From Groo to MAD Magazine: The Cartoons of Sergio Aragones

Sergio Aragones signing a comic at San Diego Comic-Con. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

Sergio Aragones says he never thought about becoming a professional cartoonist. He had been drawing for as long as he can remember. He drew the movies he watched and the comic strips he read. As a teenager, he produced his own cartoons for the school paper. By the time he was a student at University of Mexico, he was working for magazines. He was studying architecture, but cartooning became his job. Aragones racked up work with the top magazines in Mexico. If he wanted to reach the next level of success, he had to go somewhere else. "The next step was the United States," he says. Aragones packed up his portfolio and caught a bus to New York, where he recited poetry in coffeehouses and hit up magazine editors. Those editors told him to go to MAD.

Decades later, Aragones is one of the icons of cartoon art. He has been a part of MAD Magazine since the 1960s, garnering fans for items like "marginals," small cartoons added in the margins of the pages. He created the long-running comic book series Groo and managed to maintain the rights for it in an era when that was rare. He is still incredibly prolific, turning out new works month to month. Right now, Groo vs. Conan, his collaboration with writer Mark Evanier and artist Thomas Yeates, is hitting comic book shops. The miniseries pits Aragones' famed character against the hero of Robert E. Howard's classic stories. It was one of the more difficult projects that he encountered. "Conan is a Barbarian that never loses, so is Groo," says Aragones. "One is humorous and one is serious." It took almost a year to figure out how these two instantly recognizable characters could exist in the same series. Aragones found the answer in the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, where the story is told through the points of view of different characters.


Sergio Aragones

Aragones has spent the past 30-some-odd years living in Ojai, where he writes and draws every day. When he tires of one task, he moves onto another. He works by the pool at home during the day. At night, he'll continue writing and drawing with a television set playing in the background. "Television becomes your companion because you don't have to talk back," he says. He'll let old movies, ones that he already knows well, run into the wee hours of the morning. Favorites include The Thin Man series and musicals from the 1930s. For monthly comics, Aragones has to complete a page a day. There are also lots of other projects to balance and ideas hit him in unusual moments. He spent ages trying to think of a way that he could comment on television in Groo, a comic set long before the advent of modern conveniences. After seeing Muppets on television, he arrived at the perfect TV substitute for Groo-- marionettes.

Outside of MAD, Aragones is perhaps best known for Groo the Wanderer. It's about the misadventures of a warrior, like Conan the Barbarian with more laughs than heroics. Back in the 1960s, Aragones had grown frustrated with the lack of humor comics in the U.S. market. While traveling in Europe, he noticed that a lot of the comics released on the continent were funny. He also learned that the comic book creators overseas actually owned their stories. That wasn't the case in the United States, where the copyrights were frequently retained by publishers, while artists and writers frequently lost control of the characters they created. Aragones wanted his own comic and he wanted to hang on to the rights. It took more than a decade for him to get that. In the early 1980s, he landed a deal with Pacific Comics. After the company's demise, Groo moved to various publishers. To date, Groo is still running and it stands out as one of the early examples of creator-owned comics.

We met at San Diego Comic-Con recently, behind a small table where Aragones spent days signing and doodling for a steady line of fans. There are children holding copies of MAD Magazine and comic book industry bigwigs waiting for a minute of Aragones' time. He signs and chats with everybody, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish. They aren't all strangers. Plenty are people that Aragones has met at conventions in other parts of the country, even the world. He travels to comic book conventions frequently. "It's a chance to meet old friends," he says. It's also a chance to find out who is reading his work. "If you see the face of readers, it's great." He signs another book, telling the fan that he'll enjoy the comic, called Funnies. The issue features a personal story that dates back to his college days in Mexico.

Sergio Aragones

Young artists approach Aragones often. "They have a lifetime in front of them and they want to know everything," he says. He tries to answer them with encouragement. At various points throughout the weekend, he disappears to sit on panels, where he discusses his work and answers questions from the crowd. Aragones says there are two kinds of people in the audience. There are the fans who have been following his work for years. They ask questions about upcoming releases. Then there are the folks who don't know his work all that well yet. They ask questions that Aragones does not feel he can answer. "Where do you get your ideas?" is one. "I don't know where I get my ideas," he says. "The same place where you get yours." They might ask a very general question, like "What's humor?" Aragones chuckles when he mentions this. "That's a philosophical question," he says. "I could spend 10 hours on the subject alone."

He signs fast and draws faster. With a couple blinks, you might miss that Aragones just doodled a character next to his name on the cover of your new comic. "The style is loose, a lot of movement," he says, "so speed helps it." He draws for comedic effect, not for realism. His characters have exaggerated figures-- think large bellies and skinny legs-- with pronounced noses and silly grins. They are constantly in motion, even when they are static images in a panel. "It doesn't really make a difference if the mouth doesn't close, or is larger," he says. "It's part of the style." Aragones says he spends more time researching and plotting out the images than he does actually drawing them.

Sergio Aragones

While he's signing, Aragones explains how he made a poster that has become quite popular with fans. It's a massive piece featuring dozens of tiny scenes inside one giant view of the Groo universe. It started as a composition on paper. Gradually, he added more and more details. He worked on the perspective, ensuring the distance and depths within the image made sense. "It's a lot of construction," he says.

Aragones stops for a second. He notices an error in the print, a very tiny piece of a dense drawing was left uncolored. He starts to laugh and shows it off to those of us around him. Everyone gets a kick out of it. "It becomes completely unimportant," says Aragones of the mistake. In his world of funny comics, goofs are good for a laugh too.

Sergio Aragones

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