My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It’s too not often that a book jumps off the shelf and grabs me, even though I always walk by bookshelves slowly enough to give the books plenty of opportunity. This usually happens when my wife and I find ourselves at our local Barnes and Noble. I used to feel I needed to spend time here in the history, science, or philosophy sections, just in case any students happened upon me. Now I gravitate more or less unashamedly to the graphic novels. I get grown-up books through inter-library loan when they’re not available in the public domain online, and it’s unlikely that B&N would have anything as specific as what I’m looking for anyway. But for an hour or so of casual perusal, something light, look for me in the ever-expanding graphic novel section.
Joe the Barbarian jumped off the shelf because it looked compelling and was a single volume stand-alone. (Who has the time to get invested in a serial? It’s all I can do to keep up with my beloved More than Meets the Eye.) The art is fabulous and the story is the perfect surrealist-fantasy trope, blending the lines between realism and magic in the way especially suited for graphic representation. I read half of it in a single sitting. A month or so later, when it was time to buy comic books for my brother-in-law’s birthday, I picked up two obligatory Batman titles and then perched in the magazine section with this volume once again. After getting about two-thirds of the way through it, I realized he would love it as much as I did. So I bought it, brought it home and read it, made my wife read it, and only then wrapped it.
It really is nearly flawless. Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy create a tale in which the boy-hero’s real-world home flows seamlessly into a fantasy world that mirrors and epically extends his house. The main character is Joe, who upon waking from a nap in his attic bedroom finds that he may be having a diabetic episode caused by lack of sugar or may have been transported into a magical realm. Or both. Aspects of both worlds blend back and forth. Joe has to make his way downstairs to get a soda, or he has to free the realm in which he finds himself from the darkening grip of Lord Death. Either way, the lights are going out, and Joe wanders downward through rooms and corridors and crypts and wastelands. His pet rat, Jack, becomes his companion, guide, and defender, the warrior-rat (very like I always imagined my Battle Beasts) Chakk. In the bathroom, he meets Sewer Pirates. Near the fireplace, he rests at Castle Hearth. The wonder of seeing a home through a child’s eyes, of watching Joe move back and forth between his real house and its fantastic echo, somehow reveals the magic hidden in the walls of any safe and beloved place.
There are darker aspects at play too. In the background, behind the very real crisis of Joe being home alone and possibly in serious medical trouble, there is the larger situation: his father, a soldier, has died, leaving him and his mother with a home they may not be able to save. Joe’s powerlessness in the face of these circumstances is mirrored in his hallucinations. In the magical realm he is known as the Dying Boy, a hero foreordained to defeat Lord Death, though he does not know how. There is a quest. There are friends and foes. There are spectacular vistas. There are broken doorways and falls down staircases and all the perils of childhood.
The graphic novel this reminded me of most was I Kill Giants, though whereas that was a sketch of childhood fear against the threat of cancer, this feels more complete, drawn out, and—in reality—far more colorful. It also reminded me of Gene Wolfe’s Peace, the novel in which the dead narrator wanders through rooms in a mansion that may simply be memories in his own dead skull, or The High House by James Stoddard, in which an English mansion contains limitless worlds.
I finished this book with tears in my eyes. That doesn’t happen often.