Welcome to the hobby-horse edition of my now apparently weekly comics column, in which I get mad about censorship, revisit and expand on a couple of books I’ve already told you I love and discuss another I’m hugely enamored of. 

We’ll start with that last one. Groo, most recently GROO: FRIENDS AND FOES, is the utterly unique work of Sergio Aragones and his artistic partner, Mark Evanier. From what I can tell, Sergio plots and draws and Mark writes dialogue and captions and contributes to the general thrust of the series; the latter is very happy to give all credit to his partner, a modest Spanish-born, Mexican-raised, California-based guy who still, after decades working in English, becomes embarrassed and uncommunicative in his adopted tongue when called upon to do so in public. I’ve seen him do it at conventions; he has what I can only describe as benign graphomania and is almost never not drawing, so he tends to compensate for the shortfall only he can perceive with a hilariously funny picture. There’s a whole panel at Comic Con devoted to him drawing gag cartoons on the spot, in fact. 

He’ll probably be best-remembered for his margin doodles in Mad Magazine, but he’s secretly a truly remarkable draftsman. Groo began life in 1982, in a benefit book called Destroyer Duck published to fund Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber’s quixotic IP lawsuit against Marvel Comics (Marvel settled). The advent of computer coloring has made it possible to appreciate Aragones’ work to a much greater degree – in early issues of Groo, there were so many characters in the big double-page spreads and splash panels that you could practically hear the raw-fingered colorist screaming into a pile of spent rolls of Rubylith, “FUCK IT! EVERYTHING ELSE ON THE PAGE IS YELLOW!”

Aragones’ hero, Groo the Wanderer, is an itinerant warrior along the Conan the Barbarian model, except that in addition to being pure of heart and the greatest swordsman in the land, he is also the stupidest person alive. His dog, Rufferto, admires him tremendously, despite generally having far better judgment than his master because, you know, dog.

What I actually didn’t understand until Aragones told me so himself a year or two ago while I was bothering him at Comic Con is that the guy absolutely worships the Japanese movie director Akira Kurosawa and thus the setting for Groo is so interestingly distinct from Conan’s Cimmeria or Arthurian England because it’s modeled very carefully on Edo-period Japan.

The Groo series, with its squat, big-nosed men and its silly-sexy women, is a comic in a fundamentally old-fashioned European mode, largely unreconstructed in contemporary intersectional terms but still concerned primarily with justice and fairness. There’s often an evil ruler doing something cruel to his subjects and eventually making the reliably tragic error of trying to get Groo on his side. It’s been in the wilderness over the last few years because either Evanier or Aragones – I suspect the former, for some reason – decided to get really politically specific and started making the book’s various miniseries (the regular monthly title gave up the ghost in the mid-’90′s) transparently about the housing crisis and greedy banks and so on. Groo is a humor book, so it was kind of weird to have to try to take it seriously, but there have always been some subversive undercurrents to the it and sometimes they’re really wonderful (there’s an unexpectedly devastating story where Groo learns to read). Less so recently, though.

After Groo #100 (the learn-to-read issue), way back in 1993, Aragones said he was sick of his supporting cast and wanted to try to find greater meaning among different funny-looking little dudes, so he sent Groo away from one-joke characters like Captain Ahax, whose ships Groo is forever sinking, Pal & Drumm (a pair of con men), and Grooella (Groo’s sister, who looks like him but with boobs). Friends and Foes reintroduces all of these characters, and it’s such a relief to read. It’s a bit like starting over, but better – the book is still very funny and while the moralizing of the last few episodes had gotten tiresome, Aragones’ art was always so unbelievably good I kept buying them anyway. Now it’s funny again, too.

There’s a horrifyingly bad piece on Vox in which the author, who must be all of seventeen years old, lauds Bryan K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples’ Saga as “one of the defining tomes [???] of the last decade thanks to its… fidelity to quality storytelling” and “a medium-shattering book” which may be the wrongest thing ever written in English. I must have missed the issue of The Comics Journal in which Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns and Gary Panter gather before a shrine to Saga and chant “we’re not worthy.” (Also I like Ex Machina in particular just fine but y’all know Vaughn wrote for Lost, right?)

But I digress. The ostensible topic of that article is that Vaughn has a new book out, called PAPER GIRLS, this one with art by the excellent Cliff Chiang, who has been working on Wonder Woman with the popular DC Comics writer Brian Azzarello, whose work, full disclosure, I cannot stand. I understand many people love him and apparently his plot structure is often quite good but his dialogue is so godawfulbad I just can’t do it. Someday I’ll crush up Spaceman or 100 Bullets in a spoonful of honey and see if I can get it down and I’m sure I’ll find stuff to like but probably not this week. 

Anyway, I’m grateful for a chance to read something written competently, I’m sorry, by William Shakespeare himself, and illustrated by Chiang. Paper Girls is set in Cleveland in the 1980′s in a way best described by this Clickhole article, but it’s clear from the first issue that there will likely be some time travel involved. It’s about a gang of girls who mmmmmight have gotten superpowers while on their paper route one morning, during which time they also encounter ninjas, and it’s very fun, extremely slick and seems likely to pair up Vaughn’s gifts for teen drama (his series Runaways was consistently one of the best books at Marvel for several years) with some self-consciously retro action. I’ll give it a chance.

Here’s an uncomfortable topic: the words “nigger” and “faggot,” which are not very nice words, have been excised from Marvel’s otherwise totally unimpeachable reprints of MIRACLEMAN. In the first case, they were used pretty hamfistedly by Alan Moore and then redacted in the clumsiest possible manner (the word just reads “n——” in the series now, which, as Louis CK points out, is making me say the word because you find it offensive irrespective of context). This happened twice over the Moore issues and in the second instance, oddly, it was the only offensive thing censored in an issue of the comic absolutely legendary for its violence. Screaming civilians are literally rent asunder by a crazy supervillain and it’s all rendered pretty unflichingly, including in a gigantic two-page spread reminiscent of a Bosch painting that closes the issue. In the earlier story, an African-American character describes himself using the slur, and while it’s not the best moment in Moore’s writing, it is an effort on the part of the author to deepen the inner life of that self-doubting character (who is coincidentally pretty compelling, actually) and it’s obviously not hate speech. In that second instance it is indeed used by an evil character as hate speech; a supervillain uses the word to describe a different black character, who calmly replies, “Actually, we prefer the term ‘black person’” and attacks him in a pretty cool fight sequence while the book’s white heroes are incapacitated. Both these characters are problematic, but Moore obviously likes them; he’s just not totally sure what to do with them. That’s an interesting problem; picking and choosing specific words to edit out does not solve it.

The other example, in this week’s Miracleman, which might actually be my single favorite issue of any superhero comic, replaces the epithet in question with “fairy,” which doesn’t have the same impact at all, and frankly this story is by contrast very well-written indeed and the whole point of using a mean word in the narrative is to show how hurtful it can be; the main character overhears another character using the slur to describe him and it devastates him. 

This isn’t to say that we should only censor clumsy art, merely that high quality makes censorship that much more intolerable.

I’m actually quite angry to have my enjoyment of the book hijacked like this, because Miracleman #3 is just astonishingly beautiful. It’s a Neil Gaiman story about one of the 17 robot Andy Warhols living under the palace of the superhero who rules the world, and how he befriends a mad scientist. The whole issue is done in collages and photostats of other comics and chalky-looking crayon and artist Mark Buckingham oversaw the recoloring process, which has made it even more beautiful. Why does Marvel do this? Who do they think is buying these issues at $5 a pop and looking at the scans of the pre-colored art lovingly mounted with commentary by the artist in the backs of each one, or celebrating because a strip featuring a minor character from the Moore run has been reprinted in the correct chronological order for the first time ever? Not people who aren’t going to notice that the captions have been changed, that’s for damn sure.

Disney’s purchase of Marvel has been half-heartening, half-infuriating. On the one hand, the company clearly has huge wads of cash to lob at its talent now, and it’s doing so in a way that makes business sense – just look at Dan Slott and Michael Allred on Silver Surfer: those guys are happy at work. On the other hand, Disney loves to squeeze consumers (that would be me) for as much money as they possibly can, so the prices of every single book have gone up to an inexcusable height and I just don’t buy as many as I used to as a result. 

They’re also institutionally opposed to controversy. Around this time last year they let prudes and scolds hound Milo Manara out of the incentive cover business (which is to say, drawing comics covers that you will never see unless you really want to, because they ship at a ratio of 1:50 so retailers can sell them at a markup) because his drawings of women were too sexy – and then they just got a less famous and talented artist to do the same thing. The only good thing to come out of all that bullshit was Manara’s response, which was to point out that superheroines are always drawn naked, just usually not by people who know what a naked woman looks like. You can think that Milo Manara is a bad artist and that this hacky crap is better, but Federico Fellini and I disagree with you.

I see in the bowdlerization of what is supposed to be a loving reprint project basically the same impulses; hypocrisy and prudery that I can just barely excuse because I’ve wanted to find out how the story ends for 20 years. 

Other stuff of note this week: Chip Zdarsky’s JUGHEAD #1, which is every bit as fun as I’d hoped it would be and further makes the case for Jughead Jones as the coolest guy in Riverdale (he has a dream sequence set in a medieval fantasy land entitled Game of Jones, you guys!), George Perez’s SIRENS #4, which is both visually astonishing and written so, so, so terribly, SECRET WARS #6, a book so wonky about Marvel continuity I honestly can’t tell whether it’s good or not (Esad Ribic’s art is really nice, though), and the 2015 LIBERTY ANNUAL, a benefit book for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which is always worth picking up for reasons of supporting a good cause, but this year particularly worthwhile because it has the Art Spiegelman op-ed that was supposed to run in the New Statesman. Good stuff from The Goon artist Eric Powell and fake ads by Ed Luce’s, creator of the hilarious Wuvable Oaf. I recommend it.

Oh yeah, and Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey’s INJECTION is out in a collection of the first five issues and it’s immediately clear that this and no other way is how you’re supposed to read it. It’s funny – the same team did a great run on Moon Knight that was a set of six one-and-done stories you could read in any order; this is obviously “written for the trade,” as they say, in the style of a lot of contemporary Image comics. Which is good because it makes almost no sense in single issues and I’m a little relieved to discover that there was significantly more “there” there than I’d thought. I’ll say it again: Image is doing really great stuff these days; most of the concepts would work great as TV shows but they’re allowing the guys who do it to make some extremely inventive visual choices throughout. Shalvey is rapidly becoming one of my very favorite artists; his sense of design is tremendous and he works fast enough to sustain a monthly book.

Thanks to Isaac Butler for editing help

Author: samthielman

Sam Thielman is a reporter and critic based in Brooklyn, New York. His blog is samthielman.com, his twitter handle is @samthielman, and if you can't find him you should check The Strand.

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