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Joe the Barbarian: The Deluxe Edition (Review)

December is “Grant Morrison month” here at the m0vie blog, as we take the month to consider and reflect on one of the most critically acclaimed (and polarising) authors working in the medium.

Ultimus Alpha tells it how it is, Kid. This fairtale’s on a one-way trip to Hell.

Joe the Barbarian isn’t Grant Morrison at his creative peak. It isn’t going to redefine the medium, or become an enduring classic for the ages. If it features on college reading lists, I suspect it will be sorted with the “optional” texts somewhere below the “key” Morrisonian works. That doesn’t mean that Joe the Barbarian is bad or anything nearly as drastic. It’s a nice little fairytale fantasy story, one that feels like Morrison paying homage to a bizarre mix of Cabaret and The Lord of the Rings. There’s a lot here to enjoy, but there’s nothing that’ll really knock anybody’s socks off.

Swordplay...

Joe the Barbarian has heart. It has a lot of heart. Along with we3, it really deserves to be read by those critics who are quick to dismiss Morrison as a pseudo-intellectual writer more interested in the form of comics than their actual content. There are moments of real emotional impact sandwiched between these pages, from a confrontation between Jack and a dog monster that seems designed to evoke the climax of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings, through to the moment where Joe finally gets a chance to “hear” his father’s voice again, as the prophecy of “Lord Arc, Master of Light” foretold.

Indeed, while Morrison and Quitely tried to mask their sentimentality in we3 with splashes of gore and a healthy dose of irony, Joe the Barbarian feels a lot more earnest in its emotional appeal. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it feels strange to see Morrison at his most romantic here. At its core, as much as it’s a stereotypical “fantasy quest” and “hero’s journey” narrative, Joe the Barbarianfeels like an ode to childhood imagination, as his diabetic title character sinks further and further into his own subconscious, counting on figments of his imagination to somehow help him survive and triumph.

Toy soldiers...

Indeed, Joe’s imagination is populated with iconic figures. Those who don’t belong to DC (such as the Transformers) are hidden behind a transparent facade. “These people were warriors, soldiers, protectors of the Iron Kingdom,” a bald man tells us. He might be a substitute for Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard, or he may be Morrison himself. It’s telling that Morrison is so renowned for metafiction that it’s easy to assume any bald character can be treated as an author stand-in. Anyway, the bald man introduces the inhabitants of Joe’s imagination, “The world’s greatest spies, superheroes and fighting machines. But even we didn’t stand a chance against this.” While imagination can give us the tools to confront death and darkness, we need to harness our own willpower in overcoming them.

Imagination is something beautiful. “In our workshop we render unsubstantial visions into solid objects,” one pseudo-scientist remarks. “If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.” Of course, he could be talking about any role that involves bringing something irrational into the real world. Imagination is light and colour – the divine authority in this mysterious realm is “Lord Arc, Master of Light” and Morrison tries to link imagination with ingenuity and creativity with intelligence. These are all products of “the light of reason.” Science and magic mingle. Maths and prophecy go-exist. “As your proud equations prophesied, Master,” one figure remarks. It’s a nice holistic approach, and one that seeks to embrace the ability to imagine in all its forms.

Joe's a kid who lives in his head... Let's hope he doesn't die there...

In some ways, Joe the Barbarian feels quite a bit familiar. Morrison has always been fond of these sorts of themes, suggesting that humanity’s imagination is one of our most powerful attributes. He has even argued that Superman, the paragon of virtue, is among our greatest creations, simply because we can imagine him. In dealing with childhood imagination, Joe the Barbarian feels like a spiritual successor to Morrison’s Klarion miniseries he wrote as part of Seven Soldiers, which was a salute to the limitless capacity of children’s fantasy, and a firm condemnation of those who would seek to curtail that.

Here, stories and fantasy allow Joe to deal with the possibility of his death. His imagination allows him to confront his mortality, and spur himself to action. A lot of stories we tell our children have a similar function – they subtly inform children that there is darkness in the world, and help prepare them in some way. Much like in Klarion, Morrison isn’t sympathetic to those who would mollycoddle children or attempt to shelter them from the darker side of life – all under the pretense of “protecting”them from the world. Morrison would argue that this is counter-productive, as children will have to enter the world one way or another.

Oh, rats...

Her Celestial Highness, standing in for Joe’s mother, tries to diminish the power of Death in the fantasy realm by refusing to acknowledge it. Naturally, she exiles this darkness by banning the key ingredients of great fairytales. “No more knights,” she insists. “No more children. No more brave captains. No more of our best will be lost to the labyrinth.” She seeks to shelter her citizens rather than teaching them to cope with the darkness outside the city’s walls. She doesn’t care what the people might need, only that they’re safe – perhaps mirroring Joe’s mother’s attitude towards him following the loss of her husband. When she’s told the stars have gone out, she replies, “The people don’t need stars.” This is in stark contrast to “the Queen of the Pirates”, who supports and encourages her son – rather than trying to control him.

Sean Murphy’s art works very well, and it lends the story an epic scope. I don’t think the saga would have worked at all without the artist’s touch. I especially like the way that he juxtaposes the geography of Joe’s fantasy world with the more mundane topography of his suburban household. Morrison has generally done quite well with artists (New X-Men notwithstanding), and I think his record holds up here. I wouldn’t mind seeing another collaboration from the pair at some point down the road.

Horsing around...

Joe the Barbarian is solid, if not exceptional. It feels like Morrison revisiting old ideas in a relatively conventional way. That doesn’t mean the story lacks heart, indeed it’s probably one of the most emotionally potent stories the author has ever told, but it does mean it feels rather… insubstantial when compared to some of the author’s other work. Still, there are greater flaws, and Joe the Barbarian is an entertaining swords-and-sandals fantasy, with a nice emotional core.

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