Famed cartoonist Sergio Aragones, the fastest pen in the West, held court to a steadily increasing crowd during his Alternative Press Expo spotlight panel in San Francisco, CA. Walking with a cane due to a recent operation, he joked about his physical therapist before diving straight into an overview of his career.
In 1954, Aragones’ first cartoons debuted in his high school newspaper in Mexico. One of his editors took his work to a magazine called “Ja Ja,” selling them without his knowledge. “I had a weekly page in ‘Manana’ and made some money in cartooning, but not professional cartooning. It was more like window displays and that sort of thing,” Aragones said.
In 1962, Aragones jumped on a bus to New York where he “recited poetry in the Flamingo Bar.” After being told numerous times to submit to “MAD Magazine,” he finally worked up the nerve to speak with “Spy vs. Spy” artist, Antonio ProhÃas. ProhÃas introduced him to the editors who quickly gave him an assignment — “A MAD Look at the U.S. Space Program,” “and they really liked it,” Aragones said. The next morning, he went back to the “MAD” offices before they opened with his next assignment and kept going back day after day with art. “They gave me a one hundred dollar check. I was wealthy! I wasn’t going anywhere.”
Aragones visited Europe for two years, where he “learned the trade from European pantomime cartoons. I wanted to meet the artists.” He learned most of the European cartoonists had owned the rights to their work and this inspired him to seek the same compensation.
“There were funny comics and kids comics, but no humor comics. When the underground scene came out, finally there was a market.” Aragones scored a break at Pacific Comics for his most famous creation, “Groo.” “Pacific went out of business because they went into distribution rather than printing. One issue at Eclipse Comics, another with Marvel Comics and then there were 120 issues, never missing a month or being late,” Aragones said.
He mentioned his latest “Groo” project at Dark Horse Comics, “Groo vs. Conan.” “Tom Yates is drawing Conan in a realistic style and I’m doing Groo,” Aragones said. Although slightly delayed because of his health issues, Aragones is finishing issue three right now and said the series should be out by 2013.
The popular trend of self-publishing is appealing to Aragones. “I’ve been wondering about self-publishing. All these companies I work with have right of first refusal. So I show them my work and they take it, but I could triple my income! It’s a great era, and I wish I was younger so I could turn companies on their heads. All my ideas relate to comics and cartoons — I don’t have any grand plans. I want to do ‘Don Quixote,’ but my way, with me in it and making it intellectually correct.”
Offering advice to the artists in the audience, Aragones said, “Don’t work for free. I know you love it and I’m very glad, but you don’t go to a doctor, architect or a fine artist and expect them to work for free. If you respect me, you want to pay for my work — even though it’s what we love to do. The reality is gas is now $5 a gallon and we have to live.”
Aragones fielded questions from the audience, beginning with if he had ever considered teaching art to others. “My problem with teaching is I’ve never learned. My style is so nuts — I can correct and tell what direction to take, but I can’t teach. I recommend learning literature. Read how to write, and if you’re good at writing, take an art class. For me to teach? I wouldn’t know how and I don’t understand it.”
Aragones admitted his workday has evolved over time, the hustle and bustle of self-promoting his art and getting his name out there no longer taking precedence to time spent creating. “Now I get up, sit by the pool and get ideas. I have lunch, then go to my studio and work. I see a woman at five in the morning asking me when I’m coming to bed because I get so engrossed. It’s great to do something you love.”
He went on to discuss the process of creating his “MAD” marginals, which appeared throughout the magazine. “It’s funny because of the size and quickness of it — the marginals are vignettes to complement the subject. The one I’m doing now is a ‘MAD Look at Alternative Medicine.’ I spend weeks just thinking about gags, which sometimes my family doesn’t understand. Then I write them down on little strips of paper, going from A-Z, and they choose three or four pages worth. Now I have enough material for a whole book! Many of my gags from Bongo Comics’ ‘Funnies’ came from stuff ‘MAD’ didn’t take.”
Aragones announced he’s working on a “MAD” animated show on Cartoon Network, saying, “I do the original art and they scan it in and animate it. We’ve tried to do ‘Groo’ as a movie, but everyone wants a piece of it — they want to own it and no one wants me there. I want to collaborate with them, but I don’t want an accountant telling me how to write a gag.”
In writing satire, Aragones admitted a joke he may have taken too far and feels regret about is “a series of books called ‘Fanny Hillman: Memoirs of a Jewish Madame.’ They were popular, but…”
To close the panel, Aragones says he’ll leave the prospect of an autobiography to the publishers. “I’ve thought about it. In every issue of ‘Funnies’ I have a biographical story — #8’s is how I fled from Spain to Mexico. I have plenty of stories to tell and I’m 75 right now, maybe I’ll hit 90. I only tell the funny stories — the other ones are boring. You’ll have them all eventually.”