Joe the Barbarian (#1 – 8) – Grant Morrison

1 out of 5

Joe the Barbarian is not really so offensively bad as to equate it to some other single star material I’ve read, but the problem is that I don’t know if I can necessarily stand by any component of it – the writing, or the art, or the coloring, or the editing. Perhaps Todd Klein’s lettering? But unfortunately, it’s hard to assess the effectiveness of that when the story it’s “voicing” doesn’t work, visually or text-wise. And if I can’t swing any positives out of all these core elements, then I don’t know how to justify adding to the score.

I was looking forward to – but not necessarily with raised expectations for – finally reading Joe the Barbarian. I’d read the first issue; I’d bought it towards the tail end of my Morrison reading obsession, which had lasted for a good many years, but was souring based on 52 and really not understanding (at the time) what he was getting up to with Batman, and having been burned on the never-finished attempts at The Authority and WildC.A.T.s. As I’ve recounted in other Grant reviews, I always read this as the writer being given the keys to many kingdoms as Reboot Guy, and that then led to a personality crisis of sorts, as I’d be equally perplexed by his approach on a Superman “reboot”(ish), and a swing-and-miss on Indian lore, and the deplorable genre exercise of Happy!. Joe the Barbarian felt good, in a way, seeing him back on a creator-owned Vertigo title, but then the first issue felt so, so tired – a simple idea that, for reasons I couldn’t quite identify, was completely uninteresting, and also a sign of Vertigo’s then diminishing returns as an imprint. I bought the rest of the issues, but had no strong desire to read them, figuring I’d catch up when the series was over.

And then, I dunno, ten years passed, books in bags and boxes.

I’ve been able to reappreciate how Grant’s writing has evolved over the years, though my take on most of the material from this era has still remained about the same, just with less vitriol in expressing it. So I was looking forward to Joe, because it was the only thing from this time I hadn’t yet gotten to check back in on. And with my expectations, as suggested, at a pretty even keel thanks to its era, I cautiously figured I might be able to appreciate it.

But the first issue reminded me exactly of the feelings I had way back when, down to a single panel I recalled struggling with. And you can multiply that struggle over the following 7 issues, now with more clarity as to why it just doesn’t work.

Joe the Barbarian is the tale of Joe, diabetic kid in need of some sugar, suffering from delusions as he goes into diabetic shock. Those delusions take the form of a fantastical world, populated by his toys – now full-fized – and his rat, Jack, quite larger than life and suited up as a warrior. Jack, in this world, is “The Dying Child,” stymied by prophesy in which his presence foretells the end of the world but also brings “light” to it. Meanwhile, Joe realizes these are all just visions (…aren’t they?), and we flash back to the real world where he’s stumbling around the house, trying to get a soda.

I want you to focus on that piece: that for almost 8 comics, we’re hanging on a kid finding his way downstairs to the fridge. Grant doesn’t mask this. And I suppose we’re meant to find more stakes in questioning whether or not the fantasy world is real, or perhaps nail-bite our way in wonder as to whether or not Joe will survive his infliction, or perhaps be intrigued by all of the Morrison-y details that blend fact and fiction and suggest why Joe may be dreaming up this exact imagery. But: there’s none of the usual “the fantasy world is affecting the real one!” gambits that stories like these usually use, so the first point never occurs; and though we get some barebones setup on Joe early on – his mom is raising him after his father’s death; they may lose their home; he’s bullied at school for being a creative type – this is all condensed down to some barely registering pages in the first book, meaning we’re not given much to invest in Jack before being thrust into fantasy land. This, to me, suggests we’re just supposed to be wowed by the adventure, but I go back to the whole hunting-for-a-soda problem – we know it’s not real, Joe knows it’s not real, and the majority of his dialogue is literally about that: I just gotta get a soda, I just gotta wake up.

The panel that caught me up (then and now) is on – oof – page one. We start in tight on Joe drawing in a sketchbook, pull back to his mother and Joe in a car, the former lecturing him on not paying attention while she waves a cellphone around, to which Joe tells her: “You’re not supposed to use a cellphone when you’re driving.” In the next panel, end of the first page – a punctuation – she replies: “I’m not driving, Joe.” The image shows the car, in motion, with several green lights visible, further indicative of, like, driving.

I stared at this panel (and the following page for further context) for about a minute. Is the art off? Did Sean Murphy misinterpret something in the script; am I misinterpreting the motion cloud behind the car, and it’s not actually moving? Did Dave Stewart misfire on the colors, and those lights weren’t supposed to be green? Or maybe this is the first clue of dual realities, that Joe is just imagining this whole thing? Or maybe it’s some larger, meta statement – she’s driving the car, but “she’s” not “driving,” dig?

To me, I don’t think there’s any context / subtext to suggestion anything deeper. And Grant was certainly skilled enough as a writer at this point to use his first pages effectively, so I’m down to wondering if there was just some break between script and artist Sean Murphy’s interpretation of it. Whatever the case: a page one disruption like this is not great, and this is, of course, not the sole example throughout the series, though it is one of the more obvious. Grant is definitely the type to leave things between the panels on occasion, and not all of his artists pick up those cues, but it feels like it happens especially frequently throughout the series, where something that was intended to have focus is completely omitted, or backgrounded. Frequently, choreography / geography doesn’t align, with character positionings coming and going out of nowhere, or their physical behavior from one panel to the next not feeling like it matches; the structure of Joe’s house – an important set piece, given that it forms the basis for the fantasy world – is disrupted by a weird mix of obsessive detailing from Murphy, and yet mercurial, stylized design.

Murphy’s artwork is rather puzzling in and of itself. Most of the reviews praised his work here, and I would say he fits a sketchy, cartoonish style I often enjoy – Jason Brubaker, Doug TenNapel come to mind – but it dawned on me that those styles are often used in more of a storybook format, i.e. not a traditional comic. Comparing more directly to artists who are similar (of the era, Rafael Albuquerque is a touchpoint), I noticed that Murphy’s sense of panel focus feels lacking, placing his camera far away for visual effect when it doesn’t serve the script, or zooming in and out across the page in a way that also doesn’t necessarily serve the story. But most interestingly / disruptive – his panels are very right-side focused, as though oriented for manga. Unfortunately, given the book being written in a language that goes left to right, our comic-eyes are generally trained for that flow, so I think this is a subtle hiccup that renders many of his pages incredibly unimpactful. (This is where it affects Klein’s lettering, since the dominant speaking character may be on the right side…)

There are some other aspects to this – such as the familiar toy cameos (they’ve come to life as part of Joe’s fantasy world) seeming more important to Murphy than they would to Grant or the story, and thus distracting more than anything – but I’ll move on in my grousing to Stewart. Dave frikkin’ Stewart, colorist extraordinaire. Sometimes Dave may not hit the nail exactly on the head with his choices, but this book is a rarity: his palette just feels wrong. Murphy went with (I guess) an 80s-ish vibe to Joe’s attire – informing those toy cameos as well – and I think Stewart used that as influence for his muted oranges and browns. But: since we already have an issue with proper panel focus in the art, this minimal range of colors means there’s practically zero pop on any given page, nor is there anything to help break up Murphy’s very sketchy, blacks-heavy look. It’s just a bizarre choice, and almost feels like a challenge, or mandate: the fantasy world is in danger of losing its light, so allow no bright colors in; or in order to represent Joe’s weary state, go with colors that do not excite. In general, guidance like this can be cool, but in practice, there is not a single page that ends up hitting with any kind of visual impact.

And so on.

Grant’s “story” is fairly non-existent, unfortunately. It feels like threads of a world he was creating for another project, stitched on to this one. Often, when the writer delivers concepts out of the blue, it feels like they fully exist off the page, so it’s engaging, even when you have no idea what he’s talking about. Here, we get a constant reel of ideas, but before we can start to roll with them, we’re reminded that they’re just echoes of something happening in the “real” world, making none of the subsequent details matter much. At that point, anything we don’t understand is just noise, and the world-building falls flat – it’s just random fantasy tropes, tossed at the wall. The ending’s attempt to tie some of this together is almost embarrassingly forced; if this was another genre exercise from Grant, it was his attempt at an 80s save-the-school type joint, where some hackneyed final moment gets the grant or whatever’s needed to pay for the gym, and everyone cheers and freeze frames, and nothing much else that happened mattered.