I have to give Grant Morrison credit -- few writers could turn a trip to the refrigerator into an epic fantasy adventure. But somehow he manages to do that in "Joe the Barbarian," deftly blurring the lines of fantasy and reality inside one young boy's head. It reads like a cross between "Alice in Wonderland" and "Lord of the Rings," but with more steampunk.
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.