Grant Morrison's new series Joe The Barbarian may be about the power of imagination, but it's the realism that artists Sean Murphy and Dave Stewart bring to it that makes it such a magical reading experience. Spoilers ahead.
Joe makes Morrison's first step away from the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink melodrama of Batman, Final Crisis and even Seaguy in some time, but it's a change that seems to suit him; while little happens plotwise - Much to other people's displeasure - but the slow build allows this new world to seem more real and empathetic than anything he's written since We3 (Also, tellingly, the last time he wrote something as heartstring-tugging as this).
This first issue simply introduces us to Joe, a high-school kid who's an outsider as much by circumstance as choice despite what he thinks, showing us his lonely and unhappy life before, at issue's end, he either falls into hypoglycemic shock or a fantasy world populated by the toys, imaginary friends and comic book characters of his youth (It's left ambiguous enough that you could make cases for either scenario). Nothing revolutionary - and, in fact, Morrison's age is beginning to show with some of his high school slang - but it works, nonetheless; we feel Joe's sadness, and feel for him, because of it.
That happens, though, not so much because of the writing, but because of the amazing art from Sean Murphy, ably assisted by Dave Stewart's coloring. The world(s) created by Murphy is (are) authentic and believable, but not "realistic" as such - Instead, he plays with perspective and stylization just enough to heighten the feel of each scene, managing to mix the cartoon and realism in just the right amounts to create something very special. Stewart's colors, too, blend subtlety with elements of graphic design that, surprisingly, work without disrupting the eye. Murphy and Stewart work so well together that it's almost impossible not to find yourself drawn into Joe's world.
The series, which has eight issues left, could still fly off the rails, of course. But based on this understated tease of a first issue, Joe The Barbarian has the potential to be one of the comics of the year: Intelligent, honest and beautifully illustrated. Considering the first issue is only $1, it's something that everyone should be picking up to try out.