Joe the Barbarian #1

Grant Morrison tells the psychologically rich tale of an inner imaginative life in its death throes as protagonist Joe matures away from childhood.

Publisher: DC Vertigo
Publication: 2010-02
Contributors: Sean Murphy (artist)
Comics: Joe the Barbarian #1
Price: $1.00
Writer: Grant Morrison
Length: 22 pages

Joe the Barbarian, the psychologically engaging limited series written by Grant Morrison with art by Sean Murphy, is a tale of fractured geographies. This magical realist tale of a boy confronting the destruction of his Playtown, is littered with the exchange of locations both 'real' and 'imagined' in the fictional work presented to readers. For early teen protagonist Joe, each location bleeds into the next. Playtown itself becomes as substantial and fully fleshed-out a series of locations as Joe's 'reality' of home, family and school. But Morrison and Murphy to do not offer up a congenial transition from one world to the next, as with J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series or C. S. Lewis' Narnia books. For Joe, both his homeworld and Playtown are geographies in a state of severe rupture. Joe's two worlds are about to be destroyed, rejuvenated, reconstituted, merged, unveiled. Nothing is safe and wonder is everywhere. Joe the Barbarian plays out in a psychological time period before Columbine, before roles have properly been determined and teens become actors on a stage of sadly foreseeable consequences.

Murphy writes in "On the Ledge", the weekly Vertigo editorial, about his personal sense of immersion in Joe's world, and his wanting to add '70s and '80s accents (accents from Murphy's own childhood) into the visual mix. Murphy writes: 'A fantasy that's Lord of the Rings meets Home Alone. My favorite part of the first issue is the interior of Joe's house: dated '70s furniture, faux wood paneling on the walls, and shag carpeting. Instead of modern toys like a PS3 and Xbox, Joe owns an Atari and a Nintendo. All his toys are classic '80s action figures that each one of us grew up with. There's even an electric train circling his bedroom'.

As a visual storyteller, Murphy recognizes the core of Joe the Barbarian: its ability to convey psychology through setting. Joe the Barbarian is of the same genre as the classic 'haunted house' mystery. What is interesting about the characters themselves is their guarded, jaded, poignant responses to their environment. Will Joe balk at having to confront his own Playtown's destruction? Will he willingly take up the challenge in defending it? Or join in an adult life and simply destroy his childhood world?

Morrison's characterization is a clear and uncompromising grappling with an issue that hits at the heart of the modern comics market -- the role and value of an imaginative inner life in the transition from childhood to adulthood. 'Of what practical use can a Playtown be?', Morrison seems to ask. The question is perhaps no different than what the role of comics purchases should be in an adult life.

Like comics aficionados, Morrison argues passionately for the innate value of an imaginative life. In an almost throwaway comment early in the issue, Joe recognizes both his bullies, and himself as stereotypes. 'They're just jealous and insecure', a friendly character says of Joe's bullies. To which Joe retorts, 'More like predictable. Every town has them, every school has them. Stereotypes. What do I look like?'.

Morrison's incredible skill as storyteller (Murphy's use, in "On the Ledge" of the epithet 'master' when discussing Morrison is truly well-deserved), becomes abundantly clear with his ability to connect Joe's worlds. Joe's incisive nature comes from his approach to shaping the world of Playtown. Joe's toys do not take the form of a preparation for adult life (dolls and Easy Bake ovens for girls who become mothers, toy soldiers and medical kits for boys who become soldiers and doctors, as Roland Barthes argues in his book Mythologies), instead they play a far more positive role. In Joe's inner world, his toys become the tools of storytelling. Moreover Joe himself becomes a demiurge, continually tapping a creative spirit that becomes central to his psychological development.

Priced at just $1.00, DC Vertigo taps into that creativity that stems from easy access to psychological complexity. The joy and the danger of childhood, resurrected by an elegant marketing strategy. Joe the Barbarian comes with an incredibly high recommendation, and equally high expectations of the seven issues remaining in the series. This is a book that deserves to be read.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.