Joe the Barbarian #1

Posted by on January 22nd, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Grant Morrison, writer, Sean Murphy, artist, Dave Stewart, colorist; Vertigo/DC; 22 pp., $1; Color

It is a hard thing to begin a story, even worse a series.  The first installment has to capture the reader’s attention.  It needs to introduce the main elements — setting, protagonist, theme — but do so without giving too much away too quickly.  It needs to leave us feeling curious, or better yet intrigued, but not too confused.  The  main aim is to make us want to read whatever comes next.

By that criteria, Joe the Barbarian succeeds admirably.  It tells us exactly enough to make us wonder what’s happening.

©2010 DC Comics

We learn, for instance, that Joe is an alienated, artistic teenage boy.  His father is dead, and his relationship with his mother is distant.  At school he is harassed by bullies and pushes away anyone who tries to show him sympathy.  His only apparent friend is a pet rat.  His room — a cool and nearly inaccessible loft in the attic of a large house — is cluttered with action figures and other toys that he should have outgrown by now, but hasn’t.  Joe feels that there is something very wrong with the world, and chiefly with himself.

The remarkable thing is that Grant Morrison communicates all of that in 22 pages using no narration and only a minimum of dialogue.  The facts emerge, instead, in the course of the plot — and there, often in the details.  (Creative writing teachers with a “show, don’t tell” mantra should follow their own advice: stop telling the students how to write and just hand them Joe the Barbarian #1.  “Here, kid, like this.”)

Yet the plot of issue one only hints at a larger storyline.  Joe’s mom drops him off at the Veterans’ Cemetery, where his class is taking a field trip.  (“Are you sure you want to do this class thing?” she asks.  “It seems kind of macabre.”)  At the cemetery he visits his dad’s grave, makes some sketches, has a minor altercation with the class yahoos.  He goes home, falls asleep, has a strange vision in which he’s transported to a world with real Transformers, live teddy bears, and full-sized G.I. Joes.  He wakes up, like Little Nemo, having fallen out of bed.

The only real exposition concerning the longer story arc comes from a robot inside of his dream:  “Death-Coats came,” he says, as if we obviously know what Death-Coats are.  “Playtown burns from Teddy Bear Alley to Starbase Heights.  And the drains choked with guts and stuffing.”

We aren’t told, at this point, what caused Joe’s vision.  Is it a dream, an hallucination, or a magical event?  We don’t know how real the things he sees in this other world are, or how real he takes them to be.  And we don’t know how Joe will react — whether he’ll return to the world of Playtown, or if he’ll try to, or if he’ll visit other fantastical lands.

But what we do know is enough to tell us, in a very broad sense, the problem the series will explore:  When childhood ends, how does the imagination survive?

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One Response to “Joe the Barbarian #1”

  1. [...] Kristian William's take at the Comics Journal site, oddly, seemed to view everything that ticked me off about the comic as a strength.  I don't feel qualified to explain his point of view from my "Establishing what the comic is about early is ALWAYS a good thing" mindset, so you should go read.   Although if he's right that  "But what we do know is enough to tell us, in a very broad sense, the problem the series will explore:  When childhood ends, how does the imagination survive?"   He's a smarter man than I.  Dosen't a book have to have a clear premise before you can dig out the core themes? [...]