JOE THE DIABETIC HERO
"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 Joe feels in this comic in relation to his low blood sugar attack is believable and real. I know this isn't something 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 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. (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 simply being an imaginary story is in the artwork of Sean Murphy, which is utterly breathtaking. Murphy owns this book, from the opening issue's 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 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 frantic energy and carefully chosen composition, highlighting the details the reader needs while showing us everything.
Dave Stewart's coloring 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. Klein'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, 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 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. There are a few pages of sketchbook and process material in the back, most notably a walkthrough by Murphy of the decisions 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 those that require the most thought.
After reading this book, at last, it dawned on me that I had completely forgotten about the delays in publishing for the original miniseries. 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 fill-in page 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 complete 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:
- I reviewed Murphy's "Off Road" graphic novel from Oni Press here in 2010.
- Grant Morrison talked about "Joe the Barbarian" with CBR in December 2009.
- Robot6 linked to the original line art for one fantastic double page spread in the series. If you want to see what the toys looked like, and how thinly disguised they were from the "real thing," this is a must-view.
- This is all I have to say about "Before Watchmen": The reason these creators are doing this book and not more of their own creator-owned work is because that's what you'll buy.
- The reason why DC is more interested in doing sequels than original graphic novels is because that's what you'll buy.
- The reason these stories are being released as a series of miniseries is because going direct to an original graphic novel throws up the "high" price point barrier. You won't buy the up-front OGNs.
- I'm happy to see Boulet's 24 hour comic get such wide linkage across the comics blogosphere and all the social networks last week. I only wish that would lead to a groundswell of support for more of his work in French to be translated and reprinted here in a proper format. Sadly, you wouldn't buy it, so it won't happen.
(Do also skip around on Boulet's site to see more of his awesome work. "Takamaka" is a travelogue done not unlike Lewis Trondheim's "Little Nothings" series, as Boulet and a group of well-known French cartoonists go for a trip to a small African island. He also does his sketchblog with watercolors, as when he explains his need for coffee. Boulet goes bowling!)
- Dark Horse announced a July release for a new "Blacksad" volume, so all hope is not lost.
- Imagine a comic book industry where artists would get paid a dollar for every book sold. Imagine they only drew two or three 48 page books a year. Imagine each sold 100,000 copies. Imagine those books were oversized hardcovers in the Franco-Belgian tradition for $15 - $20 each. I'd have the most awesome bookshelf full of cool stuff ever, I'd be reading more than ever, and we'd probably have greater diversity with creators making more money.
Won't happen, though. People don't want books that don't fit neatly in a longbox or on their pre-existing bookshelves.
So, again, it's all your fault.
I bet Jim Lee would be able to draw three "Justice League" albums like that in a year.
- Imagine a DC relaunch that, instead of minor changes in continuity, relaunched the comic format like that.
Popular children's musical group The Wiggles replaced Sam with Greg as the Yellow Wiggle a couple weeks back.
What does that have to do with comics? Plenty.
Greg, you see, was the original Yellow Wiggle and a founding member. When a chronic and unpredictable illness made it impossible for him to perform live on stage, he stepped aside. Cast member Sam became the new Yellow Wiggle.
Last week, five years later, Greg returned to his role as Yellow Wiggle and Sam handed back the yellow jersey and stepped aside.
The stories coming out of Australia portray the story in a different light. Sam, you see, was called into The Wiggles office on what happened to be his daughter's second birthday. He was fired effective immediately. Sam was under contract. He didn't own any part of the Wiggles company, even after playing their lead man for five years. He received $200,000 a year for his services from a musical act that cleared close to $30,000,000 per year.
Lessons here for comics creators:
Read your contracts carefully. Make sure they include language to account for any conceivable futures in which your services might not be used. (If you get fired in the middle of an issue, do you still get paid for it? Does your dedication to the book pay off in the end? If you were brushed off the book tomorrow, would it surprise you?)
Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Sam had recorded a CD for adults, doing covers of standards. Sam isn't stupid; he's got lots of middle-aged housewives watching him on television every day. This was a great chance to attract them to him in a new way. Plus, it also gives him something to fall back on. Should The Wiggles one day unceremoniously dump him, there's more to him to exploit. Sure enough, that day has come.
If you don't own it, you don't control it, and you can expect to be compensated for it beyond a set standard rate.
Here's an oddity for you: Greg returns to the Wiggles as a salaried employee, just like Sam was. Greg sold out his ownership in the group years ago. So if his mates are annoyed by him at any time now, they're free to drop him faster than they did Sam.
At the same rate, how much longer can the Wiggles carry on? They've been doing the gig for the better part of 20 years.
Oh, one other lesson: If you can't get ownership, get royalties. Exiting Wiggle Sam is named as an equal song-writer on all the songs recorded during his time with the Wiggles, and his royalties from that could get to six digits annually. Welcome to The Long Tail. This one gesture, in my mind, absolves the Wiggles from much of the heat they've received over any "improper" treatment of Sam.
Think of Sam as the latest creator to work on a Batman or Spider-Man comic. Picture him as the co-creator of a Kickstarter-funded project. The industry may be different, but the topics are all the same. Ownership is important. If you don't control your own destiny, someone will control it for you.
Completely off-topic: Sam can sing opera. Impressive.
"Joe the Barbarian" is copyright Grant Morrison and DC Comics. I was surprised not to see Murphy's name on that list in the book's indicia.
This week on my personal blog at VariousAndSundry.com, I talked a little about what tool I used to help write Pipeline last week. I have some original Mike McKone "Superman" art I'm selling on eBay that I invite you to take a look at. I have my first concert shoot of the year at the end of the week, and I imagine some first images will be up from that over the weekend. And I'm posting interesting stories about comics, tech, and more over on Google+.