There’s a sequence in the middle of “Joe the Barbarian” #5 that captures the essence of the series and shows the genius-level artistry of Sean Murphy. As the hallucinating/dimensionally-displaced Joe and his pet rat/warrior companion Jack prepare to cross the hallway/bridge, they find themselves confronted by a rabid dog. In the “real world,” it’s just a dog — albeit ferocious and wild-eyed. In the “fantasy world” it’s a monstrous, armored dog-demon, fifty times the size of our heroes. Murphy cuts back and forth between the reality and the fantasy on alternate pages, spinning the perspective 180 degrees as we see the heroes from the front, then we jump behind the heroes, then the real (and frightening enough) sight of a drooling, feral dog is replaced by an image of fangs and red eyes peering through the stone gate of the bridge.
The double-page spread across the staples shows the demon dog in full pounce, with the tiny-by-comparison Jack holding his swords ready, saying in a whisper, “make this count.”
Morrison gives us all kind of heroic archetypes in this series, but it’s Murphy that sells it to the reader. This is career-making work from Murphy, the kind of thing that recalls Frank Quitely’s illustrations in “We3,” though their linework shares no similarity. It’s all about the energy and the manic attention to detail. And the emotional impact of the art.
It doesn’t look a thing like “We3,” except, I suppose, the preponderance of animals. But it feels like “We3,” or a variation on it — expanded, more fantastical, more epic, for sure, but a brother or a cousin to that Morrison/Quitely work of half a decade ago.
The sequence with the dog attack isn’t the only great moment in this issue — we also get manta riders and silent allusions to Joe’s father, assembled armies and ominous voyages through the swamp — and though “Joe the Barbarian” #5 doesn’t provide any direct answers to the questions of what is real and what is illusory, the series has increasingly become less about a sick, hallucinating kid and more about the walls of reality breaking down. This isn’t an extended dream sequence, as it may have first seemed.
I suppose you could go wrong with Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy (and Dave Stewart on colors!) but I can’t really imagine how. Not when it’s high adventure and emotional drama. Not when it’s a story told like this.