The panel at San Francisco’s WonderCon was billed as “The Sergio and Mark Show” but when half of the team, Mark Evanier, was stranded at the Los Angeles airport, Aragones was left to fend for himself. He began with an apology that his drawing skills were greater than his speaking skills, but he managed to keep a packed room (which he jokingly estimated at “about 700” fans) more than entertained for an hour, dropping hints of a Groo-Conan crossover and a possible meeting of Groo and Tarzan.
Aragones recounted his longtime friendship and collaboration with Evanier, whom he met as a young man. “I was asked to speak at the Santa Monica Comic Club, which was a half-dozen guys in their twenties. He came to New York and I took up him to ‘Mad.’ I’d been drawing Groo without words (to me, Groo speaks in Spanish). A group of people were doing a benefit book (“Destroyer Duck”) to raise money for Steve Gerber’s lawsuit against Marvel, and Mark called me and asked ‘Don’t you have anything to contribute? Don’t you have a few pages of something?’ I had some Groo pages, and it looked good in print,” and thus their partnership was launched. In spite of their friendship, he tweaked Evanier (who invariably moderates what seems like dozens of convention panels) by claiming that, “If I were Mark, I’d start by saying how many panels I have to do,” before launching into his own mini-biography.
Born in Spain, Aragones grew up in Mexico, where seemingly every street corner had its own corner newsstand. The owners went to every house and apartment and offered subscriptions to any and every magazine, newspaper and comic that anyone might be interested in. Then, every morning, those owners would bicycle downtown, pick up a load of periodicals and “go running to all the apartments delivering all the orders.” “That’s why every comic had a circulation of a million. Because they were taking care of the neighborhood. The guys who owned the stands would keep all the profits and get all the first issues free and push them – and then keep all the money.”
That system was how Aragones was first introduced to “The Spirit,” one of his current assignments. “‘The Spirit’ was the first thing I read in Spanish.” He was amazed that creator Will Eisner was able to do a story in eight pages – almost totally in images. “Every Wednesday, the new issue came out, and I’d read it and then rush to school. The people at school thought that it was normal for me to be late to school an hour every Wednesday. It was ‘The Spirit.’ And ‘Donald Duck.'”
It made him want to do his own comics. “I wanted to do comics, so that’s what I did as a kid. I wanted to do humor comics; we had that in Spain. Not with jokes, but funny animals. But then I went to Europe and discovered that Europeans were doing humor in comics – with Tintin and Lucky Luke. I wanted to do my own comics. In Europe, people just say ‘Let’s do a comic’ and do it and own the copyright. I had a publisher tell me, ‘over my dead body.'”
Suddenly, there’s a burst of music. It’s Sergio’s phone ringing with Evanier on the other end. “I’m taking care of you . . . About 700 . . . I know what kind of a mood you’re in . . . I will send my salutations to the good people here” Evanier has a parting shot for the audience: “F-U-C-K United Airlines.” He hangs up and turns to the crowd: “He’s still in L.A. and he’s MAD.”
With the whereabouts of the angry Evanier established, Aragones returned to his life and work history. He drew cartoons in high school for the school paper. The editor asked him why he didn’t turn professional. He didn’t feel he was ready, but the editor secretly submitted Aragones’s work to a Mexican humor magazine called “Ja Ja,” (or “Ha Ha,” since the Spanish “J” has an “H” sound.). Most of that magazine was filled with imported cartoons from the U.S. (Reprints of “Peanuts,” or “the beautiful girl being chased around the desk by the boss.”) One day the editor asked Sergio “Why don’t you take me to lunch?” He replied that he had no money. She responded that he did, and gave him what he’d unknowingly been earning from “Ja Ja.”
He continued with “Ja Ja” until he began contributing to a magazine called “Manana” in 1954. The problem was, there wasn’t much money. While American cartoonists were earning around $60 for their work, the Mexican and Argentinean magazines would buy reprint rights for ten pesos – or one dollar – the same amount they offered Sergio for original work. “One of the things I did in Mexico was trading cartoons; I’d trade for haircuts or bread – I’d draw Santa Claus in the window or something for Dia de las Muertos and trade for services. The more you do, the better you get. One day I said, ‘I think I’m ready for the market,'” and though he’d studied architecture, he moved to America to “get that sixty dollars.” “I got a good job at ‘Mad;’ I got married, bought a car, got my green card. . .” He ended up at “Mad Magazine” in 1962, contributing “marginals,” a job that he continues to this day.
The people at “Mad” were close. “Bill Gaines invited us on trips all over the world. One time Jack Davis would be my roommate; another time Al Jaffee would be my roommate. You became a family. We took a trip to Mexico, which I organized. It was great; I had Jack Davis fighting a bull. I took them to my mother’s, and she cooked paella; it was great, being with my real family and having my other family.”
But the lure of doing his own work was strong: “I started to draw “Groo;” I’d been drawing him since the 70s. I took him to a company called Pacific Comics, who realized that guys like Jack Kirby, Neal Adams – the best; they could get these guys because they could still own their copyrights. They were successful at it, too, and only went out of business only because they started to do too many things. The success led DC and Marvel to start their own creator-owned lines.”
Turning to “Groo,” Aragones mentioned a number of upcoming and possible projects, including a crossover between Groo and Conan – “which I’ve been against all my life; characters crossing over – but they’ve been after us to do it for some time, since Dark Horse got the rights to Conan At first I said no.” But he was eventually convinced, “because both are barbarians,” and as the icing on the cake, he and Evanier have written themselves into the story: “I’m in it and Mark is in it; we’re both in it. I didn’t want Groo to lose to Conan and they don’t want Conan to lose to Groo, so solving the problem was the problem. And then one day I saw a movie called ‘Rashomon.’ And that’s about how people see things – from different points of view, and I saw how to write it. Tom Yeats is drawing Conan, and I’m doing the rest. So probably very soon, you’ll have a Groo-Conan series. And, of course, we’ve been asked to do Groo-Tarzan. It’ll be easier, since they fit together; Tarzan went into a place where there are dinosaurs, and if he can find dinosaurs, he can find Groo. They don’t have to find each other; they just have to switch places. Groo has to screw things up so Tarzan and come back and say ‘what is this?'” Speaking of “screwing things up,” it’ll be revealed in an upcoming issue that Groo is somehow responsible for global warming.
When queried about a “Groo” movie, he mentioned that nothing is happening on it right now: “We wrote a screenplay and DreamWorks optioned it, but I didn’t like the deal. They didn’t want to let me be in charge of doing the things he does.” (That is, devising and creating gags and character bits.) “I wanted to be involved in the process – not the only guy; l didn’t want to direct. The director of ‘Stuart Little’ (Rob Minkoff) was on board, but I didn’t want to sign the papers cause I wouldn’t be there. People are pissed at me, but I want to be there; I want it to be the Groo I like. I wanted it to be my guy. I’m not starving so I don’t need the money.”
Asked about a team-up with another character, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, he begged off. “It’s too difficult; it’s so specific and has only been drawn by Sakai, whereas Conan’s been drawn by 100 artists.”
Turning to his current assignments, referring to “The Spirit,” he said “it’s an honor to work on a character you loved,” in fact, when he started at “Mad,” “Jerry DiFuccio collected everything and he had a complete collection of ‘The Spirit,’ so I got to read them all over again in English. And how do he and Evanier write “The Sprit?” “I write a structured plot, from beginning to end, then I sit and I write it in drawings; and I send it to the artist, but tell him, ‘please don’t follow my layout’ and the penciller will draw it, it’ll go to the inker, and come back to Mark for dialogue.”
The subject of how humor translates internationally came up and Aragones believes it’s “mostly cultural.” But not necessarily national cultures. “If you’re a doctor in Mexico, you will laugh at the same things as an American doctor. You went to college and have the same references.” But there’s localism, too: In Mexico, “you’ll laugh at tacos and enchiladas, but in America, none of the gags made sense (to us) – we didn’t know what a rolling pin was; all we knew was that the wife was cruel to her husband.
“We also thought that every American must be very wealthy; Doris Day was a waitress and lived in a fabulous apartment in New York. In Mexico, a waitress barely makes enough to get by.
“The Marx Brothers didn’t translate well into Mexico, because we don’t make fun of little old ladies; we don’t find that humorous. I love Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy. But I don’t like the Marx Brothers, or W.C. Fields either.
“In Japan, you can’t make fun of anything; they’re more respectful. It starts when you’re a kid; again it’s cultural. When I go into a classroom, the first thing they say is ‘draw the teacher.’ The more ridiculous, they more they love it. But they look at him, and when he laughs, they laugh.
“I was in Africa, they didn’t understand anything. They hadn’t seen the same movies. In the cities it would be different, but in the boondocks, they didn’t get it. I got more realistic, and drew a guy getting hit by a cow and they laughed.”
How did he make the change from being an artist to writing? “I started writing; I came back to DC Comics from Europe and met with Joe Orlando and he said he was in trouble because he needed two stories right away, I have the artist, but I need two stories. I told him, ‘Go to lunch and when you come back, you’ll have them.’ I went down to the café and wrote two stories – one about how I met my wife – and they loved them. I’m not intimidated by the big guy (meaning Will Eisner) when I’m writing ‘The Spirit.’ I know The Spirit from reading him all these years. I’m not trying to do what Eisner did. I know the character. If they ask me to do Tarzan, I’ll do Tarzan. I won’t put tigers in it.”
Asked if “Mad Magazine” had changed much since 1962, he replied “It’s changed so much I don’t understand it! I have to ask my daughter, ‘Who is this guy?’ ‘Oh, he’s a rapper and smoked drugs and all the rest of it.’ The art is better than ever, and it’s in color and had advertisements. The reason it didn’t have ads was that Bill Gaines wanted to have total freedom to make fun of everything, and if Pepsi had an ad, he couldn’t make fun of Coca-Cola. And there are so many tobacco companies, and we wanted to make fun of tobacco. But now the real advertisers have become so shameless ‘Oh, we’re better than Coke,’ so that now they can accept it. And it has to be in color, because everything’s in color; kids won’t even watch a movie in black and white.
What keeps him going? “I love it. I can’t get tired of it. If I get tired of ‘Mad,’ I move to ‘Groo.’ When I get tired of ‘Groo,’ I move to something else. When I get tired of that, I move back to ‘Mad.'”