Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Sean Murphy
[This thread is a part of our Grant Morrison Reading Project]
Given that I seem to be one of the few reading this series in monthly form, the following review is deliberately SPOILER-free. Hopefully some of you ‘waiting for the trade’ can come back here and comment when you’ve read it. We’ll get SPOILERy then. Having just reread the first 7 issues, I’d have to declare it worth the wait. I know that many people reading this will get a kick out of Joe’s toy Warner Brothers endorsed allies.
We've reached issue 7 of 8 with very little fanfare out there. Most Morrison projects cause at least some stir during their publication, but Joe has apparently slipped under the radar up to now.
One reason is that Morrison has considerably toned down the obliquity for this one. Beyond the initial conceit that the fantasy world Joe finds himself in is a reflection of the ordinary home Joe grew up in, there isn't anything too conceptually difficult between the reader and the story Grant is telling. The plot is a linear quest narrative with no jumps around in time or viewpoints. So it's one of the most straightforward projects I've seen from Grant since the excellent We3.
Joe is an American adolescent who slips into a parallel fantasy kingdom, or possibly finds himself hallucinating due to insulin depletion. On his travels there, he is hailed as the Dying Boy, prophesied to save the Kingdom from the onslought of Death's army.
As in the somewhat similar Pan's Labyrinth and Spirited Away, the main character is a child on the verge of adolescence who finds themselves in a dark reflection of their own world, where the half-understood fears and conflicts of adult life take on terrifying solid form. The film connections may be pertinent, as the whole thing feels very like a script for a Hollywood movie in the making. To some extent Grant may be 'dumbing down' for that lucrative market. As it happens, the movie rights have already been optioned.
The narrative may not be as 'open-ended' as his most notorious work, and, although it lacks Grant's trademark narrative gaps and puzzles, this is still an excellently-crafted, often incredibly original, take on the classic fantasy quest tale.
Parts of it do merit deeper thought. The dynamic between Joe and 'The High Widow', his mother's persona in the parallel world, could keep a better Freudian psycho-analyst than myself ruminating for days!
Joe also meets up with Smoot, a young man raised amongst Dwarves. Smoot discovers once he goes out into the world that he isn’t just a big clumsy freak of nature, but rather that there is a place for him away from the family that he has ‘outgrown’. This parallels Joe’s journey towards maturity, but with some subtlety.
I’ve noticed lately that Grant can sometimes conflate symbols and what they stand for quite powerfully, and he does that here in Joe’s cliff-hanger confrontation with the Death entity at the end of issue 7.
Sean Murphy’s art serves the story beautifully and brings a lot to the project, alternating between illustratively detailed and emotively cartoony as the story demands. Apparently the house itself is based on Murphy’s own childhood home and its solidity grounds the whole series.
Rereading the first 7 issues, I found it a really immersive and absorbing experience. Morrison has made a ‘time-honoured’ (read: hackneyed) fantasy storyline feel original, moving and involving again, and I'm looking forward to the final issue, due any week now.