Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Neverending Fray: Dogs and jails

Groo the Wanderer #103
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1993

It's nice to get a Rufferto-centric plot once in a while, and that issue does this, splitting its main duo up for most of its length and giving our canine pal a fellow dog to hang out with. It starts when Groo and Rufferto stop to hang out with some guys who turn out to be bandits, and when the authorities show up to arrest them, Groo ends up tasked with escorting them to jail. This separates him from Rufferto, who, along with his new buddy Oso, searches for his master, who he thinks has been imprisoned. And from there, hijinx ensue, with the best stuff focused on Rufferto and Oso repeatedly causing massive breakouts when they try to free Groo from various jails. The two of them have a pretty fun relationship, with Oso being dumb, impulsive, and violent (kind of a stand-in for Groo, come to think of it, although he's more talk/bark than action) and Rufferto often being frustrated with him, but still accepting of him and happy to have a fellow animal that he can communicate with.

Meanwhile, Groo continues to demonstrate his newfound (semi-)intelligence as he accepts the task of delivering his prisoners to a jail and sticks with it, refusing to be swayed by the bandits' guile. When he can't find a jail that has enough room for them, he ends up figuring out a way around the problem by helping to rehabilitate them:

The issue touches on some social issues, such as the necessity for jails weighed against people's preference not to have them nearby, and the way a lack of options can drive those on the lower rungs of society toward crime, but it's a pretty cursory glance at the subject, which is fine for a story like this. If anything, it's an indication of Groo's increasing awareness of the world around him, demonstrating that the knowledge he has gained from his reading is making him consider new ideas and pay attention to how people are affected by his actions. Luckily, he still enjoys frays and does dumb stuff, so we don't suffer for a lack of laughs, but it's fascinating to watch his character develop.

Next: "A Home for Oso"
This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: The Sage stars in a backup story, and Oso will be hanging around for at least one more issue.
Moral: "Where there are hearts of gold, there is no need for bars of steel." And the moral for the Sage backup is "You do not solve a problem by making it someone else's."
Spanish words: Sergio says "lo siento" ("I'm sorry") again. Oso is named after the word for "bear". The town of El Bote means "the pot".
Running jokes: There aren't many of the regular running gags, but within this issue, the robbers mention several times that they like to "rob, loot, and pillage (usually in that order)." And Oso constantly wants to tear people or animals apart, but he never gets to.
Intro follies: Sergio prepares to read an introductory speech that Mark wrote for him, but he forgot it, so he tells the readers to wait until he comes back before they start reading, with the page just ending on a blank panel. I disobeyed him and read the story anyway.
Value-added: This month's puzzle page is an actual puzzle:

Mark Evanier's job(s): Warden
Letter column jokes: The initial theme this month seems to be threats to Mark's person if he doesn't print people's letters. Matt Peck threatens to go to Mark's house and make him read every Groo ever written. Mark begs for mercy, then realizes he read the letter wrong, thinking Matt had said he would make him write every Groo ever read. Robert Feldman threatens to flood the Marvel offices with cheese dip. Mark isn't worried, since he is located more than 3,000 miles away from New York, and he doesn't think the smell would go much further than Kansas. Joey Cool Nicolosi threatens to reveal Mark's secret fear of Kermit the Frog, which is apparently the last straw, prompting Mark to announce that he's retiring the running gag (or attempting to do so) of sending in these sorts of threats. As a replacement, he suggests "Groo is so dumb..." jokes, providing some examples, including "Groo is so dumb, he thinks Rush Limbaugh is a very fast dance from the Caribbean." He also offers an autographed copy of The Life of Groo to anybody who can get a "Groo is so dumb..." joke printed in some other comic's letter column. I'm not sure if this prize was ever awarded, but I wouldn't be surprised, since Groo fans can be pretty resourceful. Rayson Lorrey compliments Sergio and company on their inclusion of explicit morals in their stories, saying that Sergio is like a modern Aesop. Mark agrees, saying that when Sergio promised to pay him, it turned out to be a fable. Charlie Ehrenpreis thinks James Horton's suggestion of a Groo 2099 comic would be a good idea. Mark says that he wants to revive the 2001 comic as 2001 2009, and since Dark Horse has a book called 2112 and Image has 1963, they should all do a crossover and call it 8175. John Lewis wonders if he's the oldest Groo fan on record, at 60, so Mark asks if anyone else wants to lay claim to the tile of oldest Groo fan (or Groo fan, period). He also notes that his mom is older, but he doesn't think she counts, since she gets her copies from him at 20% off. Zeke Saed says that he chose to write to Groo instead of to his grandmother, so he asks Mark to print the letter to make sure she reads it. And in an M. Wayne Williams reference, he says she only reads one issue of Groo a year, so he wants to make sure his letter gets printed in an issue she'll read, not one she'll skip. Mark agrees, claiming he'll print the letter each month for the next 12 months. We'll see if he keeps his word.

The Neverending Fray index

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

One Piece Is Awesome, Example #52

I've mentioned this many times, but I love the goofy stuff that Eiichiro Oda comes up with in One Piece. Following the devastating defeat that Luffy suffered in the Paramount War storyline, he resolved to spend two years training to get stronger before continuing on his voyages, and he sent a message for the members of his crew, who had been scattered to various locations across the world, to do likewise. That battle was so huge that it makes for a perfect point to take a break and re-orient, and apparently Oda did just that, taking a month off (the series had been running weekly for fourteen years at this point) for a vacation and rejuvenating his imagination and creativity, then jumping forward two years in the series timeline upon his return, with the characters newly strengthened and prepared for even greater adventures. But before he did that, he set up their various situations, showing what they would be doing as they trained and learned new abilities. Nami was on a sky island, learning all about how to control the weather; Zolo was training under Dracule Mihawk, the world's greatest swordsman; and so on. But the one that especially tickles me is Sanji, who was stuck Kamabakka, the land of drag queens (ruled by Emporio Ivankov, of course). He learns about "attack cooking" and resolves to study under the 99 masters of New Kama Karate:

That just cracks me up; it's a hilarious example of Oda coming up with something that's weird and funny and awesome all at the same time. I can't wait to see how he and all the other characters have grown and changed in the two years they were gone, and I expect it will give Oda fuel for many, many stories to come.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

One Piece Is Awesome, Example #51

I don't think I've got a lot to say about the Paramount War that takes place in volume 57-59 of Eiichiro Oda's One Piece, aside from the expected assertion that it is amazing, a massive battle scene that pays off the expectations that had been building for dozens of volumes, full of explosive action that involves hundreds (or even thousands) of characters, while still providing some great character moments from just about everyone involved, and culminating in one of the most emotionally raw moments the series has seen (which is saying something). It's an amazing spectacle, an example of how great Oda is at delivering on both mind-blowing action and heartfelt emotion (while still sprinkling in plenty of comedy, somehow managing to include Buggy the Clown's goofy antics and Boa Hancock's awkward crush on Luffy in the middle of the battle without disrupting the high-stakes momentum).

But as great as that is, the follow-up flashback to Luffy and Ace's childhood in volume 59 and 60 is what gets me thinking and considering the themes that Oda keeps returning to throughout the series. They live in a small mountain village, but they end up befriending a boy named Sabo from the nearby city of Goa and hanging out with him among the poor dregs of society who live in Gray Terminal, a giant heap of trash piled outside the city. Fascinatingly, this is actually based on a real location in the Philippines known as Smokey Mountain, and it's an indication that Oda is basing his themes of freedom and inequality on the real world. He does turn the drama up to exaggerated levels to befit the style of his comics, so the big turning point comes when Sabo is forcibly dragged back to his aristocratic family in the city, only to learn of a plan to burn the mountain of trash (along with everyone living in it) in order to clean the city of undesirable elements. It's a horrifying act of pure human cruelty, but what makes it so disturbing is the way the upper-class citizens are completely blase about it, as if they just don't care about the lives of those that are beneath their notice. This gets spelled out a bit too neatly when a rich guy tells his kid, "They're getting their just desserts, child. Think about it. It's their fault for not being born aristocrats," then advises her not to worry about it because she has studying to do. As silly as the exchange is, it hits home for those of us in the first world who can turn a blind eye to the suffering, hunger, and death that we can so easily ignore. Oda doesn't let his characters forget about things so easily though, but when Sabo tries to warn Ace, Luffy, and everyone else, he gets a lesson in the difficulty of bringing about real change:

That's Luffy's father Dragon there in the last panel, and we've learned that he's the leader of a band of revolutionaries fighting against the World Government. We've only seen hints of him in the series so far, but this incident seems to be a defining moment in which his resolve to fight injustice was solidified. As ever, I'm fascinated by the ideas that Oda works with in what is ostensibly a kids' series, and I'm excited to see where he goes with them next.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Neverending Fray: Even when he's smart, Groo is still pretty dumb

Groo the Wanderer #101
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1993

Following the incremental upgrade to Groo's intelligence in issue #100, it looks like the Groo Crew is trying out some new variations on the kinds of jokes they can tell with the character. Now that he can read, he's a bit more confident and less prone to just wandering into whatever circumstances he finds. He's also eager to use his newfound abilities, giving us fun scenes like this one:

His main goal in this issue is to relocate to a new land where people don't hold such a low opinion of him, which necessitates a sea voyage and allows for the inclusion of everybody's favorite panicky skipper, Captain Ahax. He's as funny as ever, having formulated a grand plan to sail to new territories and escape his ship-sinking nemesis, Groo, but as one would expect, Groo himself ends up on that voyage, prompting more nervous breakdowns. This also provides another chance to demonstrate Groo's increased intelligence when he provokes Ahax for a laugh, something he would have been too oblivious to do previously:

Between Groo and Ahax's quests to move to someplace new and the tension of Groo's expected destruction of the ship, we would seem to have enough plot for one story, but there's also an undercurrent of commentary about the exploitation of resources. The king who sponsor's Ahax's voyage has two advisors, a religious leader and a general, and they both seize the opportunity to expand their influence into new territory. But when they get to the new land, it is populated by what appear to be simpleminded natives who don't put up any fight when attacked and happily hand over any food or riches that the more "civilized" people demand. I'm not sure what the Groo Crew is going for here; there's the obvious power-hungry characters who seek to control others, but the portrayal of the natives as happy to be exploited is kind of problematic. There is an interesting bit about their realization of the ultimate uselessness of gold:

This plot does provide the opportunity to demonstrate another aspect of Groo's increased intelligence: his sense of fairness. When he realizes that he's fighting against people who have no ability or desire to fight back, he switches sides and defends the defenseless, indicating a new sense of honor and a desire to help people out. That might be the real reason for the conqueror/native story, but it seems kind of shoehorned in to the issue when the real focus should be on the Groo/Ahax conflict.

Whatever the case, it ends up being a pretty fun issue nonetheless, indicating a new direction (or maybe just a slightly refined focus) for the series, one that should breathe some new life into it and provide opportunities for more interesting uses of the character and his milieu. Not that it was getting stagnant or anything, but maybe the jokes about every issue being the same had gotten to the Groo Crew and they wanted to prove they could do something (slightly) different. They're still pros, so there will always be plenty of hilarity to be found. I know I'll be happy to keep experiencing it.

Next: Next up is issue #103, "Jailbirds".
This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Captain Ahax, and Pal and Drumm show up in a backup strip.
Moral: "Some fair deals are fairer than others."
Spanish words: Sergio says "lo siento!" which means "I'm sorry!"
Running jokes: Despite Ahax's best efforts, Groo manages to sink his ship. Rufferto bites a guy on the ass.
Intro follies: Sergio tries to construct a large "welcome" sign for the issue, but it collapses and flattens the rest of the Groo Crew, so he then welcomes everyone to the "big first issue after one hundred old ones!"
Value-added: This issue's puzzle page is a cool maze:

Mark Evanier's job(s): Wordsmith (again!)
Letter column jokes: Aaron Belisle asks why his letter was printed in both issue #93 and 94, wondering if he's the next M. Wayne Williams. Mark explains that it was originally omitted from issue #92 for lack of space, so he added it back into issue #94 without realizing that someone had already included it in issue #93. He also promises to reprint Aaron's most recent letter next month to make sure he sees it. Joel R. Pierce states that he is only writing to prove he can write an intelligent letter, and Mark responds that he's supposed to actually buy a stamp rather than just draw one on the envelope in crayon. Mark Gagnon notes that he realized writing to Groo-Grams is a waste of a stamp, and Mark suggests following Joel Pierce's example and drawing one on (he also makes a joke about Elvis stamps, which were a big deal at the time). Scott Murray contributes a twist on the numbered list of questions by providing a list of answers and asking Mark to "question them". These include "Soon" ("When will Scott Murray write us an intelligent letter?"), "The Minstrel's poems" ("What did Evanier spend most of 1992 writing?"), "Sergio's mustache and Tom Luth's sanity" ("Name two things Mrs. Aragones can kiss goodbye."), and a plug for Mark's writing on the TV show "Bob" ("Describe a shameless plug for a TV series that actually hired Evanier."). Jason Potratz suggests some titles and 90s-style gimmicks for Groo spinoff series, including "The Amazing Groo" (with a cover with a holographic picture of cheese dip), "The Spectacular Groo" (with a glow-in-the-dark picture of cheese dip), and "Groo 2099" (with a 3-D cover of some tubed cheese dip).

The Neverending Fray index

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

One Piece Is Awesome, Example #50

Never let it be said that Eiichiro Oda doesn't have a long-term plan in mind for One Piece; he had been showing conflicts simmering in the background for at least a couple dozen volumes before having them finally erupt to the fore in the Sabaody/Impel Down/Paramount War storyline, resulting in an all-out war between the full force of the World Government Navy and an allied force of pirates led by Whitebeard. As of volume 57, the battle is just getting started, but I'm already marveling at the crazy characters involved; it's a chance for Oda to just empty the craziness in his mind onto the page, with dozens (hundreds? thousands?) of characters leaping into the fray. Just look at some of these guys:

I love that Oda just tosses these designs out there. In earlier volumes, he might have introduced each character by name and explained their powers and abilities, but the scale of this conflict is so massive that he can just cram them into a series of fight scenes and let our imaginations run away with us. Just look at all those guys! There's a guy with a four-barreled gun for a hand wearing a mink stole, a guy swinging around a chain-chomp, a guy with a bunch of spider arms that are all wielding swords, some sort of dalmatian-man, a guy with robot arms, a walrus-man, and who knows what else. It's totally nuts, pure, over-the-top chaos, with the action exploding off the page. I can't wait to see where it goes next.

Monday, May 20, 2013

One Piece Is Awesome, Example #49

Following the Thriller Bark storyline in One Piece, Eiichiro Oda has kind of gone nuts, moving the overarching plot forward at a breakneck pace, with incident and information accumulating in an exhausting fashion. The Straw Hat Pirates reached a major waypoint in their journey around the world, but while preparing to outfit their ship for an underwater journey to Fish-Man Island, they got mixed up in a huge conflict with the government after learning of the generally accepted practice of slavery practiced by the privileged World Nobles. Oda introduced nine other "rookies", pirates with a level of notoriety similar to Luffy's, and revealed that Luffy's brother Ace had been captured by the government, who were planning to publicly execute him in order to spark a war with Whitebeard, one of the world's most powerful pirates. But before the crew can do much about this, they get scattered to various islands across the sea by a powerful opponent, and Luffy ends up on an island of warrior women ruled by Boa Hancock, one of the Seven Warlords of the Sea. And when he finds out about Ace's predicament, he rushes off to break into the maximum security underwater prison Impel Down and rescue him, where he ends up teaming up with various former opponents like Buggy the Clown, Mr. 3, Mr. 2 Bon Clay, and Crocodile. It's a non-stop rush of action that is compacted into a relatively short number of volumes (considering the length of the epic Water Seven storyline, which was about 15 volumes long), so while it's a blast to read, one almost has to struggle to keep up, with barely a chance to pause and appreciate all the wacky jokes, crazy characters, and explosive action that Oda throws in. But there's one moment in volume 55 that made me marvel at its pure, mind-boggling insanity, and that's when Luffy ends up in a secret floor of the Impel Down prison which is ruled by one of Oda's craziest characters yet:

Yes, that is Emporio Ivankov, the world's greatest drag queen, who has managed to build a genderless society of acceptance in the middle of the world's most dangerous prison, a place where he puts on drag shows accompanied by fishnet-wearing weirdos and plots to eventually break out and join the revolution against the government. If I ever needed proof that Oda is an insane genius, this is it.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

One Piece Is Awesome, Example #48

If one were so inclined, an argument could be mounted against the basic premise of Eiichiro Oda's One Piece, in that its main character's goal is to become "king of the pirates", but he doesn't seem all that interested in the typical pirate activities of looting and plundering. He and his pals do seem to enjoy sailing the seas, drinking grog, and having adventures, but they end up as outlaws more by accident than through purposeful acts of piracy. Over the course of their adventures, they've ended up in opposition to the powers that be, making them wanted criminals, but that's not really Luffy's goal; he just ends up embroiled in high-stakes battles out of a sense of honor and loyalty, rather than any big plans to oppose the corrupt forces of totalitarian control. In volume 52, there's a moment in volume 52 that kind of snaps him and his philosophy into focus, coming when a crewmate of the previous pirate king, Gold Roger, asks him if he's up for facing the dangers to come:

That's actually a pretty important, character-defining moment, revealing that Luffy isn't like the other pirates. He's not out to acquire loot or subjugate his enemies, he's a liberator. He's a pirate in the sense that he stands up against the forces of control and oppression, and this puts him in direct conflict with the government and anybody else who wants to rule the world. Seeing him define himself is thrilling, just another moment that gets us on board for his further adventures, ready to cheer when he fights for the defenseless and refuses to back down against those who think they deserve power over others. It's inspiring stuff; I can't wait to see more, always more.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

One Piece Is Awesome, Example #47

As the plot of Eiichiro Oda's One Piece has progressed across nearly 50 volumes, the main subplot of the series looks to involve our heroes standing up against the power-hungry and corrupt, especially the World Government and its sanctioned group of pirates, the Seven Warlords of the Sea. I'm starting to formulate some theories about where the series is going to go as the Straw Hats continue to get stronger and come into more and more conflict with world powers, and I expect that eventually the people are going to start rallying behind them and stand up against their oppressors. We get a taste of that in the big climax of the Thriller Bark storyline in volume 49, as the Straw Hats look like they're going to face defeat against the hugely powerful Gecko Moria (one of the aforementioned Warlords), who has stolen the shadows of four of their number, and also a large number of others on the island. Anyone without a shadow will disintegrate in the sunlight, which is fast approaching over the horizon, but while most of the shadowless unfortunates have the impulse to run, their captain, a strange-looking woman named Lola, decides to stand alongside the Straw Hats and face the enemy:

It's not a huge moment, but it's a powerful one, a sign that people are starting to gain confidence in the ability of Luffy and his friends to face down the massively powerful oppressors of this world and refuse to cower under their thumbs any longer. I can't wait to see how this continues into future volumes; as ever, Oda definitely has a long-term plan for the series, and it's fascinating to see it play out.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Neverending Fray: Ha ha, Arcadio is lame

Groo the Wanderer #68
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Janice Cohen (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1990

A lot of the stories in Groo work as one-off tales, wrapping up their plots in a single issue without any need for a follow-up, but there are occasional "sequels" that work surprisingly well. This issue is one of those, following the events of the previous issue, in which Groo tried to replace a dragon that he had killed. However, this one doesn't just pick up where the previous story left off; it's actually presented as a story told by the Minstrel, after he wanders into a town who reveres Arcadio for slaying a dragon, and tells them the real story of what happened. It makes for an interesting theme of the way legends can often completely distort the reality of what happened, and it's also quite funny.

Minstrel's story tells about how Groo was trying to get rid of the "sissy" dragon that he was stuck with after the events of issue #67, but when he takes it to a town to try to sell it, the people panic and send for Arcadio to slay the beast. And thus begins what is probably my favorite Arcadio appearance in the series, since it's all about making a complete fool out of him. He's a character that I don't often enjoy, since he gets treated as a hero simply because he's handsome, and he usually ends up making Groo do all the work while taking all the credit for himself. Here, however, he's presented as vain and self-centered, and every attempt he makes to slay the dragon just makes him look like an idiot:

He tries to get help from Arba and Dakarba, asking them to make the dragon savage, but they mostly just laugh at him, make him look like even more of a fool, and force him to become romantically involved with Dakarba, the uglier of the two witches:

He eventually defeats the dragon (by accident), allowing for his reputation as a hero to be redeemed over time, but it's nice to see him get what he deserves for once. It ends up being a very satisfying issue, with the Minstrel providing a nice framing sequence that deflates the idea of heroism and legends. I really dig it.

Plus, there are some great moments, like this scene in which Groo tries to sell his dragon, resulting in one of those scenes of total chaos that Sergio does so well:

And I really like the title page, which has a nice poem by the Minstrel about why he tells the stories he does, in the middle of a great example of the amazing detail-packed scenes of people living their lives:

I love examining pages like that, discovering all the moments of domesticity that Sergio fits into his scenes and reveling in the way the world gets fleshed out so beautifully. The amount of work that goes into what could just be a shallow, silly barbarian comic continues to stagger me, even after I've read over 100 issues. I'll say it again: this series is something special, and each new issue reveals new depths. I'll be sad when I've got no more issues left to read.

Next: We're finally getting back to issue #101, "A New Land".
This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Minstrel, Arba and Dakarba, and Arcadio.
Moral: None.
Spanish words: The town of Lerolero is named after a sort of children's taunt, similar to "nyah nyah". Another town, Gafas, is named for the word for "glasses". Some books in Arba and Dakarba's lair bear the titles Brujas ("witches") and El Diablo ("the devil").
Hidden message(s): This jar says "this is not the hidden message":

The real hidden message comes later, with the writing on these books reading "This hidden message is to say farewell and thanks to Margaret Clark from Mark and Sergio":

Running jokes: In a callback to the old gags about Groo considering eating Rufferto, the dog gets jealous when he mistakes Groo's hungry look at a dragon with a look of love. People comment on the size of Arcadio's chin. Rufferto gets upset when Arcadio calls Groo his lackey. Somebody calls Groo a mendicant.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Reptile Choreographer
Letter column jokes: Joe Fonte says he has been reading Groo to his five-week-old son, and the child has yet to speak, so they will be hearing from his lawyer. Jim True complains that Mark has never printed any of his letters, so he's following his friend's ridiculous suggestion to place the letter in a paper pocket called an envelope, affix a sticky piece of paper in the corner, and deposit the letter in a blue box bolted to the sidewalk, even though he thinks the whole enterprise is rather silly. Mark responds by asking if his father read Groo to him when he was five weeks old. Joel Pierce writes a weird letter claiming he was captured by Iranian terrorists and forced to write a letter, but it was funny, and he doesn't think anything funny has ever appeared in Groo. In a P.S., he asks Mark to print the letter twice, so Mark does, although he says that he doesn't think it made it any funnier. Greg Bigoni contributes the issue's Grooism, in which a friend's little brother stuck a Reese's Pieces up his nose and had to wait for it to melt to get it out, which is something he thinks Groo would do. Mark replies that he doesn't think Groo would stick a Reese's Pieces up his nose, but he could probably fit a Whitman Sampler up there.
Miscellaneous: I like the newspaper headlines in this ad for the games Snake's Revenge and Super C:

The Neverending Fray index

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

One Piece Is Awesome, Example #46

In One Piece, Eiichiro Oda is such a strong stylist, he puts his own stamp on the standards of manga cartooning. I don't know if it was at all intentional, but I thought this scene from volume 48, in which Luffy is fighting the shadow-controlling Gecko Moria, was neat, since it looks like he's battling a swarm of Kirby dots:

I have no idea of Oda knows who Jack Kirby is, but it's a neat juxtaposition of artistic styles, even if it's an accident. That's two great tastes that taste great together.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Neverending Fray: Groo vs. breakables

Groo the Wanderer #40
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1988

Going back to older issues that I had previously missed can make for a slightly jarring experience, since the tone of the series has shifted subtly over the dozens of issues that took place in the interim. Or maybe this is just a so-so issue, featuring a few laughs, but nothing especially memorable, aside from a demonstration of Groo's single-mindedness when he sets out to achieve a certain goal. That's the story here, with our favorite mendicant looking for a job, but souring relations with a potential employers when he accidentally breaks a glass carafe. He pledges to replace the carafe, and sets out to find a new one, in a quest that ends up taking months, as he searches far and wide for the object, succeeding in obtaining several of them, but always managing to break them before he can get them back to his goal. And when he finally succeeds, it turns out to have been a pointless quest, since the original job would have been at, wait for it, a glass-blowing factory. Hey-o!

It's not a terrible premise or anything, but it gets a bit monotonous, with Groo repeatedly finding carafes and then immediately breaking them. There's one bit in which his stupidity gets kind of frustrating (yet still amusing), when he storms the castle of a king who owns a carafe, and he gets offered a bunch of gold, which would have precluded his need to get the job he's working toward, but he ignores it in favor of the object of his obsession. There are other decent gags here and there, but nothing hysterical enough to make this issue a classic.

I did like this scene of Groo searching far and wide for his carafe:

And this moment, in which Groo pointlessly demonstrates his prowess with his swords, was amusing, if a bit more show-offy than the character usually is:

There's always something to enjoy, but having read so many of these stories, I'm starting to feel like I need them to be really good to stand out. I hope I'm not burning out on the series, but I expect I'll quickly be laughing along with the next story I read, any rough spots immediately forgotten.

Next: Another issue which I had previously missed, #68, "The Hero of Lerolero",
This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: None in the story, but the Groo Crew is featured in the Groo-Grams banner:

Moral: "A little work with your brain can save you a lot of work with your body."
Spanish words: None.
Hidden message(s): There's one in the flowery decorations surrounding the story's title:

And another one on the papers in this panel:

Running jokes: Groo errs. He also manages to sink a boat without even boarding it, and he does some mulching.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Factotum
Letter column jokes: Kuasa Ali hypnotizes Mark and commands him to shave off half of Sergio's moustache, which gives Mark a joke for the rest of the column, interrupting his answers to the rest of the letters to laugh about how ridiculous Sergio looks. This precludes most of the rest of the jokes for the column, although Chris Blunt has a good gag when he asks if when Groo sent Sage to the top of the world, that made him the Ice Sage. Puns!

The Neverending Fray index

Monday, May 13, 2013

One Piece Is (Mostly) Awesome, Example #45

The Thriller Bark storyline of Eiichiro Oda's One Piece seems to be a chance to throw in all sorts of spooky stuff, like zombies, ghosts, bats, and haunted houses. Oda has a lot of fun with it, coming up with all sorts of crazy character designs consisting of different types of people and animals stitched together in Frankensteinian manner. But he's not going for straight-up horror; he'd rather make funny jokes, like this moment from volume 46 when a zombie comes up out of the ground to attack Luffy:

Or Luffy's reaction to another apparently undead fellow:

There are some horrific elements to the story, with members of the crew having their shadows (i.e. souls) stolen and used to reanimate zombies, but everything is mostly just played for laughs or the usual type of obstacle to be defeated. There was one legitimately disturbing scene though, but whether it was included as a common horror-movie trope or as the sort of thing that happens in a shonen manga, it's one of the few cases so far for which I've got to give demerits to the series. In the scene in question, Nami is taking a bath when an invisible enemy enters and assaults her:

That's just not cool; there's no need for what is basically a rape threat in a kids' manga, and it's especially annoying that it reduces a strong, capable character like Nami to a damsel in distress for much of the rest of the storyline. I guess the series can't be absolutely perfect, but seeing Oda stoop to something like this is a real disappointment. Luckily, he doesn't go very far with the assault itself, and while Nami gets stuck as an unconscious, unwilling bride for too long, once she wakes up, she gets to join the action and take her place as an essential member of the crew. As long as Oda can respect his characters, he'll have me cheering for him, so hopefully this is the last time I'll have reason to complain.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

One Piece Is Awesome, Example #44

I love the myriad crazy characters that show up in Eiichiro Oda's One Piece, from the strange villains to the eccentrics that the crew helps out (or vice versa) along their journeys, but there are occasional people that I fall right in love with, for whatever reason. The last one was Mr. 2 Bon Clay, but my new favorite, Brook the living skeleton, shows up in volume 46. He's just so silly, a source of constant puns about bones (mostly clean ones, surprisingly), and an enthusiastic, friendly fellow that has been drifting all alone on a ghost ship for so long that he has trouble figuring out how to relate to people appropriately. Here's his introductory scene:

Luffy immediately invites him to join the crew, of course, because he's funny and weird. Maybe that's a reason that I enjoy this series so much; it's welcoming of strangeness and willing to have a laugh even in the midst of high drama. I'm happy to say that Brook does indeed join the crew following the Thriller Bark storyline, so I should be enjoying his company for some time to come.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

C2E2 2013: Some comics which were acquired

Manta Dad #1
By Chad Sell

Chad Sell's Manta-Man webcomic is a fun goof on superheroes, starring a guy with the semi-useless power of being able to turn into a flying manta ray, and following his adventures as he gets involved with ninjas, monsters, homophobic closet-case rivals, and his supervillain girlfriend who constantly picks fights with him as a form of foreplay. It seems like a fun lark for Sell, allowing him to throw whatever crazy ideas he has onto the page/screen, but as the series has progressed, he has built up an interesting world full of crazy concepts and well-drawn relationships between the characters. And now, with the spinoff/flashback series Manta Dad, he's developing things further, going back to detail the early years of Manta-Man, as he accompanies his Freddie Mercury-like oceanographer father on a sea voyage that involves as much, er, canoodling with his beefcakey documentary crew as it does actual filming of weird sea life. When the kid's shapeshifting abilities are revealed to his father, the two of them end up bonding in a surprisingly touching manner, although the time Manta Dad spends with his son ends up causing some jealousy issues with the rest of the crew, setting the stage for more conflict in future issues. The extra space that a full issue provides (as opposed to the one-strip-at-a-time pace of a webcomic) lets Sell play out the story at a nice pace, resulting in a wonderful slice of nicely-illustrated character work that also includes plenty of snappy dialogue and cool creatures like shadow sharks and robo-whales. Sell is a fairly new talent on the comics scene, but this comic demonstrates that he's improving his skill at an impressive pace, and I'm excited to watch and see as he continues to create quality work.

Solution Squad #1
Written by Jim McClain
Art by Rose McClain

It seems mean to complain about a well-meaning comic like this, which stars a team of superheroes who fight crime using math-based powers with the intent of educating the (presumably youthful) reader, but it's just so darn square. The characters and their designs are incredibly generic, the plot is a goofy bit of fluff involving a villain robbing a museum and capturing the heroes in an easily-escapable death trap, and the story is structured in the least imaginative way possible, with an especially hokey introduction to all the characters via a two-page spread that consists of images of each person surrounded by lengthy captions that explain everyone's names, powers, and relationships (a scene which seems especially superfluous given the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe-style profile pages in the back of the issue that provide every possible detail you would ever need to know about each character). That said, it's hard to fault the comic too much, because whatever its shortcomings, it's really sincere, seeming to meet its goal of providing a reasonably entertaining story that educates about simple mathematical concepts (this issue's being the prime number sieve). The art is clean and crisp, and while the characters are generic, there's still an effort made to create a racially-diverse team made up of people that are more than just names and basic traits (the time-traveling "cool guy" from 1984 is a nice touch, providing catch-phrases and attitude but having a reason for seeming kind of dorky). It's probably not going to set the world on fire, but as a cute educational concept, it might be something that kids could be interested in. That's something, right?

Bird Witch #1
By Kat Leyh
Published by Yeti Press

Well this is just charming. It's an all-ages comic about a young girl witch who, while exploring an enchanted forest, makes friends with a tengu, and the two of them cavort around the woods, racing and exploring and showing off their respective magical powers. Kat Leyh's art is gorgeous, consisting of deceptively simple linework and lush colors that really make the setting come to life. As a first chapter, it's wonderful, an enthralling chance to get to know some cute characters as they begin their friendship, with some ominous hints about the magical dangers they might face providing the impetus to seek out future chapters. It's a lovely little book, enough to make Leyh a talent to watch closely. I'll be sure to pick up the other available issues in the series the first chance I get.

Cat-LE Drivers #1 (Free Edition)
By Kevin D. Bandt

Whether you're perusing the selection in a comics convention Artist Alley or clicking randomly through some of the thousands of webcomics, you're bound to come across something like this, a comic that's trying to be offensive and edgy, but isn't really all that different from its peers. Kevin D. Bandt's big inspiration for grossing people out here is to center his comic around the idea of eating cat meat (although it's tempered by said meat coming from genetically-modified felines in a future where beef is scarce), which is probably supposed to be horrifying, but it's just about the only unique aspect of his post-apocalyptic story, and everything that surrounds it is highly generic, from people having to cross a wasteland ruled by bandits and vampires, to "badass" heroes with an attitude, to gross villains who swear a lot (using bleeped-out symbols, of course) and sexually harass treat female underlings. The story itself is put together kind of amateurishly as well, beginning with a caption reading "Yesterday" without ever specifying when "today" is supposed to take place, and having characters state their motivation outright (a character suddenly announcing that she used to have a drub problem is especially egregious). Even the title itself is a tortured bit of wordplay, the term "Cat-LE" meant to be pronounced like "cattle" with the "LE" standing for "Luxury Edition". The black-and-white art in the free version of the comic is a bit muddy, but the color pages which can be seen online do look much better, and while the artwork is nothing special, there are occasional panels with some pretty good character art and expressions. Bandt does seem passionate about what he's doing, including an editorial about how the documentary PressPausePlay inspired him to put out a free version of the comic in order to get his ideas out to people, so it's commendable that he's trying to be creative, but he's got a ways to go before he can rise above the massive cluster of mediocrity that is all to easy to get lost in. Here's hoping he doesn't quit before he gets there.

The VIP Room
Written by Amy Chu
Art by Silvio DB and Cabbral
Published by Alpha Girl Comics

This is an interesting little story about three seemingly-unrelated characters who suddenly appear in a dining room, unsure how they got there or what they are supposed to do next. Is this some version of the afterlife? What is their connection, and is there any way to escape? As they converse, they slowly learn enough details about each other to figure out at least a little bit about what is going on, eventually leading to a Twilight Zone-ish reveal that makes for a fairly satisfying ending. It's kind of slight, but it's a neat little riff on the sort of mysterious, possibly supernatural morality tale that that show made famous, and the moody artwork gives it some nice atmosphere. I could do without the one-page epilogue that goes over the top with the premise, almost turning it into a bit of wish-fulfillment comeuppance highly recognizable villain, but overall, it's not a bad little comic.