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Sunday, June 7, 2015

Panel Vision: Groot #1 Review

The success of Groot as both a character and now as a national phenomenon is an astonishing tale.  I mean that literally by the way, Groot’s first appearance was in Tales to Astonish #13 as the monster from Planet X.  Most folks nowadays know him from his appearance in last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy but in case you’re unaware here’s the skinny on the character.  Groot is a prince of Planet X who initially left his home in an attempt to protect from the villains then ongoing Marvel event series Annihilation.  During the battle he was destroyed, but because Groot is essentially an Ent he was able to re-grow himself from a single twig. 

This new Groot had the major defect of only being able to say the phrase “I am Groot,” the words that launched a thousand memes.  Given Groot’s major success with audiences Marvel has seen fit to give him his own comic series, one oriented more towards whacky cartoon misadventures rather than the space opera stuff he gets into in the Guardians of the Galaxy ongoing. 
This new series is best thought of as a sort of spin-off from the Guardians of the Galaxy film.  Groot is very much his character from the film rather than his previous incarnations, a decision I’m totally fine with.  The tone of Groot is firmly rooted in the camps of absurdist comedy and buddy road trip story so giving the chipper optimistic persona is more appropriate.  The premise is that Groot has convinced his best friend Rocket Raccoon to go on a road trip across space to Earth.  At the start of said journey their ship explodes and the rest of the book is just the two trying to hitchhike their way to Earth.  It’s a good set-up for the kind of book Groot is, using the road trip as a steady goal for the characters as their stumble through various episodic shenanigans.  It also helps that Groot and Rocket are the ideal comedic duo.  As I mentioned Groot is portrayed as optimistic and chipper, often smiling and willing to make the best of any situation.  Conversely Rocket is more curmudgeonly and grumpy while being very much ‘along for the ride’ though still fiercely loyal to his friend.  They also fill the perfect dichotomy of initiative and ability.  Rocket is the one to always direct the pair out of a given situation, usually making the decisions about how to deal with their problems.  Meanwhile Groot is more willing to accept a situation because he’s also thoroughly able to deal with pretty much anything that’s thrown at him. 

I mentioned earlier that Groot is a very cartoony comic but don’t let that dissuade you from reading it because Groot is also hilarious.  The secret to Groot’s success compared to similar offerings this week such as the half-hearted misfire Bizarro or the grating and abysmal Bat-Mite is simple; the creative team on Groot care about what they’re doing and are very good at it.  Author Jeff Loveness strikes just the right balance between comedic standards and character dialogue so that neither part ends up worn out while also intertwining both aspects perfectly.  Rocket and Groot straddle the line between lovable losers and selfish jerks in a supremely satisfying way.  A lot of this ties into that character balancing I spoke about earlier. 
Groot’s optimism and skill is great for throwing the two into situations where they’re doing the right thing but get no reward so that Rocket can pick-up the job of grumping over their situation.  Conversely Rocket is allowed to be more self-serving despite Groot’s discontent.  It let’s enjoy the best of both worlds nicely, Rocket’s self-indulgence is just relatable enough to provide a good source of vicarious release and Groot is so chipper and optimistic it’s infectious. 
A lot of credit also has to go to artist Brian Kesinger for how well he manages to infuse Groot’s neutral mask face with subtlety and emotion.  In a lot of previous works Groot is generally depicted with the same expression on his face, a mix of neutral and marginally angry.  Kesinger’s exaggerated approach to the cartoon aesthetic means that Groot gets to display a much wider array of emotions that really enhance his character.  It’s an interesting blend of simplicity and detail that a lot of other artists have struggled with.  Rather then try and depict Groot’s face as overly covered in roots and detail Kesinger opts for the more simplistic wood block type look that the film had.  Where he changes it up is in how much Groot’s face is able to move and rearrange itself to express things like wonder, concern, disapproval, exuberance, fear, and more.  A lot of the time you don’t even need Rocket’s translations to understand what Groot is trying to convey, his facial expressions do that job all on their own. 

Groot & Rocket may, or may not, steal baby Superman's spaceship in this issue

In a time of year dominated by shifting status quos and Earth shaking mega-events a comic like Groot is an incredibly refreshing change of pace.  It’s nice to read a comic that knows that you don’t need a gargantuan or byzantine plot to tell a good story.  It actually reminds me a lot of Moon Knight; only in this case whacky misadventure is the overriding aesthetic rather than action-horror.  Groot is light, fun, and written by people who care a lot about what they’re making and put a lot of effort into, I recommend it. 

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