If you knew absolutely nothing about “Joe the Barbarian” #1 before reading it, a safe guess would be that the first reaction might be that it’s a bit slow-moving. It’s a fair and true assessment; this is an issue that is almost nothing but set-up, something that’s rare in a Grant Morrison comic. When I think of Morrison these days, it’s usually having him dive headfirst into the story, with having to go back later to find all the bits and pieces of exposition scattered throughout the race course.
Here, though, Morrison seems to be taking his time. It does seem like a strange shift on his part, but having read a recent interview with Morrison about “Joe the Barbarian,” it’s a decision that makes sense. Without giving much away, knowing that the plot of the book involves Joe’s struggle to make it to the other end of his house before he dies casts the early pages of the comic in an entirely different light. We aren’t getting several pages of Joe walking through the house to the attic because Morrison was stalling; instead we’re getting a look at the route that is going to shift from easy to near-impossible. It’s the kind of information that should be embedded into a story of this nature; he’s letting us know the exact layout of the house and the obstacles that lie ahead. It’s a little unfortunate that it’s a fact that is going to slip by readers initially, because in a serialized format it runs the risk of scaring away a portion of the audience. As a graphic novel or collected edition, it’ll blend into the greater whole much easier. All it’s going to take is that moment where reality starts slipping away and Morrison has the reader’s attention; because it’s at the end of the issue it unfortunately punctuates the slower start, but if there were immediately some additional pages afterwards that problem would be mitigated.
Because this is a Morrison-written comic, going back through the comic actually does give some hints about what’s going on for those who read carefully. The repeated reminders from his mother to eat the candy in his bag, followed by said candy bar getting taken away from the bullies point towards Joe going into something like hypoglycemic shock. When things go south, his half-formed sentence of, “How long was it since-” is an additional nod towards that as well. Little moments like that are buried in the comic if you look closely.
Sean Murphy is turning out the best art of his career here, easily. Early pages, like the double-page spread of Joe in the cemetery, take the reader’s breath away, with little details like autumn leaves drifting through the air, or the skyline of the city and bay behind Joe. Everything is drawn perfectly, from the lines on the floor of the bus, to the exterior of the house perched on the edge of the hill, and its winding staircase and jam-packed attic inside. Looking at Murphy’s art made me think, “I want to live in this house,” and I haven’t been that envious of comic book real-estate since Frank Miller drew “Elektra Lives Again.”
Even simple panels, like Joe and his mother in a car, are drawn with a great amount of care. I love that Joe’s mother being in the foreground makes her appear crisp and clear while Joe in the passenger seat seems almost (but not really) out of focus, as if we’re watching this through a movie camera with a narrow depth of field. Dave Stewart continues to be one of the top five colorists in the industry; I love how he can use such soft, muted shades in the quieter scenes, only to have an explosion of Technicolor when Joe’s reality first starts slipping away from him. His style lends itself well to Murphy’s, and hopefully this will be the first of many collaborations between them.
Hopefully people will see why “Joe the Barbarian” #1 has a slow pace and stick around; there’s a lot of promise here, and the glimpses of Joe’s other reality that we see are golden. It is a deliberately slow start, though, but hopefully (logically!) things are about to pick up big time. Here’s to #2 showing us just that.