Joe the Barbarian

By Roger

Joe the BarbarianAs with The Cape, I hadn’t heard of “Joe the Barbarian” until the list of nominees was released for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards that will be awarded at Comic-Con 2011. And just as with “The Cape”, I certainly am glad to have read this amazing title.

You may be thinking that I’m being far too agreeable with the Eisner list of nominees, and I can assure you, that is not the case. Expect forth-coming, harsh reviews of titles which I feel have absolutely no business there. That said though, when I read something listed which so thoroughly impresses me as “Joe the Barbarian” has, expect that I’ll lavish all manner of compliments on the writer and artist responsible; Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy, respectively.

At its heart (which it has an abundance of), “Joe the Barbarian” is the simple story of a diabetic boy who is going into shock. He must get from his bedroom in the attic of his home, to the kitchen on the main floor to get some form of sugar (he mentions having to get a soda often). During this tenuous journey, he experiences hallucinations.

In Morrison’s adept writing hands, this simple premise turns into an epic 8-part mini-series which sees Joe joining imaginary beings in a life or death struggle.

The story begins very slowly. Some people had a problem with the first issue, however I thought the pacing was actually spot on. We get to see Joe’s relationship with his mother, find out about the death of his father and the family’s financial troubles. We see the resentment which Joe holds toward his father, as well as see how this has affected his character and his ability to interact with other kids his age.

So why did I place these ’70s and ’80s accents into a modern day story? At first it was only because no one told me that I couldn’t. Grant left most of the details of the house to me, so I took the opportunity to try to shape that part of the script into something unique, different from the typical setting. I’d never seen anyone try to pull off the gloriously hideous ’70s decor in a comic before. But what started out as a prank with nostalgic Easter eggs soon became something more personal.
– Sean Murphy

All of this is done quite well, and you are able to read volumes between the lines. Morrison’s writing impressed the hell out of me in those early pages, as this is something which I work at in my fiction; the ability to impart so much more than the few words used.

Then, Murphy took over, and completely blew my mind.

Having seen that Joe is a very reclusive boy, showing his home in detail and his relationship to it was absolutely vital to the story… and Murphy handles this beautifully with silent panels of Joe walking through the home to his bedroom in the attic. These pages are draw in such intricate detail that the reader is able to recognize a variety of the objects in each room. This is so absolutely important, seeing as the house is also the setting for Joe’s hallucinations, though it is warped and skewed and misrepresented by fantastical settings. Some of the details change during the hallucinations, however not enough that you are ever lost.

Morrison also makes certain to keep you from getting lost, by jerking Joe back and forth between his actual struggles and his lucid hallucinations. However the two are never entirely separated. Within his hallucinations, Joe keeps imparting how important it is that he get to the kitchen to get a soda. He is able to sometimes rationalize where he is in relation to where his physical body is in the actual world. Meanwhile within reality, Joe speaks to his pet rat, Jack, who plays a very important role in the story. Having lost his father, Jack is a life which Joe clings to.

As you can see from this image, Murphy does not hold back on his 2-page spreads… and there are a great many of them in the 8-issue series, each as glorious as the next. Dave Stewart also deserves a lot of credit for his incredible coloring job. He seems to capture the mood of each issue… each panel so perfectly.

Whether Joe is in his home, the colors fading over each issue with the passing of daylight (an integral part of the hallucinations, by the way), or he is in an underground sewer where the dwarves live, Stewart’s coloring of Murphy’s art always manages to impart upon you a sense of how you should be feeling. It’s not overpowering, however it does guide your emotions by means of visual cues.

While the first issue was nearly all character and location setups, issues 2-8 are all action. As such, this would be a very difficult series to begin partway through. No mini-series is intended to be read out of order, however some are easier to pick up and try (leading to you to read the entire series if you enjoyed a single issue).

That’s not really an option with “Joe the Barbarian”. You need that first issue to make sense of the whirlwind which ensues. Without that, you will most certainly be lost. That said though, I do not hold that against the series or Morrison. That’s like blaming a novelist because a reader has picked up their book, started a third of the way in, and complained because they didn’t understand what was happening.

Crafting Insanely Cool Hallucinations

As if dealing with so much innocence lost wasn’t enough, Joe is also forced to confront all of his underlying issues in the form of animated toys, a brother-in-arms who just happens to be his pet rat, and more importantly a long-standing prophecy which states he is the “Dying Boy”… complete with mosaic portrait.

Despite simply wanting to get a soda so that he doesn’t die, Joe is thrust into a quest to save this fantasy world by defeating King Death. In the real world, the house’s electricity is off, and Joe must head to the basement to flip a breaker switch. Having lived in an old home, I can attest to having had to flip breakers on a regular basis. As the sunlight descends, it brings with it all manner of imaginary nightmares for the inhabitants of Joe’s hallucination to deal with. Some, like her Majesty, Queen Bree, rely on batteries to provide the light which they need, however even within the confines of his imagination, these characters know that the batteries will not last forever.

Queen Bree is also known as the High Widow… Joe’s mother. I love how Morrison blended characters from Joe’s life, his imagination and his toys to produce such a vast, diverse cast. Among others, Joe crosses paths with a variety of his action figures, some pissing arms or legs. There is something unbearably hilarious about recognizing some of these, including ol’ Bats himself… whose head pops off during one of the epic battles which occurs later in the series.

Nearing the end of the series, Joe is forced to decide whether he wants to leave the hallucination or save those within. He chooses to defeat the darkness first, which leads him to the basement where he comes face to imaginary face with King Death. What ensues is a battle which other comic book creators should look to for inspiration when crafting battle scenes.

Jack, who had just recently gone toe-to-toe with an insane, feral dog…

… and seriously… take a good look at this screenshot. Murphy and Stewart should win an Eisner based on this alone.

Upon entering King Death’s lair, all seven of Jack’s slain brothers are resurrected to fight as King Death’s minions.

I won’t spoil any more of the battle, as part of the excitement is reading it firsthand. That said, it is important to note that the true measure of how incredible the resolution is, is in the fact that it transcends both Joe’s hallucinations and his reality. In the end, it is simply a hallucination. He is fighting for his survival in both realms, however the very real soda in his hands is the only true resolution. Morrison understands that, and doesn’t treat his readers like idiots.

Still, he finds a way to make what could be a very mundane ending into something which, if you’ve allowed yourself to get sucked into the series, will cause the hair on your arms to rise. You’ll let out a silent cheer for Joe, and feel truly satisfied with the manner in which it was handled. In real world terms, the resolution is actually immensely important to Joe.

Thunder Road just called me today and said we can officially announce it, so I’m quite happy about that.
– Grant Morrison
(July 26th, 2010)

Joe the Barbarian is nominated in the Best Limited Series category for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards. I will be reading several of the other nominees in order to assess which I believe was the strongest this past year. I can say with certainty that I am very glad it was nominated. It is a spectacular series which I am looking forward to seeing turned into a feature film. The rights were picked up last year and I can see how, in the right hands, it could produce an insanely cool movie.

In addition to the Best Limited Series nomination for the series, Dave Steward was nominated for Best Coloring for his work on Joe the Barbarian as well as Hellboy, BPRD, Baltimore, Let Me In (Dark Horse); Detective Comics (DC); Neil Young’s Greendale, and Daytripper.

Also, Jimmy Gownley was nominated for Best Lettering for his work on several titles, including Joe the Barbarian.

I hate giving out arbitrary numbers for review scores, as they mean absolutely nothing, however just as a measure so folks can understand how much I appreciated this series, I would give it a strong 10 out of 10. And as much as I admit it’s an arbitrary number, I would not give it a perfect score unless it deserved it. I am very critical of that which I read and have no problems voicing my opinions. However when praise is deserved, I believe it should be given.

Grant, Sean and Dave, thank you gentlemen for entertaining me last night, as I devoured every issue, unable to stop till the very end. And thank you for never disappointing me along that fantastic journey.

Joe the Barbarian
Story: Grant Morrison
Art: Sean Murphy, Dave Stewart

After a 25 year absence from comic books, Roger has returned, thanks in no small part to the iPad.


  1. […] Roberson and Shawn McManus (Vertigo/DC) Daytripper, by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá (Vertigo/DC) Joe the Barbarian, by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy (Vertigo/DC) Stumptown, by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth […]

  2. RJ October 23, 2013, 10:51 am

    I could not agree more. I just read this book in 2013, and only read it because someone mentioned it on youtube. It is clearly one of the best graphic novels ever produced. For your own sake, get the collected version, sit down, read it and be amazed and moved.


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