There are few cartoonists whose work is so beloved and so easily recognized as that of Sergio Aragones. For almost fifty years his work has been one of the mainstays of “Mad” magazine and the two features he is most associated with, “A Mad Look at...” and the Marginals, are two of the features that people remember best. His work has been in every issue of the magazine except one since issue #76 dated January 1963. Running Press has released a new book collecting a selection of his work from “Mad” in “Sergio Aragones: Five Decades of His Finest Work.”
Mr. Aragones has received just about every award that a cartoonist can win, many more than once, including the Reuben of the Year Award from the National Cartoonist Society. He is not a man who rests on his laurels. He’s currently drawing the latest installment of his long-running series “Groo the Wanderer,” a crossover between his character and everyone’s second favorite barbarian, Conan. He’s also writing and drawing for Bongo Comics and contributing to “The Simpsons” family of comics, in addition to contributing work to the “Mad” animated show currently running on Cartoon Network.
His new project, which was announced just after this interview was conducted, is “Funnies,” an ongoing comic book from Bongo which, in the words of editor Bill Morrison, “will just be Sergio doing what he does best; drawing the funniest cartoons in the universe!”
CBR News: Does it feel like it’s been five decades that you’ve been working at “Mad Magazine?”
Sergio Aragones: No no no. Time flies so fast. You get an idea, you draw and you have a lot of fun doing it. It’s something that I’ve been doing all my life. For me it’s never been work. It’s something that comes so natural. When somebody says, it’s been five decades, that’s when you realize that yes, you’ve been doing it so long.
“Mad” had been running for about a decade before you started working there. What was its reputation back then when you first came across the magazine?
I grew up in Mexico. I was in high school and one day I saw the magazine. One of my colleagues had it and I didn’t want to return it. I had never seen anything like it. I couldn’t understand it because I didn’t speak any English, but the drawings were amazing. They were something I had never seen. I was already drawing cartoons, but to me, they were such a discovery. I started getting every issue when it came out and asking everybody to help me translate it to find out what it was all about. To me it was one of the biggest things that ever happened. I learned more every time an issue came out. It to me was just a representation of the best art and the funniest thing I had ever seen in my life.
Was there anyone or anything that stood out to you at that time?
All of it. It was such a together work. The thing that amazed me the most, well, besides the people like Mort Drucker, were the caricatures that they were doing, which were excellent. The one thing that Mexico had was very good caricaturists. So that didn’t encourage me as much as, for instance, Bob Clark, George Woodbridge, because of the realistic way he drew. I’ve never seen anything like it. Of course 'Spy vs Spy.' Don Martin, which I thought was the craziest thing I have ever seen. And also Al Jaffee’s deceptively simple cartoons. They looked simple but once you started realizing it, they had such expression and such a great sense of humor. So all of them. It was just amazing.
You mentioned that you were drawing back then. Was “Mad” an influence on the direction you took?
“Mad” wasn’t an influence then. I was just an admirer. The way that they drew, to me, it was impossible to draw like that. I was drawing cartoons without words. I just had such a large admiration for everything that was published in "Mad." It was not like I wanted to draw like that, because it didn’t have anything to do with what I was doing. I had never seen anything like it. My influences were mostly European: Spanish and French. In Europe, in those times, they were doing pantomime cartoons, and in the United States there was no use for pantomime cartoons. I never thought I could ever work for “Mad” because “Mad” was a magazine about satire. They were lampooning movies and advertising and my cartoons were about just making people laugh without any real message behind it.
When I arrived to the United States and I tried to sell my cartoons, everybody said, you should go to “Mad.” In the beginning I didn’t understand because I was a fan of “Mad.” I knew their work. I was in admiration and awe of the magazine. To me when they’d say that, I thought, you don’t know the magazine. The magazine is about satire. So when I went to "Mad," I went to meet the cartoonists and to find out why everybody was sending me there, because maybe I was wrong about something. When I arrived, they looked at the cartoons. They put them together in a two-pager and made it relevant. They saw cartoons about astronauts and they saw “A Mad Look at the U.S. Space Effort,” which in the book is the first one. Then I realized that, yes, when you put cartoons together and focus it to a particular subject, it was a comment.
When you were a student at the University of Mexico, you studied pantomime under Alejandro Jodorowsky.
Yes. I was studying architecture and I was in the theater group. When Marcel Marceau came to Mexico, Alejandro came with him. He is from Chile and his Spanish allowed him to stay in Mexico. He opened a pantomime school and eventually he went on to make movies and become one of the most important people in the field of literature and comics and movies. I was in the theater, not because I wanted to become an actor, but that was where all the fun was happening with all the young people. I had loved pantomime when I saw it in the theater and in the movies, like Jacques Tati or Marceau of course, but I realized that learning pantomime I could apply it to my cartooning. It was a way to understand the movements of the body. I asked him if I could join the class because I wanted to learn pantomime to apply it to my work and that’s how I was part of the group.
What do you feel is your strength as a cartoonist? What do you think you do well?
Probably simplifying an idea. When you look at the Marginals, they’re simplifying a subject, a joke, to the simplest way to communicate it. Trying to avoid the unnecessary. When I’m doing comics that’s a different matter because you want to place the reader in a field so you want to put a lot of details so that the man that’s reading the comic feels he’s there. But for humor, less is best. I think that’s my strength. The less to express the most.
In putting together a book like this, is it a struggle to go through archives and decide what should be included?
Yes. It was hard to the point that I told them to do the selections themselves and to let me know after. They chose the ones that they thought would make a very interesting book and then I eliminated some and added others. To me it’s like choosing between your babies.
Last year you started contributing to “The Simpsons” comics.
I’ve been a fan of “The Simpsons” from the first time I saw them on TV. When “Mad Magazine” went from monthly to bimonthly, [Bongo] called me and said, Sergio you have a little more time now, can you work for us on “The Simpsons?” I immediately said yes because, as I said, I am a real fan of it. I knew the characters like they were my own because I’ve been watching them from the beginning and I’ve been looking at the comics and I thought it was very clever. So I said yes and started working for them and it’s been very natural. I felt like I belong there. It didn’t come hard. What’s hard is that because the Simpsons universe exists — the house, the factory, the Kwik-e-mart — everything is already drawn, so when I’m drawing I have to do it the same way. I cannot invent a new Kwik-e-mart or a new house or a new bedroom. It’s the research that takes the longest time. I have a little leeway with the characters. They have to look like the cartoon, but I have can adapt my style to them, but when it comes to the backgrounds you have to be accurate. Besides that, it’s been great great fun.
Reading “Maggie’s Crib,” it’s undeniably you and such fun and it’s amazing no one ever thought of this idea before.
Well, to me it’s such a perfect character. Every time they’ve done it on TV, Maggie does everything very well, but secretly. I wish I had thought of it myself. When they asked me if I could do single page for Maggie, which would be silent because she doesn’t talk, it was a very good venue to work with them. Then if you think of Maggie, you think of Bart and Homer and you start thinking of other stories. I just finished one about Maggie going to the factory with Homer by accident and that was an eight pager without words.
And you had your head show up on the new season of “Futurama.”
[Laughs] That was great. I’m the only cartoonist left. They asked me if I could come to the studio to do the voice and I said, of course. It was such an honor to be a part of that universe of Matt’s head and all the other writers and artists. I was very, very happy.
You have a comic series “Groo.” There have been many miniseries, over a hundred issues, but for people who don’t know, what is “Groo?”
When I was a kid I loved comics like any other kid and because I never studied art, I considered myself a writer that draws his own stories. To me, drawing was a way to convey my own ideas. So I always loved comics and I always wanted to do comics, but in the United States there were no humor comics. There were adventure comics, there were horror comics, love comics, teenager comics and funny animal comics, but there were no humor comics. I thought, well, I cannot do a comic because there’s not a market for it. It was when I went to Europe for a couple of years and came back I realized that in Europe there were a lot of humor comics and there is a market that has not been tapped so I started working on creating comics. My problem was, in those times, the companies didn’t share the copyright with the author and I wanted to own my own material.
I have loved always sword and sorcery because they lend themselves to a lot of very funny situations. There was nothing in the market like a humorous Conan. [Groo] is about a silly barbarian who never thinks. A wandering barbarian that is a very stupid individual but very good with a sword and has a dog that is smarter than he is. He is a catalyst for conflict. “Groo” I do with a colleague of mine, Mark Evanier, an excellent writer, just amazing. Because of my English, I asked if he could collaborate with me on dialogue and the stories and he said yes and we’ve been working together from the beginning. And the team is Stan Sakai, who’s a very good author, he does “Usagi Yojimbo,” he still does my lettering when he’s not spending his time doing his own material, and Tom Luth, who to me is the best colorist in the field. He also colors my work in “Mad.” We’ve been a team for many many years.
As you said there have been many issues and they’ve been collected but they’re not always easy to find. Are there plans for more collections or to release the book digitally?
Well, all of my comics have been collected in books, but they sell out very fast. Right now a second printing would be hard because the comics are going through a hard time, but I’m still working on “Groo.” Right now I’m doing a crossover between Groo and Conan with a very good artist named Tom Yeates. He’s drawing the serious Conan and I’m drawing Groo and they are meeting in four issues that will be collected in a graphic novel. I’m working on the Mad animated show for Warners.
How is the animated show going? When the announcement was first made about show, they included the vague statement that your Marginals work would be incorporated somehow.
They realized that they wanted new material so they called me and I’m working on new material. It’s been easy because it’s like I’m doing the Marginals. It’s a very funny show. It’s only fifteen minutes but they put so much in it because nowadays it seems like the new generation can see more than we could. It is incredible. How can they see that? But they do.
One other thing I wanted to ask about, in the introduction of the book, you mention the trip to Mexico City made by the staff and about how Bill Gaines used to take the freelancers on vacation every year.
Yes. Including the lawyer and the accountant and the editor. We went overseas over twenty times. The trips started in 1960 and they stopped when Bill Gaines passed away in the eighties. He paid for everything. We went on African safari. We went to Russia. We went to all the Scandinavian countries. To Europe many times. Mexico. Tahiti. We went to a lot of places and we shared rooms so as roommates I had Jack Davis and Jaffee and Martin and Prohihas. They became like family because you knew them so well, you even shared a room with them on trips. It was not a group of people working for "Mad." It was a family working for "Mad." The relationship between the artists and the writers and everything goes beyond the work. It’s a family affair.
I would imagine that’s very different now.
What changed wasn’t the lack of the trips or the passing of Bill Gaines. What happened is before everybody lived in New York because everything that was happening was happening in New York. There was no internet or Fedex. Over time, communication became easier so everybody started moving. Antonio moved to Florida because his family was there. Jack Davis to Georgia because he was from there. Don Martin to Florida. Everybody started moving to different places. I’m in California. That separation was not by no means a lack of interest, it’s because times change. Everybody could send their work by mail or other means, so they left. It was not necessary to be in one particular place. We still correspond. When I’m in New York I see the people who are in New York. We see each other at comic book conventions. Al Jaffee won the National Cartoonist Society Reuben Award and we were there. You go to conventions or a meeting of the National Cartoonist Society and it’s like one of the "Mad" parties because a lot of the guys are there. The friendships continue.
You mentioned Al Jaffee winning the Reuben the other year and you won that award years before. Mort Drucker, Jack Davis and others from “Mad” have won. Do you feel that the fact that the National Cartoonists Society has embraced “Mad” and what you did at the magazine is something significant?
I think so. Primarily the National Cartoonist Society was mostly comic strip artists because that what was prevalent. The first Reuben, if I’m not mistaken, was won by Milton Caniff and then mostly the guys who won it were in comic strips. With time, they realized that good artists were doing not only comic strips but they were doing cards and they were doing editorial cartooning and other things so they opened to other people. At the beginning it was mostly Al Capp and Alex Raymond and Walt Kelly and Mort Walker and Schultz. Then it opened and became a place for to the newer guys who were doing something besides comic strips. Matt Groening won it. The “Mad” guys of course. Arnold Roth, who’s a great cartoonist, won it for illustration. So it opened to new people. Will Eisner won the Reuben for comics. I’m in very good company. That was probably one of my proudest moments ever in my life, when I won the Reuben.
It’s an amazing group of people to be sure, but I would imagine what gives the award meaning is that it’s voted on by your peers.
Yes. That’s it. The vote is by all the cartoonists who decide they like your work that much that they give it to you. I won what’s called a division award for comic books and for humor and other things, but the big one, oh my god. When I won it, that was the first time I was nominated. I have gone to the meetings for so many years, from the early sixties, and people have been nominated sometimes five or six times, and so I thought, well, maybe one day I’ll win it. It was extraordinary.
You mentioned a few things you’re working on.
What else? Besides “Groo,” “Mad,” “The Simpsons,” and the “Mad” show I don’t have a second left in my life. [Laughs.] I’m locked here in my studio most of the time. People think, oh my god, that’s so much work. What happens is that half of it is writing. The writing I do sitting in the garden, under a tree, sipping a nice cup of coffee by the pool. You think of ideas. Half of the day I spend with my family and they don’t bother me too much because they know I’m thinking but they interrupt me for lunch or whatever. It’s a welcome break.
Then in the evening I sit at my desk and work until very very late hours putting all those ideas in order. It’s two parts. A lot of people say, you never get any writers block. Of course not, because if I get tired of one, I go to the other one. If I’m writing “Groo” and I get tired I think up “Simpsons” ideas. You never get tired because you change the pace. If I get tired of thinking, I start drawing. I never get tired, except my eyes, and then I have to go to bed because it’s four o’clock in the morning. But it’s been a comfortable way to do what you love. Many other authors and artists when they do only one thing they can get very frustrated because they are entangled with this one character and that can become frustrating or stressful. The comic strip guys, they suffer. They have to come up with a funny gag every day. I come up with a few a day, but for many things, it’s not as repetitious.
Mr. Aragones, it’s been a great pleasure.
Well thank you very much.
In preparation for this interview, I’ve mentioned it to other people I know and they may not follow comics or have read “Mad” in years, but they knew your name and they could picture the Marginals.
[Laughs.] That feels great. Sitting here, it’s a very lonely career. You don’t see people. You get emails. When you go to the comic book conventions you meet your readers, from the comics mostly. Now that I’ve been doing book signings for the new book then you meet another generation of fans of "Mad" that you rarely meet. The comic strips and "Mad" lack the hardcore fandom that comics have that go to comicbook conventions. They love our work but they don’t go to places to celebrate except once in a while they go to see you sign a book. That’s a pleasure when you sign books to meet this group of people that have been your fans for decades. People of all ages. People with white hair and say, I read you when I was a young man. That makes you realize that I’ve been working for “Mad” long when you meet readers who come with their grandkids and now the grandkids are fans of your work and the grandfather was a reader. That’s so terrific. It’s wonderful finding out that people recognize your work.