Capsule Reviews: Week of February 15th

Joe the Barbarian #2 (Vertigo; Morrison, Murphy, Stewart, Klein)

All hail Chakk.

Hear that? That’s the sound of a possibly awesome book becoming completely awesome. Grant Morrison turns in part two of a story that is rapidly turning into something I wouldn’t have expected from him. While there’s lots of little detail and callbacks to the first issue for the careful reader, those minutia never overwhelm the characters or pacing.

The task of getting those callbacks across often falls to the art, and it fails to disappoint. All those long establishing images of Joe’s house in the first issue that drew semi-critical ire elsewhere suddenly become very important. Sean Murphy’s style and vision settle in a bit and Joe’s world starts to clarify without losing its surrealistic quality. We’re also introduced to another central character, Chakk, the fantasy avatar of Joe’s real-life pet rat Jack. I found Chakk instantly endearing. Claymore-wielding rat-knights? Right up my alley. Vertigo can just go ahead and make a retail statue of him now, I’m good for it.

If you’re not reading this already, start.

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Spider-Woman: Agent of S.W.O.R.D. #6 (Marvel; Bendis, Maleev, Petit)

Make with the blasty.

I’m guessing Bendis decided our heroine had enough mental trauma for the first five books, as issue six is delightfully uncomplicated: Jessica and the Thunderbolts fight. Atlanta burns. You get the idea.

That doesn’t in any way diminish the ride, however, as it’s a pretty fun fight. Ghost gets his ass kicked, Headsman really gets his ass kicked, Ant-Man is snarky, Yelena is annoyed, and Paladin… doesn’t really do anything, now that I think about it. And Jessica is generally awesome throughout.

I get the feeling, out of context, that we’re waiting for all the Siege stuff to be done with before Bendis really moves on with the character, which is understandable. As long as the fights are good, the dialog is fun, and the art remains especially pretty, I don’t mind killing time with Spider-Woman.

As long as she leaves the serious Ghost beatdown to Tony and Pepper, that is. A man’s got his limits.

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Hit-Monkey (Marvel; Way, Talijic, Hollingsworth, Eckleberry)

The Banana Transporter

I’ll admit it right up front: Marvel had my four bucks when I saw the Frank Cho cover preview.

This came out last week, and I thought it deserved at least a few words. I wasn’t prepared, though, for just how straight the concept was played; I sat on it for a week pondering how to approach it. In my defense, the ‘I’ in the logo is replaced with a banana, so I don’t think I can be faulted for expecting something a little more… maybe not wacky, but at least funny. What I got instead was an almost straight-line action/crime comic that just happens to involve a pack of snow monkeys.

There’s nothing outright wrong with it. The script is solid and the art is right in style for the genre. I have to give Way credit for taking the concept so seriously. It works for a one-shot, but if there’s ever to be more Hit-Monkey, I don’t know that the literal take will prove to be sustainable. I’m both glad I got it and not sure what to do with it now that I have it. I won’t be surprised if we never see it again.

Also, in an opinion that truly does not matter, I think I liked the whole concept better when it was called Hitman Monkey. C’est la vie.

Review: Joe the Barbarian #1

Joe the Barbarian #1 (cover by Sean Murphy)

“chapter 1: hypo”

Writer/Creator: Grant Morrison
Artist: Sean Murphy
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Letterer: Todd Klein

Before I get into the meat of Joe the Barbarian, there’s a little personal history you need to understand why this comic hit close to home for me. I’m a type-2 diabetic (the kind that doesn’t usually require insulin), the third generation of same in my family. The genetics are pretty clear-cut; there are things I probably could’ve done differently to put it off a few years, maybe even more than a few, but it was eventually going to catch me. Dealing with it as an adult has been challenging at times, but there’s at least a little bit of perspective that age brings that helps offset things some.

It’s hard to imagine being so fundamentally different as a teenager, though. I only know the edges of it, from the outside looking in. I had a friend or two back then who were type-1 diabetics. It wasn’t something you brought up or pointed out in those days. They had enough going on that they didn’t want to people to make a point of treating them differently. It was the sort of thing the mothers would communicate among themselves, through back channels. If there was a birthday party, diet soda would suddenly appear on the drinks table, and no fuss would be made.

Joe Manson’s troubles, at first, seem only superficially connected to the plight of the chronically-ill child. He’s a socially awkward artist, an introspective teenager plagued not only by stereotypical bullies, but by his own awareness that the bullying just makes him a stereotype as well. He has no adult role models to speak of, either; his father, a career military type, was killed in action (the script hints that it was in the Middle East, but nothing is explicitly said).

Of course, as if by some cosmic law, someone so introverted must conversely have a rich inner life. I’d say it’s a cliche, but I’d also be lying if I said it wasn’t a true cliche. It’s the place where so much of comics wells from, after all. Joe is no different, and in an amusingly anachronistic touch, his mid-teens tastes really don’t stray too far from ones that will be familiar to any of us in our late thirties. Joe owns a classic Star Wars Landspeeder toy (a particular childhood favorite of mine, too) and a smattering of other familiar items. Sean Murphy has a bit in the backmatter explaining that he made this consciously retro choice because no one told him he couldn’t; he thought it would be interesting to play off his own childhood nostalgia. (That being said on the artistic end, I still think the appearance of Batman was specifically aimed to play on on Grant’s reputation.) After that, it was mostly happy accident that Morrison’s script was able to cohere itself around those images. I don’t think the visual references would distract a younger reader unfamiliar with the toys of the 1970s, but at the same time, the art reinforces older readers’ connection to Joe’s world.

Morrison doesn’t provide any direct evidence of Joe’s diabetes until the issue is almost over, but the clues are there if you know what to look for. As someone who has been dealing with diabetes for four years now, there’s a little more weight to the scene where Joe’s mother reminds him about the candy bar she packed. When the alpha bully later takes it away before he’s had a chance to eat it, there’s a subtle foreboding– those of us who have been there know what’s inevitably coming down the line, even if it’s not set out in the script yet.

Sean Murphy’s art strikes a nice balance between being wistful enough to carry the fantastic portions of the story and being detailed enough to stand up to close investigation. I found myself scanning the larger revealing panels in a way I normally reserve for Geof Darrow’s work.  Murphy’s detail isn’t nigh-infinite, since it wouldn’t suit the book. It did make me happy that I could easily tell that Commander Worf was assisting that trio of NASA astronauts down the road, though.

The driving question as the series progresses will be if what’s happening to Joe is real, or if it’s all delusions from insulin shock. The end of this chapter seems to make the situation pretty clear, but I can’t imagine Morrison making things that simple. So far it looks to be an intimate, interesting little story, and it certainly has the potential to be another I Kill Giants, not something I’d expect to say about Grant Morrison. I’m very interested now to see where it goes.

Also, as a side note, I especially approve of Vertigo’s decision to make this issue only $1. I’d recommend it at $2.99 or even $3.99, but being a buck makes it a total no-brainer.