[Groop] Sergio Aragones: Marginal ink king
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Thu Sep 15 18:52:08 PDT 2011
COVER: Marginal ink king
Sergio Aragonés talks about wit without words, the call of the comic con and the wearying weight of the World’s Fastest Cartoonist crown
by RUPERT BOTTENBERG
September 15, 2011
They said it couldn’t work.” Echoing vindicated innovators throughout history, cartoonist Sergio Aragonés recalls the genesis of his widely recognized calling card, the miniscule, wordless gag cartoons that have littered the margins of Mad magazine, month in month out, for just shy of half a century.
In 1962, Aragonés arrived from Mexico in New York City with $20 and a stack of his drawings. Though he spoke little English, he had certain advantages when he knocked at the door of the monumental humour magazine: his charm, his wit and his lightning-swift pen—his formative years in Mexico had instilled in him a creative speediness that could generate overnight what took others most of a week.
Mad’s editors greenlit Aragonés’s first contribution, “A Mad Look at the U.S. Space Effort,” which ran in January 1963. “After that,” the marvelously mustachioed 74-year-old says over the phone from his home in Ojai, CA, “I went there every day, brought ideas and many times stayed overnight, sleeping at the office, looking at old originals and saturating myself with American culture and comics and everything. It was wonderful.”
It was his limited grasp of yanqui pop culture that led Aragonés to suggest that his editors reconfigure the page-gutter text gags of Mad’s Marginal Thinking Dept. “I said, ‘Why don’t we have something everybody understands—cartoons without words?’”
He’d honed that craft in Mexico, notably through pantomime studies under future cult-movie icon/iconoclast Alejandro Jodorowsky, creator of El Topo and The Holy Mountain (“A great spirit,” Aragonés says of his longtime friend). His editors had their doubts, though.
“They said that first, they’d need about 15 to 20 an issue. There’s no way anyone can come with 20 cartoons a month. The second is that that small, there’s no way they can be read. But I went and drew them the same size, pasted them up in one issue and showed it to them, and they said, ‘Hey, that’s okay, it works.’
“They must have said, ‘Well, let’s run it until he runs out of ideas.’” Hell has yet to freeze over, folks, and Aragonés continues to busy the borders of the magazine’s pages to this day.
FOR IMMATURE AUDIENCES ONLY
Alongside the likes of fold-in freak Al Jaffee, onomatopoeia overlord Don Martin and the rest of the revered “Usual Gang of Idiots,” Aragonés helped make Mad the institution it is—inspiration to generations of comedy writers and comic artists, and precursor to the subversive laffs of Zap!, National Lampoon and much more.
“From the beginning, Mad was a cradle for writers and artists, but not only that. Mad kept doing cartoons for a certain age. It never grew up with its audience. Of course, people abandoned Mad because they grew up and went on to read Playboy or newspapers, but the new generation always had a niche, a place to go.
“That, I think, is the success of Mad—we, as writers and artists, do what we do best.”
Over the years, Aragonés has given his fans many new places to go, notably the world of Groo the Wanderer, his loving spoof with collaborator Mark Evanier of Conan and the swords-and-sorcery genre. After brewing for half a decade, the doltish, destruction-prone Groo first flashed his sword in 1983, a pioneering figure in the battle between work-for-hire and creator-owned comics, leading the charge of top talent to cooler indie publishers while Marvel and DC shrieked and sputtered. “After the 80s, no cartoonist in his right mind is going to give something for free to those companies.”
Though Groo settled in at Marvel’s Epic imprint from ’85 to ’95, he remained the property of Aragonés and Evanier. The resilient Groo finds his fifth home these days at Dark Horse.
QUICK ON THE DRAW
Aragonés has won a heap of industry awards: an Eisner here, a Harvey there, an Adamson from Sweden and a Plumilla de Plata (Silver Inkpen) from Mexico. The Comic Art Professional Society even named their Sergio Award after him. His favourite, though, is his 1996 Reuben Award from the National Cartoon Society. “That is the king of all awards, given by your peers, the cartoonists. We vote, and they give you a statue like the Oscars.”
One honour that Aragonés is ambivalent about is the title of World’s Fastest Cartoonist, earned through the breathtaking ink blitzes he unleashes at live and TV appearances, often doodling Mad’s mascot Alfred E. Neuman in a matter of milliseconds.
“Of course, I get a gasp from the audience. It’s like magic. But it’s because I’ve done it so many times. The first reporter who saw that put in that I was the fastest. As a reporter, it’s easy to read previous interviews to save time—so all of them put that! Everybody interviews me and says, ‘the world’s fastest cartoonist.’ How can you prove that?! Maybe there are 10 guys faster than I am! It’s not a car race.
“If somebody comes to me, like in the old Westerns, and says, ‘Sergio, I’m faster than you,’ I will say, ‘Thank you! From now on, they won’t bother me anymore.’”
Witness the man’s deft doodling for yourself when Aragonés joins the likes of Marvel macher Stan Lee, Adam West and Burt Ward (TV’s Batman and Robin), cult actor Sid Haig and Stan Sakai (Groo’s letterer and creator of the honourable Usagi Yojimbo) at the 2011 Montreal Comiccon this weekend. Aragonés has done the rounds of such events for decades.
“It’s a very lonely profession. [But] when you go to the convention, you meet the guy who is reading you! And you know what they think about your work! It’s a way to understand what you’re doing more clearly.”
Aragonés speaks highly of the state of the medium these days. “Comics have never been better than they are now. The art is incredible, the texts, everything.”
Recent years have seen him trading in the true-life tales that have taken comics out of the superhero rut, and at the convention he’ll be happy to sign your copy of his new title from Matt Groening’s Bongo imprint, Sergio Aragonés Funnies, which boasts several autobiographical bits.
“I’ve lived a very exciting life—by accident, not on purpose—so I write about things that have happened to me since my early youth. How many people can say, ‘Yeah, I was born in Spain during the Civil War, lived in France during the Second World War, went by ship to Mexico, studied with Jodorowsky and been all over the world?’
“There are a million things that have happened. I’ve been very fortunate, and now I want to tell these stories to people.” ■
AT THE MONTREAL COMICCON AT PLACE BONAVENTURE, SATURDAY, SEPT. 17 (11 A.M.–7:30 P.M.) AND SUNDAY, SEPT. 18 (10:30 P.M.–6:30 P.M.), $25 (TWO-DAY PASS $45, FREE FOR CHILDREN UNDER 12)
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