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Joe the Barbarian: Reality vs Fiction in Grant Morrison’s Comics

Love him or hate him, you can always depend on Grant Morrison to deliver a story that works on multiple levels. This week’s “Joe the Barbarian,” featuring great art from Sean Murphy, manages to live up to that trend admirably. The titular Joe is a quiet kid with a recently-deceased father, Type 1 Diabetes, and a mom desperate to move out of their house. One late evening when his blood sugar gets too low, reality shifts and stutters around him and he’s transported to a fantasy world where his toys have come to life and are embroiled in a vicious war.

It may be too early to tell exactly where Morrison and Murphy are going from the first issue, which is largely introductory, but we can look at Morrison’s past works — and the ideas and themes that he has played with over the years — to see what kind of story “Joe the Barbarian” may end up becoming.One of Morrison’s most common pet themes is of the power of words and storytelling. His Vertigo series “The Invisibles” featured a drug named Key 23 that caused words to literally become real. For someone under the influence of Key 23, a strip of paper with “chair” written on it would appear to be a chair, rather than simply a word. And in “Final Crisis,” the day is saved by Superman wishing for a happy ending for Earth. Many times, the power of language stories is one of the most important things in the universe, if not the most important thing.

Morrison’s run on “All-Star Superman” features storytelling as a crucial point. Superman creates an alternate Earth where there is no version of Superman, and watches the world grow. By the end of the book, we realize that the Earth he created is actually our own, resulting in a situation where a fictional character literally creates reality. When Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, real-life creators of Superman, appear on that Earth and create Superman, things come full circle.

Reality and fiction feed off of each other in many of Morrison’s works, existing in a state where one is entirely dependent upon the other. Sometimes, they two realities are one and the same. Sometimes, the lines between the two of them are just a little blurred. “Joe the Barbarian” falls firmly into that latter group. Joe himself says that he is a stereotype, just like the bullies who torture him at his father’s gravesite. On at least some level, he’s aware of the fact that everything is a story.

Two works that stand right beside “Joe the Barbarian” in terms of playing with the intersection between reality and fiction are “Flex Mentallo,” Morrison’s early collaboration with Frank Quitely, and “Fantastic Four: 1234,” a Marvel book with Jae Lee on art duty. In “1234,” Dr. Doom manages to create a machine that can alter reality itself. Doom’s will becomes true, and he adds casual cruelty into the past of Reed Richards and turns Ben Grimm into even more of a tragic figure. In short, Doom’s paranoid and bitter fantasies become what actually happened, temporarily replacing reality.

In the late, lamented “Flex Mentallo,” Wally Sage has overdosed on a variety of pills. He’s dying. Or is he? Over the course of the book, he spends time talking to someone at a suicide hotline about the superheroes he grew up on. While doing this, he’s trying to figure out if he took pills or M&Ms. On one earth, he theorizes, the pills were genuine. On another, they were M&Ms. The answer is a matter of life and death, literally. Reality and imagination collide in a huge way as the superheroes emerge from their fictional reality and become part of our reality, saving Wally’s life.

While Joe is suffering from complications from Type-1 Diabetes and theoretically “just seeing things,” the danger he is facing is very real and two-fold. Joe could very easily die from his illness, but the danger posed by partaking in the war of his toys is equally real, despite (probably) being a hallucination. Reality and fiction are equally important and must be treated with equal gravity. The fictional journey becomes representative of the real journey, as simply curling up and going “It’s all a dream!” will kill Joe as well, and one can assume that completing his fictional journey will also, in some real way, revitalize Joe and save his life. In short, fiction matters.

While falling into a fake world brings to mind several popular bits of pop culture, including “The Wizard of Oz,” Morrison and Philip Bond’s “Vimanarama” is a more apt comparison. In that book, Ali, a young British man, finds himself thrust into the world of gods and demons entirely against his will. Despite that, he has to learn about the heroism that was hidden deep within himself and overcome all obstacles.

Joe and Ali share a few other things in common, as well. Ali is convinced that God hates him, in part due to his impending arranged marriage, and spends the first third of “Vimanarama” threatening suicide and being generally unhappy with his position in life. Joe, faced with the thought of moving out of his house and hurt by the death of his father, is similarly unhappy. He gets picked on by the older kids and is very sullen and bitter about the direction his life has taken.

“Joe the Barbarian” opens on a hand poised over a blank page that has a few small pencil marks. The second panel depicts Joe drawing a picture on that same page. The metaphor, when considered with the rest of “Joe the Barbarian,” is obvious: Joe holds some manner of power over the fictional reality he is about to enter. He’s idly sketching out a Transformer, or maybe Marvel’s Darkhawk. In a more literal way, Joe has some level of control over the fictional reality simply due to the fact that the toys are his and he has decided their stories for however long he has owned them.

While the broken and battered toys cannot escape from their war without his help, Joe himself flickers into and out of that reality. He’s also the focus of that reality, as evidenced by the fact that the army of toys comes to find him after one of them spotted him in the distance. Joe, representing reality, is the most important thing in the fictional reality. Once again, fiction and reality are forced into conflict and concert.

While they share the thinnest of thematic links with “Joe the Barbarian,” I’d be remiss in not mentioning a few other fairly obscure Morrison works. In the ’80s, Morrison did some work for Marvel UK’s “Action Force,” a GI Joe series. These are fairly unremarkable, but worth mentioning simply because of the toy connection.

“Weird War Tales” #3 features a story called “New Toys,” penned by Morrison and drawn by Quitely. In it, a thinly-veiled twelve-inch G.I.Joe escapes from the terror of absolute violence that permeates his life and settles down with a pretty blonde Barbie doll. He later realizes the truth, that the violence is just to distract the toys from the new toys who are coming in and replacing them. When he attempts to tell his former comrades-in-arms about his discovery, they sentence him to a firing squad. As the story ends, we see a child’s bedroom and the bug-like creatures that have infested it and replaced the toys.

While “Joe the Barbarian” probably won’t end up as paranoid and creepy as “New Toys,” it’s a safe bet to see it as another tale about how fiction and reality interact and examine it ac
cordingly. And while Morrison is sure to throw a few curve balls our way in “Joe the Barbarian,” so far he’s already given us plenty to talk about.

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