Joe the Barbarian is an eight issue maxi-series written by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy.
In issue one we meet Joe Manson, a young teen with a lot of baggage. His father is dead in the Iraq war, his mother has a shitty job, and is in risk of losing their house, he gets bullied at school, and to top it all off he has type 1 diabetes.
The first issue follows Joe through a typically crappy day at school, and his afternoon at home. Soon after he gets home and feeds his pet rat, Joe starts having an insulin deprived hallucination. Or does he? Either way, he finds himself in a fantasy land populated by his toys: transformers, ninjas, superheroes, teddy bears, army men, spacemen, and so on. The toys/inhabitants were recently attacked by evil forces, and Joe arrives in the aftermath of the attack.
I picked this issue up for free while I was at Comicon and I instantly liked it. Joe is a very sympathetic character and I felt connected to him right away. The premise of the story is one of those that you read and you wish you had thought of it first because it is so simple yet brilliant. Morrison's writing is great and the art by Sean Murphy is equally great. I really loved the drawings of Joe's room. It is pretty much every boy's dream room.
The second issue begins with a revelation. One of the Iron Kingdom (the name of the fantasy land) survivors, a Captain Picard looking guy, names Joe as the "Dying Boy" from their prophecies. Despite the burning questions this proclamation brings about, nothing further is explained, and Joe, delirious and shaken travels to the ruined city. There he meets Jack, his real-world rat, now a samurai warrior in the fantasy world/hallucination. Jack has been captured and caged by evil Deathcoats.
Joe frees the Rat, and after a battle they escape, and it is here we realize that Joe's real world house represents places in the fantasy world; as they plunge off the side of a cliff, Joe, tripping balls back in his house, falls through the entrance of his attic-room. Shaken into a small measure of clarity by the fall, Joe begins to realize his dire need to even out his insulin levels and he begins his long arduous journey to the kitchen, which of course represents an epic journey through the Iron Kingdom as well.
Morrison ratchets up the fantasy elements in this issue, and he slowly begins to reveal what the hell is going on. As a reader, some of my own burning questions were answered, while others took their place. I really felt sucked in by this issue. Though the Iron Kingdom is amazing, and Joe's adventures there are fun to read, I find myself more concerned that he survive his tripped out ordeal in the real world.
Lots of great stuff happens in the third issue. While locked in a battle with the Deathcoats, Joe and his Samurai Rat, Jack meet Drakka, the dwarf pirate and his hearties. Reluctantly the pirates rescue our heroes and whisk them off to Crater Fjord, represented by Joe's real life bathroom, home of the dwarves.
Without revealing too many plot elements, Joe discovers more about the prophecy of the Dying Boy, and we meet Smoot: Drakka's eldest, unwanted son...the biggest dwarf ever.
Many of the scenes with the pirates are hilarious. Drakka's feigned remorse when he thinks Smoot has not survived the Deathcoat attack was great. Murphy's art continues to help the story along. He is basically being asked to create a new fantasy land in each issue, yet he does an amazing job making each locale unique and interesting. My love for Joe the Barbarian grows with each issue.
In the fourth issue we really begin to see increased intensity in the parallels between the events in the Iron Kingdom and Joe's struggle to survive in the real world. Faced with a giant set of stairs between himself and the main floor, Joe needs to stay with it long enough to traverse the stairs safely.
Meanwhile in the Iron Kingdom, Joe meets the Sorcerers of Inventoria, who reveal the connection between the Iron Kingdom and Joe's real world. Joe discovers the true nature of his mission, but he also learns that the sorcerers wont be much help as they have taken a vow of cowardice. However, a new companion joins Joe's rag-tag fellowship.
As with each issue before, the intensity increased a lot. Morrison is doing a great job building the tension in this series. I found myself becoming more connected to the Iron Kingdom story line here, now that the connection to the two worlds has been revealed. The greatest attribute about this series is that despite Joe's life or death struggle, Morrison manages to slip in a few solid laughs to break the tension up. I really love the artwork as well, Murphy does a great job matching the art with the story.
This is a really solid series and I eagerly await the next four issues...more on this series later!