2 Davids, 1 Book: Grant Morrison & Sean Murphy’s “Joe the Barbarian”
David Uzumeri: Welcome back to Two Davids, One Book! This week we're looking at the long-delayed conclusion of Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy's Joe the Barbarian. In short, it's the story of Joe Manson, a diabetic kid who gets picked on and then proceeds to have an eight-issue, house-sized hypoglycemic hallucination where he mythologizes the place he grew up in as he attempts to reach the sugar he requires to stay alive. From then on it's.... a fantasy comic. I'm actually not quite sure what else to say about it initially, because it's really the most straightforward thing Morrison's written in countless ages.
David Brothers: Well, it flip-flops back and forth from the fantasy hypoglycemic world and the real world, where Joe is basically straight up dying slowly, but yeah. Other than that, it's very straightforward. Can I start with the part where we disagree?
Uzumeri: We'll get there. Joe the Barbarian is an epic world-in-a-wardrobe fantasy in the vein of the Narnia books and Stephen King's The Talisman, not to mention '80s family flicks like The Last Starfighter. It stars a boy, Joe Manson, whose father died in the war in Afghanistan, leaving his mother behind. He's a bright kid with a big imagination, but he's diabetic, so he basically relies on candy and sweets to survive, something that gets him bullied in predictable ways.
Upon arriving home one night while his mother is attempting to fix a property ownership issue with their house (which it looks like they're going to lose since his father is gone), he forgets to take his sugar, the resulting hypoglycemia induces a rich hallucination that transforms his entire house into a gigantic fantasy world - for instance, there are dwarven pirates living in the sewer system, a King of Death in the dark basement, and so on. The epic journey he takes in the book is basically an elaborate metaphor for his quest to stumble downstairs for some sugar, filtered through his relationship not only with his house but with his family, especially his dead father.
Over the course of the book, he encounters people and things that are reminiscent of real life. His toys, from superheroes to Transformers, have been waging a very real war in this world, and have the battle damage to prove it. Entire legends have been built up around the various locations in his house, and the mythology of this hallucination is based in real life, but filtered through an action/adventure fairy tale lens. Everything has some deeper meaning than what's on its surface, or is a clever nod to the toys boys have played with for decades.
While I don't think the book wholly sticks together thematically, the fact of the matter is that the central conceit allows Morrison to give artist Sean Murphy and colorist Dave Stewart a smorgasbord of varied landscapes, characters, and settings to design and render.
Now, let's get ready to fight. Where do we disagree?
Brothers: This is Sean Murphy's comic, and Grant Morrison didn't quite stick the landing in the end.
Uzumeri: I agree with you on both of those statements, after rereading the ending. (Fair warning, readers: we're blowing the ending first.) It was nice on its own, but in the context of the overall story, it's... pretty much a cop out. Honestly, Joe the Barbarian was a series of ideas that never really meshed together for me. So are you saying Joe the Barbarian is, in fact, the most demonstrable artifact of Geoff Johns's influence on Morrison so far? (Sorry, that was a low blow.)
Brothers: Well, not even that. Johns will at least give his characters memorable gimmicks or hint at personalities that aren't just Saturday Morning Characterization. This is more like Morrison got behind the eightball as far as getting this done went, and something had to give. Unfortunately, it was the emotional heart of the series.
Uzumeri: And it's the relationship between Joe and his father, which -- while fair -- basically renders Joe's otherworldly experiences... pointless. His father is gone, and we never get much more than lip service about what that means to Joe. We're told, rather than shown, what's going on.
Brothers: What thing I didn't manage to work through before we started this was the overlap between fantasy and reality. A subset of the characters clearly know what's going on. I think around issue 4 or 6 we see them observing Joe on a TV? And then at the end there's the ghost in the hallway. What was all that about?
Uzumeri: I have no idea -- that entire plotline with the people of the hallucination and maneuvering Joe toward... something went basically nowhere. Like they knew about the other world, but then they basically just forgot about it for the revelation that King Death was the Iron Knight.
Brothers: Yeah, I've gotta say. I'm a sucker for stories about daddy issues. Like, to an absurd, possibly worrying, "I should really get some therapy" extent. But the stuff in this? Didn't really do much for me at all. And it should've hit me right in my heart.
Uzumeri: I was hit a little bit by the actual letter, but something about it was so... twee. Like, this is the very first Grant Morrison comic I could ever possibly describe as "trite."
Brothers: Yeah, it was very pat. BUT. Sean Murphy, man. That guy knocked it out of the park, twee or not.
Uzumeri: Yeah, you know, here's the thing, and I'm going to go out on a crazy limb here: I think Sean Murphy both made the book what it is and killed what it could have been. I think Morrison fell so in love with Murphy's art, and giving him cool stuff to draw, that the plot go completely lost.
Brothers: I think I know what you mean. Have you heard the story behind Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz's Elektra Assassin?
Brothers: Frank Miller scripted the first part, or plotted, or whatever, and sent it off. He got Sienkiewicz's pencils back... and rewrote everything from scratch. The two of them essentially got caught up in a game of "Can you top this? Can you rise to my level?" every issue, and it made both of them better creators. It seems like something similar happened here, where Morrison got more than he expected, or maybe more than his story deserved, and he just couldn't keep up.
Uzumeri: I think you're right. I remember hearing -- was this originally supposed to be three or four issues? Because to be honest with you, a LOT of the stuff in the middle, like the entirety of issues 3 to 6, seems completely superfluous.
I mean -- let's jump over to Earth-55 here, and imagine a world where Sean Murphy, not Cameron Stewart, drew Morrison's Seaguy, perhaps the closest of all of Morrison's works to Joe in terms of overall story concept. I thought this would be the next Seaguy. It's like if Seaguy just started getting into crazier and crazier situations and the entire world that isn't real, Mickey Eye, the themes of childhood and adolescence, all kind of got muddied behind AND NOW THE MOON AND THE SUN CREATE A LIGHT SHOW FOR THE ENTERTAINMENT OF THE MILKY WAY! or something.
Brothers: I could see that. And I mean, I'm not complaining here, not exactly. Murphy is the kind of artist who I'd follow from book to book, just because he's so unbelievably talented. I just wish he'd had more to chew on.
Uzumeri: At the same time, this book is... it's also, I think, the first time Morrison's ever actively tackled a genre seemingly just to tackle that genre. This book honestly felt to me like Morrison writing fantasy just for the sake of it.
At the end of the day, his Batman stories had more heart than this, and while Murphy got a lot of cool stuff to draw, he never really had to portray any emotional content past the obvious stuff with Joe and his dad, which we both agree felt really kind of hacked out. Which is doubly weird, since Morrison usually goes for the gut when dealing with dead dads.
Brothers: Yeah. It feels like his reach exceeded his grasp. And the plot twist at the end with the letter... I don't even know where to begin. "Hey hon, here's this thing we're gonna need within the next couple years or else we'll get evicted! So just keep on making those payments while I'm in the desert!"
Uzumeri: Honestly, it felt like a lost plot point from Return of Bruce Wayne. An upside-down portrait? For real?
Brothers: I don't know about you, but my family tends to keep goofy scavenger hunt things like that to, I don't know, birthday presents or contraband. Not the deed to the house.
Uzumeri: It would have been hilarious if there had been, like, a packet of pixie sticks in there, too.
Brothers: I feel like this one is worth buying for Murphy's art, which is tremendous, but the story is merely passable. It's Morrison's stab at Jeph Loeb-style scripting: "Let the artist do all the heavy lifting."
Uzumeri: I mean, do not get me wrong; it's better than the vast majority of fantasy comics. "This does not reach my very high standards for this creative team" is very, very, very different from "this is a bad comic."
Brothers: Yeah, that's true, and definitely worth emphasizing. Another stab at an analogy: it's Morrison's Shutter Island. You come out of it thinking, "Well, that was a Scorcese movie... I GUESS." I'm all out of analogies. Scraping the bottom of the old analogy barrel.
Uzumeri: Ha! Yeah. Look, this is coming out as a deluxe hardcover, and it's going to be totally worth the standard discount price, without question. It's a somewhat inconsistent and out-of-character Morrison script buoyed by absolutely gorgeous Sean Murphy/Dave Stewart art. This book does the whole Vertigo earthtones thing and makes it look GOOD.
Brothers: Yeah, the ending doesn't feel earned. It's a very Grant Morrison-y ending, where characters find themselves and become cloaked in glory before ascending into heroism/heaven/whatever, but the last issue reads like a list of bullet points. "Here's what happened to the rat/girl inventor/dwarf giant." It's almost like something changed between the plotting and scripting, and the story just ends, rather than building to something that feels more real.
Uzumeri: Heh, from the rumors, what scripting? And really, what characters? Smoot, Zyxxy, I can't think of anything they really did past their introduction issues, and they didn't even really grow as characters.
Brothers: That may have been Morrison's point, that all of this stuff Joe is dreaming is extrapolated from his toys and childhood, so Zyxxy's entire character is "Grumpy Inventor Girl" and Smoot's is "Gentle Giant," but that doesn't make for compelling storytelling. It's action figure comics: move Snake Eyes to position three and then move Destro to counter.
I mean, I dunno, but when Jack is all "call me up the next time you have a sweet trip-out, bro!" it's a pretty tacit admission that this entire thing has been in Joe's head, and he's got a very overactive imagination, and I guess you can throw in some sort of basic Morrisonian magic regarding how Joe knew to check the upside down portrait (which, by the way, is NOT in the first issue), but that still makes it an eight-issue fever dream.
Brothers: Yeah, Jack's line and Joe's pithy line at the end really bugged me, because it made the story pointless. I think Morrison could've done something really crazy here. A boy's toys are a huge part of his personality-that's how we expressed ourselves as children, worked out frustrations, played out fantasies, and just had regular old fun. Here, they're just chess pieces with funny names. It's immensely disappointing.
This should've been on the level of "Best Man Fall" from The Invisibles or the death of the child (and its aftermath) in We3. Instead... "Aw yeah guys that was crazy, wannit? See you later!"
Uzumeri: The metaphors never fully line up. At the end of the day, I can't figure out exactly what Morrison's trying to SAY here.
Brothers: There are some interesting thematic elements, like the queen, or Jack being a protector, but you're right. It's a story that's full of meaning, but just ends up being meaningless.
Uzumeri: There's something missing that would have tied everything together, and maybe Morrison was too busy in the Doctor Hurt headpiece or something, but there's a piece that cannot fit here, and that's the entire "is it real or not" thing, which ends up being completely pointless to the overall narrative. It's like there's a last puzzle piece that never entered the game.
Brothers: Ha, yeah.