Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Vertigo’s Other House of Mystery

Posted by Don MacPherson on January 22nd, 2010

Joe the Barbarian #1
“Chapter 1: Hypo”
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist/Cover artist: Sean Murphy
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Todd Klein
Editor: Karen Berger
Publisher: DC Comics/Vertigo imprint
Price: $1 US

DC once again debuts a new Vertigo first issue at the rock-bottom price of a buck. But let’s be honest… given the talents of the creators involved, you know you’d pay three or four times that to sample their latest project. Grant Morrison’s been better known as of late for his intellectual approach to and celebration of the traditions and icons of the super-hero genre, but he really built his reputation and audience with fare set outside that genre (or at least on the sheer periphery of it). With this project, Morrison once again demonstrates the diversity of his storytelling, but this isn’t something as surreal and experimental in tone as The Invisibles or The Filth. This is a more straightforward project that examines the importance of fantasy in our mundane or dreary lives, and it’s beautifully and meticulously illustrated as well.

Joe’s a regular kid, with a talent for art and a penchant for getting lost in his own imagination. That and his family home are his true escapes, and he has plenty he wants to hide from. Bullies give him a hard time at school, and he’s angry at his deceased father for leaving him and his mother in the predicament they’re in. As his mother strives to ensure they don’t lose the house, Joe retreats to his room. Soon, he finds that the walls seem to dissolve and he finds himself somewhere else, surrounded by robots, talking animals and impossible heroes who turn to him to lead them in battle.

Sean Murphy’s art here looks like a cross between the work of Chris (Dark Avengers Annual) Bachalo and Kyle (Wednesday Comics) Baker. Murphy does an excellent job of capturing the title character’s youth, frustration and isolation. The lengthy sequence in which Joe makes his way, all alone, to his secluded (but very cool) bedroom demonstrates just how isolated he is. There’s nary another figure to be found in those pages. More importantly, Murphy also depicts successfully why Joe is upset at the prospect of having to leave his house. Though cavernous, it’s also beautiful and full of character. Joe is eminently relatable in appearance, while Murphy has portrayed his mother as a stiff, harsh woman, reflecting her own self-involvement and lack of empathy for her damaged son.

Murphy also dazzles with his ability to convey the shifts back and forth from Joe’s room to the dark but beautiful fantasy land in which Joe finds himself. I also loved how letterer Todd Klein uses single words in separate word balloons and their placement to convey Joe’s initial slide into the other world.

I’m on the cusp of my 40s, but it’s still incredibly easy for me to relate to Joe here. Like him, I was the kind of kid who spent a lot of time in his room, daydreaming, doodling and reading. It’s also clear that Morrison intends for his audience to not only relate to Joe, but to be replace him. Joe is the archetypical teen; even his name is nondescript. Joe is our own stand-in in the story.

The point Morrison makes here is a rather simple one. He spotlights how the paraphernalia of childhood — toys, games, comics, cartoons and more — serve as our escape from pain and bring magic into our lives when it’s sorely lacking in the real world. Morrison is hardly breaking new ground here, but he approaches the familiar subject matter with sensitivity and a sense of mystery. As the series progresses, I’m sure it will be confirmed that something supernatural and weird is happening in Joe’s life, but I rather enjoyed that in this first issue, it’s rather vague as to Joe has fallen through the looking glass or is merely experiencing a psychological event in order to enable him to cope with the stresses from without. 8/10

Follow Eye on Comics on Twitter.

5 Responses to “Vertigo’s Other House of Mystery”

  1. Ken Says:

    I’m pretty sure Joe is diabetic and his trip into the fantasy world may be induced by low blood-sugar. Remember his candy bar is stolen by the bullies at school and he makes a comment about needing to eat something when he gets home but he never does.

  2. Don MacPherson Says:

    Nice catch, Ken. The items that fall from the shelf in his bedroom could be related to reading blood-sugar levels.

  3. Jim Says:

    He also writes “danger hypo” on a sheet of paper highlighting the fact that he is, well… having a hypo!

  4. Vanja Says:

    I think that the somewhat muted and underwhelmed online reaction to this issue had to do with creators being very open about the concept in the promotional interviews. Hearing Morrison say that the whole thing takes place in some 20-odd minutes it takes Joe to try to survive a diabetic attack while somehow struggling with shifts to a toy-based fantasy world really takes a lot of surprise out of the first issue setting up the series.

  5. Don MacPherson Says:

    Vanja, I think it’s a mistake to assume everyone read all of the promotional material leading up to the comic’s release. I didn’t, and I’m pretty well-versed on what’s going on in comics. I’m not sure what “muted and underwhelmed online reaction” you’re referring to (save for the horrendous “review” on CBR that’s prompted the ire of many).