Written by Grant Morrison.
Art by Sean Murphy.
DC Comics/Vertigo, 2011.
Grant Morrison is a decisive writer in the comics form. Many people do not like his more experimental works, especially when the narratives get characteristically dense or abstract. Final Crisis anyone? Many people don’t enjoy when he incorporates more esoteric ideas like chaos magic, ceremonial magic, occult philosophy, media theory, surrealism, dadaism, William S. Burroughs, psychedelics, alien abductions, etc. Invisibles reads like an incredible mess if you are not familiar with some of those topics. The same could be said of Doom Patrol. Some of his work doesn’t traffic with these outre ideas or experiments in the form though, and Joe The Barbarian is an example of such a work.
I hate to say that this book is an example of a “restrained” Morrison. What Morrison did was write something that appeals more to the Neil Gaiman fan than the Robert Anton Wilson or William Gibson fan. The pitch mashup I would use is The Goonies meets The Never-Ending Story. It’s a self contained eight issue miniseries that has been published in a nice hardcover.
Our protagonist is Joe, a boy in his early teens. His father was in the military and was killed in the recent Gulf War, leaving Joe’s mother a widow who is trying to keep their house. Joe really loves his house, especially his room…which is probably an example of the room that every boy dreamt about having. Joe also has a pet Norwegian rat named Jack.
Joe is also hypoglycemic. After a visit to the cemetery, where some bullies steal Joe’s candy, Joe returns home and takes a nap. He awakes to hallucinations where he is in a fantasy world where Jack is a warrior rat, Joe is prophesy’s agent known as “the dying boy”, and adventure ensues as the reluctant Joe is recruited to bring forth the light that will drive away encroaching darkness – the great evil adversary of this tale. All Joe really wants is a soda so he can get his blood sugar back up.
His perception morphs between the real world and his fantasy world. What makes this really interesting is that as Joe tries to get to the refrigerator downstairs so he can get a soda, he struggles in the journey and those journeys are translated into events and environments in his waking dream. An over-running sink becomes a waterfall. A stray dog who wanders through Joe’s house’s open door becomes a menacing monster. Jack becomes a warrior rat, fully armed with sword and combat skills. A blown fuse becomes the spreading darkness. This oscillation between the waking operational reality and the fantasy world where Joe is the reluctant hero provides a unique way for the tale to unravel with real world consequences and an identifiable “mundane” character. There is nothing unique about Joe except his inherent decency.
Morrison delivers some top-rate writing. His dialog and scenes are tight. The narrative plot is a pastiche of things that I have seen before, but the execution is truly a beautiful and rarefied thing. Morrison deserves praise for taking such an original twist on a very old and exploited tale of a boy exploring the fertile world of his own imagination.
Sean Murphy’s art was a great choice for this miniseries. He has a loose line that conveys much energy and he provided some great character designs. Jack the barbarian rat in the dream world is an infinitely cool design. Jack’s fight scenes are also elegantly acrobatic. The designs of Joe’s room are also great. If I wasn’t married I would want to live in a room like that. I don’t think my wife would go for the bunk bed though.
This is a fine story of childhood imagination transformed into an adventure of great meaning in the most mundane of settings. The question of whether this narrative was really a bleeding of reality into the fantasy world is left open to questions at the end, but the fact that the adventure took place totally within the walls of Joe’s house adds to that idea that the imagination at play is a damn powerful and beautiful thing.