Sunday, January 24, 2010

Review: The quiet power of Joe the Barbarian #1

Joe the Barbarian #1 is the kind of book that renews my faith in comics.

At first glance, it's easy to take some easy shots at the first issue of the title; it's Grant Morrison over-indulging in decompression, the art by Sean Murphy is beautiful but just set-dressing, the story itself isn't going anywhere or telling you anything about the characters, and — my favorite — there are three or four pages of a kid walking through his house and nothing else. It's boring.

All of this is wrong.

Maybe too many comic book readers have become used to an explosion or super-powered fist-fight on every other page. But Joe the Barbarian is, if you look carefully, telling what is promising to be a complex and compelling story. And the first issue is telling a story, in a way that is unique to the literary form — by letting the images do a lot of the talking.

This isn't to say Morrison's script isn't doing its fair share: The bare-bones script tells us what we need to know to get started, introducing us to young, surly Joe; his slightly frazzled mother, the jerk bullies, the nice girl and the dead father. With the exception of Joe they're all ciphers, but for now it's OK — it's enough because it helps put our hero in relief. We learn a little about Joe through his brief but intense interactions with others.

We also learn, through small clues in both the script and art, that Joe is diabetic and thanks to those bullies (and possibly his own teen-aged pig-headedness) he's in trouble. And now the big, rambling house he lives in is going to seem a lot bigger, and much more dangerous and unfamiliar.

Which brings me back to the art. The superb work by Murphy is anything but static; at turns gloomy, then lush and exploding with color before slipping back to scenes that seem to be draining of life, the art is atmospheric and rich. If the artwork is anything to judge by, Joe the Barbarian is going to be Murphy's story as much as Morrison's, and deservedly so.

The art depicts both a dreary and ordinary day and a bright and fire-scorched fantasy land with equal ease; strangely enough, it also serves to ground Morrison's sketchy, true-to-life exchanges and his trademark fever-dream dialogue. Most of the clues to the characters' backgrounds and personalities, as well as much of the foreshadowing and mood, are delivered through Murphy's work, purposefully making it more than just a setting. Instead, it's an essential part of the story. And, quite simply, the art is gorgeous.

In a way, Joe the Barbarian demands more than it gives: Is Joe going into some sort of diabetic shock? Is he hallucinating a world populated with the toys and knick-knacks filling his room? What do our fantasies say about ourselves and about our lives? None of this is answered in the first issue, obviously. But I think it's enough for now that the title brings up these questions.

It's tempting to say Joe the Barbarian #1 is challenging — but it isn't, really. But it's not simple, either. Instead, it's a book that expects — and invites — readers to pay attention. Pay attention to the words, to the art, and to the way they work so intractably together, and I think you'll be rewarded for the effort.

Download a preview here.


Jamie said...

I just saw this at the shop today and should have picked it up! It sounds worth both the time and $1 commitment :)

Maxo said...

Ha ha! That's how they hook you — just a taste so you'll come back for more. I really think you'll dig it!

Dom said...

I like the book so far but the typo on page 3 (i think) still haunts me late at night. You have one job editor! And what about the letterer? "Just write letters. Do not read words. Only see trees. Never see forest. Errorrrrr." (Letterers are robots)

(Note: I think the typo is "It it..." when the sentence should read "If it...")

Maxo said...

Ha! Now I'm going to have go back and read that, even though it'll probably bug me as much as it bugs you.