Indie comics occasionally introduce characters that would otherwise be unexpected, given that they fall outside of the norm of what is expected in a “hero.” When people think “comics,” perceptions arise that eclipse the mundane and ordinary, trading off season jeans for spandex tights. While the tights serve a purpose when the occasion arises, it puts the reader at a distance. Even if you could make someone like Green Arrow more “human” or “introspective,” he would still be a multibillionaire vigilante. Such circumstances leave the reader without much to relate with. Alan Moore’s theory on characterization was something along the lines of, “no matter how bizarre or odd a character comes off, if the character is humanized and makes a genuine connection with the reader, then they will always be relatable.” This conceptualization of character development has become a norm in comics as heroes steadily become more tormented and jaded, but often it comes off as campy and overtly stylized.
Grant Morrison takes the middle road, creating a character with legitimate characterization, and secures a personality that is not only relatable but inspiring. This is what is found in Joe the Barbarian, the story of a hypoglycemic who hallucinates his journey alongside his pet rat in search of the salvific Glucose that will save his life. Morrison’s story is told in parallel, where Joe exists in two timelines simultaneously, equally sharing wide ramifications for their respected worlds. The hallucination’s connection to reality is unexpected, given that typically hallucinations are private and introspective, rather than externalized as it appears in the narrative. Joe’s actions in both realities have a direct impact on each time line, and serves the purpose of confronting readers’ expectations of the kind of hero Joe is to become in the progress of the arc. Clearly, the internalized and psychological structuring of the narrative suggests that this is a story not about the struggle of Sky Island or the deposition of Hearth Castle, but Joe, who expresses his implicit fears and insecurities explicitly through the gradual decay of his consciousness, becoming lost in the world that he creates to cope with his depression and hopelessness.
With careful attention to word economy, Grant Morrison explains Joe’s conflicts and fears incrementally over the span of the narrative as details sublimate to the surface revealing the gravity of his plight. Structurally, the story consists of three acts, the introduction of conflict via hypoglycemic shock, Joe’s spiritual journey to Hearth Castle, and the final climactic resolution in which he confronts his own mortality embodied by the memory of his father. So it is not until the third act that the root of Joe’s fears are revealed, which amplifies the means of layering that Grant Morrison leveraged in the second act.
In order to understand the gravity of these psychological layers, it must be positioned that Joe is a sectarian at the onset of the primary conflict, a refuge out of place in his own world. Joe’s plight, as he conceives it individually, is very much reminiscent of the conflict faced by the Jewish people in the 1st century Palestinian world. After attaining political independence through the Jewish revolutionary Judas the Maccabee, the state of Israel enjoyed political independence and statehood in the form of the Hasmonean Dynasty until it was eventually overtaken by the Roman Republic and subsidized into client states ruled by puppet regimes. Once again, under the boot of another emerging superpower, Israel expressed its subjugation sociologically and politically through the generation of factions and interest groups that debated the nature of ethnic Israel.
This historical narrative, though distanced, is psychologically analogous, and represents Joe’s personal conflict as he reacts to the imminent loss of his childhood home. The home itself in the narrative then manifests into a psychological construct that protects him from the gravity of his impending deposition. Because the hallucination in literary practice serves to amplify core emotions and express explicitly the psychological yearnings of the character, the shape of Joe’s hallucination that takes form is significant in and of itself. The hallucination reveals to the reader the nature of the internal conflict Joe experiences, rendering his world into a kingdom, a representative microcosm of his home. Once autonomous, it is now under siege by a comprehensively malevolent force. When the “Iron Knight” is revealed to be a manifestation of Joe’s fear of death brought on by his father, the motif of the “at risk” kingdom incurs within Joe, and presents an explicitly sectarian struggle to the reader.
In the same way, one such political party was conceived out of the Roman occupation in 1st century Palestine called the Pharisees. Within the cosmopolitan environment of the Hellenized Mediterranean, the Pharisees were often socially ostracized for their tendency toward preconceived legalistic interpretations of Torah and internalized praxis of Covenant boundary markers. In the same way that Joe tenaciously regarded his home a place of peace, the Pharisee’s desire to openly observe Torah was an attempt at reclaiming a cultural heritage lost to predominant cultural norms brought on by the Hellenization of the Ancient Near East. This effectively created a psychological kingdom that extended to the four walls of their homes, serving to protect them from oppressive foreign elements as a coping mechanism.
In a similar microcosmic manner, Joe’s home is a kingdom under siege. Outside, in the physical world, Joe is oppressed by death, bullying, and near socioeconomic collapse brought on by institutionalized war, but it is in his home where he feels safe from the elements that plague him. His attic enshrines his introverted personality, manifesting in action figures, train sets, and planetary diagrams, externalizing the fantastic and his tendency towards escapism. With the same fervor, he pursues artistic drawing and other means of coping with disillusionment by building his own worlds, and is something he proudly embraces before his mother in the final spread of the narrative. This sectarian struggle against outside constructions of institutions that oppress Joe then set the tone for what is to unfold: the principal hallucination.
The primary conflicts represented in Joe the Barbarian are those suggesting the folly of the vainglory pursuit of meaning beyond one’s inherited legacy. Within the narrative there are three primary moments of conflict, all of which reflect on Joe’s own spiritual journey to overcome his fear of death incurred by the legacy of his father. Though occurring at the height of the second act of Joe’s hallucination, the arc of Queen Bree casts the foundation of Joe’s fear overcoming his hypoglycemic condition and susceptibility to death. The arc itself is foreshadowed in Zyxy’s rebellion against convention, which acts as a catalyst to Joe’s own victory over complacency, represented by the warm comfortable glow of the fire, but Queen Bree’s condition of self-sufficiency exemplifies Joe’s struggles.
With the death of the Iron Knight, her husband, the kingdom and her world are turned upside down, much of which illustrates Joe’s emotional deterioration amidst the death of his father at the onset of adolescence. Also, Bree’s ongoing practice of mourning reflects her entrapment into the culture of enshrining and worship of death. Joe himself is about to be made into a statue, meant to signify the stalwart preservation of Hearth Castle, but in reality is nothing more than a cheap memorial to the proactive program of the Iron Knight’s chaining of evil and darkness. Joe’s rising significance in the Kingdom, and his conception of his role in the Island Kingdom’s salvation, is only hampered by the Queen’s complacency. It also shows that historically he was lost in the past, letting tangential events determine his purpose. When he finally confronts the manifestation of his dead father, Joe must make the decision to continue being paralyzed by his own fear of death or overcome it. In the opening spread that shows Joe sitting in front of his father’s grave, Joe is filled with resentment, living in his father’s shadow and example. At the conclusion of the arc, Joe finds his purpose as savior when he discovers on his own the key to saving his father’s legacy and home: the deed to the house, Joe’s kingdom. Likewise for both Smoot and Jack, they too represent other minor facets to Joe’s maturation as a character.
Jack, an anthropomorphic manifestation of Joe’s pet rat, serving as a Sherpa in Joe’s journey to the bottom reaches of his fantasized kingdom, conceptualizes Joe’s feelings of inadequacy, being the runt of a litter of warriors that were known for their famed acts of valor. In the climax of Morrison’s tale, Jack’s tenacity and startling bravery becomes a foil that Joe can aspire to become, successfully confronting the oppressive depression ruling his life. Smoot is a prince, an heir to a kingdom and heritage, but ousted by his superficial differences. Through the progression of Morrison’s story, he grows into his role, accepting his idiosyncrasies as both normative and as a strength rather than a weakness. At the climax of the narrative, he leverages this embrace of his unique quality and then leads his own people to victory in the climactic battle. Joe, like Smoot, deals with the heritage that he has inherited and must make a choice to either be proactive or inactive in maintaining it.
At the end of Joe’s drama, the question that hinges on the reader’s mind is whether or not the narrative is trustworthy and reliable. This is a minor concern, but demands discussion. In trauma literature, often the nature of narrative purity arises to the surface and Joe the Barbarian bears relevancy to this problem of authenticity. The narrative is framed as an imaginative fantasy tale, entrenched in psychological constructions that represent the inner struggles of Joe, but the story categorically transgresses from a believable non-fiction story of a child embracing a psychotropic experience, to that of one bordering on myth. Joe the Barbarian shares some similarities with Guillermo Del Torro’s Pan’s Labyrinth in that the story contests the legitimacy of the protagonist’s experiences. Two occasions are immediately apparent. Zedalus, the mathematician in the Observatory floating above the Steppenfell Range, suggests that a transcending dimensional bridge of space and time forged with technology and magic has tunneled its way into Joe’s universe, which explains his connection between the physical and mental planes the story operates between. This could also be merely a justification of Joe’s mind for the spatial consistencies as his dips in and out of reality. Furthermore, how are the panels in which Joe is absent to be explained? Morrison’s aim in this could mean one of two things. Either these panels exist purely for narrative cohesion, or they serve to blend the two realities together into one. The latter would explain why the events occurring on Kingdom Island persist even after Joe’s release from his hallucination, but clearly Morrison is drawing the conclusion that Joe’s own imagination has tangible benefits that transcend reality entirely.
Joe the Barbarian is a coming of age story, embodying much of the interchangeable narratives that occur in adolescent fiction. Yet after first glance, it is clear that Morrison offers more than just the standard narrative tale of boyhood adolescence growing into the role and responsibility of a full-fledged adult. Joe is multifaceted and completely nuanced as a character, displaying traits and characteristics that illustrate his highly developed sense of self. The psychological profile of Joe is historically characteristic of a persecuted individual that seeks to maintain a structured life of discipline and intentional order, formulating his thoughts into paradigms that protect his identity in an unstable and rapidly changing world. Like any victim of hardship or trauma, Joe establishes a reality to cope, one that he can feel safe in, but still bears the markings of an individual persecuted by malevolent forces. Because Joe is an everyman, he is not remarkable because of his capacity to do good, but is remarkable for his ability to be genuine consistently, and admirably so. That is why his father’s squadmates refer to Joe as a “Barbarian.” Barbarians are mercenaries infused with wanderlust, intentionally pursuing new worlds to discover and reinvent. They encounter uncertainty and must be comfortable outside of their element in a foreign place. Joe’s cloistering away into his attic and away from the world is a rebellion against this designation, and it is in the climax and denouement of his journey that he rediscovers who he is, and casts off his chains.