Wednesday, February 08, 2006

A Process of Inbred Fertilization

One of my character flaws, of which I have many, is a weakness for running jokes. It marks me as a bad person, yes, but it also means I love Groo the Wanderer all the more.

For it produced one of my favorite running gags in comicdom. The series contained an early example of a comics meme, and ran it not only into the ground, but through the bedrock below the ground, into the molten core of the planet, and clear out the other side.

It began innocently, a throwaway joke in Groo the Wanderer #4. Groo comes upon a village whose women have been kidnapped by mysterious, handsome men in a flying boat. Here's the panel.

"Who will till our fields? Who will milk our cows? Who will mulch?"

Lo, in such a moment was greatness born.

The word "mulch" appears four or five more times in the issue. Confusion over the term prompted a few readers to ask what the word meant. Mark Evanier explained mulching in the letters page. Here it is, from Groo the Wanderer #9 (click on the picture to enlarge):

Three times, yes, three times he defines mulching as "...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 the stimulated plant's development while, at the same time, preventing erosion and decreasing the evaporation of moisure from the ground."

And thus was a running gag born.

Starting with issue #9, the letters pages of dozens of issues of Groo the Wanderer contained letters asking what "mulch" meant, and Evanier would repeat the definition. Over and over and over and over...

Not long into the gag's life, Evanier wormed the word into the stories themselves. A common battle cry for Groo during this era was "I kill! I maim! I fray! I mulch!" The word would appear in random spots of stories for no good reason, time and again. (Not in the picture to the left, though. I just enjoy the doggerel.)

How can a comic fan not love this? The readers and the creators were in it together, bound by a process of inbred fertilization which employs certain decomposed organic materials. And it was good.

The "mulch" gag ran for years, reaching its peak when a major supporting character's dog was revealed to have the name "Mulch." (A name, by the way, the dog hated.)

Eventually the gag evolved. In this latter stage, Evanier printed letters where readers asked what "mulch" meant and in response, he refused to say. While this could be construed as dismissive, he printed these letters, month after month, along with an identical refusal, often several times on a letter page. Yes, a new running gag was born from the decaying corpse of the old gag.

Which is, to these nerdly eyes, rockin'.

Heh. "Mulch." What a great word.

Not long ago the lovely and delightful Mrs. Jerkwater and I bought a house in the burbs. The grounds of Jerkwater Estates have flowerbeds and quite a bit of shrubbery. This necessitates that I, you guessed it, mulch.

She has no idea why I chuckle every time I do it.



  1. Anonymous9:38 PM

    I only discovered Groo in the trades, which omit the letters pages. Damn!

    Mark Evanier is the most underrated scripter in comics.

  2. I've recently been reading through Stan Sakai's totally alwesome Usagi Yojimbo, which not only has an appearance by Groo, but has a lot of Groo jokes.

    One of them is an issue with Usagi and Gen (a rhino ronin modeled after Toshiro Mifune), where each threatens in turn to turn the other into mulch, both times eliciting the response: "What's mulch?"

    Now I get it!

  3. God, I love Groo. I'm the same way with my issues. It's definitely the comic I have the most of in my collection. And it's probably where I learned the concept of the running joke. I do that too when we put mulch on our garden. I tried to explain the joke to my wife, but I don't think she was very amused. Guess you had to be there. I love the crazy running jokes they had, like the Niagra Falls joke, or the time Mark printed one guy's letter in every issue for several months because he said he would only buy issues that his letter was printed in. And then there were the running jokes that came up in the stories, like "What pirates?" or "You never bought me a house!" or Groo being referred to as a mendicant. God, I love Groo. I still look for back issues that I don't have, but it's getting hard to tell whether I have the ones I've found or not. Well, good stuff.

  4. That's rare comic but I think sometimes it could out of control I mean because weakness in my personal opinion isn't an appropriate theme for this comic.

  5. Really worthwhile data, much thanks for your article.

  6. I recently made the joke..."now who will mulch?" and wondered if anyone would get glad this post exists to explain it.

  7. "It's ok, Groo... we all know you are slow of mind."

    Six pages later, Groo: "what did you mean, I'm slow of mind?!?"