Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Neverending Fray: Groo's approach to espionage is not very furtive

Groo the Wanderer #27
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1987

This issue combines the already-established tropes of having the Sage or the Minstrel tell a story about Groo by having them both do so, after meeting up with each other and being apprehended by an army that suspects they are spies. Their imminent execution prompts them to try to distract the soldiers by relating amusing anecdotes about Groo's attempts at espionage which are as funny as one would expect, given that he's not clever enough to deceive anyone, and he can't keep instructions or information straight long enough to deliver whatever intelligence he manages to acquire. He's also not good at keeping secrets:

The espionage angle also opens up the possibility for one of the most consistently entertaining Groo gag structures, that being that whoever tries to use Groo for their own benefit will end up being screwed in some fashion, whether they plan for him to succeed or fail in the instructions they give him. When he is found out as a spy, the kingdom he was spying on tries to feed him false intelligence. On his way to deliver the report, Groo runs into the Sage, who realizes that the people were lying and advises Groo to report the opposite of what they told him. This somehow leads Groo to verify the information, then report its opposite to the king he was spying for. And then after his leader is defeated, Groo, enraged, single-handedly defeats the army of the kingdom that lied to him, but can't convince the king to go claim the captured kingdom, since his intelligence is always wrong. It's a hilariously convoluted situation, but it makes for a perfect example of the way anybody and everybody who bases their plans around Groo are just setting themselves up for defeat.

In another story told by the Minstrel, a king sends Groo to deliver a message to his general, but the message carries incorrect information, since he expects Groo to fall into enemy hands. Groo manages to screw things up in multiple ways, first by changing the message when he fears the enemy will acquire it, then by managing to deliver the message anyway (while still letting the enemy see it), leading the various armies to run in opposite directions and never actually do any fighting. It's something of a change from the usual Groo stories; rather than ending in death and defeat, the victims of his stupidity are simply left at an impasse, unable to ever move forward, which is arguably a worse fate.

Interestingly, there is one exception to the rule that basing plans on Groo's actions leads to destruction: Sage and Minstrel, who manage to slip away when Groo attacks their captors for laughing at him. Perhaps those who aren't seeking personal gain (aside from simply staying alive) are immune from the effects of partnership with Groo, or maybe their status as supporting cast members is all that is needed to keep them alive.

On a side note, the title page poem of this issue is a bit of a departure from usual. Normally, these poems make some rhymes and jokes about the events of the issue, or just make fun of Groo, but this one is a bit meta, stepping out of the world of the comic as Mark complains about trying to write rhymes for the Minstrel and threatening to quit and leave the lyricism up to Sergio:

It's still funny though, so that's all that matters.

Next: Next up is issue #31, "The Arms Deal"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Minstrel and Sage, and the Groo Crew (Sergio, Mark, Stan, and Tom) show up as soldiers menacing them:

And since Minstrel's story takes place while Groo was in the army of King Kassabist from back in issue #1, Taranto can be seen as one of the king's advisors. Continuity!
Hidden message(s): It's written in the sand in this panel:

Moral: The moral for this issue is contained within a last-page song by the Minstrel, which says, " shouldn't laugh when those around you fail," which doesn't sound as good when it is separated from the rest of the lyrics.
Spanish words: General Medalla is named after the word for "medal".
Running jokes: There are five pages between the setup and payoff of the "What did he mean, 'slow of mind'?" gag. Groo can plainly see that he is carrying a secret message.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Bard
Letter column jokes: A question about the blue thing on Groo's chest leads Mark to clarify his earlier statement that it was a video cassette: the cassette is Beta, not VHS. Mark notes that this is the most common question they receive, with the second being "What is mulching?", the third being what the Sage's dog's name is, and the fourth being "Will Sergio send me a drawing of Groo?" He also notes that the Groo Graphic Novel is almost done, but "...there seem to be, uh, problems with the business folks, he said, putting it as nicely as possible." And then he describes where to find the hidden message in issues 13-18. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Neverending Fray: Again with the wishes

Groo the Wanderer #36
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Phil DeWalt (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1988

This issue picks up right where the previous one left off, and it continues to milk the large guest cast by having Groo grant them wishes (using the magic amulet he has in his possession), but somehow managing to make things worse when doing so. He sends Sage back to the mountaintop he froze on last issue, and Taranto and his goons get transported to a room full of treasure that happens to be a king's locked vault. This does provide the opportunity for a Scrooge McDuck reference:

Arcadio was about to slay his thousandth dragon, so Groo sends him to fight 1,000 dragons, which gives Sergio a chance to draw a cool collection of giant lizards:

Most poignantly, Groo wishes that the Minstrel would stop rhyming in order to escape having to hear the constant insults that come from describing his actions, but while this initially makes Groo happy, when he realizes that he has taken away his friend's purpose and the thing that gives his life meaning, he decides he has to rectify his mistake. Of course, doing so won't be easy, since he inadvertently gave the amulet to Arba and Dakarba, but he wants to do the right thing, so he heads off to win it right back. And after various shenanigans involving Grativo being turned into different animals, Groo gets the amulet back, undoes the worst of his wishes, and, frustrated by his inability to get wishes right, wishes the amulet did not exist and solves everyone's problems:

It's the perfect ending to this series of madcap events, a situation that lets Groo do something right for once, even if he thinks he screwed up. As an ending that does something other than having everyone chasing Groo with murderous intent or having him about to wander into a death trap, it's pretty much ideal. And the issue makes better use of a host of guest stars too, giving everyone something unique to do (except Pal and Drumm, who just disappear between scenes) and highlighting their different ways of interacting with the title character. Yep, it looks like the creative team is finally figuring out how to use their ever-expanding cast, either one at a time or all at once. I look forward to seeing more.

Next: I've acquired a few of the issues I had skipped, so next time we're going back to issue #27, "Spies!"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: The same group of all the regular supporting players is still here: Sage, Taranto, Grativo, Arba and Dakarba, the Minstrel, Arcadio, Pal and Drumm, and Grooella. The Groo Crew (Sergio, Mark, Stan Sakai, and Tom Luth) are also hanging around in the background, as can be seen in the panel below.
Hidden message(s): It is contained within the Sage's loud exclamation here:

Moral: No moral this month, although it does get a replacement of sorts in a song from the Minstrel.
Spanish words: None
Running jokes: More of the cheese dip from last issue. Groo not only says "Did I err?", but he also complains that Minstrel always sings about his erring. There are two "What did you mean, 'slow of mind'?" gags, one in response to a statement made a month ago, and one involving the Groo duplicate that Arba and Dakarba created.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Logastellus (a person whose enthusiasm for words outstrips his knowledge of them)
Letter column jokes: The final poem from Steven W. Ebner is printed here, after Mark sent him a postcard begging him to stop sending poems. Mark also plugs an episode of CBS Storybreak called "Mamma Don't Allow" that he wrote and wrote songs for.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Neverending Fray: If wishes were fishes...

Groo the Wanderer #35
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Phil DeWalt (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1988

This issue continues the trend of learning to work with supporting characters, increasing the scale to include just about every familiar face from the series to date. And this time around, Groo is the center of the action rather than a player on the sidelines, having acquired the ultra-powerful magic medallion from last issue and managing to inadvertently disrupt the lives of everyone he knows. It does end up being pretty repetitive, as he wishes various characters were nearby, then that they would leave, causing them to abruptly appear and disappear in various locations, usually with dire consequences. The most effective of these is probably the Sage, who keeps getting banished by Groo to a snowy mountaintop, then returning nearly frozen stiff (the ice cubes in the flask on his staff are a nice touch), only to be sent back once again:

The entire issue is spent on variations on that gag, and they're not funny enough to really stand out from each other; if anything the other wish-based jokes are funnier, like when Groo wants something to eat:

Or when he finally manages to figure out what is going on:

It's also a shame that more isn't done with the situation left at the end of the last issue, in which the Sage was in control of the medallion. The Sage is a really interesting character, a counterpoint to Groo in that he also wanders and tries to help people, but does so by dispensing wisdom rather than attacking people. But he's far from infallible, and he's sometimes selfish or scheming, a departure the humble, selfless monk type that would usually fill this sort of role. So having him gain the power to put his wisdom into effect is a good opportunity to see whether that power will corrupt or his wisdom will prevail for the greater good. The issue initially starts off in this direction, as Sage imagines using the power of the medallion to become not just a rich king, but the ruler of the entire world. But before we can see any of this play out, Groo gets his hands on the medallion, and things go in a completely different direction. Maybe we'll finally get to see the results of a world shaped in Sage's image in some future issue, but not this time.

The medallion saga doesn't appear to be over though (the Groo Crew seems to tend to group stories like this in threes), as the next issue promises more silliness involving magic and the assembled supporting cast. We'll see if Sergio and company can manage to wrangle them into a more effective use of the series' strengths. I'm ever hopeful.

Next: Unfortunately, I don't have the next couple issues, so we're skipping ahead to issue #38, "Mealtime". "Rhyme Nor Reason"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Pretty much everyone: the Sage, Taranto, Arba and Dakarba, Grativo, the Minstrel, Arcadio, Pal and Drumm, and Grooella, although several of them only show up in a few crowded panels at the end. Lil' Groo and Grooella, the Witch of Kaan, and Chakaal appear on the cover, but not  inside. And the Groo Crew (Sergio, Mark, Stan Sakai, and Tom Luth) not only squeeze onto the cover behind the logo, but they show up in the group at the end too:

Hidden message(s): After scouring the pages, I found it written in the curls of Grooella's hair:

Moral: "A wish is only as good as the wisher and what he can achieve."
Spanish words: None
Running jokes: "Did I err?", a massive amount of cheese dip, and someone calls Groo "slow of mind", but he doesn't respond; maybe next issue?
Mark Evanier's job(s): Opisthographer
Letter column jokes: This month's letter column is composed completely of poems sent by Steven W. Ebner; here's a sample:
I'm back again. I'm getting eager--
Though my poetry is meager--
I will like Groo even better--
If Evanier will print my letter.
And since the poems showed no sign of stopping, Mark promises a conclusion to the Steven W. Ebner saga next issue, "featuring, by popular demand, the very last Steven W. Ebner poem you will ever see in Groo!"
Miscellaneous: This M&M's ad is horrifying:

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Neverending Fray: The bond between man and canine is magical

Groo the Wanderer #34
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Phil DeWalt (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1987

This issue seems to be something of an experiment in continuity, paying off a running subplot from the last time the witches Arba and Dakarba appeared. It's somewhat successful, although heavy plotting tends to weigh the stories down and limit the chances for Groo to run wild and cause trouble. There's also an attempt to incorporate a running joke from the letter column into the comic itself, which also comes off as somewhat awkward, but it's a decent gag for long-time fans. Obviously, concerns about continuity and accessibility have been around much longer than the modern age of comics.

Luckily, the issue is mostly pretty funny, and it gives Sergio a chance to flex his chops at drawing crazy, detail-packed images. The story picks up from where issue #26 left off, with Arba and Dakarba being summoned by the Great Wizard to retrieve the other half of the amulet they were supposed to fetch for him and subsequently lost (the short version of the story is that Groo screwed everything up). They go look for Groo so he can tell them where to find it, but they manage to rope the Sage in as well, and everyone gathers to watch the Great Wizard turn Groo into a fish so he can search for the amulet in the lake where he threw it. After retrieving the amulet, the Wizard becomes super-powerful, but Sage turns the tables on him and sets up the next issue, which appears to feature pretty much every recurring character in the series to this point.

The problem with this story, and many of the stories which feature multiple guest stars, is that Groo is mostly sidelined, only included in the plot as a subservient assistant to the others. He doesn't even really influence the outcome of the story; he's a supporting character in his own book. Sure, he gets to do some funny stuff and fight some guards, but there's not much for him to do. That's the problem with trying to play out long-term plots; eventually those undercurrents overwhelm the main story and undercut what makes it work so well. I want to see Groo try to help people out (with unfortunate results), get in fights, accidentally destroy things, impulsively charge into situations without thinking, and inadvertently foil anybody who tries to use him to their advantage, but he barely gets to do any of that here. There's a simplicity to Groo that gets lost when other players and plots are piled on top of him. I think Sergio and Mark eventually figured out the right balance and came up with some good stories featuring a bunch of characters, but they seem to still be learning how to handle it here.

But, as always, there is plenty to enjoy, such as Groo getting turned into a fish:

Or finding undreamt-of ways to screw up chopping down a tree:

And Sergio fills pages with excellent details, including glimpses of a war raging between the Great Wizard's army of lizard-men and what appear to be masked pig-men riding on dragons:

I always love the near-pathological level of detail that can be seen in the margins of Sergio's panels, and this one is especially nice, since it's all flavor, just something happening in the background of the main plot. And Sergio makes it visually interesting, using larger panels to sell the scale of the battle, then switching to tiny silhouettes to act as visual "noise" elsewhere. I would have been happier to just see Groo get caught up in the middle of this crazy war, but I'll get plenty of chances for that sort of thing later. I'll take what pleasure I can wherever I can find it.

Next: "Wishes"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: The Sage, Arba and Dakarba, and what I imagine is the final appearance of the Great Wizard.
Hidden message(s): The name of this sunken ship is "The Hidden Message":

There's also this jar hidden in Arba and Dakarba's lair, bearing a cryptic label:

Moral: "Even the most powerful being is at the mercy of the weakest." I don't think that's actually true, and it doesn't really even fit this issue. 
Spanish words: The aforementioned label reads "Los sesos de Mark", or "Mark's brains". The spell the Great Wizard uses to turn Groo into a fish is "Guachinango merluza percebe!", which translates as "Snapper hake barnacle!"
Running jokes: The joke about the Sage's dog's name has migrated from the letter column to the main story, with characters throughout asking what it is, until the last panel finally reveals it, and throws in another letter column joke to boot:

Mark Evanier's job(s): Gastriloquist. There's also a note from Mark saying that he's running out of these, which we know isn't true, since he keeps coming up with new ones for a hundred more issues or so.
Letter column jokes: This issue introduces a long-running letter column joke, and one of the first to be initiated by a reader. A fellow named Steven W. Ebner (who chose to use his real name, since he's not T.M. Maple) decided to send the Groo Crew a bad poem every day until he finally got a letter published, and Mark shares several of them here, with the promise of more to come next month. They're pretty awful; here's a sample:
How long do I have to hunt and peck--
And spew forth junk and stuff and dreck--
Before I see my name in print--
Beneath a Groo-gram? Get the hint?
This probably led to years of people sending in awful poems to try to get in the letter column, but we'll have to see how that turns out.
Miscellaneous: I liked the graphic at the top of this ad for American Comics in Gainesville, VA, with the Punisher using a Kirbytech gun to ignite the words "Hot Comics!" with a blast of flame:

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Neverending Fray: What pirates?

Groo the Wanderer #33
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Janice Cohen (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1987

Pirates are a perfect subject matter for Sergio Aragones (he must have done "A MAD Look at Pirates" at some point, right?), and opportunity for him to draw all sorts of comic chaos, guys sporting lots of detailed bodily decorations attacking panicked victims with joyfully violent abandon. So throwing Groo into the middle of a piratical farce is an obvious plot for this series, and it works so well in this issue that it will show up again and again. In this version, it's also a great chance to use Groo's easily-misdirected energy to comic effect. When he decides to capture a band of pirates in order to earn a reward from a recently-pillaged village, he ends up in charge of the buccaneers after defeating their leader, then caught in the middle when he brings them back to take over the village he was originally supposed to defend. It's a pretty perfectly-structured issue, providing opportunities for the usual Groo gags of charging into battle, sinking ships, trying to make a confused decision, and ignoring his confusion to just join a fray.

Highlights include Groo charging off to attack the pirates as soon as he learns of the reward:

And a nice use of small panels to show Groo's process of trying to figure out what to do:

As well as an amusing pair of panels that see the pirates' leader quickly defeated with a combination of slapstick visuals and wordplay:

There are plenty of other nice gags, like the villagers repeatedly saying that things couldn't get worse for them, and then being proven wrong, or Groo's incomprehension when the pirates kick the villagers out of the village and take over, meaning that Groo can't attack them because they are now the villagers, but he also can't accept a reward because he didn't defend the village from the pirates. It's a great use of logic to confound the simpleton, until he decides to just ignore it and attack them anyway. And as usual, Sergio manages to make us feel sorry for the regular folks who get caught up in whatever shenanigans are going on; this panel of the villagers being kicked out of their home is kind of devastating:

We might be able to laugh at all the ruination Groo brings to the land, but we still have some empathy for the common man, which manages to ground the series and provide relatable conflicts even among all the bloodletting, sacking, and pillaging. It's not an easy life for anybody; one almost wants to be as blissfully ignorant as Groo; he sure seems to enjoy his life. I know I do.

Next: "The Amulet (In Which We Finally Learn the Name of the Sage's Dog)"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: None.
Hidden message(s): This issue has one on the cover, spelled out upside down in the sand at the bottom of the ocean:

There's also one on the inside, written in the decorations on this guy's helmet:

Moral: "Be careful when you take one side or the other. You could wind up in the middle."
Spanish words: The village of Peralvillo is named after a neighborhood in Mexico City. While this isn't Spanish, the pirates of Salgari are apparently named after the nineteenth-century Italian author Emilio Salgari, who wrote multiple series of books about pirates.
Running jokes: At this point in the series, Groo's affection for Rufferto hadn't fully developed, and it seems like there will be at least one joke per issue for a while about him planning to eat the dog at some point. Here, he tosses Rufferto off a boat so none of the pirates will eat him first. Groo's tendency to sink ships is a central plot point, and this issue establishes the opposing force of Rufferto's luckiness, which keeps ships afloat as long as he is on board. Groo's table manners fit right in among the pirates. The "slow of mind" gap for this issue is only one page, but the twist is that this time, it is Groo who calls himself "slow of mind".
Mark Evanier's job(s): Engastrimyth (ventriloquist)
Letter column jokes: Mark says that soldiers in this series wear ornate ankle protectors because "their armies all hold contest and give out big cash prizes for the most unusual tan lines." When one reader asks about where to find issues that he doesn't have, Mark says he can just read other issues over again, since "they're all pretty much the same." He also confirms that Rufferto will be sticking around, even though he was originally intended to only be featured in a few issues, but even his creators grew to like him and decided to keep him around (unless Groo eats him). And this issue's "What did she mean, 'slow of mind'?" gag made its way into the letter page, with the first letter asking if Groo is really slow of mind and Mark using the familiar phrase to close out the column. I love the way the series' running jokes make their way back and forth from the comics to the letter column; that's pretty unique.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Neverending Fray: Money either is or isn't everything

Groo the Wanderer #32
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth & Janice Cohen (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1987

In the previous issue, Groo managed to acquire a great deal of money, which provides plenty of obvious opportunities for hilarity, and once further scene-setting establishes a town controlled by bankers who aren't willing to provide loans to the people, the hope for some class-based social commentary is raised. But while latter-day Groo stories might have jumped right into the social satire, this was still early enough in the series' run that the jokes are mostly limited to realizations of axioms regarding fools and their money. Luckily, those still make for plenty of funny stuff, like a scene where Groo comes across some bandits robbing a guy, but his arms are too full of moneybags to fight, so he leaves the money with the guy, only to have the guy try to run off while he is dispatching the robbers. This also leads to a nice involvement of Rufferto in the action, including an early example of the dog biting somebody on the ass:

Having established the difficulty of Groo getting into mayhem while carrying lots of loot around, Sergio and Mark quickly find a way to divest him of his fortune by having him decide to give it to a bunch of monks to take care of, since they don't have anything better to do. After this, the comedy comes from everyone thinking Groo has the money. When he gets to the town with the bankers, people immediately start asking him for loans, but, in a typically Groo-ish misunderstanding, he thinks they are offering him jobs, and he agrees. Soon enough, most of the businesses in town have secured further loans from the bankers and are beginning to construct expansions and remodelings of their facilities, and its only a matter of time before the truth comes out and the system collapses entirely.

Following the financial collapses of the 21st century, this whole thing certainly seems prescient, but if there's any intended satire, it's more in the way people with money get treated differently. Since everyone has heard that he is rich, Groo is suddenly welcomed rather than spurned, and the bankers treat him with respect, saying "He has that special kind of wisdom of the rich!" Groo keeps thinking people's requests for money are offers of payment for work, and since they are so much he thinks, "I guess when you are rich, they figure they have to pay you more..." And later, when someone says that he won't have to do any work, he thinks, "I guess when you are rich, you even get paid for doing nothing!" It's wisdom from the mouths of fools.

All of the monetary wackiness is pretty entertaining, but the issue ends up concluding on a pretty bleak note, with the livelihood of the entire village in ruins. The more depressing endings of stories, in which people's lives are ruined just for having been in Groo's path, are the hardest ones to stomach in this series, although that might be the sharpest satire of all: life sucks, and then you die. But there is always some enjoyment to be had in the pages of the comic, with this issue providing a great example of a well-choreographed fight scene, and a nice use of the comics page:

There are also some great reaction shots; I never tire of Groo staring at somebody in incomprehension:

And I love the way everyone runs around screaming and waving their arms in a panic when they discover that Groo has no money and all their plans are based on a sham:

I think I might have mentioned this before, but Sergio Aragones is pretty great.

Next: "The Pirates of Salgari"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: The Sage, Taranto
Hidden message(s): It's written on the ends of this banker's scroll:

Moral: "Pretend money always leads to genuine grief." Jeez, that's great commentary on the current global financial situation...
Spanish words: Avara, a village full of bankers, means "stingy".
Running jokes: Groo wonders how much cheese dip he can buy with all his money. The "slow of mind" gap for this issue is only one page, but the twist is that this time, it is Groo who calls himself "slow of mind". Since Groo is rich, nobody minds his (and Rufferto's) disgusting table manners.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Logolept (a person who is obsessed with words)
Letter column jokes: No letters this month; instead, Mark mentions that half of the issue was colored by Janice Cohen instead of Tom Luth, and he claims Luth fled the country, and that they've sent people after him to bring him back. He also reveals the locations of all the hidden messages in issues #19-25, which will allow me to go back and updated any that I missed.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Neverending Fray: How much is that doggie with the moron?

Groo the Wanderer #30
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1987

The last issue's cover didn't have any hint of the new addition to the cast, but this one seems to indicate the opposite, that Rufferto has joined Groo in his wanderings and frays. That's not quite the case, though; like the three-parter that introduced Grooella, this story seems to be stretching out over a few issues to make the addition of a canine sidekick more believable, which might seem like a surprise for a silly comedy comic, but fits right into the modus operandi of the thoughtfully detailed approach this series takes to its hilarity.

While the previous issue was dedicated to Rufferto's growing admiration of Groo (who responded with plans to eat the poor mutt), this one sees Groo slowly coming around to reciprocating the feeling. He spends most of the issue trying to return the dog to his owners and claim the reward, which leads to a series of madcap chases and, when the always-scheming Taranto gets involved, various plans to steal him from Groo and/or cheat the owners out of the reward money. Groo gives away Rufferto, gets him back, attacks people, chases others, and when he finally manages to claim the reward, realizes that he misses the loyal pup. The next issue presumably cements their relationship, forever enshrining a companion into the lore of the dimwitted wanderer, one who loves the bumbling mendicant as much as we do.

As ever, there is plenty of excellently entertaining material here, such as an opening scene that sees Groo wander into a huge battle and not even notice it due to his preoccupation with returning Rufferto and getting a reward. But everyone else notices, and they all freeze, leading to a hilarious series of panels in which the oblivious force of nature wanders along with everyone watching:

I love the way Sergio conveys how everyone has halted in mid-action. What is the difference between this and a scene of hundreds of soldiers fighting? There's a lack of motion lines, for one thing, but the wide-eyed expressions on everyone's faces are what really sells the air of petrified fear, and everyone's posture manages to look awkward and stiff, and as the scene proceeds, they shift from being frozen in mid-motion to just standing around and wondering what Groo is going to do. It's really quite impressive.

Another scene sees Groo searching far and wide for Rufferto's owner, and it's funny in almost an opposite manner, shifting from one massively detailed location to a series of far-ranging settings, with the diversity of the random subjects Groo is questioning emphasizing the arbitrary nature of his search (also: nudity!):

The rest of the issue is fairly standard Groo material, wringing every bit of humor it can out of Groo's tendency to go off half-cocked, Taranto's attempts to play the situation to his advantage (and his obliviousness to the greater treasure, Rufferto's jeweled collar, sitting right under his nose), and everyone else learning the folly of getting in Groo's way. There's one especially funny moment, in which Groo corners one of Taranto's henchmen, that definitely made me laugh, being both an example of Groo's counter-intuitive thinking and the futility of trying to guess what he's going to do:

This is funny stuff, as one would expect, and now that the regular cast of the series is complete, it should be smooth sailing from here on out. Until Groo sinks us, that is.

Next: My collection appears to be missing issue #31, so we're skipping ahead to #32, "The Bankers of Avara".

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Rufferto has joined the regular cast, so there's no need to mention him here, but his owners make another appearance, as does Taranto. And there's another appearance of the Groo Crew (minus Tom Luth, I think) tucked away in the corner of a battle scene:

I like the Usagi Yojimbo ears on Stan Sakai's helmet.
Hidden message(s): The markings on these guys' bandannas spells out "This is the hidden message" over the course of the panels:

Moral: "Honesty is its own reward. Dishonesty is its own punishment."
Spanish words: None.
Running jokes: This issue, there are "only" twelve pages between the setup and punchline of the "What did you mean, 'slow of mind'?" gag. Groo doesn't get called a mendicant, but he does get called a scaramouch, with the same results.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Deobscurant
Letter column jokes: This column consists of some fairly standard sarcasm, including nonsensical answers to dumb questions (What is the name of a dragon that appeared in an issue? Sid. What is the stick Grooella carries with her face on the end? It's a Sibling Sapling). When asked if Sergio has the same build as Groo (huge upper body, skinny legs), Mark says he is actually three feet tall and weighs 600 pounds, and the mustachioed guy at conventions is a guy they hired and trained. He also jokes that his title keeps changing because he can't hold a job for very long.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Empowered: That's how I feel after reading this volume

Empowered, volume 7
By Adam Warren
Published by Dark Horse Comics

A common complaint about modern superhero comics is their overbearing tendency to shoehorn  "maturity" into what is essentially a children's genre, usually by filling stories with graphic violence and hints at sex, mostly in the form of skimpy costumes for female characters (but not men, since that might inspire icky feelings in the overwhelmingly male readership). The stunted emotional growth of most superhero creators and fans has led to a bizarrely insular, ever-shrinking readership (aging men, for the most part) who can't bear to move beyond the genre they loved in their youth, but want that genre to "grow up" with them, or at least attempt to be as "mature" as the gruesome police procedurals that litter the television landscape. It's gotten to the point where one can pretty much write off the entire genre, sacrificing the rare quality work that appears like pearls that aren't worth searching for among the rest of the swine.

So if I'm so down on the genre as a whole, why do I like Adam Warren's Empowered so much? It's a superhero comic that traffics in exactly those elements, filling its pages with sex and violence, and pandering to the reader with plots manufactured expressly for the purpose of reducing the eponymous heroine to powerlessness and skimpy-costumed titillation. The difference is that Warren isn't just rehashing old plots and characters with added "adult" content, but crafting new stories and constantly developing characters that he created, always moving his series forward and working to give readers more understanding of the characters as realistic, believable people, no matter how mannered their dialogue or crazily action-packed their personal battles. And what's more, the sex isn't included as a snickering attempt at arousal, but as a serious depiction of the issues that people face in a real relationship, and the violence is shocking and permanent, something that hits people hard and affects them deeply, not allowing for lighthearted wisecracks and easy resurrections, but scarring psyches and haunting the subconscious of all involved.

With this volume, Warren adds another tool to his arsenal, that of non-chronological storytelling. The opening chapter consists of a series of non-sequitur panels that appear to flash forward to events not yet seen, sans context, presented as the outside-of-time "memories" of the Caged Demonwolf character, an omnipotent cosmic fiend who has spent almost the entirety of the series trapped in a bondage device on the main character's coffee table, usually providing a belligerent running commentary on whatever the other characters are experiencing (especially their sex lives). This scene is kind of shocking, since it gives several hints at tragic events to come, but it is only a precursor to the storytelling methods used in the rest of the volume, which seems to start right at the climax of the plot, with Ninjette, the main character's best friend, a rogue ninja trying to escape the conflicts of her murderous clan, apparently captured by a group of masked ninjas who intend to either murder her or sell her back to her own clan, which has plans that are just as gruesome. And then, over the course of the rest of the volume, Warren jumps around in time, showing what happened before and after the moment of Ninjette's capture, then bouncing around the series' timeline at will, sometimes catching up on what has happened with Empowered and her friends after the events of the previous volume, then leaping to Emp and 'Jette's training sessions, hopping to scenes of Emp discussing her relationship with her boyfriend Thugboy, and even going back to Emp's early days as a superheroine and Ninjette's early ninja exploits and the beginnings of her rebellion against her clan. Warren even regularly presents "counter-factual scenarios" which seem to depict characters taking actions that are irreversible, usually by revealing information that would change how others view them, then revealing that they were just imagining saying or doing these unthinkable things, yet tantalizingly giving us a glimpse into a future in which these secrets come out. It's bravura storytelling, completely confident that readers can keep up, and still wowing with moments of humor, crazy sci-fi concepts, and heart-stopping action.

In fact, the ninja fight that we see play out in fits and starts over the course of the volume is one of the most exciting and well-choreographed set-pieces that Warren has delivered to date, as well as probably the bloodiest. Ninjette's attackers all wear weird masks that resemble old Japanese artwork, animals, or creepy demons and monsters, which makes their ruthless actions and taunting dialogue much more disturbing, giving them a faceless, expressionless inscrutability that stands in contrast to the barely-surviving Ninjette. This even carries over to Ninjette's ally, a clan-mate known as "Fucking Oyuki-chan" who is usually depicted sporting wide, emotionless eyes and an unmoving mouth, a terrifying murder-machine of the sort that Ninjette is trying to escape, but also a reminder of her own murderous past.

That struggle to escape and atone for her sins is what defines Ninjette's character in this volume, and Warren continues to break hearts as he exposes the depths of her self-loathing, demonstrating her desperate scrabble to keep from sinking into the darkness of despair, a fight that is only barely succeeding due to the love and support of her friends. Surprisingly, the most affecting moment of the volume comes when she opens up to the Caged Demonwolf, who, for what I think is the only time in the series, drops his loud, obnoxious, Yoda-speaking persona and comes as close as he can to declaring his love for her, as much as an immortal, bodiless being can express emotion toward an ever-decaying being with a ridiculously short lifespan. It's a lovely, poetic, emotional scene, as he describes seeing her outside of time, all his visions of her at different moments combining into a beautiful whole, one that he will remember throughout eternity.

That's what is so great about this series: Warren takes the basic building blocks of superheroes and uses them to craft a vision that is singularly his, full of wild ideas and rousing action, but also building characters that seem much more real than the trademark-holders of "mainstream" superhero comics, forming relationships that live and breathe, and finding humor in goofy costumes and silly code-names, but also in the frankness of human sexuality and often embarrassing interpersonal relationships. He's not afraid to follow through on the implications of his ideas, and he approaches the world he created as a whole ecosystem with far-reaching implications and consequences to actions both large and small. It's exciting to watch him continue to build and refine this complex milieu, while playing out full, satisfying character arcs that give said milieu a reason to exist and provide us with compelling drama. There's really nothing like this in current comics, and if all other superhero comics were to suddenly disappear, as long as Empowered sticks around, the genre will deserve to continue existing.

Bonus: The Caged Demonwolf's rendition of "Baby Got Back":