Review: Joe the Barbarian

Published On May 2, 2013 | By Colm Creamer | Comics, Reviews

Joe the Barbarian

Grant Morrison,  Sean Murphy

DC/Vertigo Comics

Joe the barbarian cover

I read a lot of fantasy and superhero stuff because most days all I want is a bit of escapism- the chance to run away into an imaginary world that’s far away from my own as I can.  This series is a study in escaping into the world of imagination, and how some of what’s in that imagination will take influence from what’s in your reality and the world around you.

From the outset, our main character Joseph is introduced and emphasised as being ‘normal’- just another kid in a world, going to school with bullies, a single mother struggling to find the money to give her son (and his pet rat) a good life.

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All of this would play factors into the fantasy world that Joe would find himself falling into, as Grant Morrison weaves a tale of adventure and intrigue where a young man must save a bizarre world of his own imagination as well as his own health.

I often think that Morrison works better when he is doing creator-owned stuff and has free reign. This comic would kind of prove me right as from the outset, Morrison builds a world that we’re unfamiliar with, and crafts it masterfully. He hints at the root of all that’s going on and gives hints in really subtle panelling in the opening issue that what we would be seeing will be exaggerated and twisted in Joe’s mind- there are large chunks of no dialogue panelling where Morrison starts to lay the groundwork for the future imaginary world, beautifully illustrated by Sean Murphy (which I’ll get to in a bit).

The whole series is also self-referential so it reads even better as a trade. Seeds sown in the first 2-3 issues pay off near the end of the overall tale and characters’ origins show in the real world as well as the mythical history in Joe’s imagination. There is no waste of character, each one has a purpose that pays off by the end of the 8-issues and the whole thing reads like a 3-act movie that is meant to be it’s own self-contained world. No sequels, no hinted back story- this is the story and what you see here is what you’re getting as Morrison takes full advantage of having full artistic licence.

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And all of this is beautifully rendered by Sean Murphy

Consider the task that this story presents the artist; he must illustrate the imagination and ideas of a writer with as expansive a vision as Grant Morrison, he must illustrate the ideas that would appear in the imagination of a 13 year old boy and how he would see the world in a fever dream. He also has to subtly show where the seeds of the ideas that the boy would envision without over panelling and illustrating dull pages- this tale is not an easy feat!

Murphy’s work has always been enjoyable and beautiful to me, his sketchy style makes for fantastic movement and panelling, and he uses facial expressions really well to tell character and even better in this story as his characters aren’t always human. I enjoyed his American Vampire work with Scott Snyder which prompted me to pick up this trade, and I wasn’t disappointed. Murphy’s art is another case of ‘the art can give the reader an idea of what’s going on and the beats of the story even without words’.

Murphy also excels at showing tones in this series as he emphasises the differences between the real world and the world of Joe’s imagination. He keeps the real world and the world of Joe’s house dark with a lot of shadow whilst keeping lighter tones and moods in Joe’s imaginary world emphasising the fantasy aspects of it all.

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Helping Murphy on this is colourist Dave Stewart. Stewart has a great palette for fantasy and action and I’ve admired his work since I saw him colouring J.H Williams III at DC. He uses lighter tones when needed in Joe’s fantasy world and each character and tone is clearly emphasised where as when he’s colouring the real world portions of the story set in Joe’s old dreary house, the colour tones get muted and subdued, emphasising the illness Joe is experiencing and Murphy’s use of Vertigo like shots and depth.

Overall this book is a fantastic read. Morrison crafts a story from the base up that feeds off of imagination and juxtaposes it against the backdrop of real world danger. I would also recommend grabbing this book if you were illiterate, just to appreciate the beauty and visually fantastic panels of Sean Murphy. This may be the best creator owned work I’ve read so far this year and it reads perfectly as a trade.

Rating: 9/10

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