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Joe the Barbarian Hardcover – November 8, 2011
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Diabetic Joe Manson lives with his widowed mother in a home on the brink of foreclosure and is bullied at school, but that’s just about all the reality we get before plunging head-over-heels into Joe’s hypoglycemia-fueled hallucinations. Joe is on the verge of insulin shock when he begins to drift into a bewildering fantasy realm. His pet rat, Jack, leads him through treacherous kingdoms to the underworld, where he will face “King Death” in the sunless land of “Hypogea”—in other words, Joe needs some glucose or he’ll die. Joe flashes in and out of his actual surroundings, which bleed through to the rich and dynamic imaginary world: his toys are soldiers in the land of “Playroom,” and stony, stairlike outcroppings are a dangerous obstacle between his bedroom and the main floor. While the story is full of delightful comic-book fun, the undercurrent of real-life peril makes this award-winning graphic novel much more than just another fantasy. Joe may be battling vicious creatures with laser guns on pirate submarines, but he’s really fighting for his life and home. Joe’s magnificent and bittersweet day-saving discovery at the very last moment will elicit cheers from even the hardest of hearts. --Sarah Hunter --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Joe is at home alone with his pet rat Jack. Joe also happens to be diabetic, and bullies stole his snacks earlier that day. When his blood sugar plummets, he struggles to get down the stairs despite his hallucinations and delusions. In his head, he is the legendary Dying Boy, prophesied to save a strange fantasy world from the evil King Death. Oh, and Jack is a giant talking warrior-rat who comes along to help him.
In the real world, Joe is seriously ill and stumbling through his home, trying to get some soda pop before he falls into a diabetic coma. His hallucinating brain sees everything around him -- a bathtub, a staircase, a vicious dog -- as being part of a vast fantasy world, where airpunk planes fly, dwarves are in steampunk submarines, and ruined cities lead into the final battle.
Will Joe and Jack survive -- both in the real world and in the fantasy one -- and what secrets will be revealed to them if they do?
"Joe the Barbarian" is a simple story, and the beauty of it is in the execution. Grant Morrison takes a simple everyday problem, and manages to expand it into an epic quest, in a world as colorful, wild and strange as a kid's imagination. He even throws in a surprising twist near the end, adding a new dimension to Joe's quest for survival.
Also, the artwork is gorgeous. The real world is dark, shadowy, and filled with torrential rain, while Joe's inner world is exploding with color, strange inventions (steampunk submarines!), and expansive bright skies that seem to go forever.
However, Morrison also gives you the feeling that this world is starting to crumble into chaos because of King Death, and we even get some glimpses of what he's turning it into. And while he inserts some fun comic relief (there's a "giant" dwarf, who is basically normal-sized) and breathtaking action scenes, we never forget that the stakes are very real, and that our hero could easily die.
Joe himself is a solid classic protagonist -- quiet, remote, artistic, and a little embittered by his dad's untimely death. But he also has a lot of courage, as evidenced by his standoff against his enemy. Jack is almost as well-rounded a character, even in the real world -- he's a sweet little rat who obviously loves his owner, worries about him, and even takes on a giant dog to defend him.
"Joe the Barbarian" is a gorgeous piece of work, and Grant Morrison obviously lavished it with care. Beautiful art and a likable young hero... and the most adorable rat you'll ever see.
The other world: Joe the Barbarian is a prophet called "The Dying Boy" who must traverse mountains, castles full of cowardly inventors, submarines full of toilet dwarves, with his companion, a fighting warrior rat called Jack, dodging flying demons, laser gun fights, epic battles, to flood the land with light and the Fountain of Life, and destroy evil King Death.
Grant Morrison writes a hugely inventive story of fantastic proportions, throwing in tropes from every fantasy story ever written of the band of heroes on a quest to destroy evil and save kingdoms of innocents. Joe is diabetic and it seems that his low blood sugar has triggered a vivid hallucination as he struggles to go from his bedroom attic to the kitchen downstairs to drink a soda and keep him from going into hypoglycaemic shock. But anyone who's read Morrison before or knows anything about him, knows that he is a true believer in parallel worlds and that there's more to life than we can see with our eyes. This book mirrors that philosophy as the smallest things in the "real world" are brought to life in the "other world", for example Joe makes himself a bath but forgets to turn off the tap causing the water to pour from the tub into the room and down the stairs, creating a new waterfall across the mountains in the other world.
While there's very little explanation for the who what where and why of the story, and Morrison just plunges the reader from the real world into this fantasy world, I felt that the pure energetic gusto of the storytelling coupled with Sean Murphy's superb artwork made this book an exceptional read for pure creativity alone. The story makes some sense once you read it and realise that it's this boy's way of understanding and coping with his father's death, though Morrison wants the reader to also believe in the fantastic, that it's out there and it's real and it's symbols in this world mean that it exists just beyond our reach - a near death experience can bring us into it, however briefly.
I think that if the reader allows the force of Morrison and Murphy's imaginations wash over themselves, this book will be enjoyable though at times frustratingly melodramatic and incongruous. "Joe the Barbarian" is nothing if not ambitious in its scope and incredibly creative throughout, though not without its flaws.
I have even bought extra copies to give out as Christmas gifts. Definitely 5 stars