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Joe The Barbarian

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on March 14, 2010

If there is one person who I wish had never been born, it’s Joseph Campbell.

The concept of ‘the Hero’s Journey’ has done more to ruin fiction and popular culture than any other concept I can think of.

I’m not talking here about its role in ‘the Men’s movement’, though it’s hardly surprising that a narrative form that’s all about how some people are born special and are just specialer than anyone else and that’s all there is might be tied to ultra-reactionary politics (via people like Minnesota ‘poet laureate’ Robert Bly – himself far from a reactionary, but his “Iron John” writings have inspired a lot of them, and it’s no coincidence that he was appointed to his position by Tim Pawlenty, one of the most vicious and stupid politicians in what is a fairly politically vicious and stupid country). Nor am I annoyed by Campbell’s Jungian justification for his ideas – a good idea can come even from such unpromising soil.

What annoys me is that something that was intended as a *description* is instead increasingly being taken as a *prescription*.

Campbell is in a weird position, culturally. Among the ‘geek demographic’ he is hugely known but little-read, quoted to give a veneer of academic respectability to their prejudices, while among academics themselves he is largely dismissed. To the general public, he’s barely known at all.

As I (perhaps optimistically) tend to assume that the readership of this blog is closer to ‘the general public’ than ‘the geek demographic’, I’ll summarise Campbell’s work briefly. In essence, Campbell studied a lot of myths, and saw that many of them followed the pattern “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

So far so normal – that does, indeed, sound like almost every story ever, because it’s completely lacking in content. But Campbell went on to point out a lot of other elements that are seen in many (but by no means all) stories, before putting these all together into a ‘monomyth’ – a description that supposedly all myths and legends fit, though in fact none fits exactly.

If you want to know what that monomyth was, just watch Star Wars. George Lucas very consciously followed Campbell’s books, hit every single point that Campbell described, and had a huge hit. And this is where the problem started.

For some reason, the success of Star Wars was not put down to the idea that kids like to see robots and spaceships and light-saber fights and that there hadn’t been any exciting, fun, pulpy SF in the cinema for more than a decade. Nor was it ascribed to Lucas’ careful world-building. And nor was there a sudden boom in people stealing wholesale the plots to Kurosawa films, even though that had worked well for The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful Of Dollars as well. Instead, it became received wisdom, for God knows what reason, that it was following Campbell’s ‘rules’ that made Star Wars a hit.

And so *EVERYTHING* from Hollywood – or aimed at becoming something from Hollywood – now follows that rule. And so the Matrix is the same story as Harry Potter is the same story as the Star Wars prequels are the same story as…

I’ve actually had arguments on comics message boards (before realising what a horribly stupid idea that is) with people who have insisted, against all the evidence, that it is literally impossible for a story to be told that *doesn’t* fit the monomyth. This is to be expected from people who define themselves as ‘geeks’, who generally like more than anything else to have things be the same as other things, and nice little boxes to put everything in.

But what’s annoying more than anything is that actual *writers* fall for this. Neil Gaiman does it all the time, and it’s a shame because at his best Gaiman really is as good as his reputation ( some of the short stories in Smoke & Mirrors are absolutely superb), but whenever Gaiman starts going on about THE POWER OF STORY, it’s always *this* story he’s talking about.

But what really surprises me is the fascination the monomyth has for Grant Morrison. Morrison tends for the most part to have a healthy disregard for rules – except when those rules have a veneer of new-ageyness, when his critical thinking goes out of the window. And so told that there are rules about how stories should go, but that those rules come from JUNGIAN ARCHETYPES! and are based in ANCIENT MYTHS!, suddenly Morrison starts following them, and we see the monomyth underlaying almost all Morrison’s writing (with notable ‘experimental’ exceptions such as New Adventures Of Hitler – and even there, someone will be along in the comments to talk about how it follows the pattern exactly).

Luckily, he’s a good enough writer to get away with this for the most part – something like All-Star Superman is simultaneously as formulaic as a Patrick Troughton Doctor Who story and as personal a work as anything ever created – much like Bach, in fact, Morrison manages at his best to turn his strict adherence to a restrictive formalism into an advantage.

Morrison has not yet done this in Joe The Barbarian, though to be fair he’s only had two issues.

Joe The Barbarian is a mini-series by Morrison and Sean Murphy (though only Morrison is credited as ‘creator’ – and incidentally, the name of the associate editor is Pornsak Pichetshote, which has now overtaken Wade Von Grawbadger as my favourite comic-person name of all time), and for a Morrison comic it’s had surprisingly little criticism, positive or negative, as yet online (I mean proper criticism, not stuff like this, which is one of the most comprehensive examples of point-missing I’ve ever read), other than one memorable comment which said the comic (about a kid hallucinating from diabetes) made diabetes seem a lot more fun than it probably is…

Because so far, the comic, while good, has definitely been lacking. Sean Murphy’s art is gorgeous, as is, of course, Dave Stewart’s colouring (though it will probably look better on better quality paper), and the story definitely has potential… but so far it’s seemed very much like Morrison doing a few of Grant Morrison’s Greatest Hits (the hallucinations being very similar to Flex Mentallo, the Dead Dad stuff…) over a basic Hero’s Journey skeleton.

Now it’s entirely possible I’m missing something ( I know Joe is going to be a key ingredient in David A’s article for PEP! 2, which suggests there’s a lot of interesting stuff to say about it), and I’m *certain* it’s going to get better – Grant Morrison has never done anything I’ve found uninteresting, even when the work has fallen completely flat there’s something interesting about it. But right now, to be honest, this feels *exactly* like a Generic Early-90s Vertigo Title (as opposed to the *actual* early-90s Vertigo titles, which were often more interesting at the time than they seem in retrospect). It could so far have *VERY* easily have fitted in as an early Sandman ‘arc’, but not in a good way.

It’s still worth reading, and I’m sure that in a month or two I’ll be astonished at how Morrison has turned my initial lack of enthusiasm round. And on a purely craft level it’s never short of very good. But as Morrison’s first new creator-owned work since 2004 (Seaguy: Slaves Of Mickey Eye doesn’t count here as it’s a sequel to the 2004 series) it’s not yet as good as I’d hoped…

Incidentally, anyone who likes comics and good writing should be reading Too Busy Thinking About My Comics, because it is good writing about comics, by someone with enough taste to list Guess I’m Dumb by Glenn Campbell and You Don’t Know Me by Ray Charles in his profile (which is a lot of taste). Read it.

Fishtar

Posted in comics by Andrew Hickey on May 12, 2009

I’ve half been putting off reviewing Seaguy: Slaves Of Mickey Eye 2 because I know that when the Mindless Ones get round to their annocommentations there will be very little left to say, and then I can look very clever by just pointing out one or two things that they’ve not said. However, they’re holding out on us, so now I might have to write an actual review!

(And having written that sentence, straight away Sean posts a review which says half of the things I was going to say. I disagree with him about Multiversity though – it sounds like Morrison has a good idea of who he wants to work with on that, and he might get them… And while I’m linking Sean, here‘s his rant about comic shops which I meant to link to at the time…)

In this review I’m mostly going to talk about the writing, because that’s the part I’m most qualified to talk about, but I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I think this is ‘the Grant Morrison show’. Cameron Stewart’s work in this series is exemplary, and it couldn’t have been done with any other artist – he is at least as important to the story’s success as the writer is. He does some of the best facial expressions in comics, without exaggerating them a la Kevin Maguire – his expressions are naturalistic, even though most of his art is towards the cartoony end of mainstream USian comics. Just look at Seaguy’s face on the cover – his head cocked, his brow furrowed… it’s clear that this is *serious* to him, and he’s getting quite annoyed – but in the way a non-aggressive little boy would get annoyed. Though the art style couldn’t be more different, I could imagine that expression on the face of a Peanuts character.

Stewart’s style manages to make the ‘normal’ look absurd while making the ‘surreal’ look workaday, allowing us to accept the story’s dream-logic for long enough that the story can sell itself to us. And it’s just gorgeous to look at. My one criticism (and it’s a small one) is that his ink line is thicker than I would like, and has the effect at times, to my eyes, of turning the panel/page into a set of distinct almost abstract figures, rather than an integrated composition. But that is only a very minor criticism, and only affects a couple of images negatively.

Now, of course, many of the things I said in the review of the last issue still hold, but here’s some thoughts on the second issue…

Firstly, if Grant Morrison hadn’t been so over-complimentary about Geoff Johns for so long, I would have taken the Prismatic Age stuff at the beginning (and he is definitely riffing on the Prismatic Age stuff here, with Threeguy splitting into three different-coloured Seaguy lookalikes, though obviously this has precursors both in Triplicate Girl from the Legion Of Superheroes and Superman Red/Superman Blue) as being a rather savage attack on Johns. Three ‘legacy heroes’ inspired by the main hero, all indistinguishable apart from the colour of their uniforms (like the different coloured Lanterns?) who do naughty swearing and kill and maim people (the injury-to-the-eye motif!)? That sounds like… well, everything Johns writes during the large amount of the time that he’s on autopilot. I would *swear* this material was a dig at Johns, were Morrison not such an obvious admirer of his…

Of course, the big story that’s going on in this whole miniseries, and this issue in particular, is the dark night of the soul – Seaguy going down under the sea and then rising again and ending the issue with a diving leap. The whole thing’s about identity – he’s submerged under water and reborn/’baptised’ as El Macho, the bulldresser (and of course dressing bulls up in women’s clothes is another way of playing with identity – in Seaguy, as in most superhero comics, one’s clothing is intimately bound up with one’s role (though I do wonder if the bulldressing is also inspired by PETA’s Running Of The Nudes). The only way he can defeat the bull, and also his rival Cortez, is by stripping himself totally nude, and handing his ‘crown’ to the bull.

The removal of clothes/symbols of power, descent, and rebirth are all, as anyone as obsessed with mythology as Morrison is knows, intimately tied – in fact, this issue contains symbolism that goes back to the very oldest known stories. Ishtar, in Babylonian myth, went down to the underworld and had to remove a symbol of power/piece of clothing at each of seven doors, before dying at the end and having to sacrifice her husband in order to escape (much as Seaguy ‘sacrifices’ his girlfriend (whose name means Sea Of Death, if my cod-Spanish is right) here) .

And in the epic of Gilgamesh – the oldest known piece of what we’d now call fiction – Ishtar sends the Bull Of Heaven to kill Gilgamesh, but he and Enkidu kill the bull instead. Of course, Gilgamesh was as close to the first superhero as you can get, and his search for immortality parallels a lot of the stuff in a lot of Morrison’s writing. For those unfamiliar with the story of Gilgamesh, there’s what looks like an interesting comic adaptation of a lecture about the saga online here.

The birth and rebirth themes show up throughout the comic of course – for example the ‘eight months pregnant’ Carmen/Maria pulling Mickey Eye out of her dress (which reminded me of this classic Bron/Fortune sketch). However, everything in here is multi-layered, and this can easily fit in with the series-as-metaphor-for-adolescence, with this story being the equivalent of the time in many people’s lives when they try to pretend to be cool to impress people they don’t really like, before giving up and just being themselves.

That said, one minor quibble – I saw an arrow (and before anyone thinks that what I’m about to say is a terrible attack on the comic, please read this, and also remember that I’ve defended comics by Dave Sim before now…)

If you combine the figure of Seaguy’s girlfriend (the only female character to do anything other than pose prettily), who lies to Seaguy about everything, tries to keep him stupid, and pretends to be pregnant in order to trap him in the fake life he’s living, with the bulldressing sections, where the bull is humiliated by being dressed in women’s clothes, there is a hint of misogyny to this. As both Morrison and Stewart are too self-conscious and self-critical to do that without realising it, I’m willing to assume for now that there’s a point to that, and that it’s something I’m missing. But it may just be a bad note in an otherwise near-perfect comic.

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