Images & Words – Joe the Barbarian #8

[images & words is the comic book pick-of-the-week at OL. equal parts review and diatribe, the post highlights the most memorable/infuriating/entertaining book released that wednesday]

Congratulations, Joe the Barbarian! Not only did you beat Jonah Hex and Sweet Tooth in this week’s triple-threat comics cage match, but with your final issue you’ve become one of my all-time favorite limited series. You’ve earned a spot in my Best Of list and, if there’s any damn justice in the world, comics history as well.

So how did you do it, Joe? How did you never tire while running for eight issues over the course of a year? Brandishing a tale of a hallucinating youth in the midst of insulin-shock, you easily could’ve devolved into incoherent drivel. Your parallel narratives (wandering through a house looking for sugar and traversing the most hidden recesses of childhood imagination) could have slugged each other out: DOUBLE KO!!!  And yet, with each appearance you became more effective.

More affective.

So how did you do it? It was, beyond a coffee-stained shadow of a doubt, that intangible, unquantifiable quality for which all art should aspire. It’s that warm little nagging at the forefront of excitement, the pinch on your ass that makes you giddy, that informs the reader/viewer/listener that the artists at work care. Necessarily, this quality defies definition and rears itself only in terms of gut-instinct. But it’s undeniable. Unshakable. Motherfucking unstoppable.

For lack of a better word, let’s call this quality heart.

Case in point: compare Metallica’s Master of Puppets with St. Anger. The first album was conjured up by a set of enthusiastic, take-no-prisoners 20-somethings while the latter was the product of self-doubters dealing with mid-life crises. One is a genuine piece of art while the other is an attempt to meet expectations, an exercise in going through the motions and hoping for the best. One has heart and the other doesn’t.

Unless you rock The Unnamed Feeling on the weight bench, you know what I mean.

The eighth and final issue of Joe the Barbarian acts as a single vial of the title’s blood, a case-in-point that deftly demonstrates what’s been pumping through the entire series. In many ways, artist Sean Murphy seems to have been saving his best work for last. In Joe’s (perhaps) imagined alternate reality, both terror and wonder are pushed to their limits. We see a two-page spread of King Death’s   undead rat warriors, disfigured beings such as Skrell the Widowmaker, that make us recoil in horror. On the other hand, we’re rewarded with visions of the Iron Knight, Smoot, Zyxy and Chakk standing tall in the Answering Light!

Murphy also makes notable use of double-page layouts, giving the reader giant panoramas that could, under the right circumstances, be mistaken for actual inter-dimensional portals. In this sense, the comic manages to build its wardrobe, its great glass elevator, its raging twister, right into its presentation. Marshall McLuhan would be all over this shit.

If Sean Murphy’s illustrations are the A-wings that clear the path to Death Star 2, then Grant Morrison’s script is the Calrissian-piloted Falcon. Morrison proves that he’s still capable of bridling his madness, as he composes a stunning conclusion to the battle between light and dark, life and death, childhood astonishment and adulthood defeatism. After seven issues of hallucinations and warfare, Joe  watches his friends rise victoriously and then drinks a soda which returns him to “reality.”

Then, Morrison gives both Joe and the reader a reason to cry. I’m not going to give away how, but I will say that this comic came dangerously close to spilling tears from my eyes. Joe, while a warrior and a savior and maybe even a barbarian, is still just a kid trying to make sense of the world.

Aren’t we all, in some way, just kids trying to make sense of the world?

Joe the Barbarian is an exploration of imagination, familial relationships, and the inherent power of the human mind. But more than a swimming lesson in the stream-of-consciousness, the book is a 50,000-volt defibrillation to the heart. And in this cynical world, such a salubrious shock is welcomed.

If I ever have children, I am definitely going to read this comic to them.

But I’m certainly not going to wait until then to read it again.