In the age of Marvel Studios Groot has become one of the most popular characters in superhero fandom. His bizarre appearance, charming personality, and memorable quote have enshrined him in the hearts of moviegoers everywhere.
Yet Groot has not always been an obvious hero or success. Even though this character has been around longer than most in the Marvel Universe, Groot’s recent reinvention highlights why comics constant cycling can be good for characters and readers alike.
The Marvel Universe is generally agreed to have begun with the debut of Fantastic Four #1 at the end of 1961, but Groot’s first appearance pre-dates this comic by about one year. Groot arrived in the pages of Tales to Astonish #13 where he was created by artist Jack Kirby and writers Larry Lieber and Stan Lee. In this issue he was a monster of the month, a singular menace from outerspace for the people of Earth to defeat. His arboresque appearance is about all he has in common with the hero of modern movies.
Groot would only make two more appearances before the turn of the millennium. First he teamed up with five other monsters in the pages of The Incredible Hulk Annual #5 in 1976, and then he appeared in the nightmare of a young Peter Parker in The Sensational Spider-Man #-1. As far as deep cuts went, Groot was one of the deepest.
The flora-based monster did not begin his process of reinvention until the 2006 mini-series Annihilation: Conquest - Star-Lord. This series, part of a larger cosmic event, featured Star-Lord leading a group of Marvel B- and C-listers on a suicide mission to help save the galaxy. It’s here that Groot first began to show characteristics of the hero we know today. He forged a friendship with Rocket Raccoon, a fellow member on the mission, and grew to enormous size to save his comrades in a seeming sacrifice. If there is a single comics source for the titanic hero in the film Guardians of the Galaxy it’s this comic from writer Keith Giffen and artist Timothy Green II.
Yet these individual elements are still a long distance from the character voiced by Vin Diesel that America fell in love with on the big screen in 2014. You can trace parts of him to Tales to Astonish and Annihilation, but the truth is that the Groot that both moviegoers and comic readers today love was born in theaters.
In 2014 Guardians of the Galaxy became an unpredicted smash hit for Marvel Studios. Whereas previous successes like Iron Man and Thor had been predicated on lesser known superheroes, Guardians of the Galaxy was composed of a cast almost entirely unknown to audiences unfamiliar with comics. The most recognizable characters in the film were the barely seen villain Thanos and the barely recognizable Nova Corps, and even these would be considered minor figures in pop culture at best. In spite of this lack of recognizability, the film was a hit and its most successful character, without a doubt, was the three-syllable uttering Groot.
The charm of Groot is not difficult to understand. If you’ve enjoyed Superman: The Movie, then you already get what makes this odd-looking tree such an endearing hero. In a film stuffed with goofballs, selfish anti-heroes, and reluctant killers all trying to turn over a new leaf, Groot is the moral center of the film. He is the one character who has already chosen to be the good guy and helps everyone else in the story do the same.
His pairing with Rocket is no accident, as the furry hothead is the most destructive and self-absorbed protagonist in the film by far. Their partnership is a one-sided ordeal in which Groot continually supports Rocket through all of his escapades until it is revealed that Rocket needs more than an accomplice, he needs a friend. When Rocket divulges the experiments that transformed him, it’s clear the character has suffered and Groot’s role as a support network is clarified.
Groot offers this to the rest of the cast in a variety of ways. It doesn’t extend to the Guardians alone either. There is a brief moment in the film when Groot encounters a young woman and instantly produces a flower to offer her. It is this instinct that clarifies the version of Groot created by director Sean Gunn and written by Gunn and Nicole Perlman. He is a constant source of giving within the film, both to his friends and whoever is in need.
That heroic sense of giving is perfectly captured at the end of the first film when Groot announces “We are Groot” as he forms a protective shell around his teammates to protect them from a crash landing. It’s a tear-jerking moment in the midst of a comedy-action romp that performs perfectly on repeat viewings. Frankly, it’s every bit as good as Superman spinning time backwards to save Lois Lane. There are few instances of superheroism more perfectly captured in movies. It’s this moment that has distilled what Groot means as a character after more than 40 years of existence and perfected Groot for comics and film, alike.
It’s from this distillation of the freshly reformed character that Marvel Comics has launched a variety of Groot-related series and mini-series. They’ve put some of the current industry’s top creators on the character, including artist Skottie Young. None of the series have been a smashing success, but they sell reliably well and have a consistent audience of readers looking for more of the Groot we’ve all come to love in the past few years. That’s undoubtedly why a new Groot mini-series is launching this week in the form of I Am Groot #1 from writer Christopher Hastings and artist Flaviano.
It’s rare that comics fans compliment movies for improving the source material, but Groot is a perfect example of how it can occur. There is a give and take between media in which new creators add and reimagine what they come across. Some creations are perfectly crafted from the start, while others require lots of work. Groot has come a long way from the horrifying monster found in 1960, but today he is a lovable cupcake of an intergalactic superhero that comics and movies fans alike can adore. That’s why we love Groot.