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.