“King Death! From your world did he spy mine! From sunless Hypogea his endless night extends. Restore my throne of light! The journey—arduous, companions on the way, et cetera! Traditional rules apply! Failure means an audience eternal with King Death!” –Lord Arc, Joe the Barbarian
There comes a time in life when we must give up childish things.
Really, though, who are we kidding? I’ve got a shelf of action figures, and those are the ones that aren’t yet packed away in boxes. Comic books abound in my apartment, with four longboxes full, even after culling two or more this summer.
Even more so, with a kid on the way, now’s the time to bulk up on heavy reading while I’ve got the chance.
I’ll admit, picking up Joe the Barbarian the other afternoon was an utter impulse buy, but you’d have to admit that Christmas Club money was burning a hole in my pocket. I was fortunate enough to make it through a week. It was one of those books I picked up when I was looking for something else, but quite surprised when this was really what I’d been looking for.
Like the story inside, the cover is this amalgamation of images: toys at Joe’s feet, scores of crosses from a veteran’s graveyard, Joe’s room—not to mention a floating island towards the top of the cover. Then there’s Joe, quite typically out of place through all this. It helped a heapload that the story was written by Grant Morrison, a real mainstay in comics. It also didn’t hurt that it was and Eisner award nominee for best limited series, comics’ highest achievement.
This graphic novel opens with Joe Manson on a school tour of a veteran’s graveyard for school. We soon come to find that his father has died in one of the Gulf Wars, and this field trip has special meaning for Joe. After being harassed by some high school bullies, they end up taking his candy, which has major implications for Joe throughout the story.
See, Joe’s got a mean case of diabetes. As he heads home to a room stuffed to the gills with all manner of action figures, he starts to hallucinate, heading off into another world where toys (and the threats) are real. Joe’s pet rat becomes a quite adept bodyguard, and the house itself represents this land where one wrong move could spell disaster for the world of Hypogea.
In just eight simple issues, Morrison and Murphy move characters like chess pieces not quite unlike Oz or Narnia. The level of fantasy is high, but spotting all sorts of random Transformers and other action figures from my childhood made the reading thankfully slow down a bit to take in the scope of the drawings that worked in tandem with the words.
Growth from Joe and a handful of other main characters kept the story moving from one of denial and dismissal to that of determination and daring. What begins as this motley crew of characters with differing motivations, brings them all together in the end to an appropriately fantastical ending.
This article originally appeared at Strip Tease in December 2013.