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Who Wants to Be a Mendicant?

A column article by: Zack Davisson

If only the timing had been right, a comic book could have won me $25,000. But instead of being in the Hot Seat, I was at home watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire the other day on TV, when this question appeared:

For $25,000, a “Mendicant” is a:

a. Farmer
b. Beggar
c. Banker
d. Artist

The woman playing the game failed out on the question, answering “Banker,” as I recall. If only she had spent more time with her nose buried in comics, instead of financial statements, she would have known exactly what a mendicant is. If only she had spent more time reading Groo the Wanderer.

This is also relevant, because I was doing my post-payday shopping recently at my favorite used bookstore/comic shop, Spine and Crown Books in Seattle, when I stumbled across a stack of Groo treasure. The store owner Kris had picked up someone’s collection to sell in the quarter bin, and inside were about twenty or so copies of Groo the Wanderer. They were random issues in no particular order, from about three different companies. I spent a few seconds trying to figure out which issues I had and which I was missing, before I figured out that, at a quarter a piece, I should just buy the whole batch and figure out what to do with it later. All Groo is good Groo.

It’s been awhile since I spent so much time playing around in the minds of the Groo creators/writers/artists Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier, Stan Sakai, and Tom Luth as I did that day. I still keep up on the series, including the recent Dark Horse mini-series Hogs of Horder, but twenty issues in a row was a submersive experience and a reminder of why I love the character and the series so much.

Groo the Wanderer holds a special place in my comic-book-heart, Pacific Comics’ Groo the Wanderer #4 being the first independent comic that I ever read,. At that time (1983), I had graduated from the spinner-rack at the local 7-11 to an actual comic book shop, but I still hadn’t really ventured beyond the usual superhero offerings. I don’t remember why I decided to add that particular comic to my stack, other than I loved Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian and that issue’s cover (#4) was an homage to Conan.

(I picked up only one issue of that Pacific run, and it would be quite awhile before I saw another issue of Groo. I didn’t make regular enough trips to the comic shop to pick up the remaining issues when they came out, and someone even eventually swindled me out of that lone issue. I was just a kid who didn’t know that some comics were more valuable than others, and a greedy trader swapped me a copy of ROM Spaceknight for it. I was none the wiser that I had gotten a raw deal in the exchange, until I saw a price guide many years later and realized I probably could have swapped that one issue for the entire run of Rom Spaceknight. Sigh…

I didn’t know anything about independent comics or creator’s rights or all the issues on the business end of comics that seemed so important and have contributed to Groo’s labyrinthine history. I didn’t know that Groo had first been created and published in Destroyer Duck, alongside contributions by Jack Kirby no less, as a fundraiser for Steve Gerber who was battling Marvel comics in court for control over his creation Howard the Duck, and that from the very start Groo was deeply entrenched in things political and satirical. All I knew was that I was loved the character, and it was the first time that a comic book actually made me laugh.

Groo had no problem with the legal battles other creators had at the time over their creations. From the very start, he was Aragonés and Evanier’s character, not the company that published him. As if to prove this, Groo would live up to his name, wandering from company to company until he must hold some sort of record for being the comic published by the most publishers.

Eclipse Comics was the first to publish the adventures of the brainless barbarian in Destroyer Duck #1 (1981). He popped up next in Star Slayer #5, this time published by Pacific Comics, who liked Groo enough that he was given his own series by the publisher. What would become known as “Groo’s Curse” thus began. Eight issues into the run, Pacific Comics hit that roadblock known as “financial difficulties” and the series was canceled.

Aside from another one-shot by Eclipse Comics, Marvel Comics’ Epic line of creator-owned books was next up for Groo, publishing the longest series of Groo the Wanderer at 120 issues, before their own “financial difficulties” caused the end of the line. Ever willing to battle on, Groo moved over to Image Comics for a 12-issue run before…uh yeah, Image’s “financial” and “legal” difficulties convinced Aragonés and crew it was time to leave a sinking ship again. Dark Horse is the current home of Groo the Wanderer, making five different publishing companies since the series debut. (Careful there Dark Horse! I don’t want to hear about any “financial difficulties” following Groo…)

If you have never read Groo…well, you should. It is a manic mix of the high and low brow, never missing a beat between insightful social commentary and dumb sight gags, complex poetry and simplified running jokes, all taking place in Aragonés’ over-stuffed world of hundreds of characters on each page--carefully researched and rendered backgrounds populated by cartoonish figures with huge noses, precariously large upper-bodies, and a propensity for shin-guards, each individually colored by Tom Luth. And not only is every page packed with innumerable figures (honestly, you could spend an hour on each issue of Groo just checking out what is going on in the background), Mark Evanier seeds each issue with hidden messages and running jokes (I can drink eight beers! Bring me eight beers!).

Running jokes play a big part in the genius of Groo (or lack of genius, as Evanier claims). Say something unfunny often enough and it becomes funny. If you want to piss Groo off, and if you do you are a fool, simply call him a mendicant which is a word he doesn’t understand but sends him into a violent rage. Call him a bum, a beggar, a vagabond, a pauper or a guttersnipe if you must, but just don’t call him a mendicant. (Take that lady on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?! Who says you never learn anything valuable from comics?) Groo has a passion for cheese dip, can plainly see what any fool can plainly see and from time to time is even the Prince of Chichester. If none of these seem funny to you right now, well that is really the point. Read them all again and again until they become funny, and there is Groo.

On top of the usual gags, Groo delivered the funniest letter page seen in any comic, with Mark Evanier personally answering all letters. He said he only did this because he was naïve enough to believe that all the letters he had written as a kid had actually been answered by Stan Lee, and he didn’t realize until later that the letters column was usually foisted off to the lowest-ranking assistant. Traditions are born that way, and Evanier still answers the letters personally to this day. He always has an easy out though. If he doesn’t want to answer something, he just writes down the dictionary definition of mulch. Its really funny, but like most things on Groo you have to read it a few times before the humor starts to sink in.

In short, every issue of Groo the Wanderer is eight pounds of awesome in a six pound bag. Literally bursting at the seams with awesome. The comic is a treasure and unique in the world of American comics.

While I was pleased with my quarter-bin acquisitions, I must say it is a shame that the wonders of Groo are not easily available in other formats. There have been some collected editions made, as sporadic as the series itself, most of which are long out-of-print and difficult to find. The two graphic novels, The Life of Groo and The Death of Groo are almost impossible to come by. Even what is available was not really well done--Marvel put out some 4-issue collections of the Epic Run, which was continued by Dark Horse, but these were not numbered, so it is difficult to know where in the series you are, and the printing and paper quality does not show Aragonés’ intricate artwork to full advantage.

So along with this being a rallying cry to get out and read more Groo, you can also consider this column a plea to Dark Horse Comics. It seems to me that Groo is primed and ready for the whole Dark Horse Archive treatment. They have done such a fantastic job making sure that all of Matt Wagner’s Grendel comics are available, even obscure runs from Comico that are impossible to track down in their original format. They have printed excellent hardback editions of Creepy and Eerie, originally from Warren Publishing, and both reproduce the original letter pages, which would be essential to a definitive Groo the Wanderer collection.

With a creator-owned series like Groo the Wanderer, it seems like Dark Horse should have no problem producing a lovely archive series of the comic from all the different publishers, starting with the first appearance from Eclipse in Destroyer Duck and working down the line to the Dark Horse runs. Give the reader more bang for their buck by packing in at least eight+ issues per collection. After all, if they can pack all twelve issues of the Christine Spar Grendel-cycle into one trade paperback, Grendel: Devil’s Legacy, they should have no problem doing the same for Groo. There are few story-arcs to worry about, so pack in as much as you can. Keeping the letter page is an absolute must though. Hardbacks would be nice if it didn’t inflate the price too much.

These collections will probably all stay just a fan’s dream, but I can always hope. Until Dark Horse puts out that brilliant Groo the Wanderer Archives Series that I know they are capable of, I guess I will just have to keep scouring quarter bins and filling in the gaps of my collection to get my Groo fix.

Oh yeah, and just in case you were wondering:

Mulching is a process of inbred fertilization which employs certain decomposed organic materials-- including, but not limited to animal sediment-- to blanket an area in which vegetation is desired. The procedure enriches the soil for stimulated plant development while, at the same time, preventing erosion and decreasing the evaporation of moisture from the ground.

And hey, Sergio! Can I have a free Groo sketch? And what is that little blue thing on Groo’s chest anyways? And what is the name of the Sage’s Dog?....

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