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Joe the Barbarian #1 — Hot Ink Advance Review

Most of the entertainment that you and I consume on a daily basis is built on the foundation of escapism. And pleasant as it is, there’s a danger inherent in such wondrous fantasies. The most common such example follows this path: Extreme overindulgence in fictional worlds leads someone to become disassociated with the real world and their real friends. Your standard case of “World of Warcraft” syndrome.

Much rarer is the situation in which the imaginary worlds are so appealing that the line between fantasy and reality starts to blur, as illustrated in the Peter Jackson film “Heavenly Creatures.” Of course the complication arising from that version of events is that sometimes the more fantastic world is real, while reality itself is merely an illusion meant to deceive you, examined in such case studies as “that one episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “those episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine which were kinda similar where Sisko was a science fiction writer.”

But the rarest threat posed by escapism is what academics refer to as the “Narnia scenario.” My complete lack of understanding of statistics and math in general allows me to claim that this problem affects only 0.000000001% of the population, and is characterized by immersion into a world of fantastical imagination that is also dangerously real and usually ruled by powerful, malevolent beings whose interests include world domination and killing you.

Joe the Barbarian,” written by Grant Morrison with art by Sean Murphy and colorist Dave Stewart, is an eight-part miniseries published by Vertigo that promises an epic journey of just that kind, as young boy named Joe finds himself in a fantastic new world that could be either a medically induced delusion, or his only chance to save himself and the world. The first issue comes out this Wednesday, and I’ve been excited about it since I first heard of the premise. And now that I’ve read it I’m still excited about what’s to come from the remaining seven issues.

But that being said, I didn’t come away from “Joe the Barbarian” feeling very strongly about what happened between the first and twenty-second pages. The series begins slowly, setting the mood, giving readers a view into the life of young Joseph Manson. Joe’s father died in Iraq, leaving his mother a single parent with financial problems. Joe is a loner, pushing away the other kids at school whether they’re hostile or friendly towards him. His companions are his pet rat, his drawings, and his roomful of toys. He shuts out the world so often he even has trouble remembering to deal with his Type 1 diabetes.

When he begins to experience visions of another world, he’s uncertain whether they might be simply hallucinations brought on by low blood sugar. All of this is communicated by minimal dialogue from Morrison accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Murphy. His art reinforces the depths of the loneliness Joe is experiencing. By the end of the first issue, the reader has a wonderful sense of who Joe is and why he’s unhappy with his own world.

What isn’t introduced in the first issue are any real details of the fantasy world Joe’s going to visit or any more than the tiniest hints of the conflict tearing that world apart. Some series are able to begin with a first issue that tells a smaller story meant to introduce the characters and settings, creates some small conflict, and then either resolves it or ends it on a cliffhanger that hooks you into the next issue. They hit the ground running, grab your attention and don’t let go. “Joe the Barbarian” doesn’t attempt anything of the sort.

This may very well turn out to be an excellent first chapter in a trade collection, but it really only sets the atmosphere. We see nothing of Joe’s fantasy world until the final splash page at the end where we see Joe sucked into a world populated by life-sized, sentient versions of the toys scattered across his bedroom. If I’d been handed this issue in an information vacuum, with no knowledge of the creative team behind it or the arc the story was going to take, I’d be only hesitantly impressed with this.

But knowing that Grant Morrison’s going to be telling a story in which a young boy will be visiting a fantasy world filled with creatures from his own imagination, many of which are pulled out of popular culture, I’m able to be more patient. I’m able to appreciate the masterful job of setting a tone accomplished by writer and artist. And with the splash page at the end, in which the group of toys Joe meets includes representations of Batman, various Transformers, several GI Joes including Snake Eyes, robot dinosaurs, Jean-Luc Picard, non-robotic dinosaurs, Spartans from Halo, and Lobo, there’s enough of a hook to make me quite curious about where this is all headed.

Everything I’ve seen about the series so far has been promising, and I came away from the first issue unchanged in that opinion. But at the same time there’s not quite enough here yet to make me absolutely confident that “Joe the Barbarian” is going to be as good as I’m hoping it will be.

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