Joe (The Barbarian) is a diabetic kid who slips into a fantasy world that parallels his real world slip into diabetic coma. As he crawls to the basement to retrieve a rescuing can of soda, the challenges he faces, the foes and co-adventurers all mirror the real world around him. For example, an overflowing tap spilling down the staircase becomes a sprawling mountain range with cascading waterfalls. His protector-companion is a knightly manifestation of his pet rat. This is really creative stuff. Clever stuff.
Of course, Morrison's premise presents a massive mental geography to capture on the static page, and Joe's odyssey covers a lot of ground and characters within that geography. This limited run is too short to give the artist time to do a great job of world-creation, notwithstanding some incredible art and richly textured pages. Compounding this is the fact that we only ever briefly touch on scenes, settings and situations, creating a frenetic flow that leaves (this) reader behind or befuddled too many times to keep entrenched in the story and fantasy. 'Look out, it's an X! Great, we escaped. Holy crap, look over there, it's a Y! Here comes X again!'
|Incredible, but too much of this becomes hard to follow or focus on.|
Moments of real brilliance are there, and it's easy to see why this would be nominated for, but not win the Eisner Award for Best Limited Series. As juvenile versions of the hero's quest go, Joe's is a significant one on several levels. His physical, mental and emotional states all factor into the journey and prize. Morrison does a good job of introducing each of these complex themes despite the pace of the story making them hard to follow leading up to their resolution. Some of the fantasy/real world parallels are really quite inspired, and the fuzzy interplay of these is one of the more enjoyable facets of the read.
|Real blends with fantasy from panel to panel.|
In the end, Joe The Barbarian is worth the read, but leaves you wishing it had been a little stronger to bump it up into 'classic' territory. Enjoy the art, and perhaps a second (or third) read will start to make more sense of the story and the world.
Note: Apparently this has been optioned for film. While it certainly evokes some classics (The NeverEnding Story or The Wizard of Oz are obvious examples), I think the task will be to cleave away hunks of the story to tighten and shorten. Imagine Dorothy meeting 6 friends instead of 3, covering 3 or 4 more regions of Oz before reaching her goal, etc. Or, they can go the way of the final Harry Potter and split this into a few films. Either way, there's just too much to cover here for the best of it to break through.