Joe the Barbarian
Reading is one of those activities that people enjoy for all kinds of reasons. For some people, it’s about educating themselves. For others, it’s just a way to relax. For me, and I’m sure for a lot of other people, it’s a way to escape. My life has never been what I’d call bad, but the ability to disappear into another world has always held me in thrall. Sometimes a bit too much. I remember having to get my hearing checked when I was a teen because I’d get so sucked into a story that I wouldn’t hear my mom calling me until she was actively yelling my name. That ability to dive into my imagination has changed little as I’ve grown older and I still love diving into new worlds and leaving the ordinary and occasionally stressful world behind. In Joe the Barbarian, we meet a young teen who has plenty he needs an escape from as he becomes an unlikely hero for a rather strange little fantasy world. Joe the Barbarian is written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Sean Gordon Murphy and is a self-contained miniseries of just eight issues. Despite having been nominated for an Eisner award for Best Limited Series in 2011, it’s still not a particularly well-known series and that’s honestly a bit of a shame.
The beginning of the story introduces us to a young teen named Joe Manson, a kid whose hand in life has been pretty terrible. Joe is a loner, a talented artist who spends long hours lost in his imagination and who makes a perfect target for bullies. To make life a bit more difficult, Joe is a Type 1 diabetic who can’t miss a meal without risking going into a coma from hypoglycemia. And if all that weren’t challenging enough, Joe’s father has recently been killed while over in Iraq and his mother is struggling to hold onto the house that Joe has grown up in. It’s little wonder that his imagination holds more appeal than daily life. After a particularly bad day in which bullies and a series of mistakes lead to Joe being stuck at home alone and moving swiftly into hypoglycemia, Joe starts to hallucinate and the line between imagination and reality begins to blur. In this fantastical world of hallucinations, Joe is the savior that all have been praying will arrive to save them from the dark hordes of Lord Death. It will be up to Joe to figure out whether the fantastical quest is simply insulin deprived hallucination or something more important.
I have to admit that I’m not often a huge fan of Grant Morrison. He tends to create complicated plot lines that he expects readers to somehow magically figure out after spending hours unraveling all the crazy little things that he’s thrown in there. However, I was very intrigued with and amused by Joe the Barbarian and it’s probably one of my favorite Morrison stories. As Joe gets drawn further and further into this fantastical quest, it’s incredibly fun to guess from where the hallucinations are drawing their inspiration and figuring out what’s real and what’s been pulled directly from Joe’s imagination. The sheer imaginative quality of the hallucinations is impressive, I really enjoyed this other world that Morrison created for Joe and Joe’s struggle to balance the real, life-threatening problem of hypoglycemia with his desire to escape the real world. Additionally, Sean Gordon Murphy’s art is fantastic. The ways in which Joe’s real-life elements are drawn into fantasy was so well done that you could really pick out the elements even as they were drastically changed. The style is very definitely in the fantasy realm but it switches brilliantly between the dark, stormy real life of Joe and the more vibrant fantasy world of his hallucinations. And sometimes, they’re blended together in a way that makes you question which is which. Morrison and Murphy are a fantastic creator pairing and made Joe the Barbarian a very entertaining and compelling story.
Joe the Barbarian is one of those graphic novel stories that I would be careful about recommending. I loved seeing Joe’s struggles to deal with real life while simultaneously desperately wanting to escape it. That element alone makes Joe an incredibly compelling character. It’s easy to feel bad for a kid for whom pretty much everything that could go wrong, does. There are a lot of little elements in Joe the Barbarian to catch and I think you’d have to read it multiple times to catch them all. For those wanting a straight forward story, I’m not sure that this one will be their cup of tea. This isn’t one of Morrison’s more complicated story but neither is it a simple hero’s adventure. That said, if you enjoy the mingling of fantasy and reality and an entertaining and sweet story, I’d definitely recommend it!