A room filled with fans got a chance to sit in on a conversation with three of comics' most storied names for an hour of irreverent humor tempered with a great sense of familiarity.
Stan Sakai joined Mark Evanier on stage ten minutes before the panel began, waiting for Sergio Aragones, who was apparently selling a piece of artwork. Fans asked Evanier why there would be no Quick Draw at WonderCon (a competition where Aragones and another noted artist go "mano a mano" live in front of an audience), and Evanier noted that Aragones wanted to keep it special for San Diego.
Waiting for his friend, Evanier enthusiastically discussed a culinary experience he had the prior evening, where a nearby eatery took an hour and five minutes to bring his food. "Mashed potatoes aren't supposed to make noise when you bite them." Asked if he would be reviewing the restaurant on Yelp, Evanier responded, "You know the reviews they're giving that pizza place in Indiana? That's the kind of review they're going to get."
Evanier then launched into a story about eating at the Hollywood location of Roscoe's Chicken and Waffles in the '80s, while he was working on the TV show "That's Incredible." The cast and staff often went to eat at Roscoe's, and didn't get any special treatment. One day, a guest star was on the show and Evanier was sent as an advance person to get tables for 12 people. The restaurant staff was reluctant to accommodate the crowd, but Evanier assured them it would be worth it. Eventually, in comes hosts John Davidson, Cathy Lee Crosby, some of the staff -- and boxing legend Muhammad Ali. The staff went nuts for the pugilist, and showered the "That's Incredible" staff with attention. Two weeks later, when Evanier returned for lunch, they asked if he was by himself, giving him much warmer service than he had enjoyed previously.
Sakai noted with disappointment and surprise that Roscoe's is "exactly what it advertised. Chicken and waffles." Evanier wondered if he expected the chicken to be inside the waffles, which led to a set of jokes about the KFC Double Down sandwich.
Killing more time, Evanier noticed that Sakai had grown a beard that made the cartoonist look "distinguished." Sakai said he thinks he will keep it, saying, "If Sergio gets away with a mustache, I can get away with a beard!"
Evanier started a story about how many actors were recycled during the run of the original "Hawaii 5-0" that was interrupted by Aragones' arrival. "Don't look at him," Evanier whispered into the microphone. "Act like you don't see him!"
"I still have 30 seconds," Aragones said in a rush as he walked towards the stage. As he stood at his chair, he said, "I still have ten seconds..." Finally, he sat down and the panel began in earnest.
Evanier was pleased that for the first time in years, they didn't have to make excuses for why there were no more "Groo" comics. "'Groo: Friends & Foes' will run twelve issues. We're working on issue #9," Aragones said. Evanier returned, "This does give away the secret that Groo does not get killed in any of the issues. The 12 issues will be collected, then there will be three paperbacks. It's part of the crusade to get you to buy the same comic multiple times. At the end of the entire series, because we don't have enough of your money, there will be a hardcover with all 12 issues. If you're smart, you won't buy this comic when it comes out -- but if you were smart, you wouldn't be buying this comic!"
"Each issue can be read individually, you don't have to wait for a specific ending," Aragones said of the format of the series. "You can read in any order because every story ends completely. But Mark is a very subtle person. He suggested a subject that goes through all 12 issues -- see if you can figure it out!"
"You haven't yet!" Evanier joked to Aragones. Undaunted, Aragones continued. "They make sense together, they make sense individually. It's been a lot of fun, bringing back a lot of characters we have neglected for a lot of years."
Sergio discussed the joy of rediscovering Groo stories years later, doing research for this project, talking about how good he feels they are. "It's mostly the lettering," Evanier said.
Sakai added, "I still letter on the original artwork," as Aragones complained that the letters covered up things he had drawn."Groo is one of the very few comics where the lettering is done on the artwork," Evanier explained. "It still has a letter column. The reason is that other comics don't care about their readers. They don't like them. We appreciate our readers. We have half of them in this room right now!"
Evanier noted that the next issue included letters written on paper, which reminded him of a story from the days when "Groo" was at Marvel's Epic imprint. "Mail was sent to Marvel and then forwarded to me. I had an assistant named Tracy, she typed up the letters, got my dry cleaning, ran errands..."
"Now, you have a wife!" Aragones quipped.
"Tracy was cheaper," Evanier responded without missing a beat. "She was working for me because she wanted to be a comedy writer. Tracy would type the letters into the computer, fix the spelling and the spacing. We had one fan named Lone Wolf. I never met him. He wrote in all the time in green marker. She would get the mail from me and say, 'I hope there's not another letter from Lone Wolf!'
"She went on to work for David Letterman when he was at NBC," Evanier continued. "That show had a segment called Viewer Mail. Her first assignment was to go through the letters, and she left me a message, crying. I called her back and she said, 'Mark, I opened up the Viewer Mail and the top letter was from Lone Wolf!"
The Groo letters column had a number of running gags that eventually went too far. "For a while, we were talking about cheese dip. People wrote about cheese dip, then people started sending us cheese dip. You'd have thought we would have started doing jokes about krugerrands or money, but instead we started doing jokes about mulch. Marvel asked us to stop, because the whole mail room smelled like mulch.
After "Groo: Friends and Foes," there will be a "Groo/Tarzan" book co-illustrated with Tom Yeates. "That's really complicated," Aragones said, "it goes from one hand to another, sending it back and forth."
"I'm not working on this, am I?" Sakai asked.
"If you behave," Aragones retorted. "I figured out I wanted to draw more of this comic. If Groo goes into Tarzan's world, Tom Yeates will be drawing everything. I'm going to have Tarzan come into Groo's world. Both go to the place that had all the dinosaurs. We don't want to break the continuity, I am against crossovers. I don't believe two characters can belong to two different styles and go together, just to get people to buy it. We have always made an in-between so we don't interfere with another author's world, or mine. The moment that Groo gets away from that Groo world, the whole thing becomes pretty bad for Groo."
"That's why there's never been a Groo/Usagi crossover," Sakai noted.
"We make that in-between connection between the characters," Aragones continued. "Mark did most of the work on that. It was perfect, because we didn't interfere. It will be the same thing. We'll figure out something -- we'll figure out a way to make you guys laugh a little. I don't want it to be anyplace that has guns. The moment Groo faces a gun, he's dead. In no issue of 'Groo,' ever, will you find a gun or a weapon that is out of the time. We were very careful about that, Mark's also very careful about the dialogue. We try not to put any modern words..."
"Because we don't know any!" Evanier chimed in.
"Modern shows about pirates have these modern words, and I can't listen," Aragones said. "It hurts my ears. You don't want a show about King Arthur when he'd say, 'Hey man, you're bugging me!'"
A fan asked whether or not a Groo animated series could be possible. Aragones said, "We tried, the deal never... what's the word?"
"Consummated?" Evanier offered.
"No... it never materialized," Aragones said. "It never came to fruition."
"We're a little fussy about this stuff," Evanier added. "We refused some deals. In Hollywood, things cost a lot to do. If someone puts up $50 million, they don't want to be told what they can do. We went through a screenplay, we had a big company that wanted to do it. Our attorney very smartly made a way for us to get out of the deal if we thought they were going to maul it."
"Would it be worth my health and suffering, through what they want to do with it?" Aragones asked. "I don't see it as a thing for a television series." Aragones believes television shows had to be too simple, too cheap and too family-friendly. "Groo never succeeds, because he is a violent person. People who try to use him never succeed. This is anti-violence. I don't want a misunderstanding on television, kids fighting each other with swords. That's basically it."
The panelists were asked if they had a preference how the comics were purchased. "Buy them all," Aragones said simply. "It's a strange career we have chosen. If you're a movie actor, you become well known, you get more money. You get an Oscar, you double your income. In comics, we can't get paid more, because they pay us from what they sell. It is complicated. We get 10% of every comic. If you don't sell a lot of comics, we don't get a lot. It's all proportional."
"I'm a little uncomfortable trying to make 'Groo' fans buy the same comic over and over," Evanier said. "I believe home video is trying to find out how many times they can make me buy 'Goldfinger." He noted that he'd bought it on Betamax, VHS, laser disc, four versions on DVD and then on Blu-Ray.
"I disagree with him a little about this," Aragones said. "Generations grow. A person who is 11 when the first one comes out, he wants to buy a new one at 15 for the new technology. He won't use anything that his parents use, because that's ridiculous. It is proportionate to the growth of people.
"Let's see if we can sell some idiot 12 copies of the same book," Evanier scoffed. "It's a nice way the story is told, a month at a time."
"If you buy the comic and buy the collection, you can sell the comics as collectibles," Aragones said. "You're going to make more money than we are!"
"We're trying to stick in some additional goodies so we feel like you're getting your money's worth," Evanier said.
"We have a general idea," Aragones added. "Each issue can be read individually. You don't have to wait for a specific ending. You can read in any order because every story ends completely, but Mark is a very subtle person. He suggested a subject that goes through all 12 issues, see if you can figure it out."
"You haven't yet," Evanier noted.
"They make sense together," Aragones continued. "They make sense individually. It's been a lot of fun, bringing back a lot of characters we have neglected for a lot of years."
A fan asked about secret messages that were in the Groo comic, and if they would continue. "They're not only in there," Evanier said, "they're mostly about you! We have that up at one point, we'll stick one in."
"Usagi Yojimbo" came up, and Sakai said, "'Usagi' was on hiatus, it's coming back in May. Dark Horse and Fantagraphics are doing an omnibus, 600 pages. There will be at least two gallery editions. Just like 'Groo' had, except I'll have two of them. That's all this year. 'Usagi' is a regular series. I just finished a 'Peanuts' story for the 65th anniversary."
"I saw something about this on the Internet," Evanier said. "If it's on the Internet, it must be true!"
When a question came up about a "Usagi Yojimbo" stage play that happened in England, Sakai said, "It might come to Portland, Oregon. There may be a DVD of it. People were dressed up as rabbits and animals, no singing. The swordplay was incredible. They had taiko drums in the background, it was great."
Sakai also said the book will remain black and white. It was in color, briefly, at Mirage Comics, but fans complained and asked for a return to a simpler palette. Sakai also noted the fundraising for a claymation version of "Usagi Yojimbo." "We'll see," he said.
Asked about the environment at "MAD Magazine," Aragones said he's still there -- he sent an article in Thursday. "I didn't sleep because I had to send it. Being with Mark has been an incredible experience." Aragones first found the magazine in Mexico, where he said he didn't understand it but he loved it, being fascinated by the drawings.
He went to New York in 1962 and was told by people who saw his art that he should visit the satirical publication. He went to "MAD," and in his first meeting sold covers and articles. "I've been there and secure since 1962. It was wonderful. We took trips all over the world, all those guys have been my roommates on different trips, they're like family. I was 10 years younger than the majority of them. I'm 77, the next one is 87 and the older ones are dead."
"Alan Jaffee is going to outlive all of us," Evanier added.
"He still does the fold-ins," Aragones said. "I stopped understanding the magazine years ago. My daughter used to explain it to me -- 'Oh, he's a rapper,' but then she turned 30 and she got too old. 'MAD' is still strong because it caters to a different generation every time. I am enjoying it a lot."
Apparently, Aragones suggested the illustrations in the margins that the magazine has become famous for. Originally, the magazine had sayings and quotes in the margins that required a lot of inside knowledge. Sergio suggested his idea and they said, "Let's put them in until he runs out of ideas."
"Then he did it for 30 years," Evanier said. "There were little jokes on a certain premise in the margins and the panel borders. It was really hard to do. Sergio saved them having to come up with all those word gags. It became a major feature of 'MAD.'"
"If you don't like what's on the main page, you'll find something you like [in the margins]," Aragones said.
They all said there was no plan in mind to retire Groo and Usagi. "What would happen?" Evanier asked. "Groo would finally do something right?"
"I can't retire, ever," Aragones said.
"I have no other job skills," Sakai offered.
"I was too embarrassed to say that," Aragones said in agreement.
A discussion about whether or not they listen to music while creating -- Aragones needs it silent while writing, and has old TV shows on while he draws, while Sakai keeps old "Law & Order" shows on -- led to discussions about late night work between Aragones and Evanier.
"We sometimes have conferences at 4AM," Evanier said. "If the phone rings at 4AM, it's either an emergency or Sergio or both."
"I always email first!" Aragones protested.
"Every so often, we Skype," Evanier continued. "At 3 in the morning, looking at the two of us, it's not a pretty picture. He holds up pages, 'What do you think of this one?'"
"Everything that I have done with comics will be published in hardcover," Aragones said when asked about reprints.
"Except 'Star Wars,' 'Sergio Destroys DC,' 'Sergio Massacres Marvel,'" Evanier said. "Space Circus" will get the hardcover treatment.
Evanier related the origin of Groo in a benefit for Steve Gerber called "Destroyer Duck," mentioning it because Gordon Kent, the colorist on the story, died of cancer recently. "He was the first member of the Groo crew to leave us," Evanier noted. "Who will be the next? I wanted to mention Gordon because he was a part of this."
"One thing I can tell you," Aragones said, "is that if something happens to me, something happens to Groo, too. It ends there."
"I've picked several other artists," Evanier joked.