Joe the Barbarian #1

Joe the Barbarian by Grant Morrison, Sean Murphy, Todd Klein, Dave Stewart.
by Grant Morrison, Sean Murphy, Todd Klein, Dave Stewart.

"Every Town has them. Every school has them. Stereotypes...What do I look like?" proclaims the eponymous hero of Joe the Barbarian. Given that this is a Grant Morrison comic, one wonders if that statement is a prelude to future metafictional hijinks. That's because this inaugural issue is pretty straightforward and easily approachable. Joe is your typically alienated teenager with an absent father (he's conveniently dead), and an emotionally unavailable mother (she's too busy trying to keep a roof over their head to meaningfully communicate with her son). Joe's artistic talent earns him the usual casual bullying, with requisite gay bashing, from the school's redneck crowd. He's also suffering from some chronic illness that demands regular medication. Joe is so self-involved he doesn't  even acknowledge the one female classmate who's nice to him. This is as familiar a collection of cliches found in any teen drama; and a font of inspiration of many a Stan Lee-created Marvel series.

Equally familiar is the premise of the awkward teen being drawn into a fantasy-fueled world were the protagonist can get to play the hero he isn't in the mundane world (for comparison, check out this xkcd strip). But this is a Vertigo title written by the writer of past titles like The Invisibles and The Filth. That could mean some bizarre genre twisting somewhere down the road. I don't know. What is obvious for now is that Joe is a huge geek, and his fantasy world is populated by full sized versions of his action figure collection. It's a motley crew of every old-school male geek passions: furry teddy bears, military types,  superheroes, sci-fi characters, and Japanese mecha. This world may or may not be the byproduct of his illness.

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Unlike the hyper-compressed Final Crisis, Morrison contributes little in the way of narrative text. Most of the exposition is handled by his artistic partners. Sean Murphy and Dave Stewart supply many silent panels with richly detailed and moody backgrounds. Murphy is particularly adept at capturing the rather awkward body language of adolescents. At the center of this issue is a four page sequence of Joe entering his house and passing room after room until he finally ascends up to his attic bedroom which is cluttered with all his toys. It very effectively conveys the character's self-imposed isolation from everyone around him.  Morrison simply underlines this sentiment with a few terse statements ending with "This is my room. This is my house." It's rather easy to see how Joe can slip into a private fantasy world when ensconced in his room; assuming that his fantasies are just pure make believe. Whatever the case, Murphy and Stewart effectively illustrate the transition between the two worlds.

At this point there's not much to indicate how the story will handle the tension between mundane vs fantasy. As a first issue, its purpose is to raise questions that leave the reader hungry for the answers. While not entirely original at this stage, Joe the Barbarian is intriguing enough to at least stick around for the next issue.

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