Sunday, 10 February 2013

Joe the Barbarian

Before I give my thoughts on Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy’s Joe the Barbarian two things should be pointed out in the interest of fairness. Firstly the series won an Eisner Award. That marks it out as something significantly special. Not just anything gets an Eisner. Secondly I am not Grant Morrison’s biggest fan. This book is a near perfect example of why that’s so.

The problem I have with Morrison is that he so often seems to go for style over substance. There always seems to be an underlying drive to show how cool he is and how much he knows about mysticism, drug experimentation, society’s fringes and other things that don’t necessarily translate well to the world of comic books. Were this his only characteristic I doubt I’d ever have any interest in any of his comics. I also doubt he would have become such a prominent author. One trick ponies rarely find success to the level Morrison has.

These bad points are tempered by an incredible creativity. This is what stops me from outright disliking him. He has traits and abilities that can, when he’s on form and not preoccupying himself with deliberately baffling nonsense, allow him to produce a damn fine comic book. All-Star Superman and the early issues of the 2009 Batman and Robin book are both solid examples of how good Morrison can be when he’s on form. Titles such as The Invisibles and The Filth (both of which I’ll review at some point) showcase Morrison at his dreck-delivering worst.

Joe the Barbarian slots firmly into the middle ground of the Scot’s work. It’s not as convoluted and pretentious as his worst works but it’s by no means a simple read. Even its own internal logic appears baffling, contradictory and poorly defined in places. At the same time it’s a wonderfully inventive book at its core. The world building is some of the best of any Morrison title I’ve ever come across. JTB is most similar to Doom Patrol in the Morrison pantheon, it has some pretty hefty faults but it’s mostly enjoyable.

Morrison has borrowed liberally from various sources for this book. There are touches of The Neverending Story in the general concept, although given that this is a comic and not a book or film similarities to the Sandman arc Game of You are even more glaring. Numerous pop culture kids’ characters pop up. Generic Transformers and teddy bears bulk up the general populace of the fantasy world and numerous comic characters can be spotted, including John Constantine, Batman and Lobo.

The story centres on diabetic teenager Joe Manson, who lapses into an insulin coma as the result of school bullies nicking a bar of chocolate. He hallucinates an elaborate fantasy world that draws elements from his real life surroundings. The simple journey down a couple of flights of stairs to grab a cola from the fridge and turn the lights back on after a power outage is intercut with his journey through the elaborate trappings of his fantasy world.

The way in which Joe’s house and the Iron Kingdom are linked is the book’s greatest achievement. The boy’s bedroom is Playtown, populated by childhood action figures (one of which is clearly based on Morrison, chalking up another utterly needless cameo in one of his own creations). It’s here that pet rat Jack, or “Chakk”, joins Joe on his journey, another nice idea. The bathroom is a series of pipes in Joe’s fantasy land, while the warmth of the fireplace in the living room becomes Hearth Castle.

Many things from reality are reinterpreted as the history and landscape of the Iron Kingdom, with his father’s death, mother’s grieving, a running bath tap, and the light switch in the basement all becoming key plot elements in addition to the boy’s diabetes. It’s easy to overlook the unoriginality of the premise when Morrison has done this much with it. He’s taken an idea that’s been used before, yes, but he’s completely done his own thing with it. It’s engaging stuff.

Sadly the book falls down somewhat in the plot area. Too much time is spent playing around with the reader’s inability to know what’s real and what isn’t. The ending of issue three hinges entirely on this fact, resolved in the next issue in a very disappointing fashion. While it’s not a bad thing that the creative team don’t rush into establishing the truth of Joe’s situation Morrison’s obsession with teasing becomes distracting.

Perhaps it’s unfair to knock the book for this. After all the plot is basically about a thirteen year old failing to get some sugar and dragging himself downstairs to get some glucose and flick a light switch. The neat trick of turning a regular house into a magical realm with its own pantheon, mythology and religion is the selling point here and, as I’ve said, that’s done very well.

For those unfamiliar with Grant Morrison this probably isn’t a bad starting point. It gives you an idea of how good the guy can be but also provides ample warnings for how ludicrously self-indulgent his scripts can get. It provides an equally good introduction to the world of comic books in general. It’s not the best ever written but it’s far from the worst and amply demonstrates how comics can do things that film, television and radio can’t. There’s no way this story could ever have been done justice in anything other than a picture book.

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