What’s so great about “Groo”? I’ve got two words for you: Sergio. Aragonés.
Mark Evanier’s pretty all right, too. Warning: spoilers ahead. Obviously.
Written by Mark Evanier & Sergio Aragonés
Illustrated by Sergio Aragonés
Colored by Tom Luth
Lettered by Stan Sakai
I’m not into ‘90s comics, let’s get that out of the way right now. That’s a bold, broad and somewhat uninformed statement, given the breadth of material out there from a decade of publication, but I’m referring to the colloquial “‘90s comics”: excessive violence, bizarre anatomy, guns for hands, guns for legs, guns for eyes and all of the ridiculous, over-the-top stuff Image and the Big 2 hocked back in the day. It’s largely uninteresting and appeals to the lowest common denominator in many ways because it’s so darned serious in tone and so completely ridiculous in execution. Not my thing.
“Groo” is definitely my thing, however, and a fine reminder that while the pouches and tread and puzzling lack of feet was going on, comics creators were carrying on as they always do. “Groo” and team have hopped from Pacific to Epic to Image to Dark Horse in their tenure – always with new ideas and the same cast of beloved characters. Back in the day, “Groo the Wanderer” became “Groo” when Image Comics published “Groo” #1 in 1994. The series ran for 12 issues, and it’s a great comic.
What a review, right? “It’s a great comic.” Nicely done. But here’s the thing: there’s very little to carp on when it comes to “Groo,” because Evanier and Aragonés strike the perfect balance between wry humor and zaniness. Pure comedy is very hard to do in comics, and while some of the earliest work might be a little weirder around the edges and a little sharper in its jabs, “Groo” is still pretty darn entertaining. Evanier’s ability to write effective poetry and cut-to-the-quick dialogue is impressive, and the story clips along nicely with enough time to appreciate Aragonés’s amazing art. We’re in on the joke from the beginning, but “Groo” isn’t a cruel comic. Rufferto is a nice foil to the wry narrative tone, and there’s almost nothing that can puncture Groo’s self-image – much like the hunk of meat on which he’s based.
And, more on that: Evanier understands what Howard’s going for with Conan, and “Groo” is always an effective riff because it builds on the source material instead of dismantling it entirely. Civilization is still the problem in “Groo,” much as it is in the Hyborian age – it’s just that sometimes, a barbarian isn’t the best choice to balance the scales. Evanier employs a light touch here and pumps up the humor nicely, and Aragonés keeps the plot forging ahead at a pace that’d be too quick for a serious book, but is just right for a joyous send-up.
Character design is Aragonés’s thing, and he does it extremely well. Groo is an obvious analogue for a certain famous, grim Cimmerian, except he’s horrifically incompetent at whatever he sets out to do. He’s also incredibly confident, and Aragonés blends these two qualities in subtle ways. There’s the bulk of him, offset by his crooked nose and comically small eyes. There’s his barbarian garb, serious until we realize he’s got stilts for legs. There’s his sweeping motions and jaunty gait, and then there’s his … sweeping motions. Effective cartooning is in the details an artist chooses to highlight, and they have to say a lot with a little in terms of line. Aragonés works with a very clean line; the clutter and chaos comes from how much he packs into each panel. When we dig into a page, we realize every character has a discrete expression, every background detail is appropriately exaggerated or textured to complement, and the spreads. My gosh, the spreads. They’re something to pore over with the same delight I feel cracking an issue of Larry Marder’s “Beanworld,” and that’s saying something.
Aragonés’s staggering detail means that depth and balance can be difficult to achieve on the page, and Luth’s work shines here. Color is vital in “Groo” – with everything that’s going on, we need distinct, bright and punchy colors to figure out what the heck is going on most of the time. The circus-like nature of the palette suits the tone of the story, but Luths’ work is subtle and sophisticated. Groo’s the yellow whirlwind of chaos, foregrounded spiritually as well as physically, and Luth makes everyone else work around him. There are sky blues, lavenders, grass greens and other pure colors to decorate everyone’s clothing, and Luth picks out stripes, liquids, pottery and jewelry to add vibrance and interest to each scene. There’s just this side of too much going on, but Luth always manages to draw our eye to where it needs to go, and balances each panel with clever blocks of contrasting colors.Continued below
Sakai’s lettering is fantastic, no surprise, and lettering a book like this is a serious challenge. Evanier’s not shy about packing in dialogue, though there’s an economy here that should be celebrated given what could’ve happened, so Sakai has to balance narration and balloons in Aragonés’s incredibly detailed panels. Sakai solves this by going wide instead of tall, and adds fat, short tails and a nice heavy stroke on balloons in crowded panels. The lettering is nice and wide, which helps Sakai butt balloons as aggressively as possible.
Overall, “Groo” is a great comic. What more can I say?
So, enjoy your nostalgia, folks. Like what you like, and if those ‘90s books fill you with the same joy you experienced when you first read them all those years ago, that’s fine. I’ll be over here with my bumbling, arrogant, ridiculous cast of cartoon characters, delighting in another iteration of one of the most successful and sophisticated humor comics to ever see publication.