Friday July 6, 2012
Grant us Morrison
Worlds of Wonder
By MICHAEL CHEANG
One of the comic industry’s most enigmatic writers, Grant Morrison, tackles the fantasy genre in his own unique way.
SAY what you will about Grant Morrison’s work, the guy can turn out some sterling stuff at times. The British comic writer may currently be best known for his work at DC Comics, most notably penning the new incarnation of Action Comics, and before that, the sordid mess that was Final Crisis, and the resulting “death” and resurrection of Bruce Wayne. When he is on form, though, he is one of the best writers in the business.
Morrison’s seminal work on little known DC character Animal Man from 1988 to 1990 established him as one of the rising stars of comics back then, and he was considered part of the then “British invasion” into American comics alongside Alan Moore (Swamp Thing, Watchmen) and Neil Gaiman (Sandman). His subsequent stints on Vertigo’s Doom Patrol and Marvel Comics’ New X-Men, as well as the critically acclaimed Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth and All Star Superman only served to cement his reputation as one of the more enigmatic and prolific writers in the industry.
For all his success in mainstream superhero comics, Morrison’s best work is arguably his own creator-owned work, including the eccentrically epic The Invisibles, the weirdly intriguing Seaguy, and the disturbingly thrilling We3.
If you sense a pattern in the descriptions I’ve given to these titles, it’s probably because Morrison’s work is pretty well-known for being rather unconventional (to put it mildly), and he is also known for messing around with the conventions of comic books. After all, this is the guy who wrote himself into his final issue of Animal Man as an omnipotent “God” who created and controls Animal Man’s life.
Surprisingly, though, Morrison’s most recent creator-owned work, Joe The Barbarian, is one of his more linear and accessible work yet.
Published in 2010 and now available in a hardcover deluxe edition, Joe The Barbarian is an eight-issue Vertigo series by Morrison and artist Sean Murphy, and was nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Limited Series in 2011.
The story revolves around Joe, a young boy with hypoglycaemia (a condition that occurs when one’s blood sugar level is too low) who accidently misses his medication, and starts hallucinating about being in a fantasy world populated by his toys, and Jack, his pet rat (who is now a giant rat warrior with a humongous sword).
In this upside-down fantasy world, Joe is The Dying Boy, fated to do battle with the dreaded King Death in order to save the world from ruin. Accompanied by the noble Jack, he has to travel from the Iron Kingdom to Queens Hearth, braving enemies from the skies and on the ground along the way, to meet his destiny and fulfill a prophecy to “save The Light”.
Then again, all this is probably just part of Joe’s hallucination. While his destiny seems all-consuming in that fantasy worl, in the real world, all Joe needs is a soda to fix his blood sugar level, so he won’t die. However, as the lines blur between reality and fantasy for him, a fall from his room in the attic becomes an escape from the clutches of dreaded Deathcoats, the water from a waterfall turns out to be from a bathroom faucet, a flight of stairs becomes a mountain, and his quest to fix The Light turns out to be, well, a trip downstairs to fix the house lights.
It may sound terribly mundane when explained this way, but trust me, Joe The Barbarian is one heck of a ride. Admitting to an obsession with fantasy genre as a teenager, Morrison describes this as his attempt to write a fantasy-based comic book (he’d written two prose fantasy novels in the past), an “interesting challenge to do a real proper kind of Lord Of The Rings, Alice In Wonderland all-ages story for today”.
This is a fantasy story done the Grant Morrison way. It has all the elements of a great fantasy story – a quest to defeat an ultimate evil, a noble warrior, dwarven pirates, eccentric technological wizards, and an epic battle between the forces of evil and Joe’s army of superhero and robot action figures (look out for cameos by Batman, Superman, Lobo, and even the Delorean from Back To The Future). I also had quite a bit of fun trying to connect the dots and drawing parallels between what happens in both worlds, and it helps that despite the dark, bleak nature of the overall tale, Morrison doesn’t make it too dark and serious (I especially liked the “pok!” sound effects when the toy soldiers lose their heads; it is disturbingly endearing).
I’ve always considered the fantasy genre to be the most creative forms of literature. No other genre allows your mind to roam as freely, uninhibitedly creating and imagining new worlds, characters and magic, and it’s a thrill to see someone like Morrison tackling the genre in the comic book format. In true Morrison fashion, he blurs the lines between fantasy and reality in a way that not only makes the fantasy elements believable, but also roots the story in the real world as well. It may not be on par with his more edgy or unconventional offerings, but it is still a solid fantasy tale, told the Grant Morrison way.
> The Joe The Barbarian Deluxe Edition is available at Kinokuniya, Suria KLCC, Kuala Lumpur.