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Joe the Barbarian (Issue 1)


Written by Grant Morrison; Art by Sean Murphy

Jan 26, 2010 DC Comics Bookmark and Share

In the debut issue of Joe the Barbarian we meet Joe Manson. His mother constantly berates him to get his head out of the fantasy world of his sketchbook, and like many geeky adolescent boys he gets bullied at school. Nobody seems to like him, save for one female admirer. When kids aren’t calling him “homo” while on field trips or shouting death threats from the bus, he gets lost in his bedroom: a very cool attic domicile complete with skylights, a bunk bed, a rope ladder entrance, and an electric train circling his ceiling. Here, the young kid understandably flees from the emotional hardships incurred by the loss of his father in the Iraq War and a mother with financial woes.

The skeletal narrative of “Chapter 1: Hypo” leads up to the fantasy world in Joe’s room coming to life. Scottish scribe Grant Morrison (Batman and Robin) and artist Sean Murphy (Year One: Batman/Scarecrow, Hellblazer) have said the through-line is basically “Lord of the Rings meets Home Alone,” and that description hits this one on the nose. There’s also a touch of influence from the children’s book The Indian in the Cupboard and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits.

Naturally, Murphy and Morrison treat this first issue as the pet project it seems to be. Murphy’s gives Joe’s house a total ‘70s and ‘80s throwback, with faux wooden paneling, and an olive and plaid color scheme from the Eisner Award-winning colorist Dave Stewart (Detective Comics, Heroes, Umbrella Academy). Naturally, Joe’s room is littered with retro toys, such as Atari/NES systems, Transformers, a He-Man, G.I. Joes, a Batman Returns-era Batmobile, and Iron Giant/The Rocketeer/Star Trek/Star Wars posters). Morrison usually cuts straight to the action in his superhero narratives, but here he gives the nostalgia trip time to soak in deep. The first issue has little dialogue and slowly unfolds through Murphy’s visuals.

His bold lines skillfully details Joe’s life as a latchkey kid in only a few spreads. Also, Stewart does a great job with his coloring here, particularly in depicting the hells of riding a school bus and visiting the gravestone of his father. In equal fashion, the lush and verdant palette he develops for Joe’s reveries are quite ominous. The contrast in shades between the two worlds works out nicely and the art team really paid attention to detail on each scene.

Since this is a Morrison comic, it also pays to scour the panels again for foreshadowing. For instance, Joe’s pet rat Jack has a glint in his eye that seems to point towards his future as something more than an animal running around in a cage. Also, Joe’s mother repeatedly reminds him to eat the candy in his satchel, before a bully swipes it from him. When Joe utters the half-sentence, “How long was it since—” towards the end of the comic, it seems his vision of a distant fantasy world may have stemmed from falling off his bunk bed after hypoglycemic shock. The neat character detail from Morrison is a more natural way to introduce the fantastical elements in the book. In addition to his Type 1 diabetes, that crow perched on the top of Joe’s roof may become a problem too. (Well, not to mention the war facing his come-to-life toys and drawings.)

Speaking of problems, one troublesome qualm I had is that we don’t get enough exposition from Morrison. The settings are agonizingly laid out, but we still don’t know that much about Joe by the time the end of the book comes around. It could have helped bring back readers for issue two to show a little more of Joe’s fantasy too, but that’s also a little of the charm of this mysterious new series. Overall, the first issue of Joe the Barbarian may just be a bargain-priced ($1.00) teaser to buy the remaining seven issues of the limited series, but Morrison and Murphy could also be striving towards an interesting take on fantasy fiction, in the vein of Fables or Marvel’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz series. You can’t exactly tell from only one issue, but if the rest of the issues are this cheap, it won’t be too hard on your wallet to continue traveling into dreamland. Plus, the preview covers on Vertigo’s site are looking really fantastic.

Sidenote: I’m not too sure why this comic book is “suggested for mature readers.” There’s only one negligible instance of profanity and absolutely no violence or sex. From the looks of the final panel things could get bloody, so perhaps the rating was given for issues to come? (

Author rating: 7/10

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Average reader rating: 8/10


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February 2nd 2010

Thanks for information!

January 10th 2011

Overall, the first issue of Joe the Barbarian may just be a bargain-priced ($1.00) teaser to buy the remaining seven issues of the limited series,
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