Joe the Barbarian.

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.

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  • When I saw that you had posted this topic, I had hoped it meant that the trade was out. This is one I was following in monthly form, and I was sad to have to let it go (I think I got as far as issue four). I can't wait to get back to it and see how it all ends!
  • According to wiki, the deluxe hardcover won't be out until Feb 2011.
  • I picked up the trade today on a whim. I was thinking about doing it at some point. I don't know when I'll actually get to reading it. I'm behind on my monthly comics and I also have a back log of graphic novels as well. I also picked up Batman Noel today. Anyways I'm looking forward to this. Grant Morrison's superhero work has been hit or miss with me. I haven't read any of his non superhero work so maybe this will be where I become a Grant Morrison fan.
  • I'll definitely be picking this up at some point. Probably the next time I get some mail-order trades. I liked the first issue a lot, and am really looking forward to this.
  • It's really good, Rob. You're not going to be disappointed. Sean Murphy is incredible. This is a pretty darn original concept out of Grant Morrison, too.
  • I've read the Deluxe Edition twice now, and thought I'd come over here after mentioning it on the daily comics thread. The most striking thing about the series is the visuals: Sean Murphy did an incredible job, it's just gorgeous. He has a lot of fun with the DC-oriented toys in the story. There's a lot of Batman, Robin, and Lobo, but John Constantine even makes an appearance in Chapter 6, in the crowd scene where all the heroes gather to follow Joe into battle. It's especially striking the way he turns the house into almost a character in the story. He talks about that in his "Storytelling Breakdown" essay.

    Morrison is at his most linear here. There was lots of potential to blur reality and fantasy, but he makes it clear that the whole thing is the product of hypoglycemic shock (at least until the very end). The narrative jumps from the fantasy world back to Joe's actual journey through the house often enough to remind the reader what is going on, but not so often that the spell of the fantasy is broken. That's a neat trick, not easy to pull off.

    On my first reading I wondered if the story really needed eight issues. I still have that reservation after a second reading. Not that it's padded, exactly, just that it might have been stronger if it were a bit more compact: six issues, say.



    It was good to see Morrison grabbing the association with Warner Bros with both hands so that Joe's beloved toys were the actual licenced ones that most boys this day and age would have.  (I presume Warners Bros control Star Trek these days?) Too bad he had to disguise the Transformers a little, however.  Although it was great to see Picard and Batman etc fighting in Joe's army, I guess the point was that they were pretty ineffectual in helping him against the big issues of life and death he was up against.  Only a boy's toys after all...


    Sean Murphy certainly does excellent work here.  As a little side-note, this is one of the first creator-owned projects where Grant did not share ownership of the rights with the artist.  Another indication it was created with Hollywood in mind. 


    That's probably a good point about the line between reality and the magic kingdom.  For me, perhaps he segued back to reality a bit too often, drawing me out a bit, but I guess it helped to keep us troubled and wondering which was real, which was the point, instead of just being lost in the fantasy.


    Above, I wrote "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."


    What I really wanted to talk about, but couldn't as no-one had read the book yet, was how the Death entity turned out to be Joe's father in that cliffhanger.  Usually a writer would write it in such a way as someone could come along later and say "The Death Lord represented Joe's fear of death that stems from the loss of his own father." or some such literary psycho-babble.  Morrison howevers just hits it head on, and shows the father as the Death Lord.  It's not just that the Death Lord acts as a metaphor;  he IS what he represents.  Does that make sense?


    It seems so obvious to use the constuent parts of someones family life and childhood as a basis for a mythology, but I can't say I've seen it done so well as here.  I'm not sure anyone's really done it before, really.  There is a great truth in it, as we all have our own internal mythologies, with perhaps our father and mother looming largest.  I love for instance that whereas to anyone else, Joe's mother would have seemed like a harassed working mum whose husband had become a sad statistic in a foreign war, in Joe's internal life she was the High Widow:  beautiful, tragic, distant, all-powerful and all-despairing.  That's great stuff, with truth in it.


    (Of course, Morrison has used family life as mythology and how our parents represent mortality before.  It does all tie together...)

  • SPOILERS!!!!!!

    I read Joe the Barbarian this week. Initially I wasn't hooked. It was good and the art is great. I got where Morrison was going. It felt like a kid's adventure story like Goonies. If I was twelve it probably would be my favorite thing ever. However I wasn't connecting with it. I could appreciate the craft and story but the emotional connection wasn't happening. Then something clicked halfway in. I won't go far as to say it's the best story I've ever read but it's a darn good one.


    The story really started to click with me when Joe's situation became more dyer. And with the introduction of his mother as the queen. I think the icing on the cake was when Joe finds the letter from his father. I knew that someting like that was coming but it was a powerful moment especially when his father tells him what his fellow soldiers call Joe.


    I agree that the toys were actual recognizable characters. Batman and Superman were action figures I had as a kid so it was cool to see them here. It gave it a bit of realism instead of just using a generic super hero action figure.


    If this were ever to be a movie Jack would be every kids' favorite character hands down. He was noble, funny, loyal and bad @$$! Very well rounded for a rat.


    The art was fantastic. The rough lines and the coloring added to the epicness of the story.


    Finally this may be one of Morisson's most straightforward pieces. Well maybe his Batman and Robin was more straightforward. This one, even with the premise of Joe floating from fantasty to reality was still very easy to follow. Everything is right there to get. The majority of the messages Morisson was getting across are right there for us to grab. It's just wrapped up in a neat fantasy story.


    That last paragraph was a compliment.

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