Thursday, September 23, 2010

Joe the Barbarian – growing up is for wimps

You’re supposed to put away childish things as life goes on, but why can’t you play with them forever?

Like every other Vertigo comics with Grant Morrison’s name on it, Joe The Barbarian works on several levels, and this time he’s got one of those collaborators who is adding to the work – rather than taking away – with Sean Murphy’s epic and claustrophobic visuals.

When the first couple of issues came out, there were a number of people arguing that nothing was happening, with loads of wide and long establishing shots instead of pure plot. It does suffer from the usual problem with stories about the processes of imagination and Joe The Barbarian might be full of monsters and big sword fights, but I lot of readers can’t get past the idea it’s really about somebody heading down the stairs to get a can of soda, and that’s not important.

Except that it is, imaginary stories are always the best. Everybody loves Whatever Happened To The Man Of Tomorrow, and there is more weird poignancy in the original Superman Red/Superman Blue story than in the last ten years of regular superman comics.

You can tell which Morrison comics are about the power of the imagination and creation, because they always start or end with a blank page. The first panel of Joe The Barbarian is an empty sketch page.

Even with all its flights of fancy, the comic is still full of those doses of Kitchen Sink Plus that have been in Morrison’s work since St Swithins Day. It’s The Filth all over again. All Greg wanted to do was feed his cat, watch some telly and masturbate, all Joe wants to do is get down the bloody stairs.

But the kid ain’t all right, and going into diabetic shock, and hallucinating his way through a magical kingdom that’s slowly dying. In this flash before his eyes, Joe is an awkward adolescent, still not sure why he is going to turn out like. The giant dopey robot dinosaur and the GI Joes are still there – they’re still weirdly important – but so is Lobo and John Constantine and the Dark Knight Batman. Where does he go from here?

Where do we all go? That awkwardness of adolescence, that bit where the hormones go mental, and the body starts mutating, and the mind struggles to catch up. It happens to us all, and we grow up and stop playing with toys and be adults.

But all that childhood affection doesn’t go away, not really. There is always a place in the heart for the first soft toy you really loved, and it can be a warm and positive feeling. We can throw away our toys, but there will always be a little of them there in our souls to help us through the rough times.

You hear that, Mr Elephant? I still love you!


Anyway, the series is one issue from completion. It’s all coming to a head, everything is breaking down and Death Is Coming, but a happy ending is assured. Like his very occasional collaborator Peter Milligan, Morrison remains a deeply sentimental Scotsman, and even if stories end in carnage and death, there will still be hope, somewhere in the gore. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Sometimes Morrison’s stories get butchered by incompetent artists, but Sean Murphy is a fine talent, worthy of further recognition. It’s the sketchy slickness and shameless exaggeration that catches the eye, but his work is satisfying on several tiers. It’s big and epic and colourful, and there is no problem with the shifts between the two worlds. There are connections and stylistics mirrorings, but one is definitely not the other.

It’s still fun to look for visual clues between Joe’s house and the Playtown scenes. All those static shots of the house, or weirdly detailed rooms, it all pays off with a closer examination. But don’t look too deep, because they’re everywhere and you can’t see things that just aren’t there. Which, considering this comic, is all kinds of ironic.

Like much of Morrison’s work over the years, the final issues are shipping late, just as things are really starting to crank. The breakdowns, the little things seen in previous issues that are starting to pile up on top of each other, the climactic confrontation with the big bad in the basement, the hidden story of Joe’s life, told in his reactions to his crisis, blatantly explained in the furniture and decorations of his house. Three toothbrushes in the bathroom, the eternal struggle with money and the waste of a father – it’s all right there.

Whatever happens in the last issue, Joe The Barbarian has been a typically satisfying comic from Morrison, and a stellar showcase for Murphy. It’s the type of series that can make you think and make you laugh. That’s all I really want from a comic, and I’ll always be grateful to Vertigo for consistently producing them.

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