Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Neverending Fray: Now this is a Groo story

Groo the Wanderer #3
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Gordon Kent with Janice Cohen (coloring)
Published by Pacific Comics, 1983

This issue seems like the point where Sergio and company solidified the structure of a Groo story. He starts out lost in the desert, stumbles across a caravan, hitches a ride, defends them against some thieves, then sticks around for the rest of the journey in order to get a reward, only to end up with a bunch of people mad at him and wanting him dead. The last two issues also ended with scenes similar to this one, but this seems more pure, somehow:

It might be because Groo was attempting to help people out (and help himself, since he was offered a reward), by delivering the caravan's cargo safely to its destination, but it turns out that he was really just propping up a tyrannical leader that the common people were trying to depose, which leads to a pretty typical scene in which he realizes that he was actually the bad guy and everyone hates him:

I love the way Sergio draws out the tension, with sweat starting to pour down Groo's brow as he hopes nobody identifies him, even though it's all but inevitable:

The full journey of the caravan is pretty funny too, as Groo gets more and more agitated the longer it takes, working harder and harder to shorten the journey by moving tons of rocks by hand or dig the beasts of burden out of deep pits where they were trapped, labor that will surely end up being for naught. It's cruel to see him suffer, but he's so much of a doofus and just far enough on the wrong side of morality that we don't mind.

Attention should also be paid to the continued worldbuilding that Sergio does here. While there's not really a persistent geography or power structure, he does establish a general lawlessness throughout the land interrupted by occasional kingdoms that are usually at war with each other. And while it seems to be set in a sort of past, there are no obvious historical markers. But it's all grounded enough that there's a real sense of place; if it weren't for giant lizards and other creatures, and the occasional magic-wielding wizard or magician, it would seem plausible that this could be an exaggerated version of Earth's history. But even with the occasional fantastical element and the cartoony action, I love how realistic the settings are. Just check out the earthy detail of this issue's title spread, which establishes the desert setting and the scale of the caravan, but fills out details like clouds of dust, grains of sand, patterns of lizard scales, and the intricate webbing keeping all the crates, barrels, and bags affixed to their carriers:

While I'm talking details, I should also mention the backup story featuring the Sage, which features a final page packed with tiny figures (including Groo!) and word balloons, another great example of how much information Sergio could pack into a bit of space:

There are some good gags in there too, like "Is wrestling fixed?", "Are there elfs in Poughkeepsie?", and "What does my nose mean?" I suspect Mark Evanier came up with most of those, and his contributions to the series should continue to make themselves more obvious, I imagine.

"Adult" content watch: There are some bare breasts when a bunch of "gorgeous, unescorted, nubile women" try to distract the caravan, and I still find myself surprised by how much blood is spilled in scenes like this:

Next: I don't have any more of the Pacific issues (which means I'll miss the first appearance of Chakaal), so next up is "The Swords of Groo".

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Just the Sage in his backup story.
Hidden message(s): Still none that I could find.
Running jokes: Mendicant
Mark Evanier's job(s): Cryptographer, Glossator
Letter column jokes: Some actual letters this time around, and while Mark doesn't answer them individually, he drops the first example of the "what does Mark Evanier do on this comic?" joke. He also states that Sergio won't send any sketches to anybody, which isn't really a joke, but did become something of a regular warning as the years went on and more and more sketch requests came in.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Neverending Fray: Continuity? In Groo?!

Groo the Wanderer #2
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Gordon Kent (coloring)
Published by Pacific Comics, 1983

This is kind of freaking me out, but there seems to be something of an ongoing plot in this series so far, concerning the continuing threats against Groo's life that we saw last issue. He still doesn't know who is behind it, prompting another flashback detailing a screw-up that got him on the shit list of a monarch with an army. The main plot sees him working as a sedan-chair-carrier/guard for a royal messenger, leading to a couple violent battle scenes. Check out how he basically cuts this guy in half:

He ends up doing his best to carry out the delivery of the message, but only gets himself in more trouble, establishing one of the series' ongoing themes: Groo is well-meaning and tries his damnedest to get his job done, no matter how menial or degrading it is, but he'll inevitably screw it up and bring chaos, destruction, and violence upon everyone, especially himself. That's just about every issue of the series in a nutshell.

There are some more great gags here (although a bit less than last issue, with this one focusing more on plot), including one that I always like, when Groo is looking for a job and comes across somebody who says "I need another man badly!" leading to this panel:

As for "adult" content, there are some bare breasts in the various crowd scenes, including some prostitutes waving from the window of a whorehouse on the title page:

I do love the details and gags that Sergio packs into the pages. For instance, in the flashback, Groo leads some men in a drunken pillage of a town, and the scene going on in this window, in which a guy guy appears to be pouring wine on his head while assaulting a woman, cracked me up:

And in this scene, a jester attempts to sneakily pull the tassel off a lady's nipple, before getting slapped in the next panel:

There's always something amusing going on in Sergio's pages; these things are endlessly re-readable, and you'll notice something new every time.

One more thing to note: there's a double page splash in the back of the issue that forms a map of Groo's travels, which is notable not just for the excellent art that crams in plenty of gags and interesting landscape variations, but also just because it's strange to think that such an image is possible so many years and issues later. At this early point, it works, but the adventures and travels became so innumerable over the years that it's weird to think that this once existed:

Next: "The Caravan"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Taranto again, and the Sage gets another backup story, which also features a Groo appearance that sort of furthers the ongoing plot
Hidden message(s): Still none that I saw; I wonder when they started doing those?
Running jokes: Groo gets called a mendicant, initiating the gag of "You dare call Groo a mendicant?", followed by slayings and "Gee, I wonder what a 'mendicant' is?"
Mark Evanier's job(s): Interlocutor, Verbiage
Letter column jokes: It's not a regular letter column yet, although Evanier does include some excerpts from letters, one of which jokingly requests a sketch from Sergio. But it's mostly text about Gordon Kent going crazy trying to color Sergio's detailed art, which sort of starts the trend of Sergio-bashing, if in a pretty complimentary manner.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Neverending Fray: Hey, Groo is kind of a jerk

I've been considering doing this series for a long time, but here it finally is: an issue-by-issue reread of all the Groo comics in my collection. I should note that I do have Destroyer Duck #1, which contained the first appearance of Groo, somewhere, but I couldn't find it, so I'm starting with the first issue of the first series. Let's see how long I can keep this up...

Groo the Wanderer #1
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Gordon Kent (coloring)
Published by Pacific Comics, 1982

Sergio Aragones' Groo has long been one of my very favorite comics, but I've only read the work that was published by Marvel's Epic imprint, so going back to this first issue of his first published series is something of an eye-opener. At this point, the personality of the character and rhythms of the storytelling haven't yet been established, and the art is a bit less refined that what Sergio would be producing a few years down the line. Groo's appearance is a bit off, with legs thicker and arms a bit fatter than they would be later, and his personality is different too. He's still dumb, and he still thinks of himself as a great warrior, but he seems just a little bit more worldly, ready to carouse in bars, chase women, and provoke fights:

I tend to think of him as a clueless naif who barely notices the opposite sex and gets in fights either because he's being insulted or because he just likes to join battles. But maybe my memories have been polished with time; it should be interesting to see how they hold up as I keep reading these issues.

But one thing that is definitely different than the later Marvel-published work is the "adult" nature of some of what happens here. The battles are surprisingly bloody, partly due to the coloring:

Sergio and company may have decided later that it's funnier to keep the blood and gore to a minimum, with killings implied rather than demonstrated so nastily. But it does make this joke, in which Groo casually murders a guy, pretty brutally funny:

There's also more of an awareness of sex, whether it's Groo squeezing a guy's balls:

Somebody looking up a woman's dress:

Or a rather tasteless joke about rape that might have flown in 1982 but would definitely be frowned upon today:

Sergio's talent for visual gags was already quite apparent here, as was his proficiency at filling pages with crowd scenes and humorous details. I especially dig this page; check out how every character's sight line can be followed to the center of the second panel:

The plots would also be improved upon, as this one is fairly weak (although it's a great introduction to the character and the usual sort of antics he would get up to). Groo is being chased by an army that wants his head, and he tries to think of who would want him dead. He has a couple flashbacks to incidents that would make people angry, and then he stumbles upon the army that apparently wants to kill him, although the reason is never really given. There are plenty of great jokes in between though, and even in this first issue, he gets to search for a job, only finding one after hearing somebody say "[the last guy] was a real jerk...he was a real incompetent...a bumbler of the first order! Ever hear of him? His name was Groo." That one never gets old.

One other thing worth mentioning: on the opening page, which sees Sergio appear in his studio to introduce the comic, he mentions that he had been wanting to do a Groo comic for years, but couldn't find a publisher that would let him keep ownership of the character. I hadn't realized (or had forgotten) that Groo was one of the early leaders in the creator-owned comics movement, but it's an interesting and illuminating fact to discover, and also a reminder of how comics always seems to be behind the times when it comes to treating people like human beings.

Next: "The Missive"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Taranto, Groo's "friend" who usually manages to manipulate him to his own ends, and the Sage, who stars in his own backup story, both make their debuts (I think)
Hidden message(s): none that I noticed
Running jokes: Groo's love of cheese dip is established, as well as his sort-of catchphrase, "And now, Groo does what Groo does best!"
Mark Evanier's job(s): Interpreter, Decoding
Letter column jokes: Just an into from Mark Evanier here. I'm curious to see at what point the letter column evolved into its own collection of running jokes and silliness.

Bonus! Other titles considered for this series:

Did I Err?
To Err is Groo-man
Mendicant Meanderings
Cheese Dip Diet
What Pirates?
Groomblr or Groo the Wanderblr (if this was on Tumblr)
Frayed Nerves
Groo Is So Dumb That...
Grooish Wanderings
Sage Advice
Secret Messages
Adventures of the Prince of Chichester
Sailing with Groo
Pieces of Groo
Groo-vy Times
Thin Grool
Groon Squad
Groo Fighters
In the Groop
Groo-ing Pains
A Grooling Journey

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Kirby Kategory: "Other!"

Here's an odd Jack Kirby-related couple of books that I found in discount bins:

These were apparently part of an attempt by Topps Comics to establish a "Kirbyverse" in 1993, featuring various oddball characters created by Kirby, and also planning to incorporate his Captain Victory and Silver Star characters, because why not? Unfortunately, judging by this sample anyway, they function about as well as most Kirby Koncepts do when other creators attempt to take them on. Bombast #1 is written by Roy Thomas and Gary Friedrich, doing more of an impression of Stan Lee than Kirby, and also throwing in Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon as a guest star. It starts with an earthquake in Chicago, which causes a fissure to open in "Grant's Park", and when a "young black junkie" falls in, he discovers what turns out to be a 15,000 year old guy just as he awakes from stasis, then stumbles around the city getting into awkward situations and random scuffles with people because he doesn't speak the language and can't understand the cold, lifeless machinery that everyone uses. Savage Dragon (who is a Chicago cop, I guess?) shows up to fight him for a while, but he runs away because he doesn't want to fight, even though he has super powers and his name is Bombast. He eventually meets up with some other refugees from the past, and maybe they team up to fight bad guys or something in future issues. Whatever.

The art is by Dick Ayers, but it's inked by John Severin, making for an interesting match, all gritty realism on top of Kirby-ish poses. It doesn't really work, but it does yield occasional bits of oddness, like the way images of which figures are floating in blank space are suddenly interrupted by a detailed panel of a guy lying in the street:

I do like this panel, which seems kind of Golden Age with its small figures:

But surely somebody must have realized how awkward this panel looks, as if Savage Dragon suddenly grew ten stories and grabbed Bombast by the ankles:

The art doesn't really matter when the writing is this embarrassing though. I would blame Roy Thomas for the ridiculous, silly dialogue, but Friedrich is credited for the script, so I guess he's responsible for terrible attempts at slang like: "Yo' momma! Who's that? Sure ain't no extra from a Spike Lee movie!", "Jump back, Jim! ...This dude's fast...and strong...and definitely baaad!", "We ain't exactly bro's, Moe! So I'm splittin', see?!",

It's really just a silly trifle though, with the cover being the best thing about it.

More interesting, however, is Satan's Six #1, probably just because it features eight pages of actual Kirby art (which were probably produced years earlier, maybe even back in the 70s), inked by a variety of comics people, including Kirby mainstay Mike Royer, Terry Austin, Steve Ditko, and, on the cover, Todd McFarlane. It seems like it was supposed to be a humorous series, about a team of souls from throughout history resurrected from limbo and sent to do Satan's bidding on earth, but they keep screwing up and accidentally doing good. That might have been the intent, anyway, but the comic that gets built around those pages is just horrible, with disgustingly ugly 90s art by John Cleary that looks like exaggerated Todd McFarlane proportions and expressions wedded to the elongated figures that Adam Kubert might use when depicting a psychedelic freakout:

It's also very obnoxiously written by Tony Isabella, with a "sexy" angel narrator speaking directly to the reader and making comments about the comic itself, along with lots of supposedly humorous dialogue screamed at each other by leering characters in every panel. Ugly, awful comics.

But the Kirby pages themselves are worth a look, especially to see the differences between the inkers' interpretations. Terry Austin, Mike Royer, and Joe Sinnott provide a classic Kirby look, and Steve Ditko works in some of his billowing clouds:

But most fascinating is this page by Frank Miller, which somehow meets Kirby halfway between their two styles, softening the edges of the lines and deepening the shadows:

I also like this Sinnott-inked page, but mostly because the "Hellicopter" depicted makes me think of a Kirby version of the Bullet Bills from Super Mario Bros.:

It might have been interesting to see where Kirby was planning on going with these characters, but being the 90s, it's even more awful than usual to see somebody else try to pick up where he left off. But was it worth 50 cents? Sure. You can't have too much Kirby art cluttering up the longboxes.

Monday, May 21, 2012

"This is Micro-Mark's hour! There's no need for intrigue or great strivings--the cosmos lies open to button-pushing babes!"

Welp, it's time for the final edition of Fourth World Panels, taken from The Hunger Dogs, Jack Kirby's graphic novel (as DC called their thick pamphlet format back in the 80s) "ending" to his most personal work:

The circumstances of this story are interesting; apparently Kirby created a single-issue ending to the Fourth World saga, which would have originally been published as the final issue of the New Gods reprint series, but it didn't really work at that length, so he got to expand it to a graphic novel. The seams do show a bit, at least as they are presented here in this collection, but he did manage to bring everything to a fairly satisfying close, while updating the story to reflect the decade that had passed since its last installment. That means that the main conflict is less about totalitarianism and oppression and more about the fear of destruction that came with the atomic age. Darkseid is less focused on Anti-life, having replaced much of his forces with automated machines, and his newest threat is something called Micro-Mark, which turns out to be the brainchild of Esak, who was the kid Metron was taking on tours of the galaxy in one of the early issues of New Gods, now deformed by accidents that occurred with experiments he performed, an experience which caused him to defect to Darkseid. Interestingly, Darkseid seems to be struggling to retain control over his domain, becoming eclipsed by the new technology that is beginning to render him obsolete:

Micro-Mark seems to be all about the fear of atomic annihilation, the power behind bombs that bring about the end of New Genesis (in what was probably one of the last examples of the incredible collages of the kind that Kirby did so well), but also threaten Apokolips in their instability. As with nuclear bombs, the existence of Micro-Mark is enough to assure mutual destruction, and that causes the eponymous Hunger Dogs, the poor, starving denizens of Apokolips, to rise up against their oppressors, although Darkseid's eventual return to full control is all but inevitable.

It's a nicely open-ended finish to Kirby's grand saga, and while it's a shame he didn't get to do the Shakespearean showdown between Darkseid and Orion that he had wanted to do to end his story (by this time, DC had appropriated the characters, started using them in other books, in the Super Friends cartoon, and as action figures, and thus they couldn't be killed off), it works as well as one could probably hope at this point in Kirby's career. He gets in plenty of good action, crazy visuals, and excellent dialogue:
"Drooling infant--! A new age is precisely the time--to settle old scores--!"
"Dance, Himon! Phase in and out like a dancing flea! But, in this new era--look for the shadow of my descending fist!"
"Then, let it be said that we must be the bravest among all who came before us! Let it be said that our wisdom is wed to the most terrifying risk ever taken!!"
He gives Orion a love interest in Himon's daughter Bekka, and Lightray gets to show up for a few fun scenes. It might not be the finale that we would liked to have seen, but it works for what it is, and there are plenty of great moments. I like this panel, in which Lightray zooms down from the caption onto the surface of Apokolips:

This splash page of a prisoner being led into a lab to act as an experiment subject is pretty chilling, a good example of the Holocaust imagery that Kirby occasionally used:

And this scene of pestilential creatures devouring New Genesis on a microscopic scale is pretty awesome:

I'll take whatever Kirby I can get, even if it's not ideal.

Next? I'm not sure. Kamandi? The Demon? Something else? We'll see!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

"In the context of destruction, Orion transcends the term! To oppose him is to die! To survive him is life lived in fragmented form!"

Coming close to the big finish, here's today's Fourth World Panel, from the story "Even Gods Must Die!", which was published as the last issue of a series reprinting New Gods in 1984:

That full-page, full-bleed image is a pretty good sample of what this story contains; it's 48 pages of nonstop action, starting with Orion arriving on Apokalips via Boom Tube, then wrecking his way across the planet in an attempt to confront Darkseid and free his mother, Tigra. As awesome as it is, the art is occasionally a bit awkward, as Kirby's work tended to be at that point in his career. Darkseid, for one, looks like a heavy-browed neanderthal with a bucket on his head rather than the stony-faced, cold-hearted force of pure evil that he was in the earlier Fourth World issues:

And this super-deformed version of Granny Goodness makes me laugh:

And there's at least one silly bit, in which Lightray, who shows up to help Orion, creates a "light mirage" of a pile of bones to distract the giant dogs a group of bad guys are riding. And when the two of them part, they give each other an extremely dorky thumbs-up. It's distractingly dumb.

But there's also a huge amount of awesomely bombastic action, Orion smashing his way through page after page of machinery and wreckage, completely devastating everyone that gets in his way:

Look at that guy's head exploding! That's as savage as anything Orion ever did in this series. Kirby also goes all out with the crazy designs here, coming up with bizarre panel layouts and filling pages with weird Kirbytech:

He adds some real horror to the story too, like when Darkseid decides to resurrect Desaad:


Or when Lightray just cold drowns a guy in molten metal:

Maybe it was the increased crudeness of Kirby's style at this point, but that gaping mouth screaming out from a pool of flowing death is hauntingly awful.

Kirby gets in a little bit of commentary as well, with Darkseid's minions (especially that guy with the goofy moustache in the image above) convincing him to allow them to reanimate his dead minions Desaad, Kalibak, Steppenwolf, and Mantis, but they're nothing but personality-free shells of their former selves. That's something Kirby knew all about: having his creations continuing to plod along like zombies long after the life has been drained out of them.

As for the final confrontation between Orion and Darkseid, it's as exciting as one would expect, and it ends in a horrifying and brutal manner, setting up the final chapter of his saga perfectly. I'm not sure what to expect, but I'm hoping it all goes out with a big bang. No matter what happens, I'm sure it will be awesome.

Next: The Hunger Dogs!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

American Barbarian: That's what they should call Tom Scioli from now on

American Barbarian
By Tom Scioli
Published by AdHouse Books

It's hard to tell exactly how to take this book, given its straight-faced, unironic take on Jack Kirby-style action-adventure. On the surface, it's kind of dumb (if rather enjoyable), but the title itself begs for a symbolic interpretation. And yes, this is certainly possible, but it's not exactly overt. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic version of North America, which has splintered into several warring factions, all of which are now threatened by a monstrous enemy. The home kingdom of the eponymous character and his family, all of whom sport red-white-and-blue hair, takes an isolationist approach to their neighbors, leading to their downfall when attacked by a force intent on their destruction. In sorrow, the American Barbarian sets out for revenge, but his morals are compromised by his thirst for his enemy's blood, and he ends up inflicting a greater atrocity upon innocent victims than what he sought to avenge. Later, he rouses a complacent populace from the pointless worship of a mindless, life-consuming god to defeat the enemy that seeks to usurp his own power, and he wages a final battle that might require his own sacrifice to prevail. This could all be taken as symbolic of modern American conflicts both internal and external, and it's vague enough that people of any political stripe could probably map their opinions onto it. But while Tom Scioli might intend for some interpretation to be made, he leaves that work to others while he just has fun crafting a crazy world filled with over-the-top characters, monsters, weapons, names, and conflicts, then smashing them all together like a kid playing with action figures.

It makes for a pretty awesome book to read, and even though Scioli doesn't have Kirby's level of moral complexity, balls-out creativity, or crazy energy, he comes about as close as anybody has since the heyday of the King, and he puts enough of himself into it to make it unique, rather than being a slavish copy of past glories. He does stick with the chunky Kirby style, but he sexes it up a little bit (one of the few female characters gets captured, stripped to her goofy-looking skivvies, and put on display like Slave Leia), and he fills it with plenty of his own personality, adding spray-paint blood splatters and some weirdly cartoony faces (perhaps to demonstrate the unquestioning simplicity of the religious followers), throwing in plenty of swearing and vulgarity (giving the writing the feel of a teenager trying to add "maturity" to the silly comics they used to read), and amping up the design of everything from the villainous pharaoh Two-Tank Omen (who, yes, has tanks for feet) to the dinosaur-riding characters who wear armor that makes them appear to have miniature dinosaurs riding on their heads and shoulders. And on top of that, he adds more stylistic flourishes, like soft watercolors and ink washes:

Interesting versions of Kirby-style collage:

Splashes of psychedelic color:

And awesome red-white-and-blue trails that flow behind American Barbarian's Star Sword:

The art does become oddly stiff at times, making for a weird disconnect when a gorgeously dynamic spread of the main character in battle is followed by something like this:

But for the most part, the action flows beautifully and excitingly, so Scioli might be using this occasional awkwardness to emphasize that he is still only a shadow of Kirby's mastery.

Whatever the reasons Scioli has for making the comic the way he did (its original online serialization should also be taken into account; there is a bit of a "making it up as you go" feel, whether that was intended or not), the result is a pretty great example of awesome comics, highly entertaining and energetic action that hits the receptive reader right in the nostalgia center of the brain and then tweaks it just enough to make it feel different. For those of us who dig that sort of thing, it's a full, satisfying experience, making one ready to follow Scioli down whatever path he wishes to tread.