Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Joe the Barbarian: The Deluxe Edition

by Grant Morrison (story) and Sean Murphy (art), 210 pages

When diabetic high-schooler Joe misses his afternoon sugar spike, he goes into hypoglycemic shock and starts hallucinating that his home is a fantasy world under siege, his action figures and other toys have come to life (or death, as they do not all fair well in battle), and his pet rat is as big as he is, wears armor, and can talk. Can Joe reach the fridge and a can of soda and come back to his right mind before it's too late? And is he just hallucinating?

Aw, man, I really wanted to like this book. It's an Eisner nominee, has a nifty concept, and some occasionally great art. But the writing just doesn't work for me and the artwork, while good, is very dark and the narrative / panel flow can be confusing.

I'm not sure if it's because there's no narration and everything relies on dialogue (internal or external) to tell the story, but the plot seems to jump randomly from idea to idea, scene to scene, without any discernible transitions and a bit too much repetition. It also frustrates me that the characters and vocabulary for the fantasy world seems to be padded out with flowery terms, phrases, and titles that don't actually mean anything and feel like they're just thrown in to take the place of actual world-building. Granted, the hero is (possibly) hallucinating, so it could make perfect sense that so much doesn't make any at all; but it's not consistently random, either, so the reader's not sure which bits matter and which bits don't.

On the visual front, the artist often goes with black, instead of the usual white, for the background color behind and between the panels. This wouldn't be a negative if he had more white or light inside the panels to balance it out; but the art it so black-heavy and filled with color (and most of it dark) that there's not enough contrast and my eyes have a hard time picking out what's going on. That, combined with the somewhat choppy story, makes it hard to sense where the panels begin and end and how they connect, so following them in the right order isn't as natural as it should be. This is only made more difficult by the occasionally awkward panel layout, which sometimes jumps the book's seam with no clue to the reader that that's the case until suddenly the story makes no sense and you have to go back up and figure out where your eyes took a wrong turn.

Now, to be fair, I'm used to reading manga, which is black and white (and grey, with screentones), so I'm accustomed to contrast being rather more pronounced. But I've read other color graphic novels from this side of the world and had no problems (Locke and Key, for instance), so I don't think it's entirely me. I do like many aspects of the art, though. The attention to detail inside the house, in particular, is pretty awesome. It may be a bit too Tardis-like in its outside-compared-to-inside physics, which I did find distracting, but the interesting perspective choices and the period details (furniture, decor, oh so eighties!) draw you in and make you take your time. I do like me some realism.

Somebody else needs to read this and tell me if I was just super cranky and impatient when I read it and it's actually a brilliant representation of what the brain's capable of when it's gone haywire--or if it really is as frustratingly almost-but-not-what-it-could-have-been as I thought.

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