Joe the Barbarian by Sean Gordon Murphy

A Sean Gordon Murphy Mini-Restrospective

In February 2012, I reviewed “Joe the Barbarian,” a comic that I had a bit of a connection to, as a Type 1 diabetic. Written by Grant Morrison, it was drawn by the now DC exclusive artist, Sean Gordon Murphy.

Diabetes in Comics

“Joe the Barbarian” is a 200 page story about a boy having a bad case of low blood sugar. I’ve never been a big Grant Morrison fan, but this book fires on all conceivable cylinders for me.

As discussed last year, I’m a juvenile diabetic going back 25 years. Everything that Joe feels in this comic in relation to his low blood sugar attack is believable and real. I know this isn’t something that 99% of the people reading the book will ever understand (thankfully for them), but the “drunkenness,” the confusion, the slurring speech, the loss of fine motor control, the desperate stumbling for the refrigerator, and everything else that you see Joe go through in this book is real. To one degree or another, I’ve felt it myself.

Here’s a ‘funny’ story: There was a time when I was 14 that I woke up with low blood sugar. I didn’t realize it because, well, when it’s that low you’re not thinking straight. I fell out of bed and laid on the floor, while my mother called on me to wake up. I didn’t think there was any problem. I was just standing there on the transporter pad (the floor) waiting to be beamed back up to the Enterprise (the bed). And that’s when my mother realized something was wrong and brought me a glass of orange juice. . .

So, yes, hallucinations during a low blood sugar incident are not unheard of, and could refer back to points of interest in your life at the time. (I would have just discovered “Star Trek” at that time, though maybe not “The Next Generation” yet.)

Obviously, there’s more to it than one long strange “trip” for 200 pages. Morrison wraps an entire story around this dangerous time for Joe. He’s trapped alone in his house, struggling to make it to the can of soda in the fridge that will save him (a little too quickly, but we’ll call that literary license), and battling a war with and against all of his toys along the way. A couple of surprise elements at the end give the story added purpose and meaning.

Where “Joe the Barbarian” goes above and beyond just being an imaginary story is with the artwork of Sean Murphy, which is utterly breathtaking. Murphy owns this book, from an opening issue walk through Joe’s house to the double page spread fight scenes between warring toys and mice. Morrison’s script carefully calls for the events inside of Joe’s hallucinatory trip from his upstairs bedroom to the soda in the kitchen map to the house. Stairs become mountains, bathtubs become lakes, a potted plant becomes a forest. That kind of thing.

Murphy’s imagination and creativity are on full display here, as he draws challenging landscapes that are improbable, fantastical, and ridiculously detailed. And then he draws the “real world” version of them not just in exquisite architectural detail, but with sharp angles and dramatic lighting. He tells the story with both a frantic energy and a carefully chosen composition, highlighting the details the reader needs while showing us everything.

Joe the Barbarian double page spread by Sean Gordon Murphy

The coloring from Dave Stewart keeps things readable and often bright. While the art is so often very dark, Stewart doesn’t throw dark tones across the page and hope that it matches. Instead, he uses basic techniques like contrast and highlights and shadows to let the art tell the story. Stewart’s coloring only stands out for how effortlessly it seems to fill spots between the black lines on the page. It boosts the art, never hiding weaknesses on the page or overwhelming the art.

Todd Klein letters the book, which is about all you need to know. He’s won enough Eisners by now that I don’t think I need to explain his work. He does add a nice little touch to his word balloons here, giving their line a varying thickness. It keeps the lettering from feeling completely cold and computerized. It’s a simple Illustrator trick, but it does the job.

I’m sure there are levels of this book I’m not paying attention to yet. I want to go back and reread it now that the players in the dream world are better defined to me by the way things end. I’m sure that’ll help explain things even better. There are likely all sorts of literary allusions or different kinds of readings that will unearth angles I’d never consider otherwise. I’ll leave that to you, gentle readers. I’m happy with what I got. I just want to understand all the connections from real world to hallucinatory world. Many things became obvious in the last chapter that I hadn’t put together until then. I’d like to go back through with that understanding and see what else falls into place for me.

Look at that: a comic that rewards multiple readings! Suddenly, it’s like the $30 cover price just got chopped in half. And for that $30, you get a nice slightly oversized hardcover that shows off the art very well. There are a few pages of sketchbook and process material in the back, most notably a walkthrough of the art choices by Murphy of the choices he made in the memorable first issue’s walk through the house. Those explanations help highlight how the most banal-seeming parts of sequential art are sometimes the parts that require the most thought.

A small example of Sean Gordon Murphy's black and white line art

After reading this book, at last, it dawned on me that I had completely forgotten about the delays in publishing for the original mini-series. They don’t matter anymore. This collection is the lasting legacy of “Joe the Barbarian,” and it will always remain pure as the work of Morrison and Murphy. It would have been a shame to have even a single page fill-in from anyone else.

This book is a great piece of work, even if you’re not personally invested in a diabetic character the way I am. It’s a visual feast with a story to back it up. It’s a <i>complete</i> story, too: self-contained, not superheroic, and easy to read. It’s everything you’ve said you wanted in a comic book. I hope you’ll support this kind of work and then I hope you enjoy it.

Some related links:


2016 Update

That Murphy kid did all right by himself in the years that followed this book, didn’t he?

The hardcover edition of “Joe the Barbarian” is out of print, but the trade paperback is still available and still worth a read. (Click on the cover at the top of this page to get it through my Amazon link, for which I’ll always be grateful when I cash that check for 20 cents on your purchase.)

The next closest thing to diabetes in comics that I can think of was the way William Messner-Loebs handled Wally West in the early days of his “Flash” series.  Wally needed energy to keep up with all the running he was doing, so he’d eat a whole bunch of hamburgers, basically to boost his blood sugar.

I’ll close out with this piece I wrote in May 2015 about a piece of Murphy’s art from the then-upcoming “Tokyo Ghost” series. It’s an early example of HyperAnalysis:


Panel of the Week

Take a moment to soak in this panel from Sean Gordon Murphy:

It works on so many levels:

  • Action moves from left to right.
  • The hand lettered sound effect is perfectly placed to indicate the sound that rope/line is making as the character slides down it.
  • The contrast in the panel between dark and light is perfect. The white letters jump out from the dark background where that cliff is, but then the focus character in a dark costume is surrounded by the brightest/whitest part of the panel. Since the eye is attracted to the area of greatest contrast first, this panel is an instant win at first glance.
  • There are two other people in the panel in the upper left, one on top of the cliff and one hanging on for dear life so he doesn’t fall off. Follow the motions of the characters from one to the next, left to right. It flows beautifully. The runner leading the eye to the over-runner who’s nearly falling off the cliff and towards the lead character. All of the motion in this panel is going in one direction, and it feels natural and right.
  • With those characters, the most detail is saved for the character closest to the reader who is also the focus of the panel. This makes sense since things closest to you are the things you see the most detail on, but also in that it’s not worth wasting the artist’s time and busying up the page to draw every fold of cloth and every eyelash on a background character the reader’s eyes are meant to glance across.
  • Variety. Three different characters are running away from something or towards something, but none are repeating themselves. They’re in different poses, different actions, different stages of the chase. Never underestimate the importance of keeping things on a page varied. Repeating a pose from a lack of experience or thinking is a road block for a reader. It’ll make the page look cheaper.

It’s just a great isolated panel, and it gives me hope for the rest of the project, as well.



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