Joe the Barbarian #1-6

Posted by on August 18th, 2010 at 2:11 AM



Joe the Barbarian #1-6
Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy
DC Comics, $2.99
36 color pages

Moving away from the tilled fields of DC’s trademarked characters, Grant Morrison appears to be writing himself a screenplay. Luckily, in Joe the Barbarian, he’s supported by Sean Murphy who provides the imaginative storyboarding and the flamboyantly attractive cinematography.

First a disclaimer: conventionally, stories are said to have beginnings, middles and ends. Conventionally, reviews tend come at stories’ beginnings, where first responders seek to get the early word out, and at the ends, where proper summary evaluations can be made. This won’t be one of those.

As I write, Joe is six issues along on its appointed run of eight. Had I held forth at the beginning of the series I believe I would have been much more enthusiastic about the possibilities aborning. Young Joe, an adventure thrust upon him, must traverse his house from attic bedroom to basement during a violent thunderstorm. Trouble is, he’s a Type 1 diabetic and may be hallucinating on an apocalyptic scale. If he isn’t (“Hallucinating this hard isn’t normal“), he’s enmeshed in a cataclysmic clash between great evil and the coexisting clans that inhabit various household sites, starting in his bedroom with its toys and Joe’s pet rat, Jack. The story initially builds a compelling tension through the interplay between mundane “reality” and the fabulous alternative. Early on, its balanced foot-in-both-worlds posture, aided by cleverly knitted material confluences, makes for an involving read.

As individual issues progress, Joe picks up allies for his quest, meets those different, picturesque tribes and undergoes trials that progressively steel him — or at least position him — for the climactic showdown. It’s a pattern of narrative development in popular entertainment that was old even before medieval romances sent errant knights pursuing noble aims through exotic kingdoms.

In his quotidian existence, Joe has his problems. He’s an imaginative loner, the butt of bullying, child of a single-parent home where dad has been killed at war and mom, even as the story progresses, is in the process of losing the home Joe’s so desperately trying to navigate. But in the realm of the fantastic, Joe is recognized as The Chosen One… or rather, given Morrison’s sly, subversive twist, as “The Dying Boy.” As adolescent loser in “real” life but as anointed savior in a fantasy one, Joe the Barbarian slides neatly into the slipstream of Harry Potter, Percy Somebody The Lightening Thief, The Last Airbender, Sorcerer’s Apprentice and probably any number of other recent, would-be summer boffo flics I haven’t seen.

Whether zeitgeist or possible inspiration, such narrative templates with blockbuster potential are not crippling for Joe as he makes his way through house and hazard. As the issues move along, though, a central confusion diminishes as the fabulous assumes more and more screen time. (Er, page time. More page space… Look, it takes up more of everybody’s attention.) Nurtured spectacle attenuates the tether to domestic touchstones and we maintain barely a toehold in the mundane world. Morrison’s imagination is just too fecund and unconstrained, Murphy’s art just too accommodating and persuasive, for the proceedings not to be fairly and fully whisked into marvels with us pretty much along for the ride. As a result, an engaging, fundamental tension is weakened.

Not that the loss is without compensations. Morrison is at his loopy best (well, not Seaguy best…), mixing astonishments, menace and yucks with a bravado unmatched in corporate comics. With issue #2, in a nod to The Old Testament and The Wizard of Oz, a stern countenance materializes in the air before Joe sketching the postmodern map of upcoming trials for the young paladin: “The journey — ARDUOUS, companions on the way, et cetera.” There’s a moment of loss in issue #5 that is swift, terrible and moving; depending on one’s level of empathy, it’s comparable to that of We3. In issue #3, the water dwarrows (aka “toilet dwarves”) steer their submarines (a fusion of pirate ships and the clanky vessels from The Matrix) from perilous open waters toward sheltering plumbing while singing out “The pipes! The pipes are calling!” Absolutely nobody else reels back and forth, rummaging through shared cultural background and cutting-edge baggage with such relish and panache as Morrison.

The oscillations are made cohesive by Murphy who visually keeps the wildest flights on the rails. He makes Joe’s slippage into the wonderworlds a treat, envisioning them as convincing locales, constructing environments that are consistently coherent and unfailingly interesting. Dave Stewart bolsters with the terrific choice and thoughtful application of clarifying colors. The sheer look of things is the reason you’ll want to read the comic and not wait for the movie: Wall-to-wall, state of the art CGI will only seem incredibly fake and cheesy in comparison.

So why not wait the extra couple months until Joe the Barbarian concludes to offer an opinion that includes a wrap-up? Because — at least in his superhero arcs — Morrison has shown himself willing to leave things up in the air, obscuring matters to the tune of “Wait. What was that? What just happened?” To be sure he’s far better, much fairer, more “responsible” with his “own” stuff (We3, Seaguy, etc.). But I write right now just in case there is a letdown at Joe‘s conclusion. I don’t want the end to tarnish the attraction of much of the rest of the journey.


Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , ,

Comments are closed.