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It’s a safe bet that, in the history of illustrated humor, no artist has a bigger gap between the size of his influence and the size of his drawings than Sergio Aragonés. Although he’s filled whole pages with his long-running series “A Mad Look At…” and entire comics with the adventures of bumbling barbarian Groo the Wanderer, Aragonés is best known for the microscopic scribbles that have lurked on the edge of Mad magazine’s pages for most of the last five decades. The “marginals,” as he calls them, are comedy reduced to its purest, tiniest essence, split-second blackout gags that require neither words nor explanation to make their point. Perhaps the funniest aspect of Mad’s Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragonés, a well-appointed hardcover spanning his 50 years at the magazine, is its substantial size, enough to reprint hundreds of his full-page strips and still leave plenty of room around the edges. Reached by phone at his house in Ojai, California, Aragonés talked to The A.V. Club about making his way from his native Mexico to Mad’s Manhattan offices, learning mime skills with Alejandro Jodorowsky, and why he waited more than a decade to publish his first Groo story. And he explained all this without putting down his pen.
The A.V. Club: It’s a safe bet that most of The A.V. Club’s readers and writers had our brains warped by Mad at an impressionable age, and a lot of us grew up on Groo The Wanderer as well. It’s fascinating to look at this book and see how your work, and the magazine, have developed over the decades.
Sergio Aragonés: A lot of people don’t understand that, but to me, it’s the same thing. I’ve been not only a cartoonist, but a fan also. So I remember exactly what you were just talking about, when I was growing up and looking at cartoons by all the guys that later I got a chance to meet. I know exactly the feeling, because with Mad, it was the same thing. I was in high school when I saw it. I couldn’t believe it. It was sort of, “Oh my God, what is this?” That was in Mexico. When I saw it, it just blew my mind. I was already in high school, and in my first tries with cartooning. So when I saw Mad, I was like, “If this is the quality of the work, I really get better fast! There is no way I’m going to make it if I continue to do the things that I’m doing.” So those type of cartoons to me were really eye-opening, not only as a reader, but as a future cartoonist.
AVC: Do you remember whose artwork particularly made an impression on you?
SA: Well, because I didn’t come from art. I never studied art. I was more impressed with the ideas. I grew up with silent cartoons from France and other places that arrived to Mexico, so my forte was pantomime cartooning more than anything else. When I saw Mad, it was so different from what I was doing. I never thought of Mad as an influence for anything. It was just something I could read and admire, because there was no way I could draw like Mort Drucker or any of those guys, ever. I couldn’t believe there were artists of that caliber in humor. That was just fascinating. But the early influences to me of the Americans was a gentleman called Virgil Partch, who signed “VIP.” When I saw that style, I knew that’s how I wanted to draw. With the pointy noses and both eyes at one side. Other influences were European material.
AVC: Do you remember where you came across his stuff?
SA: We had a magazine in Mexico called Ja Ja, and it reprinted cartoons from American syndicates and European material. One of my first encounters with American cartoonists was with this magazine, which also was the first magazine which I got published in. Because when I was in high school, I was doing the newspaper at school, and one of my classmates sent it direct to the magazine and sold a cartoon for me, because I never thought I was ready for publication. She saw it. That was in 1954. When I saw the magazines besides Ja Ja, I used to go with friends who also wanted to be cartoonists to hotels that sold foreign magazines to the tourists. It was the only place where you could see foreign material. And we’ll go poring into all these magazines like Paris Match and Stern and Punch and The New Yorker. New Yorker and Punch, I didn’t understand a word of them, because I didn’t speak any English. But the European material I could understand, because a lot of it was without words, which was a great discovery.
AVC: Punch had a tradition of amazing illustrators, going back to John Tenniel and Arthur Rackham.
SA: Yeah, it’s also the American tradition of the punchline, based in humor like Punch. My dilemma is when I arrived in the United States in ’62, and I tried magazines, the majority of them said that cartoons without words were unacceptable. And every place that I went, that was the first obstacle that I encountered is that nobody wanted cartoons without words. All of them told me, “These things are crazy. You should go to Mad magazine.” I said, “How can I go to Mad? They don’t publish these types of things. They publish satire, movie satire, advertising satire. These types of things. But maybe they know something I don’t know.” So I went there. First I wanted to meet all the Mad guys, because they were my idols, but inside my heart, “I’m going to be rejected, because they don’t like what I do.” But they saw my cartoons and they put it together. They liked it and they put it together as an article. Not as individual gags, but as a series, which they called, “A Mad Look At…” And that was it. They started buying cartoons from me, and that was the beginning. That was sensational.
AVC: You mentioned being influenced by cartoons. In the introduction to the book, Patrick McDonnell compares you to great screen comedians like Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati. Were you watching them as well?
SA: I love the theater and I love movies, and I loved them since I was a kid. There was no television then in Mexico. My parents were refugees from Europe. In Mexico, they were immigrants. Every week, they’d have meetings with patriots from Spain to talk about what they were going to do in this new country, and the place that they met was on top of a theater that ran mostly cartoons and humor short stories, things like that. My parents would take my sister and me and put us on the movie couch while they were in the meetings. When the meetings were over, they would pick us up and leave. So I was sitting there watching cartoons for hours, and to me, that was the most wonderful thing. When I was a little older, I started realizing that there was an art within the art, which was pantomime. Not pantomime that you see here in the States, that you see in the parks, people imitating other people. The real soul of pantomime, of doing things without words—Marcel Marceau, Jacques Tati, and all of them. I got entranced with that.
When Marceau came to Mexico, he was asked to teach private students, and he couldn’t because he had his agenda filled with a tour. But one of the mimes with him, he was from Chile, Alejandro Jodorowsky, who is a great mime and movie director and comic writer besides. He’s an incredible, super-talented man, and he stayed and he opened a pantomime school, and I joined the school. Not because I wanted to be a mime—I was a little too big to be a mime, and too clumsy—but I wanted to do was learn the pantomime to be applied to my cartoons, and he liked that idea. So I was part of the group that learned with Jodorowsky, but I learned the pantomime to apply it to my trade, to the point that when we did the professional theater mimes, the mimes would do it, and I would introduce them with cartoons.
AVC: What about Cantinflas? Did he influence you as well?
SA: Not at all. The humor that Cantinflas did was words. He never said anything. His humor was that he was such a bumbling idiot that when he tried to say something, he blabbers words and never said anything. You start laughing at the beginning because you know that everybody is paying attention to him, and he’s not saying anything. He was very, very funny. Everything he did was a really strong political comment, or social comment more than political, about the problems in Mexico. He represented the people who were never heard in Mexico. He was really, really talented in many ways, because he would take some positions, but more than a mime, he was a man who expressed with non-words, words that didn’t mean anything. But at the end, he conveyed a very strong social and political point.
AVC: A lot of people credit Mad with teaching them to disrespect authority, whether it’s their parents or the government. But the magazine has always been apolitical. When you’re doing something like “A Mad Look At Illegal Immigration,” are you concerned with putting across a point, or with not taking sides?
SA: You’ve said it in both ways. I’ve really tried to take a lighter side of every serious problem, and the side that I take usually is the side from something that I believe in, because Mad never had a political center at all. There are all kinds of extremes in Mad. There are people from the right, people from the left. So it’s not a point where they would say, “Sergio, this is the direction where we want you to take the article.” I wanted to have fun with it, but at the same time talk about “Look this is the problem.” One thing I learned from my family… My father was very political. But he told me, “Be very careful when you get into politics, because there’s no black and white. There’s an in-between in everything. So look at that side, don’t take one point, because then you are negating half of the other people. Try to find the logic on a problem, something that you believe, and take the position that you believe, but be very careful about it.” So I was very well trained in that aspect.
AVC: One of the most elaborate pieces in the book is the three-page spread devoted to Woodstock. Did you, or did Mad, feel a kinship with the ’60s counterculture?
SA: Mad has always been counterculture because of the aim of the audience. Mad is written by people who never thought “Okay, I’m going to write for kids,” or “I’m going to write for adults.” The opinion of the writers and the artists was “I’m going to say something that is funny and relevant about a particular issue.” And many people say “I used to read Mad, but Mad has changed a lot.” Excuse me—you grew up! You have new interests. The reason that Mad has endured all these many years is that it talks to every new generation that arrived. We are approaching a problem with a humorous point of view, not into a particular age, but so generic in a way that it appeals to the younger people who haven’t discovered that big problem yet. They haven’t really spoiled their mind by opinions. In the moment they decide “I’m a Republican” or “I’m a Democrat,” that man has already established that whatever the other party says, he’s not going to pay attention. The young man doesn’t think like that. The young man has an open mind. So Mad has an open mind about every problem, and it talks about it. So the change doesn’t come from the magazine, it comes from the people who grow or don’t grow. Sometimes I remember when I was reading Mad and I didn’t understand something, so I went to my daughter, “Honey, what does this mean?” “Oh, this is a rapper who is bad, and this is a new movie star who does this.” Ahhh. Eventually, I ask my daughter and she didn’t know what was in the article, because she also grew up. So that passes from generation from generation.
AVC: You’ve gotten significantly older while working for Mad. How do you hold on to that perspective yourself?
SA: Probably from my upbringing of trying to see both sides without getting too involved in one person’s opinion. If I see that something is wrong, I don’t care who says it. Whether it’s a Republican or Democrat, the left or the right. If they are on the opinion of the right thing, that’s what I will talk about. I won’t proselytize or make the strong things to influence other people about any particular politics, except the decency of things, the logic of things. That’s why I don’t get that much involved in politics directly. Because I have a lot of friends in Mexico, we grew up together, they are cartoonists and everything, and many of them were from the left, and they start talking about “communist this and communist that,” and that was a slap in their faces, because suddenly the whole thing that they believed in collapsed. Many of the American cartoonists that want to have a job and go so much for the total right without thinking, sometimes they get a slap on the face when their politician lets them down. So it goes on and on. The thing is staying in the middle and not getting committed, trying to get the best of both and do that with a sense of humor.
AVC: Are the drawings, perhaps particularly the “marginals,” that appear in the magazine pretty much in the form in which you first drew them? How do they get to that point?
SA: First comes the subject matter. For instance, when I’m doing the marginals—because in a way, those are very, very general cartoons—I think of a word or situation, and I start elaborating on that. When it comes to an article, sometimes the magazine suggests it. “What about a man who goes to this particular movie, or a particular subject that we haven’t touched?” “That’s fine.” Then what I do is get my head into the problem and start researching it, looking in the computer, or books or magazines, or the library, and once I know the problem more or less well, then I start thinking about what’s funny about it. I don’t draw it, I write it first, so when I draw it in the magazine, it gets a totally fresh approach.
AVC: I assume you draw straight onto the page in ink? They have a loose quality that suggests you don’t sketch them out in pencil first.
SA: Yes, very much so.
AVC: Has that always been the case?
SA: Yes, because of the simplicity of the drawing. Sometimes when I’m doing the “Mad Look…,” because this is a multi-panel, [I’ll sketch]. Ideally, you try to do one-shot, one-gag, like the marginals. But when you’re telling a story, that’s impossible. And the “Mad Look…,” you are telling a very short story, so you need more panels. The less the better, but they are necessary. So those cartoons, sometimes they have to look like the ones from the first panel, and the second panel, they have to look alike. So yes, I have to do little pencil markings so I can draw them on the right place on the right connection with the other people with the right background and all that. But this is very minimal.
AVC: What size are the marginals when you draw them? Are they larger than they appear? It seems it would be difficult to actually draw them that small.
SA: No no no. What happens is, I don’t want to add too much details, because when they reduce, all the lines get mushed together. So I try to draw them as small as I can, which in this case is twice up. Like this, I don’t tend to add detail, because I know it’s going to be reduced to half, and it’s going to mix. So when I draw them small, I use the Rapidograph [pen], which I don’t use for my regular work, but for the marginals. With the Rapidograph, what happens is that it’s a straight line, and it cannot be confused with other lines. So I draw them very small, and I don’t add too much stuff. When you draw them much larger, you’re drawing a policeman, and then you start putting the buttons on the jacket and the little lines, and more expression, and the little star on the cap. And when that reduces, it’s just a blob. A blur. So I do them almost same size as normal.
AVC: How different is it when you draw Groo The Wanderer, which is much more detailed?
SA: That’s a completely different story. A comic book is the opposite of a cartoon. In a cartoon, you want to simplify the idea, so when they look at it at a glance, they get it. Boom. Simple. Direct to the point. But when you’re drawing Groo, now it’s a narrative, a story. You want the viewer to get involved in the story. You want him to feel like he’s in the town to follow your main character. So I love to add lots and lots of things in it. Things that people will enjoy going back to and say, “Oh yeah, that’s how a market must have looked in this fantasy world, with people selling meat here and dishes here.” So I try to feel an atmosphere. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve traveled all over the world, and I’ve loved to look at things like National Geographic. So to me, now, it comes very natural, the things that I draw—I’ve been there. When I’m drawing a bottle or a town or a market, I transport myself there. So I start drawing everything that I’m looking at while I’m there. Here’s a guy selling the meat, and he will have a hook, and you start adding things, and it’s a lot of fun. The story to tell is different than a cartoon. So the two are completely different things.
AVC: You created Groo a long time before he was first published, but you waited until you could do so without having to sell the rights to the character. That was a foreign idea in the U.S. at the time. Where did it come from?
SA: I had the opportunity to go to Europe for a couple of years in the ’60s. The reason I hadn’t worked in comics before, I was just working at Mad, is because there were no humor comic books in the United States. There were adventures, superheroes, teenage humor, like Archie, funny animals. But humor humor, there was nothing. When I was in Europe, the undergrounds appeared. They were the first humorous comics. The subject matter was very strong, but they were humorous. And I said “This is fantastic!” When I was in Europe, I also realized that half of the comics were humor, but the difference is that in Europe, the artists own all their own material. I thought “This is how it has to be.” When I arrived in the States and started proposing to do comics and telling them I wanted to own my material, they laughed in my face. They said “That cannot happen.” So from the beginning of the ’70s to 1983, that’s how long it took to publish a comic of my own. It was a long struggle.
AVC: But you felt that strongly about the character. That it should belong to you.
SA: Yes. Well, I had already been a professional for many years. So it was not like many young artists that start with a comic they’ve been dreaming all their lives to work on, and they would do anything to see it published. Groo was premeditated. I was thinking “Okay, what kind of comic in humor doesn’t exist?” I didn’t want to make a superhero satire, because that is repetitious. And I have always loved Conan, Tarzan, Zorro. So my tendency to do a comic was to do a character like Conan, like Zorro, like Tarzan. And I realized there was nothing in humor on sorcery and that. So I started thinking about this bumbling idiot, and suddenly I was thinking, “This guy’s writing himself! He’s a natural.” So by the time it got published, I had tons of material already drawn and thought out and articulated before I sold it.
AVC: It turned out to be a smart move. Several of your early publishers went bankrupt, and if they had owned the character, the rights might have been tied up for years.
SA: Yeah, and it would have also probably changed because with the process of giving multiple artists and writers the project, every artist and every writer would have put in it their own point of view, and the cartoon wouldn’t have been what it is. So great advantage.
AVC: Nowadays, how much of your day is devoted to drawing?
SA: Fortunately, cartooning is not a job. It’s something like eating or sleeping. It comes so natural, because I’ve done it all my life since I was a kid. The job is divided into parts—the writing part of it or the drawing part of it. It’s a 24-hour job, because sometimes I go to bed and I have to get up because the idea is there and you can’t stop doing it. So it’s a continuous thing. The thinking is constant. I always have a little piece of paper. The difference between me and many young people is, I don’t carry music with me. I like to think. I don’t use any modern convenience to be talking to other people, because I like my time to think. I go to the garden in the morning, and this time, I’m thinking ideas, I’m not drawing, I’m thinking. Some stories for Groo and drawing some stories for The Simpsons, doing a new article for Mad. You keep switching from one thing for another, and then when it comes time to draw at 6 o’clock in the evening, I sit in my desk and work until 4 o’clock in the morning. And that’s because time just flies when you’re sitting there drawing. I put the television on as companionship. I love old movies, and I put on the Turner channel and watch movies I’ve seen a million times, but it’s like a companion in the background. I put tapes on, or DVDs or old movies that I love, and sometimes I’ll watch a movie and I’ll look up and it’s another movie. “Oh my God! What happened? I wasn’t even aware of that.” And I keep inking until I get really tired and then I go to bed.
The problem is that if I watch something like the National Geographic channel, my eyes get glued on the TV and I don’t work. I take breaks. For instance, I love The Simpsons. I’ve always been a fan of The Simpsons. When The Simpsons come in, the reruns, even if I’ve seen it a million times, I just put my pen down and for half an hour I just enjoy the silliness. And it’s a break and then I continue, and then my wife calls me for dinner. Then we eat and I go back to work. So it’s a constant work. And even when I take vacations, we go visit many, many places, name it: Hawaii, Tahiti. What we do is divide my time. If she wants to do something in the morning, then we do something in the morning, but the evening is my time to work. But if she wants to do something in the evening, then I work in the morning. So it’s half-time on the vacation. It’s relaxing, because you sit in a very nice chair looking at the ocean, but I’m thinking of ideas.
AVC: So you don’t want to stop working entirely, even for a few weeks.
SA: I’ve never done it. I wouldn’t know how that feels. Just the thought of it is very scary. To imagine not having a pencil in my hand? Right now while we’re talking, I’m drawing a Santa Claus that I want to give my wife for Christmas.
AVC: I was going to say I feel bad about keeping you from your work, but I guess I’m not doing that.
SA: When I’m doing Groo, and suddenly there’s a double-page spread that takes a lot of cartoons, I have to do at least a page a day for Groo. So when my telephone rings, I put it aside and take this massive drawing and start adding things to it. After the conversation, I take the massive drawing and put it aside. So any breaks I take, I start adding things. So that page will take probably the whole month to draw. They say, “How can you do that?” They think of it as a one-pager or a two-pager. But it’s not true, that page took so long to draw because it’s not a regular page. It becomes natural.
AVC: If you’re drawing directly in ink, don’t you worry about being distracted and making an error on one of these detailed two-page spreads and having to start over?
SA: No, no. Because what I do has no comparison to what Joe Kubert does, or Tom Yeates, who is working with me right now in a project crossover between Conan and Groo. But their work is so fine. When they draw a hand or a face, it has to look like a hand or a face. In my case, it’s just a silly hand that, like, a sausage will do. There’s no order, so there’s no mistakes. The line that runs wrong, you use it for something else. So there’s very little erasing, very little correcting, because if the nose is too long, so what? In the next one, you make it larger, so it looks no different. But for a regular artist, they have to concentrate because a nose has to look like a nose.
AVC: Poor guys.
SA: Yeah, poor guys. It’s always that the guys who draw like me, we envy the guys who know how to draw seriously, because it’s such an amazing thing. I still get fascinated when I watch these guys draw. How can they draw these things so perfectly? So realistic! So proportional! They say the same things about us. “How can you draw that? It’s impossible.” So most sides are envious of the other sides because we don’t do what they do.