Joe the Barbarian #1


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Joe the Barbarian #1


  • Words: Grant Morrison
  • Art: Sean Murphy
  • Colors: Dave Stewart
  • Story Title: Hypo
  • Publisher: Vertigo/DC Comics
  • Price: $1.00
  • Release Date: Jan 20, 2010

Grant Morrison follows up his controversial Final Crisis and his manic run on Batman and Robin with a fantasy. Well.. that’s how the book is billed anyhow.  What the reader gets is a lackadaisical character piece. 

We are introduced to Joe Manson.  Daydreamer. Artist.  Diabetic kid.  His dad has died recently and his mother is struggling with being a single parent while getting on with her life.

There is palatable fear of change in the book.  This is odd, as there are no outward signs of this other than Joe feeling that his time at his current home is short for some unknown reason.  There is a move on the way and Joe does not want any part of it.

He’s a latch key kid in a big house.  His room in the attic is filled with ample stimulation for an active imagination.  His G.I. Joes and Transformers chilling next to his Batman and his Superman.  When he nods off, he awakens to a world filled with his toys come to life.

It’s a sparse and pedestrian effort.  Maybe it is a reaction to fanboy outcry over so much of Final Crisis happening between panels and off page.  Whatever the reason, Morrison takes his time with this book.  Instead of a light and overly decompressed book, we get a deftly dense read.  Partially because the kid is such a cliche, but also because there is detail for days.  There isn’t a lot of dialogue and the pieces of the puzzle are not highlighted in neon, but somehow the scribe manages to get the kind of characterization that a novelist would achieve in 50 or 60 pages.

Part of this is thanks to Murphy’s incredible artwork.  While the words and script may be almost bohemian in their nonsuperfluous nature, the art is decadent in detail.  It is easy to imagine this house being inhabited by a member of The Goonies.  The atmospheric and at times hypnotic artwork is the real star here.  The pencils show off the town’s personality and, more importantly, the house’s character.  Even better, where other artists have failed the writer recently, Murphy makes sure that all the information needed to understand what is going on (as much as it is understandable this issue) is in the panel.

The rich and dark palette that is employed by Stewart only enhances the nuanced  ambience of the piece.  For the umpteenth billionth time, he shows why he is one of the premiere colorists of the medium.

All is not well though.  There are typos and awkward phrasing that show a lack of editing.  Even at a dollar, the book seems to lack content, maybe because the exciting moments of the book have been given away in a preview contained in all the Vertigo books for what seems like months now. 

There is the dubious medicating of the boy’s serious illness through candy.  Either this is meant to paint the mother as too self absorbed (which is at odds with her actions in the beginning of the book, driving Joe to a field trip and delaying an important meeting that seems to be the source of the boy’s fear) or it is indicative of a lack of research on the disease on Morrison’s part (which is at odds with Murphy’s illustration of a more legitimate medical answer to the low blood sugar that may or may not cause hallucinations later on).

Vertigo has given other books the dollar entry.  Most notably with The Unwritten.  Here, it is a wise decision as it is unsure how many readers will return at full price.  This is not the kind of work that will keep the adrenaline junkies that provide Marvel with their monster market share coming back.  Furthermore, the up and downs of Morrison’s career recently have damaged his reputation.  Is the fun of Batman and Robin enough to get his fans back on track?  Only time and attrition will tell the tale.

Joe the Barbarian is obviously a different book. Its mood and pacing are off center.  However, with little apparent foreshadowing, it is difficult to know how to take the expert characterization given here.  For a buck, it is well worth checking out - especially given the incredible artwork.  Unfortunately, the second issue is going to have to kick things into gear or a lot of readers will not be happy to stick it through to the end.  Trade waiters beware - this is the kind of book that may not see collection without your support and at this point, this reader is unsure whether it is deserving of such attention. 

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  • Noel Bartocci

    Noel Bartocci Jan 29, 2010 at 4:24pm

    Good review. I liked the book a litle more, but I agree that it was too sparse. It felt more like a free prologue than a bonefied first issue. Like, "just wait, the good stuff's coming." It was
    such a laid back affair, I found myself forgeting parts of the book. Heh.

  • Lee Newman

    Lee Newman Jan 29, 2010 at 4:50pm

    Oh, I like the book enough. If it had cost more than a dollar, I would have been majorly disappointed. It took several reads for me to catch all the nuances, but unlike Final Crisis, it works well enough on its own. This was a tough review to write, glad you thought I did a good job with it.

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Feb 4, 2010 at 12:41pm

    I am at the stage with Vertigo books where I can't really judge individual issues - only arcs. One for the trades possibly.

  • Lee Newman

    Lee Newman Feb 4, 2010 at 12:51pm

    It depends on the book though. Sweet Tooth is a fine example of a serial narrative, it works in single issue format. Day Tripper and Demo are defined by their concept as a single issue format. Unwritten is brilliant but works better in Arcs. Sea Guy just doesn't work at all ;)...

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Feb 4, 2010 at 12:56pm

    Haven't picked up SWEET TOOTH as yet so that's interesting to know Lee. A lot of my Vertigo reading is now either by trade or reading the individual issues that comprise an arc in one sitting (yes, pointless buying them that way I know). I read the first two trades of the wonderful AIR last night, for example, and I have to say I doubt I would have got anything like as much enjoyment from them had I been reading them in monthly parts.

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