So… what is best in life?
If you're Conan you might answer one way, but if you're a young boy named Joe who's best described "the kid who doesn't fit in", then you might get something use.
In the upcoming series Joe the Barbarian from the mind of Grant Morrison, Joe lives under the spectre of the recent passing of his father while in Iraq, as well as the attention of the neighborhood bullies, but what makes it even more harsh is the constant inhibitions that living with the Type 1 diabetes he has. But when he accidentally misses his meds, he's taken into an insulin-deprived delirium world full of all his childhood possessions come to live – the toys, the games, the animals and all else. But is this just a result of his medical condition, or is he in fact in a whole new world?
Joe doesn’t know. Luckily he's got a samurai rodent to help him out.
This eight-issue Vertigo series is scheduled to debut on January 20th with a first issue priced at $1.00. As the release date for this long-await book draws near, we sought out artist Sean Murphy to talk to him about what should prove to be the biggest book of his career.
Newsarama: Let’s start with an easy one, Sean – what are you working on today?
Sean Murphy: Today I’m working on page 16 of issue 4 of Joe the Barbarian. And I’m SO glad to be back to work. There have been a lot of delays lately: a trip to Ireland for a show, then some surgery, then some healing, then Thanksgiving, then more healing, then some problems with one of my dogs. I was worried that I’d forgotten how to draw. But after two days of sketching and warming up the synapses, I’m back to my old self.
Nrama: It's good to have you back in the saddle.
OK, let’s get down to the book. Grant has described Joe the Barbarian as “Home Alone meets Lord of the Rings”; I can't get the image of McCauley Culkin as a hobbit out of my head. Help me out here -- how would you describe it, Sean?
Murphy: I agree with Grant’s comparison—although I might add The Neverending Story. Instead of trying to out-write Grant’s description, I’ll just say this: Joe the Barbarian will entertain the adult and the kid in you at the same time. Hopefully it’ll reach you on a more emotional level than most books. I don’t think there’s been anything like this and on this scale ever attempted in comics.
Nrama: When I heard this title, I Was half-expecting a Conan-esque kind of book… but the pages and what Grant’s said about it is anything but. How do you think the title fits the book - -is there something we’re missing here?
Murphy: It’s funny you mention that because we’re having a tough time creating the logo right now. As you pointed out, the title feels a little Conan-esque so one option is having crumbling, rocky letters. But because there’s a young kid in it, another option is to try some Kindergarten Cop crayon letters. But we scrapped that as well. I’m curious to see what we end up with. In fact, you just reminded me that I’m suppose to take a crack at it later on this week because the logo guy is having some trouble.
But to answer your question, I think the title does fit the book. It’ll make more sense when you read it. There’s a lot of action in it—swordplay, decapitations and war. Plus a giant warrior rat that becomes Joe’s companion. If that isn’t barbaric then I don’t know what is.
Nrama: Grant has said this is about a kid with an overactive imagination that gets the better of him. How did you relate to that childlike world-building – did you have things to compare it to from your childhood?
Murphy: I think a lot of us in the industry—comic book artists, readers, writers, fans, etc—all suffer from the same affliction as Joe: an overactive imagination. Building the world is still a difficult task, but I enjoy it a lot.
But if you’re asking where I am in this book, I’d say there’s a lot of me in Joe’s bedroom (not to sound like a pedophile). It sounds mundane, but I went to town giving Joe the ultimate bedroom that I always wanted but. It’s in an attic with a skylight, a bunk bed, a toy train and a ton of old action figures. There’s even an Atari and a Nintendo. I went old school on a lot of the details because I felt that the mash up of different generations of toys made his room more timeless. And would interest readers of different ages.
Nrama: In the artwork released so far I see you getting to draw characters from all walks of genre entertainment – I see Batman, some GUNDAMs, Star Trek, G.I., Joe… hey, is that a M.A.S.K. character in there?
Murphy: In his fantasy world, Joe’s toys are actually alive. So I have a few modern ones in there (Batman, Gray Ghost, Lobo…legal DC characters), but most of them are based off of the 70s and 80s toys we all used to have. DC’s legal department had me make a few fixes to avoid having too close a resemblance, but if you squint your eyes just right then there’s a ton of Easter eggs.
Nrama: The pages we have here for the book show you going further into this scratchy and layered art style as opposed to the clean – almost-animated look you’ve done before. How do you think it fits in with the subject matter of this book?
Murphy: For many years I was trying to draw for other people—trying to fit a certain house style so that I’d keep getting work. But I wasn’t enjoying it because I wasn’t IN my own work. So I started using more techniques and creating a wider variety of mark making.
I think that the wider variety is working well on Joe because it matches the wide variety of subject matter. Being a little messier with the inks is more forgiving and WAY easier on my brain. If I tried to render this book out neatly then my head might have exploded by now.
Nrama: What is the collaboration like between you and Grant? Is it an active give-and-take, or a more rustic script comes in the mail and you take it from there kind of approach?
Murphy: Grant had very specific ideas for certain things, especially with how the two worlds (Joe’s real world and Joe’s fantasy world) interact and mirror one another. He’s also been sending me sketches to clarify a lot of his ideas, and that’s been super helpful. I might be one of the few people who have seen a Grant Morrison sketch!
Nrama: I think DC's published a couple once, but yeah – it's a rarity and something people would really want to see more of. So he's supplying sketches – but is he giving you room to be the artist?
Murphy: Yeah, he’s also given me a lot of trust. A lot of the character designs, the weapons, the submarines, the airships, adding a panel or changing some of the shots here and there—Grant seems pretty much fine with everything so far. It’s been really easy. His scripts are very loose with dialog (he finalizes a lot after he gets the pages), so I assume he’s open to me being so free and seeing what I come up with.
The hardest part is drawing such a variety of scenes, sets and props. One day it’s a toy battle; the next it’s a fire and rain. Then waterfalls, and sunsets, and forests, and cemeteries and school busses—it’s insane. But it’s got to be done right or else the plot won’t be served.
Nrama: How’d this project come about for you? Was it “Hey, do you want to work with Grant Morrison?” Or did they come to you with project in hand to review?
Murphy: From what I understand, some of Grant’s projects are years in the making. According to my contract, the book I was supposed to do with Grant was called Warcop. After it was green-lit, the script didn’t come for months because Grant wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with it. So while I was waiting on that (and a Brian Wood script), Karen Berger created a Hellblazer project for me to work on. By the time I was done with Hellblazer, Grant decided that Warcop still wasn’t ready, but he had this other book called Joe the Barbarian. Apparently Joe had been kicking around for a few years (and had Frank Quitely on it at one point) and now Grant was ready to start scripting.
I took the book because it sounded really interesting. Plus it was a chance to work with Grant Morrison, and career-wise it would be stupid to turn it down.
Nrama: Have you had the opportunity to speak to Grant in person or by phone or email about this project and where your mind is at drawing it?
Murphy: I met him once and spoke to him recently about the book. And between his accent and me being half deaf, it was a challenge to make sense of anything. But his scripts are clear as day and that’s all I need. [laughs]
Nrama: What would you say’s been the most challenging part about drawing this so far?
Murphy: Again, the hardest part of Joe the Barbarian is reaching into my “artistic reserves” to find the energy—day after day—to draw the scope of this incredibly surreal book. Each day I feel like there’s something new to design: rats, swords, dwarfs, dwarf kingdoms, oceans, castles that look like backpacks, mountains that look like stair cases, maps, trees, feathers, villains, armies, toys, houses, busses, attics, libraries, smoke, fires, dogs, sunsets, waterfalls, crystals, submarines and monsters—to name a few. I know the job of a comic artist is to be an illustrator of anything, but part of me is looking forward to a Punisher gig one day when all I need to draw are guns, cars, muscles and cities.
And I’m not complaining because I love it. All the work I’m doing that is going to pay off big time. With the amazing work of Dave Stewart and Grant Morrison, this book should be lined up for some awards.
Nrama: B>Joe the Barbarian seems to be an evolving title – originally announced as a 3-issue mini, then going to six and now the current solicited length is eight issues. What’s it been like working on such a high-profile project with Grant and experiencing this?
Murphy: It’s been a little unnerving with all the publicity.
I’ve been under the radar for a long time doing books that haven’t been widely read or publicized, so the pressure is taking some getting used to. There are the usual interviews (yours are the best of course), plus things that are very new to me like podcast requests, being Diamond’s “pick of the month”, and a lot of buzz on forums and Twitter. Not that I’m complaining of course—it’s an honor working with Grant and having Vertigo’s full support.
It’s just…I can see how this stuff can go to an artist’s head. On one hand, having people like your work is what every artist wants, but too much attention is hard for someone locked up in a room all day. I imagine this is the normal ride that comes along with a Grant Morrison book.
Lately I’ve been online a lot less and trying to stay focused. I had a slight breakdown last week and called up my friend Dustin Nguyen to ask him how he’s managed to stay so humble despite his huge success (he’s been in the public eye for about 10 years now). He mentioned something about his wife and kids grounding him, which doesn’t help me at all. But I see his point: stay focused on a bigger picture.
Nrama: You were originally announced to be drawing a graphic novel based on a Neil Young album, but you opted to move over to this --- you dropped Neil Young to join a band with Grant so to speak. What led you up this avenue?
Murphy: I did a lot of samples for the Neil Young book, but in the end Neil was looking for a really clean style for Greendale. He and Vertigo settled on the original artist Cliff Chang for the artwork. And I’ve seen the pages—they look great. He handled that book a lot better than I could have.
It all worked out well for everyone. Without Neil, I wouldn’t have gotten in touch with Karen Berger and Vertigo. And even though I was moved off of Greendale, I eventually got to work on some Hellblazer books, and of course with Joe the Barbarian.