Joe the Barbarian. When I first heard the title back in early 2010, I had no idea what the eight-issue miniseries would be about. I simply assumed it'd be some sort of spoof on Conan the Barbarian with a modern attempt at humor. Thankfully I was so completely wrong.
Shortly after my insane assumption, I discovered who the creative team actually was. The series would be written by Grant Morrison, drawn by Sean Murphy and colored by Dave Stewart. That, plus the fact that it was from Vertigo and the first issue only cost one dollar, there was absolutely no way I wasn't going to check it out.
Because the story comes from the mind of Grant Morrison, you know things won't be what they seem. That is a common theme throughout the story. There literally are layers to the story and trying to sort them out is part of the journey of the story. Readers and the main character, Joe Manson, aren't quite certain what is going on and what is really happening.
The story starts out grounded in reality. Joe is your typical 13-year-old. He lives with his mom, who is struggling to make ends meet and he is also suffering from Type I Diabetes. We see poor Joe, trying to make his way through the school day, dealing with bullies and the fact that he doesn't quite fit in. He's different and the fact he needs to maintain his blood sugar level while living in a somewhat dark and depressing house with his father not around makes you worry a little about this kid. Pretty much his best and only friend is his pet rat, Jack.
When Jack is home alone one evening, during a storm, he dozes off and there's the possibility his blood sugar level has dropped to a dangerous level. Noticing something is off, he asks, "Did I do something stupid?" This is where we see a brand new world.
Jack is no longer in the world he knew. What he and readers will wonder, is there something special about Jack that allowed him to travel to this other world or is this all due to hallucinations from his hypoglycemia?
It might seem too easy of a story. Because many of the characters appear to be mostly the toys in Joe's bedroom somehow given life, you think it's got to be a simple hallucination. But we are talking about Grant Morrison. By not knowing more about Joe and this world he lives in, the possibility that he has some special powers locked inside is there. Or he could just be a goofy and imaginative kid.
It might sound like a simple premise. Maybe too simple. But there is much more to it. Grant Morrison is fully capable of taking readers on a grand journey and adventure but the trip is made even more glorious when you throw in Sean Murphy and Dave Stewart.
You will find yourself glancing over every detail on each page. If you aren't then you better take the time to. Too many times the art in a comic is taken for granted. Readers might notice how great the characters look but usually dive into the story and rapidly turn the page to see what's going to happen next. JOE THE BARBARIAN is indeed full of action and suspense but it would be an injustice to plow through the pages here.
To help you appreciate the beautiful art and details, the deluxe format presents the story in a larger format. It may not be in the dimensions of an Absolute book but is bigger than the original comics and small enough that it doesn't become too cumbersome to read.
Besides the great and clever writing of Morrison and lovely art and colors by Murphy and Stewart, there is one factor that really makes this book stand out. It was a fun story.
I love superhero comics and the monthly adventures we get. That isn't all there is when it comes to comics. It's important to give other comic genres a chance. Morrison created a new world and you don't need to know anything about it or the characters in order to dive right in. Comics with the never-ending battle are great but there are times we might want or need a complete story. There is a beginning and an ending here. As corny as it may sound, there is something for everyone here. For those with non-comic reading friends, this is a story they could appreciate. Morrison set out to create a full fledge adventure/fantasy story and he succeeded.
My only complaint about the original series was the delays towards the end. I actually got a bit frustrated and resolved not to finish reading the story until it was collected in a hardcover. I was enjoying the story and would be willing to buy a hardcover release but it's not a story where you'd want to have to wait months between issues. That obviously isn't a problem here.
There are plenty of reasons to pick this release up. The creative team of Morrison, Murphy and Stewart should have sold you from the beginning. This definitely falls into the 'something different' category. The retail price for the deluxe edition is $29.99. You can pick it up at your local comic shop (or find it cheaper online if that's where you shop for hardcovers). It's a great read. I was thankful it was finally collected and overjoyed that it got the deluxe treatment.
As an added treat, there are some special features at the end. Sean Murphy's sketch designs and Grant Morrison's character notes are included. The thumbnails, descriptions and commentary from Murphy as he developed the characters is great. I would have been thrilled to simply get the issues collected but the slightly oversized presentation along with this extra bit helped to push it over the edge. We simply need more stories like JOE THE BARBARIAN.
For fun, and to see my original thoughts on the first issue, check out this blast-from-the-past video review from January 2010.