Arriving with a story about knowing how to do the "shuffle off to Buffalo," legendary artist and writer Sergio Aragonés was on site before the microphones for his and Mark Evanier's WonderCon panel were turned on.
"I'm not doing it if he's here first," declared Evanier, showing up two minutes later.
After a little feedback while checking the sound, Aragonés checked the volume on a flip phone in his shirt pocket. "Is that one of those old steam powered ones?" Evanier asked.
Aragonés lauded his phone's simplicity. "It doesn't have to take pictures," he said.
"It takes cave paintings," Evanier returned.
Remembering the audience, the pair turned to begin their very informal presentation by announcing there will be two new Groo series coming out this year. First up, "Groo vs. Conan" from Aragonés and Thomas Yeates, the newspaper strip illustrator of "Prince Valiant" fame.
"11 years in the making," Evanier said. "See what happens when you get another artist involved?"
"He drew Conan and I drew Groo," Aragonés said of the workflow for the project, with each artist collaborating closely.
"I think it should have been the other way around--" Evanier quipped.
There was some confusion about the release date, with Aragonés insisting it would be out in time for San Diego, which led Evanier to jump into a story.
"Sergio and I were having lunch one time at Sizzler," Evanier began, explaining how the two created their horror comic over some Malibu chicken. "[Sergio] wanted to do a comic about an old Black undertaker who tells stories, but he didn't have a name. I said, 'Let's call it "Boogeyman."' It was another one of those ideas that we'll never get around to doing. Eight months later, I'm packing to go to New York and I get an email, a guy who says he loves the 'Groo' Series and says he's looking forward to 'Boogeyman.' I figure Sergio met someone and told them about it. I asked him to kind of not mention that and he said, 'I saw it on the Dark Horse website!' and it was out in eight weeks. Sergio was in Europe, so I called the Dark Horse office and they asked me, 'Are you done with "Boogeyman?"' No -- 'Are you half done, 75%?' No -- 'Have you started it?' I just heard about it! In New York, I'm visiting the Marvel and DC offices and people are asking about 'Boogeyman.' I get madder and madder and crazier."
The first issue was finally completed in ten days, "which is, most of all, a tribute to a man named Stan Sakai," Aragonés said. The artist had to take some pages of "Boogeyman" #1 to Sakai's house on Sakai's wedding anniversary, causing a celebratory dinner to be postponed, which made Evanier feel very guilty.
Aragonés said that was a tribute to Sakai's work ethic. "Sometimes things get delayed." This led to another story, where another project was running late. Aragonés was walking around Sakai's Pasadena neighborhood at midnight yelling "STAAAAANNN!!" Luckily, the comics legend woke up and got Aragonés before the police got called.
"If you got one of these --" Evanier quipped, showing his phone. Aragonés reminded him that this was before the prevalence of cell phones. The work got done, clearly, and all four covers make a poster when put together.
They finally got back to announcements, discussing "Friends and Foes," a twelve issue series focusing on supporting characters from the "Groo" universe. The first issue is complete, Evanier just delivered the script for the second, which will be on its way to Sakai for inks.
"Can we wait for his anniversary?" Evanier asked.
The unscheduled project is likely to be released shortly after "Groo vs. Conan" is completed. "Individual stories, but kind of connected in a way," Evanier said.
"If you read it out of sequence, it makes sense," Aragonés added.
"Nothing makes sense if you do it that way!" Evanier returned, promising, "For more than a year, you'll have monthly Groo again."
"Mark is doing a couple of comics for IDW; you want to talk abut that?" Aragonés asked.
"No," Evanier said simply, before rattling off some of his current projects: "Rocky & Bullwinkle" for IDW and "Garfield" for BOOM! Studios, "because you can only write so many jokes about lasagna."
A longtime fan Aragonés noted that he's doing "A "MAD" Look at Captain America," which prompted Evanier to say, "Jack Kirby won't make money off of that!" "I'm sorry about that," Aragonés responded, and Evanier continued, "That's what I learned from Jack, how not to get paid!"
Creating his "MAD" strips can be difficult, as sometimes Aragonés has to work without seeing the projects he's lampooning in advance. For "Man of Steel," Aragonés said that Warner Bros. kept all the material so close to the vest, he had to work from what he thought would be in the movie. For "Gravity," Sergio was on the phone with Evanier, talking about worries about being able to get to a theater. Evanier, a member of the Academy, had received a screener and asked, "Would you like a DVD?"
"I could stop, rewind -- it was wonderful," Aragonés said, happily.
Aragonés relayed stories about "MAD" fixtures Dave Berg (who scared Antonio Prohias in the middle of the night with a glow stick, trying to be considerate of his roommate) and noted oenophile, "MAD" publisher William Gaines, who would come yelling for twenty seven cents to cover a call to New Jersey but wouldn't think twice about buying a $200 bottle of wine for dinner According to Aragonés, "He was very strict about his business. Business was business, and friendship was friendship." Gaines also played tricks on his assistant, pretending to be his own crazy twin brother Max.
Aragonés told a young fan that his inspiration for Groo came from seeing artists in Europe who owned the rights to their own work, a desire which was cemented in the young artist after he started working on a cancelled comic based on Motown's "The Wiz," and he was told after he'd started working that he had to sign a work-for-hire contract to get paid. After popping in on an editor who was waiting for two romance stories to hand off to a waiting Vince Coletta, Aragonés told the editor, "Go to lunch, come back and you'll have them." Aragonés snuck a look at previous Marvel romance stories, pounded out two seven-page stories and the editor was shocked when he returned. "I didn't know you wrote comics!" the editor said. "Neither did I!" Aragonés responded. These seeds led Aragonés to create Groo, a humorous character like many he'd seen in Europe (Asterix, Tintin), and he asked Evanier to help create it.
Evanier then noted that a benefit comic for Steve Gerber, to help in his legal battle with Marvel over the rights to Howard the Duck, provided an opportunity to bring Groo to the public. The first Groo story got so much attention, a bidding war ensued among publishers looking to print the bumbling barbarian's adventures. Evanier noted that in many issues of "Groo," there was a secret message. In one, it was, "Give Jack Kirby his money!"
The creative duo's secret origin was then told, as Evanier related his history running the Los Angeles Comics Club. Sergio was invited to the club as a guest speaker, and began running into Evanier at different places, developing a kind of friendship but not really connecting, despite living near each other in Los Angeles. Evanier was in New York in July of 1970, to meet Stan Lee as part of working for Marvel Mania, a fan club organizing body. Stan's secretary called to postpone, so Evanier went walking on Madison Avenue to sight see. Aragonés, just walking out of the "MAD Magazine" offices, noticed Evanier from across the street and called him ("Mi amigo!") over the din of Manhattan traffic. Aragonés offered to take Evanier up to the "MAD" offices, and walking in, they passed a downtrodden looking Wally Wood, who'd just had his idea for a magazine rejected by Gaines. They also saw Angelo Torres turning in his first article, met the entire staff and got to hold (but not take) pages from "MAD's" first two issues.
They couldn't discuss a new deal for reprinting the original "Groo" books, and Aragonés reacted strongly about the idea of a live action "Groo" movie, exclaiming, "Never!" "After 'The Flintstones?' Can you imagine? We'll have it CGI, with the tiny legs --"
Aragonés said he could never write an autobiography "until a lot of people die," a comment which made Evanier visibly uncomfortable.
Asked what he was most proud of after all his years of work, Aragonés said simply, "My friends. Fans that support my work. They come with their grandkids, they love my work. That's been the best thing ever that happened to me."
Evanier then said, "I'm most proud of Sergio's friends," before getting more serious and bringing up the recent work he did on a Criterion release of "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, "MAD" World," including a 3.5 hour commentary track that didn't get "half the stuff in there. That movie changed my life, I saw it the day between Lee Harvey Oswald shooting Kennedy and Jack Ruby shooting Oswald."
Time ran out before more could be said, but the two seemed to be having a conversation they'd enjoyed for many years, and could easily continue for many more.