Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Neverending Fray: Not exactly Groo vs. Spider-Man...

Groo the Wanderer #52
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring), with "art assistance" by "Granny Aragones"
Published by Epic Comics, 1989

Now here's a darn good issue, full of all the requisite jokes, a good conflict for our "hero" to face, a plot that features a guest star without sidelining Groo, lots of fun action, and some excellent monster art by Sergio. It's a pretty ideal issue of Groo, if you ask me. As you might guess from the cover, the plot involves Groo and Chakaal fighting a giant spider called the Araña, which they do in order to keep a village (which is unintuitively situated right next to the beast's lair) from offering human sacrifices to it. There are many good jokes, like Groo's continual failure to grasp why Chakaal is so upset about the ignorant practice of human sacrifice (which isn't all that ignorant here, actually, since it keeps the spider from attacking the rest of the village, although their practice of kidnapping sacrifices from a neighboring village is pretty immoral). He gets some great lines in:

And so do the people around him:

The plot that he and Chakaal eventually come up with involves getting the spider drunk, but that all comes from Groo imbibing too much during a village meeting, which gives us the treat of seeing him act even dumber than usual due to inebriation, including an attempt to bond with the spider:

And really, I think I just like Groo's drunk face in general:

Sergio really gets a chance to cut loose with weird art here, giving the spider some personality when it gets drunk (look at those multiple sets of woozy eyes in the panel above), but making it monstrous and gross, with limbs spurting viscous ichor when severed and webs spraying out of disgusting orifices:

And I love the detail on display in the bone-filled lair, with a variety of weird shapes all piled together, creating an ominous atmosphere:

I also like his depiction of Chakaal, who, while skimply-clad, isn't one of the bimbos or wenches that often populate the background of the series, but a capable warrior, believable as somebody who could take on an army or a giant monster as well as the title character. In fact, while Groo is usually depicted cartoonishly, with limbs flailing about wildly, able to defeat all opponents more as a force of nature than of skill, Chakaal has a realistic physicality and a real sense of balance and motion as she fights:

It's always impressive to watch Sergio work, and this issue is a pretty great example of just a few of the things he does so well. More, please.

Next: "Dragons for Sale"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Chakaal, and the Groo-Grams header this month also has a bunch of guest stars:

Hidden message(s): It's written in a spider web in this panel:

Moral: "Ignorance weaves a web from which none can escape."
Spanish words: Araña means "spider", of course, and the village of Tela is named after the word for "fabric". Groo gets drunk on alipuz, which is Mexican slang for an alcoholic beverage.
Running jokes: A drunken Groo laments that people call him "slow of mind", and when trying to recall something that he wanted to tell Chakaal, he thinks it might be "I am the Prince of Chichester."
Mark Evanier's job(s): Araneologist
Letter column jokes: Reader Kim Metzger angers Mark by suggesting that the Minstrel get his own spinoff comic. William Bussard writes a letter consisting only of the sentence "I am the Prince of Chichester!" which prompts Mark to reveal that the phrase was coined in an attempt to embarrass Daniel Chichester, the Associate Editor of Groo, as though being the Associate Editor of Groo was not already embarrassing enough. Tom Hutchins mentions stumbling across a late-night viewing of the Will Shriner Show which featured Sergio and asks if he was able to sneak a plug in for Groo. Mark says he did, which explains why the show was canceled. Herman "Hermit" Wilson writes that in order for Groo to meet Comic Book Barbarian Regulations, he must say "What manner of wizardry is this?!" or "You fiend!" (and "fiend" must be underlined with a wavy line). Mark says that he doesn't scare them, but this panel did show up in this issue:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Neverending Fray: War is hell (for some)

Groo the Wanderer #51
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1989

I think we're still a little ways from the point where the series starts to stray into social commentary more and more, but this issue seems at least a little bit directed against those who profit from senseless war (or just enjoy it, in Groo's case). Groo and Chakaal stumble across a village that is caught in the middle of two tribes which have been feuding for so long, they don't remember the reasons. In defense of the poor folks suffering the damage from all the fights, Chakaal decides to try to find a way to defeat the two tribes, and they come up with a plan to dam up a local river, summon the tribes to fight each other, then destroy the dam and flood the valley, killing everyone. That's kind of a bloodthirsty solution, but it turns out not to be necessary when the two tribes decide they've tired of endless war and want to seek peace. Groo sort of ruins it though, trying to impress Chakaal by delivering the messages to summon each tribe to the battlefield, insisting that they come fight even though they want peace, and then just slaying them all when they don't listen to him. This ends up accidentally resolving everything, but rather than doing the right thing for a change, Groo goes ahead and smashes the dam and floods the village anyway, making this the issue in which he probably racks up the biggest body count of the series. Hilarious!

There are some good jokes here, but I still find myself dissatisfied, mostly because I'm partial to stories in which Groo manages to help out the downtrodden rather than destroy them, and where the plans he inadvertently foils are those of evil schemers who suffer the brunt of his wrath, rather than just people who disagree with him. I do find the role that Chakaal plays in the story interesting; as an actual competent warrior, she lets Groo participate in standard heroic plots rather than acting as an ever-hated outcast. The problem, at least in the case of this issue, is that Groo ends up acting against her positive goals. He does end up spurring the plot toward the inevitable conclusion, since a dam can't be introduced in this comic without Groo eventually destroying it. Maybe that's an indication that the creative team was struggling against the confines of the world that they had created, but probably not, since they continued to find many, many ways to work within those confines over the years.

Whatever the case, we can still enjoy the fun parts of the issue, like this exchange between Groo and one of the tribes he is trying to convince to kill each other:

And I like the silhouetted action scene going on in the background of this panel:

Ah, well. Maybe I'll enjoy the monster-fighting plot of the next issue better. Here's hoping!

Next: "The Araña"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Chakaal, and also a gross old lady who was also in the last issue, describing herself as "a befuddled old woman, issuing incoherent but ultimately significant predictions," shows up again. Plus, Arba and Dakarba appear in the heading to Groo-Grams:

Hidden message(s): It's written in the markings on this tree trunk:

Moral: "None suffer so much in a war as those who strive to end it."
Spanish words: The warring tribes, the Mas and the Menos, mean "more" and "less".
Running jokes: Groo thinks to himself, "He takes me for the fool I am!" Later, when trying to remember a message he is supposed to deliver, he comes up with "I am the Prince of Chichester!" He also gets called a mendicant, and in the ensuing fight, Rufferto bites a guy on the ass.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Signetor (someone who seals things with a ring, presumably)
Letter column jokes: Reader Rik Hunik explains how his desire for a complete set of Groo comics means that he needs a second set, one to read and one to keep in mint condition. But when the first set wears out from being read too much, he'll need another, and another. So, since Mark says there isn't much difference between issues, he has ended up buying 20 or more copies of each issue. Mark says they did him a favor and printed the Statement of Ownership this month (average monthly sales: 96,205 copies, with the most recent issue selling 88,800 copies), so he can see how many copies he'll have to buy in order to own the full print run. Commenting further about the Statement of Ownership, Mark says it is easily the funniest thing they publish all year, and "When you someday find yourself owning Marvel--and don't worry, you'll all get your chance--you might want to consider letting us publish a monthly book of the Statement of Ownership." Mark also notes that The Groo Chronicles and the Groo poster are out, hints at a possible annual (which never happened), and says that the next Groo graphic novel, The Life of Groo, is coming at some point, but hopefully it "won't be color-separated by some fellow with a guide dog." I guess they weren't happy with how The Death of Groo turned out?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Neverending Fray: Groo and romance don't really mix

Groo the Wanderer #50
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1989

It's the big fiftieth anniversary issue, so it's time to (re)introduce another supporting character to the series: Chakaal, a tough, no-nonsense swordswoman who is kind of like a female version of Groo, only smart and competent. While one benefit of having recurring characters comes from seeing how Groo reacts to them , she makes for an interesting contrast to most everyone else, since Groo treats her with complete, lovestruck adoration, ignoring her loathing of him and following her like a puppy dog, barraging her with constant marriage proposals. On the other hand, Rufferto, having some competition for Groo's affections, hates her and agonizes over the possibility that Groo might marry her, give up the wandering life, and settle down to have children.

The story isn't about relationships though; while Chakaal's initial reaction to seeing Groo is to attempt to kill him, they end up teaming up to fight a band of battle-thong-wearing warrior women who are attacking the villages surrounding a nearby lake and kidnapping all the young women. Groo proves his usefulness when he disobey's Chakaal's orders not to interfere by rushing in to rescue her when she gets knocked out:

But it turns out he was screwing things up, as usual, since she was trying to get kidnapped and infiltrate their ranks. So he tags along as she continues to search for the villainesses' evil lair, and they soon discover that the evil ladies are using one of the cool fantasy concepts that Sergio tends to just casually toss into these stories:

The dragon turns out to be artificial, an underwater vehicle used for transport into a lagoon hidden within an island in the middle of the lake, so Groo and Chakaal make their way inside for a rescue operation, which leads to some fun battles and great gags, as Groo either screws things up or accidentally does things to benefit the operation, like blowing a hole in the wall so they can escape. The whole thing makes for a good chance to see Groo interact with someone who barely tolerates him, and he manages to be hilariously obtuse and infuriating, doing things like abandoning Chakaal in the middle of a fight because he remembers that she wanted to be captured, or letting the evil warrioresses get away because Chakaal told him not to do anything until she said otherwise:

Or ruining the element of surprise for dubious reasons:

It all definitely makes for a fun episode of Groo's adventures, expanded to extra length for a milestone issue. And Chakaal will be hanging around for the next several issues, giving Groo a chance to be extra exasperating, hopefully in ways that will be more funny than tiresome.

Next: "The Valley of Mas and Menos"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Chakaal (who, according to TV Tropes, is based on Sergio's wife, Charlene Ryan, at least in appearance). When Rufferto imagines Groo and Chakaal getting married, the wedding is attended by Taranto, Grooella, the Sage, the Minstrel, Arcadio, Granny Groo, Arba and Dakarba, Pal and Drumm, and Grativo. Also, you can see the Groo Crew up in the corner box on the cover.
Hidden message(s): It's written on the posts in the bottom right corner of this panel:

Moral: No moral this issue.
Spanish words: The evil warrior-women are called the Sirenas, after the Spanish word for "sirens".
Running jokes: Chakaal is disgusted by Groo's eating habits. Groo's constant marriage proposals to Chakaal are a running joke throughout this issue; we'll see if they continue through the next several.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Fiftiest
Letter column jokes: There are no letters this week; Mark spends the letter column sort of celebrating 50 issues of the series, but also making light of their talents by repeating the facetious claim that they keep telling the same jokes (a gag which even made it onto the cover of this issue), saying that "Sergio Aragones" is actually a "staff of overseas artists [using a] collective pseudonym...labor[ing] diligently, month in and month out...tracing old panels by Hal Foster and Alex Raymond, doing their darndest to fill up pages with something remotely resembling comics." He then states a desire to make "Groo" a verb, meaning "to commit an act of such incredible lack of brain power that it defies belief", and announces a monthly contest, in which a prize (a certificate autographed by Sergio and Mark) will be awarded to the person who sends in the best Grooism. I expect that would make for some enjoyable letter columns, but according to this post on the Groo mailing list by Mark, they never got around to making or sending the certificates. I'm not sure if that means the contest never happened, or just that nobody ever received a prize. I guess we'll see in a few months, when they would have started receiving entries...
Miscellaneous: I thought two of the ads in this issue were kind of hilarious. First, there's this phone-based RPG that seems downright dreadful, even if it has a great name:

And then there's this John Elway football game that also looks kind of awful, but the facial expressions in the photocomic used to sell it crack me up:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Neverending Fray: I'd prefer Tony Jaa or Jackie Chan

Groo the Wanderer #49
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1989

While the cover of this issue promises the return of a supporting character, that doesn't actually happen until an epilogue, after the main story has finished. She'll have to wait for next month; in the meantime, Groo begins to explore the new land he reached in the last issue, where nobody knows who he is, and finds work as a protector for a village that is regularly attacked by bandits. He initially gets praised for not being afraid of the "wolfmen":

But soon, they figure out various ways to get past him. First, they clean up their scruffy appearances so they look like regular villagers, a process which causes them great agony:

Then, when Groo has all the villagers wear red headbands to signify that they are not bandits, the bandits just adopt the same signifier and keep on pillaging the village while Groo is confused. Groo tries several different shibboleths, but none of them seem to work very well:

It's funny stuff, although it's less than ideal, in that the bandits win in the end, having completely looted the village of anything of value. If the issue hadn't contained the few pages of epilogue, there might have been room to include some sort of comeuppance for them; instead, Groo just wanders off, assuming success since the villagers aren't being attacked anymore.

There's plenty to enjoy here though, including tons of great details from Sergio, both of the sort that I always love in which people are going about their mundane lives, and of the funny mayhem that tends to ensue when Groo is around. Here's a good example of the latter; I especially like the way the bandits demonstrate that they're total jerks by one guy kicking a dog and another one (in the lower right corner) just stabbing some woman's goods:

There are some great battle scenes here too, especially when Groo can't tell who is a bandit and who is a villager and just decides to battle everybody:

"FRAY!" is a great sound effect. And I love a good Sergio silhouette, like this one of the bandits laughing their way home with a haul of stolen goods:

While it might not be a perfect issue (which I'm learning is actually fairly rare, at least at this point in the series' run), there's plenty to enjoy here: great art, good laughs, Groo doing what he does best. You can't ask for much more (so please ignore that I just did anyway).

Next: "Chakaal Again!"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Chakaal, who last appeared in the final issue of the Pacific series (which I don't have), appears, but only on the last page.
Hidden message(s): The decorations on this guy's clothes contain upside-down letters that can be arranged to spell "This is the hidden message":

Also, the name of the bandits' leader, Nivram, is "Marvin" spelled backwards, which is probably a reference to a friend of Mark Evanier's or something. UPDATED: Commenter kipper informs us that Nivram the Wolf-Man is based on comics writer/editor Marv Wolfman. Neat!
Moral: "Protect yourself from those who would protect you from yourself." That's a good moral, but I don't know if it really applies here...
Spanish words: The town of Maringa might be named after a city in Brazil (which would be Portuguese rather than Spanish, but oh well).
Running jokes: Groo has terrible table manners and says "You take me for the fool I am!" Rufferto bites a couple of different guys on the ass. The regular insults directed toward the comic's readers extends from the letter page into this month's title page poem, which contains the following lines:
"But there's one crime of which
  Our Groo must fairly be acquitted--
One foolish deed he hasn't done,
  Which you have all committed.
It's something very foolish
  Which does not speak well of you--
He's never spent his money
  On a comic book of Groo."
Mark Evanier's job(s): Circumlocutionist
Letter column jokes: Mark leaves most of the humor up to the readers this month, printing several letters he doesn't understand or thinks are very strange. There's a tale by Yurko Slobodovich, who admires Groo and wishes to model his life after the Wanderer, in which he tried to withdraw all his kopins from the bank and, upon meeting resistance, shouted "When Yurko wants what he wants, Yurko gets what he gets!" and chased everyone from the bank. George Coventry thinks Groo is great, and even if he's stupid, "look at some of the people who pass as national leaders these days!" Politics were apparently no smarter back in the 80s than they are here in 2012, but Coventry also calls out television evangelists, which were a big concern at the time, due to their regular scandals. A fellow calling himself The Shadow sends in a letter to Santa which mostly consists of laughter interrupting a request for every issue of Groo. And Patrick J. Rummans confesses that he used the pseudonym Sergio Valentez for a letter which was printed in issue #39, and now that his Groo-obsessive friend Tim Ficke has found out, he's in trouble.
Miscellaneous: I like this drawing of Hulk Hogan in an ad for a WWF Wrestlemania Nintendo game:

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Neverending Fray: Will Groo ever find acceptance? (No.)

Groo the Wanderer #48
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1989

While it's pretty common knowledge that Groo is hated and feared by most everyone who has encountered (or just heard of) him, that fact is usually ignored by the man himself, as he is happy to go wandering on his merry way, in search of the next fray or meal (preferably cheese dip). But he has apparently reached a breaking point in this issue, which sees him tire of the constant insults and rejection, deciding to travel somewhere that nobody knows him, where he can finally have some peace. This doesn't go so well, as even after days of travel to an unfamiliar place, he still gets reactions like this:

The real plot kicks in when he quizzes a passer-by to his identity, leading to an amusing exchange:

This fellow, having survived the encounter, quickly informs his village that if they pretend not to know Groo, he will leave them alone. Unfortunately, this doesn't quite have the desired effect:

This leads to a variety of schemes to get Groo to leave, including covering the town with insulting graffiti, which leads to a joke that I've always found funny (because illiteracy is hilarious):

They also try avoiding Groo by having everyone run away whenever he approaches, which provides some excellent physical comedy (I love that everyone still carries their livestock and baskets of fruit and whatnot even when running all over the place):

The secret eventually comes out (after another comedic exchange, in which Groo refuses to admit he is Groo, which leads to everyone insulting him, which causes him to remember that he is Groo, so he beats them all up and destroys the town), so Groo decides to leave again, although the issue still has a few pages left, so it gets padded out with a bit about a merchant trying to take advantage of Groo's propensity for sinking ships by selling his cargo, then taking out insurance on his boat with the expectation that it will be lost at some point along the voyage. He doesn't know that one should never plan for Groo to do anything though, so he arrives at the end of his journey unscathed, and in deep trouble for not delivering the goods.

The final gag involves Groo expecting to be hated in this new land, but onlookers don't recognize him, which is something that the Groo Crew tried a few times throughout the series. It's probably a good idea, since stories in which Groo is constantly greeted with fear and derision can get monotonous, but it never lasts for long, partly because the temptation to bring back one or more members of the supporting cast is too great, but probably because Groo's exploits are too entertaining to stay secret for long. Even if he's a menace who will surely destroy every village and ruin every life he encounters, he's not somebody one easily forgets, and word of him would quickly spread no matter where he goes. I know I'll certainly try to do my part to keep his name recognized for as long as I can.

Also, on a "check out this awesome art" note, the title page for this issue is a doozy, forming a map of the last several issues' worth of stories, including the magic tower from issue #47, the mill with the giant wheel from issue #45, and the waterfall Groo ferried people past in issue #39:

Next: "The Protector"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Granny Groo is barely visible along with her Gypsy camp on the title page. Sergio and Mark also appear on the tile page, as portraits above the credits box and poem, respectively. And they and the rest of the Groo Crew appear running around in the town:

Hidden message(s): It's written upside down on these bundles of goods:

Moral: "Your reputation is what you make of it...and what you choose to take with you."
Spanish words: Signs for the towns Ajo ("garlic") and Cebolla ("onion"), which were seen in issue #41, appear on the title page.
Running jokes: Groo knows that "people take me for the fool I am." Rufferto bites a guy on the ass, and he thinks, "Groo is no lackey!" Groo gets called a mendicant. I don't think I've mentioned this before (probably because I don't find it all that funny), but one regular joke involves Groo not knowing how to count, and there's an example of it here that amused me, due to Rufferto's response:

Mark Evanier's job(s): Still Employed
Letter column jokes: Reader Patrick J. Towey, after claiming to be disgusted by the depths some people will sink to in order to get their letter printed, claims that God appeared to him and told him that he would die within six months unless one of his letters was published in Groo-Grams. Mark then says that they waited seven months to print the letter. When reader Jason Van Brunt asks how many issues of Groo they plan to publish, Mark first says they'll keep going until they run out of ideas and start repeating themselves, then interrupts himself with a comment that they've been doing that since issue #6, so he corrects himself and says they'll keep publishing it as long as people keep buying it. Chris Hutts says that while most people think Groo is the dumbest person on earth, he has several coworkers he would happily trade for Groo. Mark says not to be harsh on them, since they have to sell this comic to somebody. Hutts also adds that because he felt bad about people sending mulch and/or cheese dip to the Groo Crew, he enclosed a Ferrari. but Mark says that the hubcaps were missing and a taillight was shattered, so it was ruined.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Neverending Fray: The gang's all here, for some reason

Groo the Wanderer #47
By Sergio Aragones, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai (lettering), and Tom Luth (coloring)
Published by Epic Comics, 1989

Here's another ensemble issue, one that gathers almost the entire supporting cast together (out of the "major" recurring characters, only Pal and Drumm are absent), but it kind of proves that the returns are diminished when so many players are crammed into the same story. Groo does get to play a major part of the plot though, following Arcadio along on a quest to obtain a valuable magic gem that is locked away in a tower filled with traps and guards. The Minstrel is there to sing Arcadio's praises, and everyone else shows up as the story goes along; Arcadio recruits Grooella so her army can lay siege to the tower, Groo runs into Taranto, who wants to come along and steal the gem, and, in one of the funnier moments of the story, Groo tries to figure out who can help him defeat some immaterial lizard soldiers:

Arba and Dakarba end up being summoned to offer magical help, and they get Grativo to come along, in hopes that he'll restore their powers, but in the end, Groo is the one that does most all of the work, slaying all the guards and retrieving the gem, which just sets off a bunch of bickering between everyone, since Groo had promised each of them a 50% share. This all provides the main joke of the issue, and gives us the classic final page scene of everyone chasing Groo away in anger.

The main problem here, as tends to happen with the series' character-stuffed stories, is that with so much going on and so many players involved, there's not a lot of room for jokes. There are a few decent lines here and there (like Groo saying "I am off!" and the Sage replying, "Very much so"), and I like this example of Groo trying to figure something out:

But the story itself ends up being an unsatisfying agglomeration of characters, most of whom don't really do anything or interact with Groo or each other in an interesting way.

We do at least get some nice fantasy images from Sergio. I'm especially fond of the splash page, with its nighttime scene of the tower and it's cool design:

I think the Groo Crew eventually figured out how to incorporate all of the characters they had created, either by limiting them to appearing one or two at a time or by stretching the stories out to lengths of three or four issues to allow the plot to breathe a little. They appeared to still be getting the hang of it here. It's definitely interesting to see the world of the comic expand as it has over 50 issues or so, but now that it's pretty much fully formed, I'm looking forward to seeing it get refined to perfection. That will be fun to watch, even if there are more missteps like this one along the way.

Next: "The Wanderer!"

This issue's stats:
Recurring characters: Almost everyone: Minstrel, Sage, Grooella, Grativo, Arba and Dakarba, Arcadio, and Taranto. Also, the members of the Groo Crew can be seen working away in their houses on the title page:

Hidden message(s): Grativo uses a magic spell, which, when unscrambled, reads "Hidden Message! Please Sergio, no more poems!"

Later, another spell unscrambles to read "No more Minstrel! Mark's brain's turning to mulch!"

Moral: "What everyone wants, nobody gets. What nobody gets, everybody wants."
Spanish words: None.
Running jokes: I don't know if it counts as a joke, but every time Arcadio calls Groo his lackey, Rufferto retorts (if you can call it that when nobody hears him), "Groo is no lackey!" Groo recalls that he is the Prince of Chichester. I don't know if I've seen it before, but if not, this would be the first appearance of one of Groo's catchphrases: "You take Groo for the fool I am!" In mid-fray, Rufferto bites a guy on the ass.
Mark Evanier's job(s): Fed up with writing poems
Letter column jokes: Reader Mitch Warner asks about a possible hidden message in issue #32, saying that the phrase "Praise Megatheos" can be rearranged to spell "A ripe hot message". Mark says this was not intentional, but this reminds him to list the locations of the hidden messages in issues #27-42. Notably, he says the one written in binary code in issue #41 was Sergio's idea, which is why it was misspelled.