Joe is an introverted middle school student suffering from Type-1 diabetes who’d rather immerse himself in drawing a sketch of a comic book character than interacting with his mom or classmates. Such behavior earns him a target on his back for the bullies who mock him on the bus and steal his blood-sugar-maintaining candy.

It would all seem rather bland if it weren’t infused with emotion, and for this effect artist Sean Murphy deserves just as much credit as Morrison. His rendering of the mop-topped Joe’s navel gazing and wounded facial expressions lead us to want just as much to escape from the world as does our protagonist--which is why the mood shift is so wonderfully pronounced once Joe gets home from school and we see that he has the coolest . . . room . . . ever.

Murphy gives Joe a real Fortress of Solitude--the boyhood dream of anyone in their late twenties, complete with a massive action figure collection, original NES, and Batman the Animated Series wall art.

Once Morrison and Murphy have outlined Joe’s dreary world and taken us into refuge with him from it, they’re ready to kick the story into full gear. As an insulin-related event threatens Joe’s life and alters his mental perceptions, we are also yanked away from our comfort and plunged into a world of panic.

It is in this state of delusion and hallucination that Morrison will tell the bulk of his tale. As fun as it is to peer at the splash pages depicting Joe’s toys come to life--and count up the number of characters we recognize--it’s also a scene marked with dread and urgency. I’m ready to see where this story leads, though I fear it will not be marked with a cheerful resolution.

One issue in, I’m fully immersed in the world of Joe the Barbarian. Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy have created a setting that is both sad and soothing, then ripped it out from under our feet for the sake of adventure. I’ll be happy to let them continue doing so for the remaining seven issues.

Dave Wallace:

Grant Morrison is one of my favourite writers in comics, so I tend to pick up anything written by him regardless of content or subject matter. What's unusual about Joe the Barbarian, though is that it is the artwork rather than the writing that really steals the show in this first issue.

From the impressive first glimpses of the book’s artwork that were seen in online previews a while back, I knew that I was going to be keen to read the series for the visuals alone--and now that the first issue is here in full, it doesn’t disappoint.

Sean Murphy’s illustrations are far more instrumental in setting the tone of the book than is Morrison’s text. It’s through Murphy’s visuals that we really get a sense of how Joe relates to the world around him. For the most part, the book’s pages seem quite static and lacking in energy.

Many of the panels contain expansive, unmoving vistas against which Joe appears to be a tiny and almost unnoticeable figure--thus emphasising his feelings of insignificance. Once we get inside Joe’s house, there’s an intensely claustrophobic quality to many of the panels, with Murphy employing extreme perspectives that make the space appear constrictive and unaccommodating.

Another visual trick that I noticed throughout the book was the abundance of straight lines--whether it’s the countless cross-shaped headstones in the cemetery, the zebra crossings on the street, or the angular architectural style of Joe’s house. These straight lines subtly (almost unconsciously) evoke the idea of a prison cell from which Joe might want to escape--a motif that’s particularly apparent in the earlier scene that depicts Joe on the school bus where the heavy shadows and straight lines again make the character’s environment feel harsh and constrictive.

Combined with the liberal use of solid black that often threatens to overwhelm the page with darkness, Murphy’s artwork creates a real sense of hollow emptiness and detachedness--offering visual cues that explain just why Joe might enjoy escaping to such a colourful and vibrant fantasy world so much. In addition to this, the regular images of rainfall (again conveyed using extremely straight lines) provide a pathetic fallacy that effectively reflects Joe’s emotional state.

The artwork also helps readers to connect with Joe as a character in a way that that the dialogue doesn’t quite achieve. Getting readers of comic books to empathise with a socially awkward teenager who has ambitions to become a fantasy artist was never going to be a hard sell, but Murphy manages to convey the lighter side of Joe’s life as effectively as the darker psychological elements.

The artist peppers Joe’s room with enjoyable details (in the form of toys, posters and books) that are sure to ring true for a lot of readers--creating an authentic-feeling hideaway for Joe in his attic (and, for some readers, probably a highly desirable hideaway). The room feels believable and perfectly fitting for the character, regardless of the fact that many of these details are anachronistic (as acknowledged in Murphy’s editorial text piece).

Furthermore, the use of a rope ladder as the entry method to Joe’s sanctuary again emphasises the idea of escape, this time in a more tangible manner.

The issue climaxes with a showstopping splashpage that sees Joe’s toy collection brought to life. I love the attention to detail that’s apparent in smaller touches such as the joints in Batman and Robin’s arms and legs, or the intricacies of the interconnecting parts of the Transformers-esque robots.

I also enjoyed the fact that the images that first introduce us to Joe’s fantasy world use a lot of curved lines and natural, organic shapes that contrast neatly with the harsh straight lines of Joe’s real-world existence.

The extensive amount of thought that has obviously gone into the book’s artwork--combined with the quality of the illustrations and the highly effective lighting and perspective choices--ensure that Murphy’s visuals play a large part in my enjoyment of this issue, which is not to say that the writing doesn’t have its moments, however.

I enjoyed the subtle clues that Morrison drops into the story that point towards Joe’s diabetes (for example, his mother’s insistence that he eat a candy bar, or the close-up shot of an “inso-pen” in one panel). They indicate a possible real-world explanation for the vivid fantasies that Joe is experiencing--a grounding element that is always something that I appreciate in these kinds of stories.

I also enjoyed Morrison’s acknowledgement that several of the characters in the story feel like familiar clichés (for example, the lonely, awkward teenager who seeks escape from his mundane life; the stressed single mother who is struggling to make ends meet; and the oafish and unintelligent school bully who is determined to make the protagonist’s life a misery).

These elements are not only a slightly self-deprecating commentary on the lack of originality in the book’s character concepts, but it’s also a reminder that something isn’t necessarily unrealistic or worthless just because it’s a cliché. Sometimes, people do conform to the kinds of stereotypes that we might think of as so overly simplistic or familiar as to be unrealistic, and they’re no less worthy of attention or exploration for that.

Despite these enjoyable touches in the writing, there isn’t a huge amount of substance in this opening issue. It’s very much a teaser for what’s to come--a prologue that introduces the characters and the concept of the book more than adequately, but doesn’t really take things any further than that.

Having said that, the quality of the artwork and the fact that this first issue is being released as one of Vertigo’s one dollar debut comics means that it’s very difficult to feel that you haven’t been given your money’s worth after reading it. As such, I have no hesitation in giving it such a high bullet-rating (one that may not have been warranted had the issue been priced at three dollars), and I hope that the next issue provides a little more for readers to get their teeth into now that we’ve been introduced to the world of Joe the Barbarian.

Thom Young:

Because I no longer have the time to poring through the marketing solicitations from comic book companies, I did not know anything about Joe the Barbarian four days ago. However, after so many of my Comics Bulletin colleagues had it listed on their pull lists for this week, I decided to find out more about his new comic book series from Vertigo.

I learned Joe the Barbarian is a new miniseries written by Grant Morrison. Being a fan of Morrison's work (most of it anyway), I decided to buy the first issue. Still, due to my ignorance when it comes to the marketing solicitations of publishers, I had no idea what to expect of this story.

I guess I half expected something like Sergio Arogenes's Groo the Wanderer presented in a verisimilitudinous style--a story in which a "regular Joe" engages in a Conan the Barbarian life. If anyone could pull off that type of premise, it would be Morrison.

However, as you have undoubtedly already read the above reviews by my colleagues, you know that my half-expected premise is not what Joe the Barbarian is about at all (or at least not yet it isn't).

As I began to read this first chapter of Morrison's eight-part story, I was immediately put in mind of the author's excellent St. Swithin's Day--which was initially serialized in black and white in the first four issues of Trident and then collected as a colorized one-shot in 1990. I haven't read St. Swithin's Day since it first came out 20 years ago, but it has remained one of my favorite Morrison comics over the years (and it's one of only about 100 comics that survived the purging of my 5,000-book "comics collection" seven years ago).

My colleague (and boss) Jason Sacks is mostly correct when he states:
Morrison has always created extremely dense scripts, but in this one he's content to allow Murphy to create a mood. It's an intriguing change of direction; Morrison has always been more about the Big Event than small emotions, but here he lets mood prevail.
I suspect, though, that Jason hasn't read St. Swithin's Day, which I believe was never published in the US (I bought it as an import 20 years ago).

I don't recall much about Morrison's 1994 Vertigo graphic novel The Mystery Play (another of the author's works that I still own and that I should re-read). However, I think it was also one of these "quieter" Morrison stories that Jason would like to see more of.

Okay, so in terms of tone (at least thus far), Joe the Barbarian would seem to be more akin to some of the work that Morrison was doing nearly 20 years ago than it is to his more recent stories--Final Crisis, Batman and Robin, Seaguy, et ctera--but what is this new story about?

Well, if you haven't read the issue yet (which is really the best reason to read a review of anything--because you are trying to decide whether to spend your entertainment money on the thing being reviewed), then you can tell from what my colleagues have written that Joe the Barbarian is the story of a teenage boy who has fantastic hallucinations because of problems associated with his Type-1 diabetes.

Or is it?

As I mentioned, I went into this story not knowing anything about it--including the time in which it is set or the premise that the protagonist has type-1 diabetes. Thus, after reading the first page, I immediately thought that the story might actually be set in the "not too distant" future.

Joe and his mother are riding in a mid-1980s Subaru hatchback. Additionally, their clothes are in the fashion that has essentially remained the same in the US for the past 20 or 30 years (American clothing seems to have not significantly changed since 1980, and definitely not since 1990). So why does the fact that they are riding in a 25-year-old car and wearing clothes that could also be from the 1980s make me think the story might be set in the not-too-distant future rather than in the not-too-distant past?

It's because of the last two bits of dialog on that first page:
Joe: You're not supposed to use a cellphone when you're driving.

Joe's Mother I'm not driving, Joe.
The presence of the cell phone indicates that the story is not set in the early to mid 1980s. However, what does Joe's mom mean when she says that she's not driving? She's clearly behind the steering wheel, and the car is clearly going down the road--there is even gray exhaust rolling out the back.

Does this 25-year-old car that seems to need a new carburetor have some sort of onboard computer for automated driving? That possibility is just one of the mysteries of this story--mysteries to which we shouldn't expect answers after only reading the opening chapter.*

Another such mystery is that Joe has holes in the knees of his pants at times but he doesn't have holes in his pants at other times. The scenes in which Joe's pants have holes and don't have holes are contiguous in terms of action, and I doubt we are expected to believe that he lugs around two pairs of pants (one on his legs and one in his backpack)--and that he would keep changing between these two pairs of pants throughout his day.

Granted, the "pants problem" is probably not so much a "mystery" as it is a lapse in the continuity of the illustrations by the otherwise very good Sean Murphy. Still, I suppose it's possible that the same bending of reality that brings about Joe's fantasy world near the end of the chapter is also causing his pants to sometimes have holes and sometimes not.

Anyway, another thing that initially made me think the story might be set in the not-too-distant future is that I was struck by the insistence of Joe's mother's that he should "make sure you eat your [his] candy."

What type of weird dystopian future is this where mothers pack a lunch of candy that they want to be certain their kids eat?

Well . . . actually . . . I sometimes go to my seven-year-old daughter's school to eat lunch with her, and the idea of mothers packing a lunch of just junk food for their kids is really not all that "futuristic" after all. It's happening now, and it's leading to type-2 diabetes and obesity among children.

Of course, we later learn that Joe has type-1 diabetes and that the candy is supposedly meant to help control his blood sugar should he lapse into hypoglycemia. However, Joe should only need to eat candy if he were to administer too much insulin to himself--so his mother's insistence that he needs to be sure to eat his candy is still rather odd.

Does she want him to eat candy so that he will then have to use his insulin even more? Is she involved in some sort of peculiar incidence of Munchausen by proxy syndrome in which Joe's "diabetes" is actually the type-2 form, and that it's being caused by his mother feeding him a diet of candy?

Anyway, Joe's on his way to school where his class is going to go on a fieldtrip to the military section of a local cemetery--and so his mother tells him: "Say hi to your father for me. If it wasn't for him, none of this would be happening."**

That last line is yet another odd thing to come from the mouth of Joe's mother. She claims to not be driving her car even though the car is obviously motoring down the road. She wants Joe to be sure to eat his candy. Finally, she then claims that everything that is happening is due to Joe's father, who we learn is dead four pages later.

Now, the obvious meaning behind the last statement of Joe's mother is that the family wouldn't be in danger of losing their house if it wasn't for the death of Joe's father (we learned earlier that she is to meet with someone about the house, which she says she has "no intention of losing").

Thus, upon discovering that Joe's father is dead and is buried in a military grave at the cemetery, the suggestion would seem to be that his untimely death--presumably in a war--is the cause of the family's financial hardships. However, what if Morrison is planting a bit of foreshadowing here?

What if the mother's statement that "none of this would be happening" if it wasn't for Joe's father has more significance in the story than merely the notion that the family might be losing their house?

I know hypoglycemia can cause hallucinations (and it is the most likely reason for this first chapter to be titled "Hypo," which means "under" or "beneath" in Greek), and so the implication is that Joe's visions of a fantasy realm in the story are the result of low blood sugar. (But why does he seem to reach for an insulin injector on page 18 after he experiences one of his "hallucinations"? "Is he trying to lower his blood sugar even more in order to heighten his hallucinations?" I ask facetiously). However, what if the something else is happening?

What if there is something else that is beneath Joe's visions of (or physical transportation to) the fantasy realm?

Could his dead father be responsible for Joe's trips to another realm? Is Joe's father truly dead? Is something else entirely going on in Joe's life and/or mind?

It's difficult to judge a book after reading only the first chapter--unless that chapter is poorly written, which this one is not. While there may be some errors in the writing and illustrations (or there might not be), this first issue was an engaging opening that sets up a lot of intriguing mysteries in the story.

Joe the Barbarian #1 is definitely worth the introductory dollar cover price, and the series might just turn out to be another great Morrison story.

* Actually, I am just being facetious with my explanation about the 25-year-old car with a navigation computer. However, I was confused by that dialog until about an hour or two after I initially wrote my review. Then I thought, "I bet they were supposed to be stopped at a red light."

I then looked at the book, and saw that Joe and his mother were indeed stopped in front of a traffic signal--though the way it was colored made it look like the light was green. A few panels later (on the next page) the light seems to change to yellow--which, of course, would only be true if they originally were stopped on a green light.

Then the car drives off, and the traffic signal doesn't seem to show one of the three colors over the other two. So, the coloring would definitely be the problem there. However, maybe Joe's mother just likes to have high-end technology installed in run-down old cars.

** Actually, the sentence in the book reads: "It it wasn't for him . . ." but as someone who is constantly struggling with his own typos, I changed the first "it" to "if"--as I knew it should be.

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