A bulbous, busted nose and a goofy grin, framed by a barbarian’s standard-issue headband and matted, unbarbered mane. Balloon-like muscles and ham-sized hands clutching twin katana-style swords. A pear-shaped girth draped in an orange jerkin that smells like pig filth and old fish (probably because its wearer has stashed fish in his vest and slept in a pig sty). And all that bulk teetering on spindly legs braced by big bare feet.
With a hero like this on the cover, you knew you were in for some fun. Sure enough, Groo the Wanderer taught me that a comic book can be, well, comical.
Out of the Margins
It was 1990 or thereabouts. I was a kid collecting Wolverine and Batman titles. Dark, gritty, “realistic” crime and punishment. Then one day, on the shelves of a local comic book shop, in the midst of all the spandex and explosions, the brooding and the blood, I spotted something unabashedly unrealistic. There was no mistaking that loose, cartoony style. The artist was Sergio Aragonés, beloved for his marginal doodles and wordless comic strips in Mad magazine.
That guy does a whole comic book? An ongoing series with a title and words and everything? And it’s published by Marvel!? This was a revelation to me. It was almost like a dream. (“…And my poodle was driving a ’67 Ford Mustang. But that doesn’t make sense. Fifi can’t drive stick.”)
The material inside didn’t disappoint. Rambling across fictive lands in some bygone age, Groo is a ferocious fighter and an incredible numbskull. Example: Seeing a couple of dragons on the loose, he pauses to count them, and finally exclaims, “One dragon and one dragon heading to town!”
Groo is feared far and wide not only because he can take on an entire army and win, but also because he is astronomically mishap-prone, with vast collateral damage in his wake. If you’re building a temple and you let him near the worksite, plan on starting over real soon. And most reliably, any ship Groo sets foot on will sink. People will hire him against their better judgment and come to regret it.
To Accidentally Do Right
And yet, things somehow work out by yarn’s end. For example, a group of shepherds pay the mercenary in roast lamb to protect a pasture. Their rivals, the cattle ranchers, make a counter-offer: They’ll pay him in steak to oust the sheep and keep the pasture for their cows. Soon, the men are cooking and serving Groo a feast to encourage him to make up his mind. He’s on his second cow, and fourth sheep, when the ranchers realize that while they’ve been standing around feeding Groo, their livestock have been sharing the field peaceably. Their problem is solved, though Groo is out of a job, again.
Groo is most monumentally dense when it comes to his unrequited love, the warrior woman Chakaal. Here’s a representative exchange:
Chakaal: “Get out of my life, Groo! I want you to go far, far from me so that you and I never cross paths again! I want nothing more to do with you since I am a competent swordswoman and you are an utterly inept moron wholly devoid of worth as a human being. Your occasional ability to accidentally do right does not mitigate the fact that I wish to nevermore see your face in or around my presence. You cannot get far enough away to suit me. Listen to the sound of my voice when I tell you to get lost.”
Groo: “Yes, but will you marry me?”
But Groo is loved by at least one character: his loyal, spotted dog. Rufferto is quicker on the uptake on most matters—not that it helps any, since he can’t talk. (Groo, racing into a witch’s castle: “What am I supposed to get again?” Rufferto, in thought balloon: “The antidote!” Groo: “Oh, I remember! The antipasto!”) However, the poor mutt is blind to the depth of his master’s dunderheadedness. (“Always kidding,” he tells himself.)
Before I offer my little thesis on what makes Groo special, let’s sketch his timeline and meet the men behind the legend. The monthly Groo the Wanderer was smack in the middle of its ten-year run on Marvel (or the Marvel imprint Epic) when I stumbled upon it circa ’90. But because Groo is a creator-owned property (one of the first), when Marvel dropped the comic, the team moved it to Image, and later Dark Horse. And it was initially published by Pacific in 1982.
The stories are drawn by Aragonés, co-written by Aragonés and Mark Evanier, lettered by Stan Sakai, and colored by Tom Luth.
Evanier is a veteran television writer, with credits including animated series (e.g, Richie Rich, Scooby-Doo), sitcoms (Welcome Back, Kotter; Cheers), and even Dick Clark specials. He is also the author of a biography of Jack Kirby, for whom he once worked as an assistant. In writing the dialogue and otherwise collaborating to flesh out Aragonés’ stories, Evanier employs all the tricks of timing and rhythm he honed over his career in TV as well as comics.
Aragonés is a master cartoonist. He certainly knows from gags, but he also takes quite seriously what appear at first to be doodles. In fact, the backgrounds, the architecture, the costumes, the weaponry are all lushly detailed. That’s based on the artist’s own research and travel, he explained in a FAQ on his website. Aragonés was born in Spain, raised in France and (mostly) Mexico, and landed in New York City in 1962. (He is trilingual.) With that kind of global background, it’s no surprise that he combines elements from various ancient cultures, then adds his own twists, to make for the familiar but unique settings that Groo wanders in search of kopins (the currency in his world) and cheese dip.
From Finn to Groo
Here’s what I find so great about Groo. As many readers know, comic books got their start as collections of reprinted newspaper comic strips. Bill Blackbeard argued that it was Popeye (debut in E.C. Segar’s syndicated strip Thimble Theatre: 1929) and not Superman (debut in Action Comics #1: 1938) who was the first modern superhero—the sailor was well-nigh invincible, after all—the difference being that Segar played it for laughs. Popeye was a hyperbolic stereotype of the tough sailor. He was like the outsized subjects of other, often humorous tall tales over the centuries, from Finn McCool to Paul Bunyan. (“How strong was he?…”)
I’ve read collections of Thimble Theatre, covering 1928 to 1938 (when, sadly, Segar died of liver disease at age 43). That strip is seriously uproarious—and not really intended for kids, the way the animated shorts were. (Example: one character asks another about “sewing oats” in his youth. The response: “In all my life, I have only sewn one oat.” “Just one oat?” “Just one oat. But oh, what an oat.”) And the adventure continuities are more fun than a barrel of spinach (or cheese dip). (Mmm, spinach cheese dip….)
The only drawback to reading such stories in a collection? The first panel of each new strip recaps the doings of the previous day’s. That practice made perfect sense when readers were coming back to the story after a 24-hour gap, but it turns into a tic that borders on the tedious when you’re trying to ride along on a voyage via the reprints.
In my mind, Groo is like a classic newspaper comic strip character—he even comes with an adorable dog whose thoughts we can read—but one who was invented wholly for the comic book medium. That means splash panels or double-page spreads depicting busy ports or epic battles that Groo is winning single-handed—or 20 tiny panels showing Groo thinking real hard. It means so much more freedom for the artist. It means stories that are self-contained in one issue, without any need for rehashing plot points, or stories that are broken up over two or more issues, but at least break at satisfying junctures.
Meanwhile, Groo fits firmly within that folk tale tradition, with his scrapping prowess and dimwittedness exaggerated to the Nth degree, and his comedic adventures are brought to life in a way that only comics can pull off (whether in a newspaper, pamphlet, or bound book).
Perhaps upon entering adolescence, I figured I was required to graduate from Peanuts to X-Men, to trade bulbous tykes and chuckles for grim storylines and photo-realistic vigilantes. “Ah, but I was so much older then,” Bob Dylan sang. “I’m younger than that now.” Slinging goofy fun in a mainstream comic book, Groo declared that it was still OK to laugh.
What comic first challenged your perspective of what a comic book can be? Let us know in the comments.