Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Neverending Fray: No, family is just a curse

Groo the Wanderer #19
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1986

The Groo Crew seem to have uncovered a rich vein of comedy with the introduction of Groo's sister and the flashbacks to their childhood, such that they stretched this story out to three parts, with the siege of Grooella's castle running in place for an issue in order to stretch out the shenanigans as long as possible. There is certainly some amusing business here, with Grooella ordering her men to kill Groo, Groo fleeing and somehow ending up inside the castle, then driven out to rejoin his sister and screw up her plans as much as possible. But the real focus of the issue seems, once again, to be the flashbacks, which continue to illuminate Groo's self-delusions about his relationships with those who survive experiences with him or are required by familial ties to tolerate him. It's the most emotion we've ever seen from him, and while it's yet another example of his cluelessness, it's kind of touching to see him express affection for something other than food and fights:

It's not all flashbacks and sibling abuse though; Groo gets in a good amount of funny business elsewhere, including a variation of the gag in which he tries to figure something out that contains words, with Groo's confused thoughts just making it funnier, up until he gives up thinking and just goes to look for something to eat:

And speaking of abuse, Groo manages to mangle some of his opponents in impressively funny ways, including jamming fingers in one guy's nostrils:

And stuffing a shovel in a guy's mouth:

I'm not sure if there's enough story here to fill another issue, but by establishing the framework for future looks at Groo's childhood, the time spent is worthwhile. There's nothing like childhood trauma to illuminate the state of one's mental health as an adult.

Next: "The Siege (Second Try)!"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Grooella, and Sage in the flashbacks
Hidden message(s): Found one! The image atop the letter column contains exactly the type of hidden message I always expect to find, written on the piece of paper stuck to Groo's sword:

Moral: "It matters not how grand your plans when they are built on a faulty foundation."
Spanish words: Cominos again, if that counts.
Running jokes: There's a mention of cheese dip, Groo can plainly see that Grooella is building a siege tower, Lil' Groo says "Did I err?", and this seems like an attempt to replace the running mulch joke with something even grosser:

Mark Evanier's job(s): Adjutant
Letter column jokes: This issue's column is dedicated to retiring the running joke of defining mulch, although first Mark describes what a running joke (or "running gag", as he calls it here) is, saying that it takes something unfunny and makes it funny through repetition and that it is a lot easier than thinking up new jokes. He says the constant repetition gives the appearance of humor, a trick he learned from watching "Late Night with David Letterman", which I think is a compliment rather than a dis. As examples of running jokes within the pages of Groo, he mentions "Did I err?", "...as any fool can plainly see!" "And now, Groo does what Groo does best!", and cheese dip, along with the phrase "Must be Groo!", which was one that I hadn't thought of. As a reason for retiring the mulch joke, Mark says they've run out of variations on it, but after defining mulch one last time, he suggests that the next running joke will be decided on the Sage's dog's name, which was eventually revealed to be--wait for it--Mulch.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Journalism: Bits and pieces are better than nothing

By Joe Sacco
Published by Metropolitan Books

In 2003, I saw the movie City of God, and it had a unique effect on me. Leaving the theater, and for as long as a few days afterward, I felt like I was out of breath, with a tightness in my chest that I assumed was from the intensity of the material, the violence and danger that surrounded the characters' lives in the slums of Rio de Janiero. But now I'm not so sure. While reading Journalism, a collection of Joe Sacco's short comics, a single panel of the story "Chechen War, Chechen Women" induced the same effect in me. A woman who lived through the miniature Holocaust that Stalin inflicted on the Chechen people in 1944 looks back on her hard life and says the following:

That deep, profound sadness is so alien to me as a resident of the world's wealthiest country that it hit me like a punch in the stomach. It seems impossible to me that someone who lived for sixty years and had a family could wish to exchange it all for an early suicide. The tragedy she lived through is downright incomprehensible to my sheltered sensibilities, and the fact that she is only one among so, so many should bring tears to the eyes of all but the most cold and emotionless of automatons.

Such is the power of Joe Sacco's comics, which peer into the hidden corners of the world and illuminate the suffering of so many that are otherwise invisible to those of us in the rich, walled-off first world. While Sacco's longer works, like the recent Footnotes in Gaza, focus on one area at a time, this collection skips through several different troubled areas, including the aforementioned Chechnya, Palestine, and the Kushinagar region of India (which is home to some of the world's poorest people); examining the war in Iraq from the perspective of United States troops, Iraqi troops in training, and victims of (probably illegal) detention by the U.S.; glimpsing the International Criminal Tribunal at The Hague as it attempts to make sense of the atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia; and looking at the issues faced by the small Mediterranean island nation of Malta (and by extension, the rest of Europe) as it is swamped with refugees fleeing from war-torn Africa. It's a wide-ranging gathering of short glimpses at some of the worst things going on around the world, and while the length of the stories are only enough to provide a taste of the issues at play, Sacco provides enough background information in each case that one feels at least a small amount of understanding, as well as some empathy for the victims, who Sacco never fails to place front and center, their emotions communicated heartbreakingly and their stories related in detail, all the facts laid out for everyone to see and become outraged by. It might be a troubling service that Sacco provides, but it's a necessary one, a jolt to the system that reminds us that the world is larger than our small lives, and that our troubles seem miniscule next to those of so many who are just struggling to survive.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Neverending Fray: Family is a blessing and a curse

Groo the Wanderer #18
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1986

In the series' continued effort to give Groo more characters to play off of, this issue introduces his sister Grooella, who is a queen of some kingdom or other, with a castle and everything. But since she's in danger of losing that castle to an invading army, she takes the incredibly risky gambit of sending for her brother's help. While he travels to join her, he flashes back to her childhood, including the incident (which, if I remember correctly, is repeated in the Life of Groo graphic novel) in which he caused her flowing blonde locks to be transformed into the frizzy heap that currently decorates her dome. The fact that this is a happy memory for him gives us some insight into Groo's psyche:

As we've seen in the series (and specifically in this issue, when the messenger Grooella sends is repeatedly beaten whenever he asks somebody if they've seen Groo), Groo is hated and feared by pretty much everyone he comes across, yet this doesn't seem to bother him. He causes death, destruction and suffering everywhere he goes (this issue's title page being a particularly effective example, depicting a city he visited that seems to have been hit by a natural disaster, with buildings leveled, people and animals injured, bodies piled up, and people rushing to put out fires), but he seems to view it all as an honest mistake, just something unfortunate that happened while he was trying to help out. It's a fascinating level of obliviousness, and a necessary one if the comic wants to remain humorous, rather than a tragic story about a mentally deficient man who is justifiably loathed and despised by the entire world, never able to dig himself out of the hole of shame and disgust that his actions place him in.

No, Groo needs to remain happy-go-lucky to survive, and he does so here, excitedly rushing to her aid, yet still managing to cause her castle to be taken over by the invaders, in order to set up a big battle in the next issue. Sergio gets plenty of opportunities to throw in funny details, like the difficulty Groo has when coming up with ideas even when he was a kid:

Or some soldiers using one of Sergio's standard helmet designs to cook food:

And unless I hear otherwise, I'm going to assume the movie Hero was inspired by this issue:

On the topic of violence, it's notable that while the killings have become somewhat sanitized, with minimal blood and victims usually reacting by sticking out their tongues and clutching their chests, Groo is still quite lethal, as can be seen in this scene, in which he slices open at least three men with one swipe of his sword:

I love looking at all the little details of the book, whether in the midst of battle scenes, the background of landscapes, or the exchanges of dialogue and moments of character interaction. That richness is what always keeps me coming back for more.

Next: "The Siege!"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Grooella, and Sage also appears in one of the flashbacks. I assume this is the first flashback to Groo's childhood, but later on, strips featuring "Lil' Groo" will show up from time to time, most of them featuring Grooella and either the Sage or Granny Groo, who apparently hasn't been introduced yet either.
Hidden message(s): Someday, I will start finding these... UPDATE: As reader Lee Menham points out in the letter column of issue #27, the text in the following caption (the very first thing seen in the issue, which makes my missing it kind of sad) can be rearranged to read either "Hidden Message: Naive Sister" or "It's Evanier's Hidden Message":

Moral: "Blood is thicker than water...so beware of thick relatives."
Spanish words: The army attacking Grooella's castle are called the Cominos, which might be a misspelling of camino, the Spanish word for road. Of course, it's also an island next to Malta, a valley in Italy, and another spelling of the spice cumin.
Running jokes: Groo can plainly see that the Cominos are a fierce band, and he was saying "Did I err?" even when he was a little kid.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Aide
Letter column jokes: Mark confirms that the Groo Crew (Sergio, Mark, Stan Sakai, and Tom Luth) appeared in the background of the Minstrel story in issue #15 and also as attendees of Arcadio's wedding in #11. A reader named Anthony Haagsma confesses that he got his letter printed in #15 by saying he thought Groo was stupid, and apologizes for the terrible thing he has done. Mark responds by "complaining" that they only print complimentary letters because that's pretty much all they get, and sort of calls for more critical letters, which makes me curious to see if more of them (real or fake) show up in future issues. Mark also announces that the next issue will be the last time he defines mulch in the letter column (it didn't stick though), and makes a big deal about it, saying to reserve extra copies and that he doesn't know why anyone else should bother printing other comics that month, which was a good joke about hype for dumb events in comics even back in 1986.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Neverending Fray: Beware the fish

Groo the Wanderer #17
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1986

As much fun as it is to see Groo tumble into people's lives and ruin everything, sometimes you feel kind of sorry for them, especially if they don't seem completely deserving of the utter destruction that inevitably follows in his path. That's kind of the case in this issue, when Groo makes his way to an isolated village and impresses the leaders with a display of swordsmanship:

They foolishly make him the commander of their army, in order to destroy their hated neighbors, and, by attacking the first people he comes across, he quickly manages to alienate them from their allies and also make enemies of the third party meant to lead some peace talks. And then he manages to destroy their means of defense (a piranha-filled lake), thoroughly dismantling their means of survival amongst the people of their apparently animosity-filled land. 

It's pretty harsh, even if it was all initiated by an attempt to use Groo to wipe out an enemy. This might be another example of a plot that could have been made better by the addition of a (spotted, canine) audience surrogate, someone to comment on the action, remind us of why the people deserve what they get, and cheer Groo on whenever he screws up. We'll get there eventually.

As always, there is still plenty to enjoy, with this issue offering some excellent physical comedy, the main highlight being Groo's attempt to use stilts to make his way across the piranha-infested waters:

The multiple scenes of all those tiny fish swarming over the screaming barbarian are pretty funny too, and I like the comparison between some pigs devouring their slop and Groo diving into a meal:

Also, for those interested in that sort of thing, I think this is the first time we get to see Groo's ass:

I'm not sure if that's a highlight or not.

Next: Grooella!

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: None
Hidden message(s): Have I mentioned that I'm bad at finding these? UPDATE: Issue #27 reveals that the title page poem forms an acrostic, with the first letter of each line, put in order, reading "the hidden message":

Moral: "The fish most likely to be caught is the one with the biggest mouth."
Spanish words: The main village is Pescatel, which the title informs us means "hatchery". One of the tribes Groo encounters is called the Trabahos, which is a misspelling of "trabajo", or work. And there's also Mark's job (see below).
Running jokes: "Did I err?", mulch, the title page poem advises never to call Groo a mendicant.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Traductor (Spanish for translator)
Letter column jokes: Mark answers a couple numbered lists of questions, with the best joke probably being about why Sergio draws so many people with hats hooked under their noses: "If you saw Sergio's hat, you'd understand. Come to think of it, if you saw Sergio's nose, you'd understand." He also states that the pouch on Groo's belt contains "whatever we need to get him out of a plot problem", makes a joke about getting paid little to nothing, references the government paying farmers not to farm (I think that was a thing people joked about a lot back in the 80s), and states that Groo won't cross over with Ambush Bug because "we'd rather cross over with a humor comic." A reader pulls a Jeopardy and asks "What is a process of inbred fertilization...", prompting Mark to answer that it is called "mulching". And it's not a joke, but he gives a pretty detailed explanation of why some issues of the comic have a barcode on the front and some have a picture of Spider-Man.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Comix Canon Club: Jews and Indians

This is the second post in a series looking at notable stories to be found within The Graphic Canon, volume 1.

The Book of Esther
By J.T. Waldman

This excerpt from J.T. Waldman's Megillat Esther is extraordinary, a demonstration of a beautiful and fascinating way to adapt the Old Testament into comics form. Each page is filled with gorgeous artwork, including lush figurework and detailed settings, but also interpretive design elements that incorporate the original Hebrew text. It's an innovative and exciting way to evoke the full sensory experience of the story, with my favorite page taking a sensory overload approach with dozens of tiny panels depicting the Persian king who initiates the plot having a massive party, with the page's text fitting in the gaps in between the images, as if the party has been so long-lasting and overwhelming that the participants can only barely discern the amount of time that has actually elapsed:

The portion of the book included here only contains the very beginning of the story, but the presentation is so incredible that I'll definitely be seeking out the entire book when I get the chance.

By Matt Wiegle

The Mahabharata is evidently a staggeringly long and complex epic, which could make for a great, if cripplingly massive comics adaptation, so what Matt Wiegle does here, in a comic original to this volume, is single out one teeny tiny sliver of the whole story and enact it on the page in a lovely manner. It's a simple plot, about an evil member of one of two warring families who builds a palace for some members of the rival family to say in when visiting, planning to burn it down and kill them when they arrive. Wiegle's version plays out across only four pages, but they are a marvel of design, with long, skinny panels extending across a shared background, acting as slices of time glimpsed against a background, which starts out on the first page as empty landscape, then becomes a massive palace, with the characters moving around within their little portions of the story:

It's a great metaphor for the entire work, in which many tiny, nearly indistinguishable characters move throughout a larger whole, standing against the massive backdrop of the entire epic. It's a wonderful little glimpse of the hugely expansive whole, enough to whet the appetite for more.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Neverending Fray: Groo can't fly

Groo the Wanderer #16
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1986

I'm wondering if this sort of story is indicative of why Sergio, Mark, and company started shaking things up after a while, adding regular supporting characters and working social commentary into the story. Or maybe I'm just viewing this as a reader who has experienced another hundred examples of Groo fighting and wrecking stuff, but this story is kind of rote, as amusing as it is. Groo tries to get hired as a guard at a shipyard (for airships, since this is fantasy), but they don't need a guard, so comes up with an idea to make them need a guard. No really, he has an idea:

His plan fails, of course, because the shipyard has guard dogs, so he just tries to work there, with predictable results:

Later, he runs across his "friend" Taranto, fights the army that is chasing Taranto's gang of thugs, and gets fooled into joining them when they steal a ship. Guess which one they take?

This all works well enough, but there's something missing. It might just be the randomness of the plot, in which a character has to show up out of nowhere halfway through to kick things into gear after they had stalled, but I think a lot of this aimlessness will be solved later on, when Groo gains a sidekick to play off of. Rufferto is one of those intangible elements that completes the recipe and brings out its full potential. 

There's still plenty to enjoy until we get there though, whether in recurring jokes like a bunch of people all reacting to Groo identically, whether in surprise, fear, or horror:

Or new and chaotic ways to demonstrate Groo's stupidity:

Or even surprises like a shout-out to Prince Valiant (and, in a roundabout way, Jack Kirby):

Sure, I'll read it. But it'll be nice to have a spotted dog in the mix.

Next: "Pescatel (The Hatchery)"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Taranto. And the Groo creative team can be seen among the shipyard workers on the title page:

Is this the first appearance of Stan Sakai and Tom Luth in the comic?
Hidden message(s): Does the implication that the Groo Crew were causing trouble at the shipyard before Groo showed up count? UPDATE: More anagrams! Issue #27 points to a "Danghem Seaside" sign whose text can be rearranged to read "hidden message":

Moral: "Trust only in incompetence. You will never be disappointed."
Spanish words: None, except for Mark's job
Running jokes: "Did I err?", "I can plainly see that!"
Mark Evanier's job(s): Banderillero
Letter column jokes: A twelve-year-old reader says that Groo is the only comic he reads because he feels that he "outgrew super-heroes a long time ago", and he asks what a reader is to do when superheroes are all that's published. Mark replies that if he waits two years, he can start writing them. One reader (Todd Neiman) says that if Mark defines mulch one more time, he's going to scream. Mark then defines mulch in reply to another letter, then prints another letter from Todd Neiman that just says "EAAGG-GHHHHHHHH!" In interesting non-joke content, Mark mentions the upcoming graphic novel The Death of Groo (with assurances that Groo survives it) and plugs the Groo lead miniature figures from Dark Horse Miniature Company (which is unaffiliated with Dark Horse Comics).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Neverending Fray: Groo does not know the sound of one hand clapping

Groo the Wanderer #15
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1986

This issue is pretty hilarious, a classic example of putting Groo in a situation where he will drive people crazy and watching what happens. He begins the issue by joining on ongoing fray, but uncharacteristically, he can't decide which side to fight for (normally he would just charge in and attack everyone at once). He eventually chooses one side just in time for them to triumph, but the victors are somber rather than celebratory, since it turns out they have just killed their master, who had turned evil, and now they are all going to commit suicide. The only alternative is to go live in a monastery, and that is a fate worse than death, since they would have to take vows of celibacy and silence. This makes for a weird combination of samurai ethics, emphasized by the armor the soldiers wear, and what seems like Buddhist asceticism, but hey, it's fantasy. Sergio somehow turns a scene of mass suicide into an example of slapstick comedy:

And he gets some great humor out of Groo's difficulty deciding whether to go along with their example or go join the monastery (he's too dumb to think of any other options):

And that's where the real comedy begins, as Groo immediately clashes with monks who refuse to break their vows of silence (leading to an excellent sound effect):

Then he joins the monastery, has his head shaved (which makes for a weird visual), gets constantly shushed when he doesn't understand that he is also supposed to be silent:

He ends up annoying everyone so much with his constant chatter that they keep breaking their own vows to yell at him, so they send him off to do some begging, only to have him completely ruin their entire way of life by convincing the local townspeople to send them wine, women, good food, and all the pleasures that they have purposely abstained from for so long. It's a pretty great demonstration of Groo's total cluelessness, his inability to understand something that is outside his realm of experience, but also his guileless nature and willingness to help out, even if it's in exactly the wrong manner. Groo usually screws things up, but he has nearly endless ways of doing so, and this is an excellent example of how his combination of good intentions and stupidity can lead to disaster.

On the subject of art, Sergio's flair for detail is evident in this issue, with the little dinosaurs decorating the army's helmets being a definite highlight. His design of the monastery is wonderful, with the way the buildings are perched on a sheer mountaintop, and I like the layout of the page revealing it as well, with the panels set into the main image without seeming to interrupt it:

As funny and entertaining as the series is, the consistently lovely visuals are what turn it into a fully-realized world that's worth revisiting again and again. I don't think I'll ever get tired of reading these comics.

Next: "The Shipyard"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: The Minstrel, who gets his own backup story in which he wanders through the land singing about how music can overcome hate and spread love, but everyone who hears it ends up getting in fights with each other. Irony!
Hidden message(s): This sure looks like one, but I have no idea what it says:

UPDATE: That wasn't it, and the real one (as revealed in issue #27) is ridiculous. Scouring the legal indicia on the first page reveals this sentence hidden among the small text:

Moral: "In the contest between simplicity and silence, silence hasn't got a prayer."
Spanish words: None
Running jokes: Groo gets called a mendicant, but this time it's accurate, since he is begging for money.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Conditioner
Letter column jokes: There are some good ones in this issue. One writer asks why the fret of the Minstrel's lute keeps changing, then details every transformation it made in the character's appearances to date. Mark responds by offering a few explanations, including that Sergio has a short memory and keeps forgetting what he drew. He also confirms that one of the lute-toppers in issue #11 was MAD publisher William B. Gaines, which I was curious about. Another writer complains (possibly facetiously?) that Groo is stupid, unlike "serious and mature" comics with "intelligent stories and characters (such as the X-Men)." Mark responds by defining mulch. Finally, somebody asks why Groo looks "surprisingly similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger when he played Conan", and Mark suggests that if he ever meets Arnold, he should "show him an issue of Groo and say 'I think this looks like you.' But let us know first. We want to see this." The same writer also asks what the blue thing on Groo's chest is, referencing the already-established running joke in which Mark said it was a Walkman. Mark replies by saying that of course it isn't a Walkman, it's a rented videocassette that Groo keeps meaning to return.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Neverending Fray: This issue is surprisingly comfortable with slavery

Groo the Wanderer #14
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1986

This issue seems like a chance to have Groo cause a bunch of trouble at a building site, but in doing so, it kind of undermines the attitude about slavery which was established in issue #5. Or maybe he's just too stupid to realize what is going on, but the fact that he ends up in the middle of a slave labor camp (where a pyramid is being built) and doesn't seem to care about the suffering of those interned there is kind of offputting. He does decide to get a job there though, leading to lots of funny business, like this amusing bit of haggling over wages:

Sergio does get to exhibit his proficiency at comedy based on details of body language and facial expressions, like in this scene in which Groo gets "promoted" to slave driver:

He gets in trouble in other ways too, sinking boats, wrecking construction, and just generally causing havoc, sometimes in response to being addressed in an insulting manner (I love the weird logic of requiring proof that he resembles whatever insult is used against him):

He also gets to perform a pretty quintessential Groo action by being told what not to do and then immediately doing it:

It's a pretty typical issue of the series, one that plops Groo down in a certain setting and just lets him loose to cause chaos. There is a bit of social justice in his actions, as a group of slaves ends up benefiting from his actions (which makes for an amusing reversal of the usual ending, as they are all chasing him to thank him, for a change), but only a slight one; the powerful keep their heel on the slaves' neck, for the most part. Groo is a pretty solitary figure, mostly just keeping to himself and only mindful of his own needs and desires, but it's nice to see him occasionally gain awareness of the plight of those around him, if only for a moment. Unfortunately, this isn't one of those times, but he'll be sure to get more chances in the future.

Nudity watch: the women on this opening page are "PG-13 nude" only because Sergio didn't draw their nipples:

But he did include nipples on one of the barbarian chicks decorating the credits box:

Finding these occasional bits of naughtiness hidden in the artwork of this series was a definite highlight of the comic when I was a teenager. Seems kind of silly now; the fact that the semicircles Sergio drew were (are?) so alluring is a definite comment on the male libido.

Next: "Groo and the Monks"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: None.
Hidden message(s): Nope, still didn't find any. UPDATE: As issue #27 tells us, rearranging the letters of "Dendhi Semage's" in the following panel reveals the words "hidden message":

Moral: "When you run from your problem, you make it that much harder for Good Fortune to catch you, as well."
Spanish words: None
Running jokes: Groo sinks a ship and says "Did I err?". He also says that he does not know the definitions of  mendicant and mulch, among other words.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Unequivocator
Letter column jokes: Speaking of hidden messages, Mark reminds readers (unless this is his first confirmation that they exist) that each issue since #4 contains a hidden message, describing where they are in #4 and 5, and stating that the one in #9 is just about impossible to find. He also answers a numbered list of questions, with answers including a joke about Gordon Kent, the series' original colorist, having gone insane, a statement that there will never be a battle between Groo and Conan (yeah, right!), and defining mulch. Letter writer Mark Mokszycki also references Justin Ebert (the guy who didn't like the morals) and mentions a joke about Sage's dog's name from the letter column of issue #12, which might be where that long-running gag came from, until they decided on the obvious name for him (Mulch).