Thursday, January 21, 2010

Grant Morrison & Sean Murphy's Joe the Barbarian #1 Review

I rarely get the chance to spotlight an indie title for a review as I follow most in trade format.  It's a matter of logistics and something I've been looking to change in the new year.  To start that off, I decided I'd be following Grant Morrison's newest project, Joe the Barbarian.  With Sean Murphy on pencils and a $1 pricetag, there's absolutely no excuse not to pick this issue up and pick it up I did.  Hit the jump for the full review.

Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Sean Murphy

Escapism.  It's what literature, comics included, is typically all about.  Hell, you could expand that to all mediums if you wished.  People wish to be entertained, but many want to be so engrossed in their entertainment, be in a good book or drama, that we can just sit down and become engrossed with the lives of these fictional characters to the point we forget about our own troubles and worries.  Most take this in moderation and it is a good coping mechanism for many.

Joe the Barbarian uses escapism as its premise with the young Joe being sucked away into a world of his own creation made up of his own toys and uses his home as his playground.  Reading it, I was instantly reminded of I Kill Giants, where the Joe Kelly blurred the line between escapism and reality as we followed the protagonist on her daily adventures through life and her own life as a giant slayer. Another recent title that spurng to mind was The Stuff of Legend, a story about a young boy kidnapped by the Boogey Man and his toys are left with the mission of saving him.

 Just look at that room!

I look back on both of those titles with fondness and rated both as Must Read titles, so having comparisons drawn to each is far from a bad thing.  However, Joe the Barbarian differs from both of those titles in a few key ways.

For starters, I found the introduction to Joe much more mundane than the previous examples.  We follow a generic setup where the protagonist is setup as the son with a single parent, his father recently having passed away, he's bullied at school and doesn't appear to have many friends.  He's also shown to have a vivid imagination and fascination with toys and drawing, leading to the eventual setup of this fantastic escapist world we are sucked into by issue's end.  There are no real character quirks like with I Kill Giants's main character nor is there anything you haven't seen before with these types of story setups.

Of note, however, is Sean Murphy's art.  It really does a lot of the heavy lifting through these early segments of the book.  There's even a five page, textless sequence where he shows off some amazing attention to detail that has me just pouring over the pages absorbing the amount of work he's put into the smallest of details.  Joe's room even has individual bricks and wood that looks like wood.  This is some fantastic artwork and stunning attention to detail that only gets better when the more fantastic elements come into play.

Speaking of that five page sequence, many coming in fresh may find issue with what, at first, appears to be a pointless sequence.  This is an eight issue series that will follow Joe's adventure through his imaginary world and these scenes are the framing sequences that will provide context for future stories.  They are literally there for you to see where this adventure will go and to look back on and compare and contrast with what he sees and what is real.  If not for Murphy's art, I'd probably be a little peeved at how long the sequence was, but it plays up the mundane nature of Joe's world and helps put into context the future of this story.

 GI Joes, Transformers, Santa Claus and even the Goddamn Batman!

Getting back to Joe, his adventure begins once he arrives in his room.  A quick note from me is that his room is awesome.  Seriously, I would have killed for a room like that when I was growing up.  I probably match him in number of toys (well, shared with my brother), but we only got the basement to play with.  Would kill for a room like Joe's.

Once in his room, we are shown another key difference between Joe the Barbarian and other escapist titles in that his escapist reality is not left open to interpretation.  Yes, there's no ambiguity to this world like in I Kill Giants.  There's no sense of wonder like seeing Stuff of Legend toys come to life to save their missing master.  Joe's reality crumbles due to low blood sugar.  His mother constantly reminded him about candy in his backpack, we were shown a bully stealing his chocolate bar and, finally, we see him reaching for his insulin pen in a panic as he wakes up from a nap woozy only to drop it, leading to his encounter with his toys come to life.

To be honest, I'm not sure if I like it.  It still maintained the meta-escapist story that I personally enjoy.  We still get to see these toys (there's even a Batman shown!) come to life and the journey Joe will embark on, but the clear definition that this is just a fever dream kind of pulls me out of it and ruins that wonderous joy of following Barbara Thorson of I Kill Giants on her daily adventures, seeing how people react to her "dillusions" and wondering alongside them if they are real or if they merely aren't perceiving these threats that Barbara sees.  The journey was made that much more enjoyable with that element of not knowing what's real or not.

However, the journey is more important than the ending.  Does knowing it's not real make it any less enjoyable?  I'm still not sure.  It loses some impact being shown so early on that this is false, but those closing pages by Murphy and Grant Morrison's track record for dealing with the themes of the nature of reality and the subconscious as well as meta commentary and other escapist topics only has me wondering where the story will go from here.  I'm willing to put aside mild disappointment over the cause of this wonderous adventure and simply sit back and enjoy it for the time being.

Verdict - Buy It.  With a $1 cover price, it's hard not to pick this up.  Add two amazing creators, an interesting, though not perfect premise, and this is a very solid setup issue.  I'm a little disappointed with the revelation of how this fantastic world comes to pass, but am looking forward to the journey we're about to set out on. 

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Brandon Whaley said...

I really enjoyed this book. Agreed with you on knowing about the premise behind the fantasy world, but knowing Grant Morrisson he'll find a way to throw a wrench in before its all said and done.

Nathan Aaron said...

I thought it was alright. I LOVED the artwork, and it's Grant. So that's either a good or bad thing, you usually have to wait til the end to decide. LOL I just thought the issue didn't bring much to the table, but it might read better as a complete eight issue mini. I'm REALLY hoping this entire mini isn't only about a boy who has diabetes and forgets his sugar, so he goes into an escapist fever dream. I mean, eight issues for that?! It's Grant, I just know he's got something up his sleeve that's crazy! Time will tell.

Brandon Whaley said...

those are my thoughts as well. I'm not sure Grant can contain himself for such a mundane concept over 8 issues heh.

CasinoGrande said...

I will admit the issue could be a bit underwhelming, but I know it's all set-up which will have some awesome consequences in subsequent issues. I also don't think the hallucination will be as simple as it was so far portrayed. If you make something that clear in the beginning, it must be only to mix it up later on.
I saw an interview with Morrison at IGN that might help clarify some issues:

Matt Ampersand said...

I think this book will be an interesting one to watch, see how much it sells. Just how popular is Morrison now when he isn't writing Batman, Superman, etc.

Morrison apparently said that the whole comic takes place over the span of twenty minutes, so it's likely that this really is going to be all about the dream.

Boots. said...

I think this may turn out to be a story where Joe leads the toys into battle against King Death, with the house as the battle field. I feel that metaphor is a bit too easy for Morrison so we'll just wait and see.
And @Matt even though I remember him saying it'll take place in 20 minutes real time there's no telling how long it'll seem to Joe.

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