“The Dying Boy”
For the most part, this third issue of Joe The Barbarian plays out in pretty much the manner that you would expect from having read the first two issues of the series. That’s not to say that the book is lacking in imagination, however. Far from it. This issue sees writer Grant Morrison treat us to dwarf-pirate sea-battles with fire-breathing, flying wraiths; a submarine chase in which our hero’s escape is hampered by the claustrophobia of his giant warrior rat companion; and the revelation of a secret hidden city that holds a chilling prophecy foretelling the death of the titular Joe (who is in danger of slipping into a diabetic coma in the real world, as he imagines all of this in his fevered mind).
Despite such an excess of imaginative and enjoyable concepts, however, there’s a sense that this is all very much par for the course for the world that Morrison has created over the past couple of issues. All of the character types that we encounter here have seen before in some shape or form in the traditional hero-quest stories that most children are brought up with, adding to the sense that the writer is intentionally drawing on familiar concepts and storytelling ideas to populate a world that’s supposed to be the creation of a young boy’s fevered imagination.
It’s a little more interesting, then, to see Morrison use the final page of the issue to throw a real curveball at his readers, giving us the first glimpse of Joe’s fantasy world that isn’t seen from the character’s own perspective, and thus calling into question the idea that the world that Joe has been experiencing is a purely fictional territory. Just as Joe seems to be able to gain access to the fantasy realm, it appears that some inhabitants of that universe can see into the “real” world, throwing up an interesting circular chicken-and-egg situation that recalls the kind of experimentation with the nature of reality that the writer pulled off so enjoyable in books like The Invisibles and Flex Mentallo.
In addition to this richness of ideas, the book’s artwork remains very strong. I won’t repeat my comments from previous reviews, but Sean Murphy’s detailed, angular style combined with Dave Stewart’s deft colouring is definitely one of the main reasons to enjoy this book. This issue allows Murphy a couple of memorable big, impressive shots, such as the splashpage that introduces the pirate city, and the epic-feeling shot of the stone stairs that we see towards the end of the issue. Murphy also does well with the smaller details of the story: for example, I like the fact that you can see the Deathcoats’ sea-creature being winched away in the background as the heroes disembark from their vessel in the pirate city after escaping from it in the previous scene.
There’s only one spot in which the artwork wasn’t quite clear to me: during a scene set in the pirate’s dining hall, a sequence of five panels is ordered in an anti-clockwise fashion (so that the final panel is the top-right of the group, rather than the bottom-right panel as with traditional right-to-left layouts). I initially misread the sequence due to the unusual layout, and so couldn’t work out why one character ended up covered in food until I read further down the page and saw the sequence of events leading up to it. This is only a small criticism, however, as the rest of Murphy’s sequentials are very smooth and easy to follow.
After reading the first couple of issues of this book, I was impressed, but I wondered whether the relatively simplistic nature of the storyline could sustain an entire eight-issue series. Having read this third issue, however, I can see that the world of Joe the Barbarian might well prove to be less straightforward as I had imagined. Combined with the interesting wrinkles that Morrison throws into the story regarding Joe’s condition in the real world, there’s definitely plenty of potential here for the rest of the book’s story. Let’s just hope that the next five issues are as good as the first three have been.
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