As I’ve noted on this site in the past, there’s generally a set way of reviewing comics online. As far as the sequence of paragraphs goes, discussion of the story takes precedence, followed by a look at the art – which itself has the heirarchical structure of penciller first, then inker (if applicable) and colourist (if considered worth a mention). It’s not intended as a sight against artists, merely a reflection of the limitation of our critical vocabularies. However, in looking at Joe the Barbarian, I’d like to flip that order on its head – because first and foremost, it’s the colourist that demands attention. Because once again (for the second time this week, even), it’s Dave Stewart making a book look utterly incredible.
Lest you think I’m doing Sean Murphy a disservice, though, let me clarify – his work is absolutely stellar as well. As strong an artist as he generally is, I’ve never seen him this good before. On more than one occasion in this issue we’re treated to double-page spreads that are simply gorgeously expansive – no mean feat for a book that spends most of its page count living in everyday suburban mundanity. For an artist with such an ostensibly loose and scratchy style when it comes to figures, the level of detail picked out of – and the level of thought and attention put into – locations such as Joe’s bedroom is phenomenal (without ever being done in that slightly over-laboured, Bryan Hitch sort of a way). Panels are constructed, framed, in a meticulous and careful manner. And the icing on the cake is the way it’s given that absolutely gorgeous, washed-out look by Stewart – who copes equally well with the grey and orange of a graveyard in Autumn, or the exciting and lush vistas that open up as Joe’s “fantasy” world makes its ingress into the “real” one. He works as harmoniously with Murphy here as he does with Williams on Detective – and yet in a way so different you’d barely tell they were the same person.
There’s a story in there too, though. Well, admittedly, not much of one so far. Despite being a new Grant Morrison book from Vertigo (always an exciting prospect), it’s not something big and idea-packed and frenetic – instead working from a single (admittedly very good, even if slightly “done before”) high-concept and spending this first issue slowly painstakingly building a mood in a manner that will surely annoy many an impatient reader, but which at least serves an important purpose in truly drilling home a mundane world against which to set the unreal. In a way, it’s not entirely unlike the two issues of his aborted Authority run – quiet, careful and muted in tone, but with enough of a sense that Interesting Things are about to happen – and for the sake of Murphy and Stewart’s stonkingly good work alone if nothing else, we can only hope it lasts for a few more issues than that. On the strength of the art alone, not to mention the $1 price point, it’s hard to call this issue anything other than a must-buy – I’m looking forward to seeing whether the other seven will stay that way.