Well this. It’s a review of Joe the Barbarian #1 a new Vertigo comic by Our#1 Squeeze and Sean Murphy (who did that Hellblazer story with Jason Aaron a while back, the one with the bloke fucking a dead dog in it. I knew there was promise in that one.) It’s a funny bit of thing, the CBR review, vintage webstuff. Favourite by Mindless consent are the comments ‘holy shit you are a sad man in the internet’ and ‘Bendis could have done it in ten’.


It came out yesterday, and comics never come my way before Saturday evening. But the interviews with mister words and the terrifically mouthy mister pics have been greedily consumed like soylent green for aging ex-Vertigo kidz, so there is some pre-knowledge on my part – there’s enough around concerning the general concept (Gormenghast as done by Amblin/Dreamworks, interiors animated through the fever dreams of a sick kid) and future issues of JtB to be able to take a good guess at what is going on in the pages that so incensed the CBR reviewer. He hates them because they’re decompressed, because they take too long to tell too little, and because they’re ‘lazy’, but mainly because they are empty. They carry no information. He brandishes Scot McCloud’s Understanding Comics (a book much less read than it is found upon waking, open at page15, on the chest – apologies if the rest of this post is a little boring, by the way) before himself to deflect criticism of the basic chumpishness of his analysis, but…

Looking at the pictures he quotes as an example (quoting pictures – only in comics), it’s interesting to note how dense they, how pregnant with possible meaning and narrative propulsion. How articulate, and how wordless. Ultimately, how poor a choice of material to try to build that complaint around. Say it louder: Only in comics (and only on the internet):


Murphy’s deft use of the visual language of the funnybook is as fluent as it is witty. Start, of course, with the cheekily helpful arrow at the bottom left, which guides the eye up via its dust trails to the departing school bus, which looks like it’s about to be ground up by the town’s teeth before being swallowed by the ominous break between the clouds. The perspective on the elevated cables, even though in-scene they are plunging downwards,  towards the distant convergence point in the centre of the page, actually guides the eye in the opposite direction, back up to the top of the page.  The arm of the street light, an embedded, less obvious but no less effective arrow than the one we began with, slides the gaze neatly across to the left of the page, forming a bridge with the tree branches, that slopes us gently down onto our object.

The house, glowering and alive with camouflaged signifiers, tightens the focus of the eye, via the chimney onto Joe, our hero. Gathered up into the psychic territory of the house by the cradling but heavily insistent arm of the outer brick wall, the panel, even at this close curl of the spiral looks into its own and Joe’s future, showing us with the line of the handrail, the direction he will take along the porch, and on into the house.


Onto the next page and the added element of multiple panels, the open front door starts us on the right hand side of the page and across to the left. Gratuitous manga references here aren’t necessary, but the implication of a phase shift, a destabilisation in the concrete norms of the comic-reading process (form and structure matching theme and plot), are clear.  This simultaneously, and pardoxically, neatly balances a sense of verite, keeping the perspective as Joe would experience it, taking the leftwards turn from the veranda into the house, as we saw from the previous page. As the eye catches up with Joe in panel one, half way across the living room floor, it is guided into the centre of the page, where it will hover for a moment before dropping straight downwards into the stacked tier of panels which forms the rest of the page.

The reader is being told, in quite direct terms, about Joe and his house. Joe has left the door open – he’s not quite with us at the moment. His home is huge, but the furnishings are not modern.

Panel two shows us another room in the house and Joe’s continuing journey onward. The occlusion of his head, and the panels strange POV, is again telling. Joe’s head is somewhere else. So who is the mysterious subject, the bodiless consciousness, who lives in the corner of the kitchen ceiling?

Panel 3, further and further. The message here couldn’t be more simple in expression or implication: there is darkness in the basement. Murk in the subconscious. Joe’s cautious glance toward it suggests his awareness, on some level, of this darkness,  and that it is at least partly generated by Joe’s head. We are learning that the house’s interior, the scene of our rapidly unfolding drama, is ideo-plastic – it responds physically and energetically to the thoughts of those in it.

Count the planes, the dimensional thresholds, occurring simultaneously in panel 4, the panels-in-the-panel. We have (1) the paper boundary of the page itself; (2) the frame of the front door; (3) the second door frame leading into the transitional space of the corridor; (4) the third door frame leading again into another transitional space, this time the stairwell (following the line of which should mean that the reading direction of the next page starts in the upper-left corner, a return to a level of normality which one suspects will not be echoed in the fabric of the issue, and Joe’s poor head, for long. Four separate ontological categories in one handy scene.

Comics is a visual medium. It has them at its disposal of course, but it does not need words to signal its meanings. The image, the picture, the panel, is always everywhere. It’s tempting to try posit the comic-spaces that aren’t visual, that occur in a state that is dominated by the verbal side of the words-and-pictures bilateral equation that we tell ourselves comics are made of. Is even the space inside the captions and dialogue balloons purely verbal space, or does the fact that even the design of the font will carry its own aesthetic charge and semantic implications; and the placement of the bubble in-panel instantly renders it subject to relation via the interior time, space and logic of the image? Examples of comic pages without words are abundant, examples of comics pages without pictures much less so. Because the merest line of panel guttering instantly turns a page into a picture, one has to think of Gull in the bardo becoming god; Dane McGowan seeing his reflection in a blank mirror; Tristram Shandy homages. Even then, the page is subsumed by the language of the  comic, becomes a single, large, panel-less panel, a splash page, bleached by an excess or dimmed by a shortage of light.

Even when they don’t have words in them, comicbook pages still have to be read.

18 Responses to “Joe The Barbarian – Fun buy apollo geist”

  1. Zom Says:

    Think “ontological categories” is a little strong, but the broad point still stands: images should be read not simply looked at, ’cause when you do you might find there’s more to ‘em than you first thought.

    Shame. Feels sad to have to write remedial posts like this. So bloody obvious, innit?

  2. plok Says:

    Worth it for being so beautifully put, though! Nice one, Bob.

  3. Papers Says:

    Gorgeous, Bobsy. I was saying yesterday that I was sure people were already poopooing the book on the net because, you know, it’s not flashy enough or the inclusion of “Grant Morrison” on the cover makes them automatically assume that there’s something wrong with it.

    I really enjoyed JOE. It’s clearly a set-up issue, and has a lot of hallmarks of a Morrison set-up, but I like how easy the relationship between writer and artist seems to be here, and how deft they both are at expressing character in very, very simple strokes. If you think about this, ignoring the low-dialogue content, this is a low *exposition* set-up, which is very difficult to do while still getting the information across.

    Very pleased to stuff this in with my clutch of Morrison Vertigo self-contained universes, alongside SEAGUY and VIMANARAMA.

  4. The Beast Must Die Says:

    Just a really strong and different sense of atmosphere. I can’t wait to see it cut loose. That heady sense of dislocation is totally palpable, and I’m already worried for Joe.

    One thing – and by Christ is it a small niggle – I hate the logo on the cover. It’s totally phoned in! Gone are the great days of Rian Hughes’ awesomely inventive fonts – The Invisibles modern classicism or Kid Eternity’s minimal brilliance. Put the effort in Vertigo!

  5. Tweets that mention Mindless Ones » Blog Archive » Fun buy apollo geist -- Topsy.com Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by sean witzke, tucker stone and Duncan Falconer, Duncan Falconer. Duncan Falconer said: RT @switzke: Stuff to read – Bobsy on Joe the Barbarian – http://bit.ly/5IuxwV and @FactualOpinion on BPRD http://bit.ly/6XidpV [...]

  6. 130 Here Are Some Books That Have Pictures In Them That I Read This Wednesday (1/23/2010) « Wednesday's Child Says:

    [...] finally alone, as the bus drives off into the distance. “bobsy” at Mindless Ones had a nice analysis of this page: The house, glowering and alive with camouflaged signifiers, tightens the focus of the eye, via the [...]

  7. Aaron Says:

    Stellar reading. I skimmed that CBR piece before I left to pick up my copy from the local shop and, no lie, thought it would make perfect fodder for a classy Mindless rebuttal.

    Any news on that quarterly pdf?

  8. Malio Says:

    Did anyone else think it interesting that, unlike all other GM Vertigo limited series, this time the artist had no share in the copyright?

  9. uberVU - social comments Says:

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by switzke: Stuff to read – Bobsy on Joe the Barbarian – http://bit.ly/5IuxwV and @FactualOpinion on BPRD http://bit.ly/6XidpV

  10. Zom Says:

    That is interesting. Didn’t know that. Poor bloke.

    Aaron, the zine is well on its way. It’ll show sometime over the next couple of weeks.

  11. Andy G Says:

    Thanks for another fine article, although as noted it’s a shame that it’s required. Great example of good comic writing: know your artist. The house looks to solid, so real, completely immersing the reader in Joe’s attachment to “his house”, and the anxiety of losing it (even though the lazy bugger leaves the door open and dumps his satchel on the stairs – teenagers, eh?).

    Does the plot remind anyone else of that old Eagle Weekly story from the eighties (House of Hell? Horror?) where a young couple buy this haunted house and find themselves trapped in another dimension or something where each room is a different world of peril (the kitchen becomes a Hell’s Kitchen Vietnam warzone etc.) they have to escape from to reach the front door?

  12. Zom Says:

    Vaguely remember that, yeah.

  13. The Beast Must Die Says:

    There’s also shades of Edgington and D’israeli’s very good and little seen ‘Kingdom of the Wicked.’

  14. anthony Says:

    It seems like the CBR reviewer was complaining about the time it takes to “read” without taking into account the time it takes to digest.

    The ominous feel, the stolen candy bar, the deceased father, house foreclosure all push along the plot without resorting to a thought bubble from Joe stating “Wow this sucks that my house is going to be taken due to my father’s death in a foreign war”.

    It seems Moz can’t catch a break. His writing is “impenetrable” and now this is too simplistic. That said it is hard to read that “review” and not think that the reviewer is totally missing the point.

  15. Linkblogging For 25/01/10 « Sci-Ence! Justice Leak! Says:

    [...] Bobsy at the Mindless Ones hasn’t let not yet having read Joe The Barbarian stop him from reviewing it. [...]

  16. rev'D Says:

    It’s a bit like Mamet, or Lynch, isn’t it? There are those creators who draw endless ire from a contingent of critics who refuse to indulge in reasoned analysis.

    “My opinion is a turgid boner of hate because X isn’t writing what I want X to write, and you can’t cajole me into aborting my one-man war on, err, whatever.”

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