Superstar writer Grant Morrison has done it all. He’s re-imagined and revitalized comic franchises for both DC and Marvel, including Superman, Batman, Justice League of America and X-Men, and he’s deconstructed and reconstructed entire genres and universes with his groundbreaking work on titles such as “Animal Man, “The Invisibles,” and “Final Crisis.”
But despite the fantastically surreal elements of “Doom Patrol,” “Aztek, The Ultimate Man” and “Swamp Thing,” Morrison says that he’s never written a true fantasy. Until now.
Beginning in January, Morrison and rising star artist Sean Murphy (“Batman/Scarecrow: Year One”) are heading somewhere over the rainbow and through the looking glass to Hypogea, the Kingdom of Death, in an all-new eight-issue miniseries for Vertigo Comics called, “Joe the Barbarian.”
Joe is your typical high school kid. Except for the fact that he gets bullied relentlessly, his dad died overseas in the Iraq war and he’s fights for his life everyday due to Type 1 diabetes. Beyond that, perfectly normal.
Oh, and his house is also the ultimate battleground between King Death and an army of fantastic toys that are trying to defeat him. But who doesn’t have someone like that in their algebra class?
In the first part of a two-part interview, Morrison discusses the origins of “Joe the Barbarian,” the fantasy books he loved to read as a teenager growing up in Glasgow and what a post-traumatic, post-9/11 heroic fantasy should look like.
CBR News: You’ve been working with DC’s greatest superheroes – namely Batman and Superman – for the past decade to great critical acclaim. Do you have to switch gears at all for a creator-owned project or is it pretty fluid to bounce back and forth between the two types of projects?
Grant Morrison: No, not so much. I’ve kind of figured out after all these years, how to make Batman and Superman just as personal as anything else. It would be hard to do that stuff without having some personal stake in it. But, yeah, when you create your own stories and characters, there is a certain pride and a certain freedom that maybe goes a little bit deeper than the work with other people’s trademarks. There’s a kind of freshness that comes with doing stories that don’t carry 300 years of continuity baggage. You’re able to go to places that are maybe a bit more interesting and challenging than the corporate stuff allows.
When I do a Vertigo project, I often read people say, “It’s good to see Grant doing something personal again” – and I always appreciate it when readers are keen to see me do my own thing, but all the stories I do are personally expressive of where my head’s at when I’m doing them; it’s just that the creator-owned stuff can be more ambitious, more concentrated maybe. The stories are finite and complete. And there’s a kind of relief when no one has ever written the characters before, so no one can really complain about how they should or shouldn’t be done.
When we meet Joe, we find out that he’s a character that has had some personal losses and is dealing with an illness. Is this story in any way autobiographical in a nature?
No, not at all. Apart from having my adenoids removed when I was 8 and my appendix when I was 12, I was a pretty healthy kid with no significant losses in my life, so that part of it’s not particularly autobiographical, although, like Joe, I was a creative kid with an ex-soldier dad. This started with the simple idea of doing a classic fantasy story. I was obsessed with fantasy books when I was a young teenager – Tolkien, Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Robert E.Howard, Michael Moorcock, Stephen Donaldson…. anything I could get my hands on. I even wrote two big swords-and-sorcery novels back then, but I’d never done a fantasy comic book before and it seemed like an interesting challenge to do a real proper kind of “Lord of Rings,” “Alice in Wonderland” all-ages story for today.
What got me most excited was the idea of re-thinking the basic fantasy genre narrative – the familiar “world-in-wardrobe” adventure – in much the same way we’ve seen superheroes re-imagined over the last 20 years. You know, strip it down to basics and re-build it for a 21st century audience. I was looking at stuff like the “Narnia” books, the Alice stories, “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Phantom Tollbooth,” Alan Garner’s “Elidor” and their common thread of young characters on the verge of, or in the throes of, puberty, who then find themselves transported to fantastic worlds which somehow illuminate the responsibilities and absurdities of the real adult world they’re about to be plunged into.
I like things to be quite real and grounded in everyday life when I’m doing my creator-owned stuff, so I didn’t want to create a flimsy world of pure make-believe behind the mirror or over the rainbow. A good fantasy story needs to have some genuine and immediate relevance to the world we live in, so I had to wait until I had an idea that felt straightforward, plausible and fresh to me. What does post-traumatic, post-9/11 heroic fantasy look like?
In the end, the story turned out to be incredibly simple – Joe starts at the top of his house and he has to make his way to the bottom of the house – and on the way something happens. Another world, bigger, stranger and yet weirdly familiar starts to break through.
“Joe the Barbarian” is about a Boy and his House. It’s about a modern kid’s journey to Death’s Door and what he finds there. Joe’s the son of a soldier, like all of us in the military-industrial society of spectacle and denial, and a kid literally facing Death.
I really get into the idea that all of our houses, for anybody who lives in a home, we have mythology in it. When you’re a kid, your dad is the king, your mother is the queen. It can be good or bad or whatever, but those early relationships have a primal storybook quality which informs how we see the world as we grow. The dog next door is the most important dog in the world, or the girl next door is the princess. When you’re a kid, particularly, your home contains the raw material for any adventure, and is the original source of mythology. So the breakthrough on this one came when I thought, “What if the whole story, this epic fantasy, takes place over a crucial 20 minutes where a kid has to get downstairs to basically save his own life?” And out of that came “Joe the Barbarian.” In Joe’s house, stairs become mountain ranges, the bath becomes a gleaming white Fjord with pirate dwarf sub-mariners living in the plumbing and the cellar is Hypogea, the Kingdom of Death.
From there, I wondered what real-life illness might be capable of triggering a delirious state which could put my hero in real physical danger while also allowing him to experience his own home as another kind of universe. One of Kristan’s relatives has a daughter who suffers from Type 1 Diabetes, so she’s had these experiences of going into dissociated states, and not knowing where she is and wandering around and getting lost. It’s a precursor of more severe hypoglycemia, which can lead to complete unconsciousness and – in this particular scenario – even death. The illness itself was layered onto the story at the end to provide a kind of real world rationale for what happens to Joe, but when I was researching how teenagers deal with diabetes, I read all these heartbreaking, pragmatic, first-person accounts of how to keep hypo at bay or deal with one when it happens. I hope I’ve given these ordinary, brave kids a hero they can identify with and root for.
So to clarify, the entire eight-issue story happens in 20 minutes real-time but it plays out for Joe much slower.
Absolutely. It’s 20 minutes, but it will feel like your entire life [laughs]. It’s also about how much can change in that time, as well. It’s the idea of scale. I like the idea of how a house can be a kingdom but also how 20 minutes can change the world. Everything can change in 20 minutes.
The whole thing is about this one kid trying to get downstairs to save his own life and in the process, he is called upon to save the world. And the 20-minute journey downstairs, as he’s dying, becomes this epic quest.
But even as we go further into the book, we start to wonder, is the other world just a delusion or is it a real place? Joe is soon convinced that it is a real place. And maybe if the kid fails, two worlds actually will succumb to Eternal Darkness.
What about Joe himself? Will the reader be rooting for him right from the start, or is he so riddled with angst that we have to learn to love him?
He’s not so much a brat, except when the effects of the hypo make him a little stroppy. He’s not like Damian [Wayne] from “Batman and Robin.” He’s a little outsider kid. He dresses in black. His father was in the army, so he’s kind of the kid who has been moved around a bit. When we meet him, his dad’s been killed in Iraq, and his mom can’t keep up the payments on the house he loves. They’re about to lose the house, and there’s nothing Joe can do about it… which is basically where we come in and the adventure begins.
So yeah, Joe’s actually quite a normal kid, if a bit of an outsider. I think a lot of people who read comics will be able to identify with him. He likes to draw. He’s quite imaginative. But he’s not one thing or another. He’s not a bad kid. He’s not irritating. He’s not a big hero. He’s Everykidâ„¢. He’s like Alice in Wonderland, or Wendy from “Peter Pan” or Dorothy. Those types of characters stand in for a certain moment in all our lives, a certain age on the boundary between childhood and adulthood where your mind if still open to stuff and the world still radiates a kind of sad, fading magic.
We’ve seen some of Sean Murphy’s pages from the first issue, and there are some choice toy placements. How did the two of you come up with those ideas, and are specific references and Easter Eggs tied to the toys you chose that feed directly into the story?
Well, no, a lot of the toys were actually Sean’s idea. I would have never suggested Batman and Transformers toys because I wouldn’t have thought the legal department would let us get away with them. Sean had the balls to do it. So we’ve got those very recognizable things in there but it’s not like “Toy Story” where the toys come alive to save the day. In ‘”Joe the Barbarian,” the whole house is “alive” with stories, characters and mythology. Is it a suburban house dreaming it’s a fantasy kingdom or vice versa? These toys are actually pretty fucked up when we meet them. They’re all that remains of an elite army which has just lost the war against King Death. So it’s not a toy based story at all. But Sean made some great choices. In the script I was talking about teddy bears and old fashioned toys and Sean said, “Come on! Kids are playing with Bionicles and stuff.” So he kept me on track. He’s one of the best artists I’ve ever worked with, and he’s really pulling out the stops to create a world that’s never been seen before. This book is worth it for the art alone, to be honest.
Joe has a friend in this – a samurai rat?
In his everyday life, he looks after a pet rat, and the rat kind of looks after him, as well. So when he passes over into his seemingly hallucinated fantasy world, the rat appears as an 8-foot tall samurai, barbarian rodent called Chakk. A sort of Conan the Vermin! His entire tribe has been destroyed, he’s the last survivor and he feels as though he’s failed everyone. He’s a giant rat with survivor’s guilt, and the two find themselves together on this unlikely quest.
They meet up with other people, as well. On the way we encounter other characters who reflect people from Joe’s everyday life.
How early does the story start to unfold into the fantasy elements? Do we see this fantasy world in the first issue, and when do we learn who the Big Bad is?
We meet the big bad straight away. Well, by the second issue. The first issue is the set-up, where we see Joe’s real life before he crosses over to the other world of the Iron Kingdom. But the bad guy, King Death, is in evidence from the second issue on, along with his army of flying Deathcoats, led by the hideous Sir Ulrik the Unspeakable! Obviously, if you’re a kid who carries a disease that could ultimately kill you if it’s not properly monitored, then you have a relationship with death which is a little different from other people and that is what the book is about. In the other world, they call Joe, “the Dying Boy.” They have this prophecy about him. So he may not reach downstairs [laughs].
The character is all about what happens when you have that unusual relationship with sickness and death that’s only made possible by modern medicine. When you are someone who can actually take a medicine that stops death’s progress, then you have a different relationship with death. You can choose to do nothing and suffer the consequences, or you can choose to chase death away using medicine. And King Death kind of fears him for that reason. So the bad guy comes out of all of [Joe’s] feelings about the war and his father being dead and the lack of light in the house, because there is an electrical storm and the lights go out, which creates this bizarre, dark atmosphere of doom and apocalypse in the other world of the Iron Kingdom.
You probably can’t say for sure, because it may give away how this all ends for Joe, but is there any chance this world can be expanded into a “Joe the Barbarian” trilogy like “Seaguy”?
We certainly could expand the world. And the basic idea that every home contains its own kingdom of mythology can be expanded indefinitely. The sequel could be set in a school or a factory or in someone else’s house but there will be no more “Joe the Barbarian” stories after this one [laughs].
“Joe the Barbarian” #1, featuring art by Sean Murphy, is scheduled for January 20.
Don’t forget to check back tomorrow for the second-part of CBR’s interview with Grant Morrison, when he discusses “Batman and Robin” and “Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne.”