Early in the book’s run, the general consensus on Vertigo’s Joe the Barbarian seemed to be that it was mainly a vehicle for the superb artwork by Sean Murphy. Grant Morrison, whose presence as a writer typically looms larger than life over his trademark offbeat stories, appeared content to sit back and let Murphy breathe visual life into what was otherwise a fairly simple tale.
As the series has progressed, however, more and more of Morrison’s signature creativity has shone through. As the titular Joe has ventured deeper and deeper into the hallucinatory fantasy realm created by his own real world health condition, the greater degree to which the situations he encounters have become outlandish and unfamiliar.
With the release of issue #4, I think it’s safe to say that Joe is finally in full Morrisonian mode. Long gone is the trite concept of action figures come to life that was featured in the debut. The lands Joe now explores are inhabited by strange civilizations with unheard of worldviews, filled with people and ideas too bizarre to have been lifted from the Wizard of Oz type stories from which this comic takes its cue.
Numbered among this chapter’s brilliant unique attributes are a society of inventors who have taken a vow of cowardice and a magician’s mathematical calculation involving, “the square root of eye of newt.” Let there be no doubt that this mini-series has been brought to you by the creator of Fantomex, The Fifth World, and the infant universe Qwewq.
Despite all this, fans of more grounded fare need not worry, for Morrison has not abandoned the emotional heart of his story for the sake of a barrage of odd concepts. The series’ overarching metaphor of a young boy’s fear of death remains solidly intact here. Equally moving is the tale of the giant dwarf who accompanies Joe on his journey, only to finally find himself in a world large enough to accommodate his sense of adventure.
Though it’s easy to praise Morrison for all the ingenuity he’s putting on display, this is not to say that Sean Murphy’s work has become any less impressive. In fact, his efforts in this latest issue may be the finest of the series to date. Best of all is the excellent cover image he provides, evoking the sense of a long-lost beloved Saturday morning cartoon.
One of these days, Grant Morrison may pen a script that doesn’t seek to blow your mind in some kind of vicious idea storm. Today, however, is not that day, and Joe the Barbarian is not that comic. It’s the flurry of unparalleled innovation that you’ve come to expect from the industry’s most creative writer.
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