There tends to be this understandable yet misguided sentiment that the best traits of a character only show when they’re in the worst of circumstances. It’s certainly the case that iconic moments in a character’s legacy come from harsh, often tragic narratives. Whether it’s Jean Grey’s sacrifice at the end of The Dark Phoenix Saga or the Captain America’s death at the conclusion of Civil War, these are powerful moments that reveal why these characters are so iconic.
These moments are memorable and all, but they often present a simplistic and incomplete insight into a character. Most comic book readers don’t need to be reminded constantly of Jean Grey’s propensity for dying, Superman’s boundless idealism, or Deadpool’s deplorable toilet humor. That’s why insights into less dire moments tend to reveal other layers to these characters that often go unnoticed.
Brian Michael Bendis makes a concerted effort to craft these moments in Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a remarkable change of tone for a series that involves talking raccoons, talking trees, and blowing up a planet at least once a week. Throughout his run on this series, he highlights some of the most memorable traits of these characters. However, in the ongoing Grounded arc, he does this from a whole new angle.
For once, the Guardians aren’t caught up in some exotic, cosmic struggle that requires them to outwit Thanos one week while stopping a Shi’ar civil war the next. Instead, Bendis has the Guardians stranded on Earth, a direct result of their involvement in the events of Civil War II. It forces the characters in Guardians of the Galaxy to find new ways to be iconic.
Guardians of the Galaxy #16 presents the most challenging part of that process to date by putting Groot in unfamiliar, uncomfortable territory. For a character with such a limited vocabulary, but near-limitless likability, it’s a challenge that requires a wholly different approach. It’s one thing to flesh out a nerdy high school kid with spider powers. A giant talking tree requires a different approach.
Remarkably, Bendis finds a beautifully functional approach and artist, Valerio Schiti, makes it work to the utmost. This approach involves telling Groot’s story as though it were a children’s story (although it’s intended for adult readers). Being a talking tree, this works beautifully. It’s an unusual format, if only because it doesn’t rely heavily on Rocket Raccoon’s overuse of pseudo-profanity like “krutacking”. Given the context of the story, it has to be unusual and Bendis embraces this concept.
Guardians of the Galaxy #16 gives Groot a chance to be more than just the linguistically challenged muscle of the Guardians. He gets to explore a world where trees flourish, provided they aren’t in the path of logging companies or a Hulk rampage. Even in big cities like New York, there are parks where Groot can fit right in. If anything, he seems more at home in a situation like this than he is in the cold vacuum of space. Being a tree, it almost makes too much sense.
Beyond the more favorable conditions, the story involves more than Groot enjoying a sunny day at the park while Rocket complains. He does get a chance to be a hero, albeit on a very basic level. This leads to a colorful and well-crafted clash with Armadillo. He’s a fairly generic villain, one whose personality doesn’t even match a standard Doombot, but that makes him an ideal threat for Groot. This story is intended to flesh out Groot and not a villain dumb enough to rob a bank in broad daylight. When talking trees are involved, tact is wholly unnecessary.
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During this clash, we get to see Groot carry himself in a world where people aren’t used to talking trees. Big green Hulks and killer robots are one thing, but talking trees strain a population that is already too used to the occasional Skrull invasion. Naturally, Groot doesn’t generate many fans at first, even after he takes down Armadillo. This is where the children’s book style of the story really shines.
Along the way, Groot gains an important fan in a little boy named London. This boy, who carries himself like any typical prepubescent protagonist from a Disney movie, stands up for Groot at the moment when misguided adults are still overly inclined to shoot something that may or may not be one of Dr. Doom’s failed experiments. Since compassion for children tends to override a desire to shoot things, it works and Groot now has a friend.
It makes for a simple, but uplifting conclusion to the conflict. At a time when superheroes just finished fighting another Civil War and Captain America is a Hydra agent, it makes for a uniquely satisfying story. As Stephen Spielberg revealed years ago with ET, a lovable alien befriending a young boy has undeniable appeal.
That appeal may make readers feel warm and fuzzy inside, but the overly simple nature of the narrative may also limit the depth of the story. More than anything else, Guardians of the Galaxy #16 reaffirms the traits that make Groot who he is. It doesn’t add depth to those traits or provide greater insight. It’s primarily a story where Groot gets to be himself and shines however he can.
This basic, but effective approach makes Guardians of the Galaxy #16 one of those issues that fans of a specific character can cite when they want to explain why a particular character is so lovable. If Vin Disel’s voice acting in the movie didn’t do it for some, then the story in this comic should finish the job. He may be a giant talking tree with an exceedingly limited vocabulary, but he’s as lovable as any furry animal that isn’t armed with a machine gun. Rocket Racoon would do well to heed his friend’s example.