In all honesty, Grant Morrison’s writing on “Joe the Barbarian” hasn’t entirely won me over yet. I like the interplay between the ‘real’ and ‘fake’ worlds that Joe inhabits as a result of complications with his diabetes, and that Morrison is letting his imagination run wild with the fantasy world, playing with conventions on the heroic quest story. However, something is lacking, something essential that captures me on an emotional level. Intellectually, I think the writing is very good, but emotionally, it doesn’t hit me on that gut level. Thankfully, intellectual appreciation for craft and Sean Murphy’s absolutely stunning art is more than enough for “Joe the Barbarian” #6 to be a strong comic.
In this issue, the story begins to head towards the end as Joe finally makes it to Hearth Castle only to find that shelter is worthless when the enemy will go undefeated. Morrison continues to surprise by having characters not react as expected with Queen Bree not wanting to help fight against the enemy, satisfied with Hearth Castle’s ability to outlast everything and nearly convinces Joe that this is the proper course of action were it not for a couple of his allies that show up almost too late. Morrison makes Hearth Castle both a sanctuary and a place where things aren’t quite right, both subverting and working with our expectations, giving what we expect in a safe haven, but not in a fortress meant to help defeat the enemy.
Morrison uses the idea of Joe as the Dying Boy to its ultimate symbolic end where that’s all he is to Queen Bree. He isn’t a sign that the enemy will be defeated or something to rally around, he’s just a symbol of hope for her people that accomplishes all he needs to simply by existing. It’s a tense break in the action that seems like the final test of Joe’s commitment to the cause and he nearly fails it.
Throughout this series, Sean Murphy has been a revelation. I can’t say with any certainty that I’d even heard of him prior to his name being attached to this book and, in six short issues, he’s proved himself such a capable and dynamic artist that his art alone is worth the cover price. His sketchy line work is highly expressive and creates a strong sense of mood and tone for scenes. The way that Queen Bree first shows up tells us everything we need to know of her: she’s in mourning, she bears a heavy responsibility alone, and she’s got a conservative streak. Murphy is able to tell us a lot about the characters through the way he composes panels and shows us the characters. He’s also great at sticking in little jokes in the background like two unexpected DC characters celebrating together at the bottom of page four.
My favorite drawing of his in this issue is a page where Joe’s two friends burst into his room, which is not a room in Hearth Castle, but the living room of Joe’s house in the ‘real’ world. Murphy captures the sense of unease and panic in the characters’ faces as they encounter something outside of their world. He also composes the picture in a manner where the way that the characters are laid out and positioned along with the perspective of the panel all create a sense that something’s not right.
While not a work that affects me emotionally greatly, “Joe the Barbarian” is nonetheless an entertaining and intriguing comic. Grant Morrison’s writing has depth, while Sean Murphy is making a name for himself that has people talking about him as an artist to watch since he can only get better.