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Sunday Slugfest: Joe the Barbarian #8

Posted: Sunday, March 6, 2011
By: Thom Young

Grant Morrison
Sean Murphy (with Dave Stewart, colors)
Vertigo-DC Comics
After months of waiting, the final issue of Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy’s Joe the Barbarian has arrived! All of Joe's allies and enemies descend upon the same battlefield as he and his army have their showdown with Death itself!

Nathaniel MacDonald:
Morgan Davis:
Chris Kiser:
Dave Wallace:

Nathaniel MacDonald:

Before we begin, I'd like to acknowledge that Joe the Barbarian is an eight-issue epic about a hypoglycemic boy going downstairs to get a soda. Most of it is told through a series of portent-soaked hallucinations, but that's occasionally what you get when you sign up for a Grant Morrison narrative.

As for the nature of the hallucinations, Joe says it best in the sixth issue: "My ordinary world is your mythology." Elements of his real life are echoed everywhere in his fantastic waking visions, but their importance and meaning are expanded and distorted.

As an ending, Joe #8 is satisfying. It wrings every possible ounce of resolution from the narrative's many subplots, both real and imagined. Prophecies are fulfilled. Destinies are realized. Joe's story reaches a proper conclusion. We learn all we need to know about Jack in a brutally kinetic undead action sequence (one thankfully devoid of flying black rings). Smoot finally does something. Pages 2 and 3 have an amazing four-panel layout, including a compellingly fired raygun and the amazing onomatopoeia "rmzblkxctzk." And, without going into too much detail, a huge sparkling jewel of closure emerges from Queen Bree's upside-down portrait of her departed husband. And no, it didn't make my eyes mist over. Shut up.

Anyway, satisfying conclusions aside, this book is full of flair. Can we take a moment to talk about Lord Death's monologuing? Villains take note, because this is how it's done. Listen to this right here, "These last rebellious CHILDREN shall now make their beds in DIRT with WORMS to sing them lullabies." That's the stuff of classics right there. Morrison gets the chance to whip out some poetry, and it is rich and dark and glossy and lovely.

Let's pull out another dark verse for good measure. "THE HOUR IS COME WHEN OF THE WORLD A GRAVEYARD I MUST MAKE!" I love typing that out.

Okay. Let's move on.

Dave Stewart's colors are as gorgeous as ever, and Sean Murphy's art is equally delightful. I hate to use a word that's seen as much abuse as "epic" has but, dash it all, Murphy illustrates some truly epic showdowns--many of which would have made great covers. The straight action sequences make some use of speed lines, but they're not really necessary. The motion is always discernable without them.

Of course, for fast visceral action, the best substitutes for speed lines are always swinging chains, spraying ichor, and splintering bones--none of which are lacking here.

Murphy illustrates a broad range of expressions, too. There are moments of desperate hope, hard resolve, righteous anger, and stark fear. However, there are increasingly common moments of sweetness, too. Joe's face adopts a look of care and surprise when the rat general claims his kind are hated. Moments like these provide necessary catharsis, set as they are against a whirling landscape of despair and relentless destruction. The characters' relief is palpable and convincingly rendered.

If you've already bought the first seven issues, Joe the Barbarian #8 is probably in your subscription bin anyway. If, however, you were sitting on the fence, wondering if the series was worth picking up, I'd offer you a resounding "yes! Do it!"

Morgan Davis:

The big question that’s going to be on everyone’s minds with the final issue of Joe the Barbarian is, of course, “Was it worth it?” And just like any time that question is asked, the answer will really depend on just what you were hoping to get out of the series.

For me, as bothersome as the nearly half a year delay of the final issue was, Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy more than came through on the promise of the series. There were some moments that were less than perfect but, on the whole, I can’t say that this team failed to give me any of what I wanted in this finale. Joe’s story had a fittingly heart-wrenching twist, but it was the actual final pages that made it extremely clear to me just how great this series is.

As pretty much everyone who has had more than five words to say about this series has already said, the real gift of Joe the Barbarian just may be its status as a breakthrough piece for Murphy. In the final moments of the book, Murphy’s capacity for embedding staggering emotion in his panels is undeniable as the artist communicates so much of what Joe is thinking just in the character’s eyes--with Morrison being wise enough to let the scenes be almost entirely dialogue free.

There are plenty of critics and fans who are going to tell you that this book fails because it “goes in every direction,” but they’re completely missing the point. It is of absolute importance that you go into this book remembering what it’s about.

This series has not been the story of a fantasy world, it has not been the story of an epic quest, it has been (and will always be) the story of a scared, lonely boy who has tried to forget how vulnerable he is and how lost he is. Only through a near death experience has he managed to really understand how much value there is to life.

So, of course, the ultimate battles plays out in a dizzying, confusing way. What would you expect from what is essentially a fever dream--a hallucination coming at the hands of a body shutting itself down? The battle sequences are intended to be vivid and hazy--more of a setting created to display Murphy’s ridiculous skills than an example of clear, focused plot.

Just as the initial reviews of this series on other comic book Web sites focused far too much on pages that were perceived to be aimless and pointless, many of the closing reviews at the end of the series are going to needlessly criticize the confusion and misrepresent Morrison and Murphy’s aims. Like Jonathan Lethem’s Omega the Unknown at Marvel, Joe the Barbarian is definitely not for everyone. Murphy’s art makes it quite a bit easier to digest than Farel Dalrymple’s work was on Omega, but it’s still an incredibly heady brew of nightmarish fever fantasy and cinema verite daily expression. The likelihood of understanding it all on a first read is pretty much zero, and that’s the way it should be.

Has Joe the Barbarian been a perfect ride all the way through? Of course not. Is it possible that Morrison doesn’t actually know what he’s doing and just “scrambled” on the ending? You could read it that way, but if you do then you’re just causing yourself to lose out on one of the best works in Morrison’s canon.

Chris Kiser:

Largely left off critics’ Best of 2010 lists, and not having a new issue in over five months, it’s probably fair to say that Joe the Barbarian has fallen off the radar of more than a few folks. It’s an odd position to occupy for series writer Grant Morrison, generally one of the industry’s most popular and talked about creators.

However, don’t let the lack of chatter fool you into thinking that this series has been a disappointment. To the contrary, it has been quite good--containing the right mixture of quality and anonymity to set itself up to become one of tomorrow’s hidden gems. The eighth and final installment is no exception.

Despite not having read Joe since the seventh issue hit stands back in September, I was immediately drawn back into its well-formed fantasy world upon reading this concluding chapter. Like many Morrison-penned finales, this issue is a powerful conclusion, even as it sidesteps many of the writer’s usual storytelling techniques.

There’s not a particularly trippy twist to be had here, nor does Morrison attempt to blow your mind with a barrage of complex ideas too crazy for the normal human to comprehend. Though he has managed to do these things quite well in other works, his approach on Joe has tended to be a relatively straightforward one.

In place of such brainteasers, Morrison makes ample room to tug full force on the reader’s heartstrings. After all, this story has been about a young boy’s struggles in facing death, disease, and loss. In grand fashion, every ounce of emotional potential has been squeezed out from those concepts and sprinkled wonderfully upon each page. Don’t get the impression, however, that this is some kind of cheap-shot tearjerker.

Bursting with more optimism than any other writer in the business, Morrison takes what could have been the setup for a tragic ending and turns it into a celebration of triumph over adversity. As protagonist, Joe ends up as the beneficiary of this goodwill--but so, too, do his supporting cast members.

One highlight in particular involves Joe’s sidekick, and pet rat, Jack. In just a few pages, Morrison is able to outdo just about everything DC attempted throughout the entire Blackest Night crossover.

Then, of course, there’s Sean Murphy, the artist for whom Joe the Barbarian has been nothing short of an astonishing breakout work. After the phenomenal job he has done crafting worlds and characters here, there should be no doubt that his future projects are worth checking out based on the presence of his name alone.

Quite often, the conclusion of a series can make or break the work as a whole, and there is no question in my mind that Joe the Barbarian #8 has done the former. With an indispensable dose of help from Murphy, Morrison has crafted another keeper--one to recommend and reread for many years to come.

Dave Wallace:

It's not often that I feel underwhelmed by a Grant Morrison book. However, Joe the Barbarian #8 was a slight disappointment to me, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, and most obviously, there has been a long wait between the series' penultimate chapter and this concluding installment. I don't know why so many months have passed between issues #7 and #8--and I'm not about to speculate--but the effect of this delay is that the momentum of the story has been killed just at the point at which the book should have been reaching a crescendo.

Today, I can only hazily recollect many of the details of previous issues--and whilst in the past I might have reread the entire series in preparation for the release of this final issue, I just don't have the time to dig them out for a recap these days. As a result, I can only remember the plot of the series in fairly broad strokes, and so the story doesn't feel quite as textured and layered to me as it might have if this issue had followed hard upon the previous. Instead, I only have a vague awareness of the significance of many of the subplots and secondary characters.

Thus, it may be that I'm missing many subtle callbacks to previous issues and connections with past chapters, and it's very likely that the book will read better once collected. However, given that I'm currently reviewing the eighth issue in its present format, the delay has definitely harmed the story.

My second problem with the issue is that it provides quite a conventional, pat ending for a series that has hitherto reveled in its wildly imaginative concepts and outlandish characters. I got the feeling from issue #7's cliffhanger that Morrison was preparing the audience for a brave exploration of some very dark territory indeed--particularly when it came to the character of Joe's father.

Instead, we get a fairly straightforward denouement in which Joe fends off his hypoglycaemic coma with a bottle of pop, defeats the villains of his fantasy world, and conveniently stumbles upon the solution to his family's money worries via a hidden letter from his father (which doesn't really make much sense when you think about it, for all sorts of reasons)--although the writer at least eschews bringing back Joe's father in person for a truly schmaltzy reunion.

Nevertheless, the issue does provide a conclusive and coherent finale for the series--and one that should confound those readers who criticise Morrison for not being able to provide decent endings for his stories (and for not being able to wrangle his wild ideas into a conventional narrative). Heroes triumph, enemies are vanquished, and harmony is restored—which, for some readers, will automatically make the book more successful than some of the writer's more challenging works.

Sean Murphy's artwork is again highly impressive, elevating an otherwise fairly average story to something a little more special. Whilst there might be a slight sense of emptiness in certain panels compared to his work in previous issues--with a notable lack of the kinds of crowded images packed with toy-based heroes that defined earlier chapters of the book—this change actually works to focus attention on the few key players who are important in this final issue.

I continue to find Murphy's style extremely pleasing, with an angular, occasionally sketchy quality that helps to convey a strong sense of energy and movement without sacrificing the high level of detail that helps to set the real-world scenes apart from the fantasy sequences very effectively. Additionally, Dave Stewart's colours continue to enhance Murphy's linework, pulling off the difficult trick of making the pages feel visually rich even when utilising a very dour, almost monochrome colour scheme for many scenes, to reflect the 'darkest hour before dawn' quality of much of the issue.

I don't want to sound too down on Joe the Barbarian, because it's been a fun ride, and one that I definitely intend to experience again by buying the collected edition once it's released. I have no doubt that, when read contiguously, much of my vague disappointment with this final chapter will be tempered by the positive qualities of the rest of the story, and I'll enjoy it as a whole. It's just an unfortunate combination of a long shipping delay and a more-conventional-than-expected denouement that has left this final issue feeling somewhat flat.

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