Meet Joe Manson, your everyday teenager from next door. Joe doesn’t have it easy. He’s a talented artist but a bit of a geek and social outcast. His Dad, a soldier, died in the Middle-East fighting the War on Terror. Joe has Type 1 diabetes. And he and his Mom are about to lose their house. Home alone during a terrible storm, annoyed and depressed – he forgets to get sugar into his system. Joe is transported to a strange fantasy world –the Iron Kingdom. A dark land made up of fantasy, graphic novel and TV characters. Joe’s fears and his hopes.
Thus starts an epic quest for survival.
Joe will have to escape the claws of King Death with the help of his pet rat Jack and a motley crew of fantasy characters. Shifting between reality and hallucination, Joe the Barbarian is an awesome coming-of-age story by Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy. When it all comes down to it, will the Joe save himself or the Iron Kingdom? Read on…
A Never Ending Story -Brought to You by Diabetes
Waking up in a strange place, Joe realizes that he’s in trouble. Flashback to his bedroom. Reaching for his insulin with shaky hands, Joe drops it on the floor. Suddenly back in the other world, he sees a huge procession of injured and defeated action figures come his way. Off in the distance Playtown is burning. Then a familiar looking starship captain steps forwards and identifies Joe as a hero out of scriptures.
He is the ‘Dying Boy’.
Confused Joe does exactly what he isn’t supposed to, and heads towards the ravaged Playtown. There he finds ghostly Deathcoats committing mayhem and murder against the towns’ inhabitants. Hanging in a cage he finds his pet rat Jack, now a big humanoid barbarian swords man. Escaping their pursuers, Joe and Jack fall out of Skyland –down from the attic that is Joe’s bedroom into the main house. Joe is in a bad state. Pale and sweating, he needs some soda or candy soon. And the lights in the house are out because of the storm.
Back in the Kingdom, the Deathcoats have caught up with Joe. Trapped on the edge of a cliff, our young hero is about to meet his end until a bright light burns the Deathcoats to ashes. In burning radiance we meet Lord Arc –the exiled god of the Iron Kingdom. Cast out of his domain by Kind Death, Lord Arc sends Joe on a quest to restore the light in the kingdom. Failure means an intimate meeting with King Death but succeed, the lord of light promises, and you will hear your father voice. Hmm…
Torn between his visions and reality –all Joe wants to do is get to the kitchen, drink soda and end this nightmare. But King Death won’t make things easy for Joe.
Hunted by Death’s lieutenant –Sir Ulrik the Unspeakable –Joe and Jack flee across the land. Threatened by dangers both real and imaginary.
Little People Who Live in the Toilet and a Twisted Scotsman
But nowhere is safe. Findings allies in the lands of the Toilet Dwarves and Fortress of discovery, our heroes dive in submarines and fly across the skies. With only one goal, reach Hearth Castle –the center of the kingdom and seat of Queen Bree. The High Widow of the beloved Iron Knight, champion of the kingdom, who fell in the war.
But the Queen has her own plans for the Dying Boy.
Joe has a choice to make. Stay and die in the Hearth. Abandon his mission and get to the kitchen before his low blood sugar kills him. Or venture into King Death’s realm of Hypogea and bring back the light.
Joe the Barbarian is a bittersweet coming-of-age story, masquerading as a classic hero’s quest made up of a colorful mixture of fantasy, science-fiction and pop culture elements. It deals with how a young boy tries to process and resolve the emotional trauma caused by death of his father. And desperately fights for his life as his body starts dying.
It’s no surprise that a brilliantly twisted plot like this came out of the mind of Scottish graphic novel author Grant Morrison. Think about it. You have to be somewhat eccentric to take the premises of a diabetic kid getting hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) as the backdrop for a reality bending adventure. But he manages to pull it off.
Like all of Morrison’s protagonists, the heroes of Joe the Barbarian are all dealing with inner demons. You can see them struggle to overcome themselves and their limitations throughout the story.
The Art & Writing of Joe the Barbarian
Morrison loves to weave big ideas into his fiction. Concepts like destiny, freedom and choice play a big part in his writing. Yet, at the end of the day Joe the Barbarian is one rollercoaster fantasy adventure. We get a real feeling for the breadth and scope of the imaginary world Joe hallucinates into being. There is also a supernatural undertone that doesn’t come out until the end, some characters seem to know things Joe couldn’t know. Maybe it’s not all in his head?
Sean Murphy’s illustrations are breath taking. Bringing a teenagers fantasy world to life, visually, is no easy tasks. We see the characters and dreams of Joe’s childhood through a disturbingly adult lens. The Iron Kingdom is a dark, gritty place –suffering under Death’s invasion.
The shifts between reality and the Kingdom are seamless. We slip into one world from the other without suspending the visual believability of either. This is especially threatening when Kingdom characters start appearing in the physical world and vice versa.
If you’ve never seen Sean Murphy’s art before, you owe it to yourself to check out this graphic novel.
Joe the Barbarian is a dark but hopeful tale of a young boy fight to survive that ends up becoming a sort of rite of passage into adulthood. It’s also a very captivating and faced paced action-adventure. A great addition to every graphic novel fans library.
PS: A classic coming of age story build on a twisted concept and plenty of pop culture reference -Joe the Barbarian is a brilliant bit of graphic fiction get your copy here.