Monday, April 16, 2012
Joe the Barbarian is a story set on two levels -- teenager Joe Manson is a diabetic falling into a very comic-book-y state of hypoglycemic shock, while at the same time he's the Dying Boy, adventuring through a secondary-world version of his home  and accompanied by versions of his toys and his pet rat. That second level could easily become terribly twee -- much like The Stuff of Legend (see my review), another graphic novel in which toys come to life to battle for their owner -- and it's to writer Grant Morrison and artist Sean Murphy's credit that never happens. Joe's fantasy world is specific, well-defined, and maps reasonably well to his real home -- and the fantasy versions of his real stuff is changed enough that it doesn't read as Mopey in Toyland.
And I suppose it would be quibbling to complain that Joe isn't anything at all like a barbarian -- he's civilized, not good at fighting in the least, and looking to save this world rather than crush its jeweled thrones under his sandaled feet. One might grumble that either Morrison doesn't really know what a barbarian is, or that he doesn't care: that there's a deep vein of cynicism underlying Joe the Barbarian, as he brings his show-don't-tell, damn-the-torpedoes superhero writing style to a supposedly more "personal" story that really is just another generic hero tale in very slightly different dress. One could make those complaints, certainly. One could say that Joe the Barbarian is thin and facile compared with Morrison's better works, like the lacerating We3 and the bleakly oblique Seaguy. One could also note that Morrison has been thinking too much about Joseph Campbell, or at least making things much too obvious. One could say all of those things and more.
But most readers will be happy with Joe the Barbarian: it's got another one of those in-over-his-head heroes, who has a very good reason to doubt the evidence of his senses, and who yet goes on to save everything despite all odds, in the way a good comics hero should. And what problems it might have are all to do with Morrison's script; Murphy's designs and pages and panels are crisp and energetic and lovely, in a slightly more battered and weathered version of the standard Big Two look. Joe the Barbarian is, actually, quite good: but it's not nearly as good as some people will try to tell you it is.
 Which, as is also traditional in comics, is larger outside than inside. No, seriously -- you can see the outside on p.9, and it's missing an entire floor (or else has a chimney at both ends) of the house as Joe experiences it inside, walking up two flights of stairs to rise one level of windows.