If you point out to Sergio Aragonés that he’s one of the most recognizable cartoonists in the world, he has a typically modest comeback. It goes something like this: In the first 20 years of his cartooning career, he did not have any continuing characters. Therefore, he started using his self-caricature as a recurring motif, and MAD readers around the world became familiar with his smiling, broad-shouldered, strong-jawed, and extravagantly-moustachioed figure.
While Aragonés’s distinctive physique is certainly an asset in this regard, the fact that he is recognized everywhere he goes is more likely because he’s been everywhere and done everything — including making regular appearances on two TV shows [Laugh-In and Speak Up, America). When you add to this that he's one of the most prolific and brilliant cartoonists of his generation, and one of the world's true gentlemen to boot, you begin to realize that Aragones' recognition is fully earned. He deserves to be a celebrity.
Aragones' tumultuous early days — born in Spain in 1937, brought up in France and Mexico — made him bilingual virtually from birth and instilled in him a cosmopolitan spirit that would flower when he reached adulthood. After an erratic but not unsuccessful career as a cartoonist in Mexico during the '50s, Aragones set off to New York in quest of fame and fortune in 1962. It was only a few months before he hooked up with the cartooning royalty of the day: MAD. He immediately became a staple of the magazine, and has not missed an issue in 27 years; he remains (along with Don Martin) the most widely-known MAD staffer.
Aragones' involvement with comic books, on the other hand, has been a lot more variegated. In 1967, he stumbled into the job as a writer/plotter for DC Comics, working on a number of little-remembered titles (Jerry Lewis, Angel and the Ape, and various anthology books) in addition to creating the legendary Bat Lash. But his idiosyncratic command of English (which persists to this day) kept him away from full scripting chores, and his cartoon style was hard to place in a field that seemed to have turned its back on humor. Typically, Aragones cut his own path, supplying DC with short humor pieces (including the award-winning "The Poster Plague," scripted by Steve Skeates). This culminated in his 1973 co-creation of the humor comic Plop! — one of the few bright spots in '70s mainstream comics. When the copyright laws were changed in the late '70s and comics publishers retaliated with the implementation of the infamous work-for-hire contract, Aragones was part of a wave of cartoonists who left the field in disgust. He turned up here and there — as writer/artist on the detective series T.C. Mars (created for Joe Kubert's ambitious but ephemeral Sojourn), as plotter/co-creator on Steve Leialoha's rabbit series for Star*Reach's Quack!— but it took the alternative comics explosion of the early '80s to lure him back into the comic book vineyards on a permanent basis.
If anything has occupied Aragones' attention during the past decade, it's been Groo the Wanderer. With a fine sense of occasion, Aragones premiered his catastrophically boneheaded barbarian in 1982 in Destroyer Duck, the benefit comic created to aid Steve Gerber in his lawsuit against Marvel Comics over the ownership of Howard the Duck. Groo then moved to just-formed Pacific Comics, loyally sticking around until the company's collapse and then, after a brief second stopover at Eclipse, ending up in Marvel's Epic department, where it became the first creator-owned comic distributed to the general newsstand market — only a few years after Aragones had been told in no uncertain terms by "that tall fellow" (as he calls former Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter) that Marvel would never, could never allow creators to maintain ownership of their work. Holding out had paid off. If Groo is a Marvel comic now, it is in name only. Aragones and his oft-plugged co-conspirators — letterer Stan Sakai, colorist Tom Luth, and scripter/edit/elucidator Mark Evanier — run the comic like a mini-fiefdom. Every month they send a complete issue to the Epic offices (courteously leaving an inch at the bottom of the first page for Marvel to strip in the names of whichever three editors are in charge at the time) and every month it gets printed as is. Unsurprisingly, it's one of the very few late-'80s Marvel comics to show any quality, verve, or individuality.
Countless jokes have been made about Aragones' shaky command of English (which, it should be pointed out, is his third language, after all). "Command" may be a misnomer: Aragones sometimes appears subordinated to the torrent of words that flows from him. Yet this does not stop him from being one of comics' great conversationalists — articulate, funny, opinionated, and possessed of a limitless supply of marvelous anecdotes. After a few minutes, the listener becomes so accustomed to the random distribution of prepositions, the hit-and-miss approach to tenses, and, most of all, the majestic accent that 25 years of life in the United States could not muffle, that he begins to believe this is the only way English should be spoken.
Reading it, however, is another story. After Robert Boyd painstakingly transcribed the interview, the job of taming Aragones' speech fell to interviewer Kim Thompson. "The irony of this," Kim notes, "is that Sergio's speech is so much more expressive in its original form. I think of him as the Picasso of public speaking: the eyes are drawn on the same side of the face, the arms are connected to the neck... but, by God, it all makes perfect sense!" Nevertheless, the editors conferred and decided that 20-odd pages of this near-Joycean palaver might strain a less poetically-minded reader's patience. So Kim (whose last interview for the Journal, with Mœbius in issue #118, was conducted entirely in French) went through the three-hour conversation and wove the verbal strands into more traditional, if less creative, patterns — which Aragones then vetted, clearing away the occasional snarls that had resisted Thompson's attempts at domestication.
Cartoonist, scripter, animator, actor, mime, stuntperson, photographer, explorer, sculptor, raconteur, prankster, and polyglot — a lot of words describe Sergio Aragones. Here, now, are a few of his.
A Cosmopolitan Childhood
KIM THOMPSON:You were born in Spain.
SERGIO ARAGONÉS: I was born in Spain, in 1937. This was during the war. My father had been fighting Franco, behind the lines. From Spain we moved to France. I don't remember anything, but —
THOMPSON:How old were you when you left?
ARAGONÉS: I left there when I was six months old.
THOMPSON:And you took your family with you. [Laughter]
ARAGONÉS: I took my family with me. In those times — we’re talking ’38 now — they had what’s called the Vichy section of France. That’s where they sent all the Jewish kids and the people from Paris, and they accepted a lot of Spanish refugees: that’s where we were. What happened is that after a while there was trouble: the food was scarce, so they started getting rid of the refugees because they needed it for themselves. By then, Mexico had opened its arms to the Spanish refugees from the civil war, so we went to Casablanca, like in the movie — the advantage was, we had tickets reserved on a ship — and from there we went to Mexico. I was raised in Mexico. When we arrived there I didn’t speak Spanish, I spoke French. In my early years my parents had figured out I’d have plenty of time to learn Spanish when I was in Mexico, so when I was in France, I went to a French kindergarten. So I learned French before I learned Spanish.
THOMPSON:Iwent to French kindergarten, too.
ARAGONÉS: I got to wear those little robes. There was a 1960s movie called The Two of Us, about a Jewish kid who is sent from Paris to this man who hates Jews, and he ends up loving the kid very much. It was very strange because I was looking at the movie and — there I am. The same haircut, the same uniform, the little robes that you wear. The curious thing is that during the movie, when the kids entered class… before class started you would sing a song that went, “Ô Maréchal, nous voulons…” — that was Marshal Petain’s song that you had to sing. A hymn to the Vichy government. And I started singing it in the movie house!
THOMPSON:You still remember the words?
ARAGONÉS: No, no, I don’t remember the lyrics now, but I did then, in the movie house. I was singing with the other kids. It was very strange, very.,. doo-doo doo-doo, doo-doo doo-doo — Twilight Zone time. When I arrived in Mexico, I was integrated immediately — even though I didn’t have too many friends because I had just arrived. You’re the new kid and you have an accent. I’ve always had an accent.[Laughter] As a little kid, I had a French accent. When the other kids make fun of you, you don’t want to get out of the house. So you stay at home and what do you do? You take pencils and start drawing.
THOMPSON:So you drew from the time you were a little kid?
ARAGONÉS: Oh, yes. I was never a good artist. I was just a drawer. I was always drawing. I was the guy who told stories to himself, but drew at the same time. When I look at drawings by kids, they are very orderly. Mine were not. In one sheet I would tell a whole story, but it wasn’t in order. I’d be drawing on top of a drawing on top of a drawing — all over. Once I saw my first comic, that’s when I realized there was a continuity in the drawing.
THOMPSON:Put them one after another.
ARAGONÉS: Put them one after another. And I remember my first comics. I even remember the first comics I saw in English. I was in the second grade and some kid brought some comics in color. I had seen Spanish comics, black-and-white comics, but this was so extraordinary — to the point that we were on a break during class and I started just looking at the pictures and I forgot to go back to class. And when the school day ended, I was sitting on the tree in the back of the school just looking at these two comics. It wasn’t even a lot of them, just two. It was a total discovery.
THOMPSON:Do you remember what the comics were?
ARAGONÉS: No, but I know if I see them, I would recognize them immediately.
THOMPSON:Do you ever go to conventions looking through back issues just thinking that one day…?
ARAGONÉS: No, no. I didn’t know comics as comics back then. Everything was in the same category: comic strips, cartoons. When I was a kid, my parents belonged to an association called La Casa Valencia — this was all the people from Valencia, where I was born. All the refugees went there once a week to talk and to make plans for when they were going back. The meeting hall was on top of a movie theater that only showed cartoons. So my parents would drop me off there, go to the meeting, and they knew I was not going to get bored no matter how many times I saw the program — so the program would go once, twice, three times, and they would come pick me up and take me home. To me those were the best times. And I saw cartoons over and over and over.
THOMPSON:Iassume those were American cartoons.
ARAGONÉS: Yes. The classic Tom and Jerrys, early Koko the Clowns, everything. We’re still talking the ’40s. So I grew up with animation, and with the comic strips that were translated from English to Spanish. There weren’t that many comic books — we had some of the Mexican ones — so I didn’t really grow up with comic books. But in that time anything that had color really fascinated me. And then, when I could read better, then I started discovering comics.
THOMPSON:When you watched cartoons or read comics, did you try to draw like them? Or was all your drawing out of your head?
ARAGONÉS: No, it was always out of my head. I never drew cartoons — it was adventures. I enjoyed animation, I enjoyed comics, but I never thought that was what I wanted to do, nor how they did it. I enjoyed the content of the cartoon more than the drawing itself. I enjoyed the punchlines and I enjoyed the gags and I enjoyed what they had to say. I was a reader. I read words more than anything. So it was a mixture of everything. But, no, all my early drawings were little adventures. Badly drawn, because I didn’t really care very much about the drawing itself. So I don’t have very clever drawings from when I was a kid. There was always somebody who could draw better than me. I was never called the artist of the class. I was always being chastised by the teacher because I was always drawing, but I was not the guy who drew well — until about the third grade. Then I realized I had a facility to draw whatever I wanted. The earliest money I ever made was with drawings. At the time, the education in Mexico was all based on memory. You’d get to class and the teacher would say, “Memorize this!”
THOMPSON:A very European way of learning.
ARAGONÉS: Yes, and at the end of a year, you knew everything because you had memorized it; education was very strong. I remember, in the third grade we had one book for everything. One chapter was history, one chapter was geography, one chapter was natural history, botany, and so on. The teacher would give us homework, which would consist in copying Chapter Eleven, including the illustrations, which we’d have to copy from the book — like a beetle or a plant, the pistil of a flower, or soldiers — that type of thing. All the kids who couldn’t draw would leave a square where the drawing as, and I would charge them to draw that. The equivalent of a few pennies. I would sit there before class doing this. That’s probably why I draw fast — because I drew so many of them. I made enough money to buy a game — a bullfighting game, little bullfighters and little bulls and stuff, and when I went with my own money and bought it, my mother wanted me to return it because it was so expensive! And then, of course, the teacher found out and that was the end of it.
THOMPSON:Did he notice that all the kids were drawing in the same style?
ARAGONÉS: I don’t think the teacher ever read them because they were just copied from the book. So that was my first money I ever made — with drawings. I remember when I went to my house from the elementary school by bus, I was one of the last ones to get out of the bus. So I would sit there and tell stories to the kids all around me, and the next day I would continue them. I was creating them as I was going along.
The Burgeoning Cartoonist
THOMPSON:Iunderstand that your first professional sale was sort of made for you.
ARAGONÉS: That was in high school. By then, I was already drawing gags. Slowly I’d started discovering how funny the comic strips and the gags were. By the end of the elementary school, I’d started making little gags and little cartoons; so when I entered high school, I already had a sense of cartooning. What most impressed me — I think I wanted to become a professional cartoonist because of Virgil Partch [VIP]. Because all the cartoons were sort of the same, and suddenly this man came along, drawing both eyes on one side of the face and pointed noses and lines that continued in a roll, as if he didn’t know how to draw. But he knew how to draw; he was sensational! Virgil Partch was a big discovery for me.
THOMPSON:He was appearing in Mexican magazines?
ARAGONÉS: No, I would go to places where they had magazines from all over the world, including the United States. One of the magazines, called Ja Ja — the one my first sales were made to — had published syndicated gags. In ’53, we had a mural newspaper at school. In those times we didn’t know what Xerox was, we had a thing called mimeograph. And the mimeograph was messy, you had to turn this crank — so instead of using a mimeograph, we had a mural newspaper. It was in a big glass box on the wall for people to read; all the articles were there, and the cartoons that I did. The editor was a girl, one of my classmates, and she would tell me, “Sergi, sell them to magazines.” To me, that was the most absurd idea — sell my cartoons. And one day she said, “We’re having lunch, all of us. Sergi’s inviting us.” I said, “I don’t have the money.” She said, “Oh, yes you have. You’ve just sold these cartoons.” She had sold three cartoons from the wall to this magazine called Ja Ja, and that was my first professional sale — in 1953. I was more surprised than anybody else. Now I was a cartoonist. Of course, what happened is that once I started going there nobody wanted to buy my stuff. [Laughter] I wasn’t good enough yet. They’d just needed some cartoons that day. But once you see your cartoons in print, it makes you want to become a cartoonist.
THOMPSON:The bug bites you.
ARAGONÉS: Yeah, you start looking at cartoons in a different way. Suddenly you are looking at not what’s in them but how the cartoonists did it, which I never had paid attention to before. When I finished high school, there weren’t that many magazines you could submit cartoons to. Ja Ja was probably the only one that was accessible to younger cartoonists. Through a roundabout way I met another Mexican cartoonist who wanted to start a magazine. I didn’t know how to ink, so I would draw the cartoons in pencil and be told, “No! No! No! This is how you ink it!” I hated working with a brush. It was such a complex thing. I’d never studied art — I just wanted to tell the joke as fast as I could. Anyway, we started the magazine, which was called Sic. It was very small; we printed it at home. It included a lot of cartoons from the United States that we’d ripped out — ripped off. It was very amateurish, but we tried. That was in ’54. And then I entered college in ’55.1 entered engineering school because my parents wanted me to be an engineer. It sounded good, you know? When you come from a European family, you have to have a degree, and my family had always wanted to have an engineer at home. [Laughter].
THOMPSON:Never know when you can use one.
ARAGONÉS: “What do you want to be?” “An engineer!” “My son is going to be an engineer!” And then I went to engineering school, and I sat there and didn’t understand one word. College is different from high school, totally different. Teachers don’t care about you. They just go to teach and if you pay attention, good; if not, that’s your problem. And so I was sitting there, class after class, and I didn’t understand one word of it. Class after class! And I said, look, this is not what I want. I didn’t want to be an engineer. I wanted to have fun. Now, there’s no such thing as a generic Bachelor of Arts degree in Mexico. You have to be something: an architect, a doctor. By then, I’d been through high school — what’s called la preparatoria — which is definitively career-oriented — so to be something else, I had to take it over. So in ’55, I spent a whole year in high school taking courses to get the credits I needed to go into architecture. And it was very good because I could do a lot of cartoon work. So I went to different magazines, did a lot of research on cartooning.
An Argentinian guy came to see us who wanted to open a syndicate; we gave him our cartoons and, of course, we never saw him again. That kind of thing happens when you are a very young cartoonist. I did the rounds at different magazines and I wasn’t really good enough to make any more sales. And the pay in those times was very bad. Ja Ja paid one dollar per cartoon for reprint fees, and that’s what we got. Because for them our material was not important. So there wasn’t enough money in it.
Then, once I entered architectural college, I didn’t have much time to sell that many cartoons because now I had to pay attention to class. I was doing also what I did in high school, however: a mural newspaper. But this one was all me. I would come in in the morning and I’d have this large sheet of paper, and everybody who needed something to be said to the class would tell it to me and I would do a cartoon about it: “There is a basketball game against the Medicine School” or “The teacher is changing this class” — that kind of thing. Within half an hour I would have drawn up this gigantic board, the size of an architectural drawing, with a big magic marker. I’d finish it up and put it on the wall, and all the kids would look at it. After the third one, it didn’t last a minute. Everybody wanted the cartoons, so they stole it. So they gave me a special glass case for it. I had to do a lot of them, and I had to do them fast so that I wouldn’t miss class. I think that’s what the speed comes out of.
That was more or less how I spent those early years: a lot of cartoons sold to magazines — and a lot of bartering, too. I’d get haircuts for drawing signs for the barber, or draw signs for supermarkets, things like that. I’d make a lot of sales at Christmas. I would draw tons of Santa Clauses on windows with water-based colors. On El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, all the bread stores sold special bread on that day, so they’d draw skeletons on their windows — I drew a lot of those, too. It was a lot of fun, but also, how do you say, hard knock…?
THOMPSON:You paid your dues.
THOMPSON:So how come you didn’t end up as an architect?
ARAGONÉS: Well, I was a goof-off. I spent a lot of time in the swimming pool, doing aquatic ballet, and I was doing my cartoons. Architecture was fun until it became too technical. I liked it a whole lot the first three years. I liked creating the designs but when we got into the cost of materials and weights and loads and stuff, it was, “For heaven’s sake, what am I doing here? Back to engineering school!” I didn’t want to spend my life dealing with workers, working out prices, and stuff. By then. I’d really decided I didn’t want to be an architect. I just continued going to school because I couldn’t make a living as a cartoonist and I couldn’t get a job at anything else because I didn’t like anything else. That meant I’d have to leave home. So I continued architecture school so I could live at home! [Laughter] I stayed there for a long time.
I had a lot of different jobs. I worked as a draftsman for a company, doing plans. This was in ’57, and by then I had a weekly page in Manana magazine. It was one of the magazines where you’d drop by to see if they wanted your cartoons, and they said, “O.K., bring us five every week.” So I got a weekly page! And I did what I’m doing now with MAD: every week I would pick a subject and do five gags about it. It was very spontaneous type of thing, like a newspaper. I would go up to the magazine every week, I would sit in that office, do the cartoons, leave them there, and that was the job. But that pay was also very minimal.
By now, I was very aware of American cartoons. And the whole thing started when I was sitting in the cafeteria in college. I was discussing with other people the idea that there should be degrees in cartooning — because in Latin America, as in Europe, it’s very important to have a- degree in front of your name. When you grow up in that culture, you realize you’re not going to be “Dr. Cartoonist” or “Architect Cartoonist.” It would be ludicrous. So we decided there should be a college for different careers — like cartooning, taxi-driving. So we thought out a college curriculum for taxi drivers — you have to learn all the streets in the city; medicine, if somebody gets sick in your taxi cab; languages, to be polite. A very serious curriculum. And if you were a taxi driver you’d have a degree in front of your name and people would treat you with respect. And we came up with a curriculum for every career, even shoe-shining — manufacture, different types of leather. So when the subject of cartooning came up, I sort of made myself a curriculum. And one of the things was to spend one year in Europe to study humor without words, which is what I was doing; another was to go to the United States to study merchandising, how to get to the people. Because in Europe circulations were lower than in the United States, and it was a lot harder communicating with the United States, where the circulations were higher and you could reach a lot of people. And I thought, “this makes a lot of sense. I’m going to do it. And after a few years, I’ll be a really good cartoonist, because I’m going to follow this curriculum.” I was going to go to Europe, but my friend couldn’t go, and I found out what they paid for cartoons in the United States. So I took a bus and went to New York.
THOMPSON:How soon after that did you meet up with the MAD gang?
ARAGONÉS: Once I was in New York… well, I didn’t speak English then.
THOMPSON:What year was that?
ARAGONÉS: In ’62. My English, as you can see, is not the best, but back then, it was even worse. Nothing! What I had was a portfolio full of cartoons — all different sizes, little scraps of paper. To save paper, if I did a small cartoon I’d do it on a small piece of paper. So everything was different sizes. Also, I had this misconception that the syndicates — the word sindicato in Spanish means union. And I always thought that the people whose cartoons were syndicated belonged to this union, that there was a union you had to belong to to sell cartoons.
THOMPSON:It might be a good idea, at that.
ARAGONÉS: Yeah. So I thought, well, the first thing you have to do is go to the union so you’re protected. It made a lot of sense to me, with the word sindicato, syndicate. So I went to the syndicates first thing because I wanted to become a member of the the union to work here. They said, “Well, show us your material.” So I gave them a few things. They were not strips, nor gags in any order, no captions, nothing. They didn’t know what to do with me. “Well, come back in a couple of days.” [Laughter] It was very absurd. Of course, they didn’t know what to do with me, and they didn’t want to see me; so I was furious because they didn’t want to accept me into their union. I mean, I was a professional! What was wrong with them?
One day I was in a party in the Village. By then, I had to make some money — I’d come to New York with 20 bucks and had run out of money the first night, so I was making my living reciting flamenco poetry at a coffee house. At one of these parties I met a cartoonist called Mort Gerberg, who spoke a little Spanish from a vacation in Mexico. And Mort Gerberg said, “No, Sergio, here, this is what you have to do. Every Wednesday you have to bring in your cartoons. No, you have to make them all the same size in, eight by 10.” He gave me the whole schpiel, really told me a lot of stuff that had to be done. And I went to a few magazines, Cavalcade, Caper, Escapade… I bought Writer’s Digest magazine, which had all this information about markets and stuff. So slowly I learned how it was done and I started making the rounds.
Every place I went, they told me I had to go on Wednesdays. So I tried to be smart and said to myself, “Well, I’m going to go Tuesdays.” I’d go there and say, “I want to see the cartoon editor, I’m Sergio Aragones from Mexico.” They thought I was a tourist, or was visiting for a short time, so they would see me Tuesdays. And I would have more time to talk, and they’d talk about the time they were in Mexico… and next time I turned up they’d say, “You come in Wednesday like everybody else.” So I met a lot of editors, but everybody said the same: “You really ought to go to MAD.“
Also, pantomime style was not popular in the United States in the early ’60s. There were even places that said, “Gags without words not accepted.” Captionless cartoons, don’t even bother to show up. It was very strong. So it was twice as hard for me, because they didn’t want any cartoons without words — and every time they published one, they’d put a caption under it: “Without Words.” [Laughter]. Very strange. But even with that battle I sold a few cartoons to some small markets.
I didn’t want to go to MAD — first, because I was a fan of MAD. I had been reading MAD in Mexico. Every time MAD came out, I would go to my English-speaking friends and ask them to translate for me and they wouldn’t be able to because MAD is quite complex. It’s not an easy English to translate, with a lot of plays on words, and we don’t use puns in Spanish. So every time my friends saw me coming with a copy of MAD, they would run away because they knew they’d have to translate for me. I admired all the drawings, but I didn’t know exactly what it was all about. I knew it was satire. I even started, along with a friend of mine, Gustavo Sainz, a very good Mexican writer, a magazine in the late ’50s that was a copy of MAD, called La Mano - The Hand.
So I knew what MAD was all about, and I didn’t think I had anything that belonged in MAD. I didn’t have any satire. I didn’t have any articles about anything. But I decided that if everybody was telling me, “Oh, you should go to MAD;’ that’s what I should do. But I really went there to meet the people behind MAD. I really wanted to see them. I never had any idea that I could ever work for MAD; it was too much of a dream.
When I went there I asked to see Antonio Prohias because he was the only guy who I hoped spoke Spanish. In fact, he only spoke Spanish, so we talked for a while. I remember being introduced to Jerry DeFuccio, one of the editors of MAD, by Antonio as “my brother.” Antonio always introduced everyone as “my brother.” So I was called Prohias. “Hello, Mr. Prohias.” “No, no, no, Aragones.” [Laughter] So they asked me if I was a cartoonist, and they took my samples into their office. I could hear them laughing inside, and at that moment I couldn’t hear what Antonio was saying to me. I was just listening to this laughter. And Nick Meglin, the other editor, came out, and said, “Well, we’re taking these cartoons and making a two-page article out of them.” I had brought a lot of cartoons about astronauts — this was in the ’60s, when they were sending up astronauts.
I just had a lot of cartoons; they were the ones who saw it as an article — a two-page article. They bought it right there — two pages, art and… “script.” [Laughter] And they gave me a check right there, which was more money than I had ever seen in my life.
THOMPSON:They’ve always paid very well.
ARAGONÉS: Yeah. And there I was. They told me, “make MAD your home” and I took it literally and I haven’t missed an issue since then. They are ahead by a few months, so by the time the cartoons came out, in issue 76, it was ’63. The cover on that issue was my idea, I had the “Marginals” in it, and the two-page article. And then John Putnam — he was the art director then — invited me to a party in the Village. This was only six months after I’d arrived in New York, and I ran into Mort Gerberg again. “Ah, Sergio, I haven’t seen you since that party. Have you been able to make a sale?” I said, “Well, I sold to Caper, Gentleman, Escapade, Gourmet magazine, and now I’m on the staff of MAD magazine.” Mort Gerberg started shouting, “I’ve been here in this country all my life! This foreigner comes along, and he’s already working more than I am!” He was very funny; he’s become a very dear friend of mine. But he couldn’t believe it. From then on, I learned more at MAD. They took me under their wing. Everybody there’s been like a brother to me. They were incredibly generous with their time and expertise.
Life at MAD
THOMPSON:Who came up with the idea of the “Marginals”?
ARAGONÉS: That was me. I wanted to do more, because I grew up in a society where you feel you need to work a lot to make more money. I’ve been very fortunate in that I’m prolific with ideas. And I wanted more because once a month wasn’t enough for me. I wanted more places to put my cartoons! MAD had had marginals before, but they were words — puns and plays on words, having to do with movies. I didn’t even understand them, and every time I asked them what it meant, because I was trying to learn English through MAD, they said, “Well, you wouldn’t understand because that movie is not playing any more.” To me it didn’t make any sense to have things that were not current, so I went to [editor Al] Feldstein and asked him if I could do cartoons instead. And he said they’d be too small to be understood, and that nobody could come up with that many in one issue. I said it could be done; he said it couldn’t be done. So I drew them the same size, pasted them up in one issue, and showed them to the editors. They had a conference and I guess they decided it could be done. They told me, “We’ll run them until you run out of ideas.” So far I haven’t missed an issue yet, and it’s been 27 years. They put about 25 in every issue, so that’s several thousand of them.
THOMPSON:What size do you draw them?
ARAGONÉS: Twice and a half up. I try to draw them small, because I tend to put detail. If you draw larger, then you embellish your work. Drawing small, you keep the detail it to a minimum, which is necessary so that when it reduces, people can read it.
THOMPSON:Is it hard working in the very elongated format — very horizontal, very vertical?
ARAGONÉS: No. Some cartoons you can’t do. But it’s like anything else. You can change everything to any size. It’s just a matter of practice. You take any gag and you can put it in any position. After doing it for so long, it is not hard.
THOMPSON:Some people who’ve worked for MAD have complained about what they feel is Bill Gaines’s paternalistic attitude. How do you feel about that?
ARAGONÉS: Oh, it is totally a paternalistic attitude, but it’s his paternalistic attitude. [Laughter] MAD is kind of like the old father-kids relationship. Bill Gaines is the father image, and he handles the company the way he thinks companies should be handled. And you have an alternative because none of us have contracts. If you don’t want to work there, you leave, see? And nobody stops anybody from leaving. I don’t have any contract with Bill Gaines and if he treats me miserably, I leave. And if he doesn’t like my work, he’s totally free to sack me any time he wants. It is an oral contract. I am not the right guy to talk to about this, because I love them more than a business. They’ve been a family to me. And just like I could never go against my father even if he’s wrong, I could never go against Bill Gaines, even if he’s wrong, because he’s more than a friend. Not only a friend, he’s more than a friend. To me, things like that are more important than a job or paycheck or a contract. If it was Marvel, then it would be different.[Laughter]
THOMPSON:But in a way isn’t it like a really benevolent version of what Marvel and DC are? The same paternalistic structure…
ARAGONÉS: With the difference that the salaries at MAD are excellent. And there’s an ultimate justice. You see, at Marvel there is no justice. It is a business. But for Bill Gaines, it’s not the business aspect of it; it is that he doesn’t want to alter things that he’s been doing for so many years. It’s not a matter of screwing somebody up. It’s the way he’s done it, he thinks that’s the way to do it, and that’s how he’s going to do it. And I understand it. I will cut my salary if I know that’ll avoid giving him a heart attack. Because I love the man. It’s like family, honest. Besides, 1 can never consider MAD a business — even though, if we want to talk of the business aspect of it, we are, and I certainly was very well paid for my work. When it comes to the ownership of our material, sure, I would love to get my artwork back because I keep files of it, but if he wants so badly to keep it… He’s going to share it with us when he sells it. He has a certain point in that he has kept it all these years in storage, paid for the storage, and all that. Makes sense to me. And I’m going to get a very good percentage when he sells it in an auction. He gets a part of it — fine with me. And there was never misunderstanding to it, so everything’s terrific. There’s never been any problem with me. But that’s an old-fashioned way and it’s the reason MAD has never got into any other business. Bill has kept MAD, he likes it, enjoys it, it’s part of his life. And he doesn’t get into other publishing things. He has enough money that he could get into other magazines and stuff, but why should he? That’s what he does. And that’s just how it is.
THOMPSON:How do you feel about the opinion that MAD has fallen behind the times? It doesn’t really move forward a lot.
ARAGONÉS: No, but in a sense, you always need something that maintains an order in humor. If MAD had gone with the times, nothing would have come along to replace it. You could say, “There’s new magazines coming in, with new humor,” but there’s nothing there. What do you want a new kid to start reading — a primer in humor? How is he going to discover satire? In what? Where? Where is he going to understand humor? You can say, “MAD is behind the times.” Compared to what? “Oh, I don’t read MAD” Wait a minute. You ‘re grown up. When you were a teen, you read MAD. Now you have grown up. Now you read Playboy. But are you reading Chesterton? Are you reading Oscar Wilde? What are you reading? What has been your elevation of quality? What is the station of your reading? Are you “reading” The Cosby Show? Right?
The people who work for MAD are very good writers and very good artists. They have maintained the quality. Whole new generations of readers come along and they laugh their head off, because we are touching new subjects the same old way. We aren’t doing anything wrong. If suddenly a new magazine came out with new humor, it would kill MAD. But how come MAD is not dead? Because nothing has come out. Nothing. The moment it comes, then MAD will fade away — like old people. But until something better comes, MAD stays there because it has the right to be there, see? Readership grows.
They say, “Oh, I haven’t read MAD in years.” Terrific. Good for you. That means you have grown up and you have done something else. Wouldn’t it be sad, having the same person read MAD for 35 years? What would you say of the man who reads MAD for 35 years? The guy’s sick!
THOMPSON:What would you say about someone who reads Spider-Man for 20 years?
ARAGONÉS: Well, imagine! When you grow up, you want to read different things. But we have to have something for the new people that come along. And I think MAD has more than earned its right to be there, because the new generation comes along and I see all the kids saying, “Oh, I saw this MAD, and look at this and that!” For them it’s new. And when they see a new take-off on a movie, they laugh their heads off, because we’re doing take-offs of Friday the 13th or whatever it is that is modern. Sure, we are doing it at a slower pace and we’re getting old. But until a new magazine that’s better comes out, no one’s going to take the place of MAD. That’s the way it is. When a better boxer comes in, he takes out the champion. So let’s have somebody contest us. “MAD is out of shape. MAD is doing garbage. Let’s do something good.” You’re welcome. Very welcome. None of us is afraid of the competition. You think Mort Drucker is afraid of anything? You think Jack Davis is afraid of anything? There’s nobody who can even come close to them.
Comic Books: Bat Lash, et al.
THOMPSON:O.K., so you were safely ensconced at MAD, doing work for MAD. Now, how did you begin working in actual comic books?
ARAGONÉS: I went to Europe from ’66 to ’67 and when I came back, I went up to MAD and they told me that Joe Orlando wasn’t working over there any more. So I went to say hello to him at DC Comics, where he was now working. And that’s how I started my comic book career. I arrived, he said, “Hey, Sergio, how are you?” He was with an artist — I think it was Vince Colletta, I don’t recall exactly — and was waiting for a writer who had promised to bring in two scripts for a comic called Young Romance. He was desperate because the artist didn’t live in town and had driven all the way in for scripts and they weren’t there, so he was very upset. So I said, “Why don’t you go to lunch with him and when you come back I’ll give them to you.” So I sat in the cafeteria and I wrote two scripts for him. And Joe was delighted. He said, “I didn’t know you wrote comics.” Neither did I — I’d never done any before! [Laughter] But it was not so complicated. So from that day on I started writing plots — little basic plots because my English still wasn’t good. I didn’t have Mark Evanier with me then. So I’d do the plots — six, seven pages — for a lot of comics. I would write out the story and then have somebody else then put the dialogue into comic-ese. We did comics like Angel and the Ape, Binky and His Friends. I did a few Inferior Fives, Jerry Lewis, for a lot of different editors. Then I started doing filler pages for The House of Mystery and I wrote a few of the House of Mystery stories, too. And then came Bat Lash.
THOMPSON:That’s the one everyone remembers.
ARAGONÉS: Yeah. Joe Orlando and [publisher] Carmine Infantino and I sat in that coffee house and they asked me to come up with a new Western character. So I created Bat Lash. It was not my name — they came up with the name. And I just wrote stories. But it’s very hard when you don’t have total control. One issue would appear with a story written by somebody else and to me, that would break the continuity of the character. Because when I write a character, I’m totally devoted to the character, and when somebody else takes it and changes the whole thing completely… Nick Cardy wrote a few of the issues. He was an excellent artist, but he saw Bat Lash differently from me. He made him into a cartoony character. There’s a very thin line between having your hero do funny things and having your hero be a funny guy. And Cardy saw him more as a funny guy. But mine wouldn’t do the things that he made his character do. So suddenly it’s not your character any more.
THOMPSON:So it began bothering you that you didn’t have that control.
THOMPSON:Were you aware of European comics at that point?
ARAGONÉS: Oh, yeah, sure.
THOMPSON:They control their characters to a much greater extent.
ARAGONÉS: Oh, sure. Sure. I’d spent two years in Europe. I met many, many cartoonists while I was over there. I went to different magazines to meet them. I went to Pilote, and I met a lot of the guys there.
THOMPSON:The mid-’60s — that was Pilote’sheyday.
ARAGONÉS: Yes. And it was fantastic. I had a few of my cartoons published over there. And I also met the people from Hara-Kiri —Wolinski, Reiser, all of them very funny guys. Very strong satire. So I met a lot of the cartoonists, and I was very aware of Tintin. It was after Europe that I got into the comics thing. And slowly… There was no place for me in comic books at the time. There were no humor comics. So there was no place I could show my comics, because there was no market for them. The only humor comics were children’s comics, which were very established characters, like Little Dot, Casper, that type of character — or Archie. And that was it. There was nothing else. People couldn’t understand it when I told them that I’ wanted to draw comics. “But you are already in MAD” . Everybody who was out of the comics was delighted to be out of them — like, “Oh, my God, we are out of the I comics, we don’t have to draw them any more!” And to me that was very hurtful because I really loved comics. It was such an incredible medium in Europe, and all the American cartoonists — and I’m talking in the ’60s — were kind of embarrassed to be in the comics, ashamed of it. For them, it was — well, the pay was ridiculous. It was very embarrassing. And I had the luxury of working for comics because I had a very good income from MAD. So that was probably the reason that I wanted to do comics — it didn’t make any sense economically, but I wanted to do humor comics.
From “The Poster Plague” to Plop!
ARAGONÉS: Then they asked me to do a story for House of Mystery called “Klop!” — no, “The Poster Plague,” written by Steve Skeates. The script wasn’t bad, but it had a humorous Twilight Zone ending, so nobody wanted to do it. So they said, “Look, why don’t we do it in fun,” and Joe Orlando said, “I don’t know. I don’t think…”
THOMPSON:[surprised] You mean “The Poster Plague” was originally scripted for regular, “serious” artwork?
ARAGONÉS: Yeah. It was not written funny, but once it was drawn funny, it read like a funny story because of the ending. Still, it was your average House of Mystery story. So the story came out and some people liked it. [In fact, the story won the Academy of Comic Book Arts award for best humor story that year.] By then I’d come up with the idea of doing a humor magazine. We had a meeting with Carmine [Infantino]. I remember going every night after work to sip my coffee in a bar on 3rd Avenue and talk about it. The name was a problem. At first he was going to call it Black Humor, But we didn’t want to use the word “black” humor because a lot of people would think it was racial humor. Eventually someone said, “Any name will do. If the magazine’s successful its name will become known, so any name will do.” Carmine said, “What do you want to call it? ‘Biff’? ‘Bang’? ‘Plop’?;’ and I said, “Well, ‘Plop!’ sounds good. Plop, plop, plop” — and Plop! it was. We did a few “plop” jokes in the opening pages. Now, I wanted to run only humor done by humor artists. But the comic book version of humor consists in having a serious artist draw humor. There are artists who are very good serious artists, but when it comes to drawing humor, they are not funny — it’s very hard for them. Also, the pay was very low in those times, and the budget for the magazine was very low. So when I told the guys about it, nobody wanted to do it. Also, a main idea behind the comic, which was never used, was that by now all the undergrounds were disappearing. And I was a fan of the underground comics. To me, the undergrounds were one of the only real expressions of American youth that came out of that period. All those incredibly funny guys — because they were funny. Very few of the stories were drawn seriously. They were drawn funny and this was what comics was all about. And so my idea was to use all these guys. Well, many of the underground cartoonists didn’t want to participate in anything so different, or over which they didn’t have any control. A few people did, like Lee Marrs.
THOMPSON:Was this before or after Marvel’s Comix Book?
ARAGONÉS: Which one?
THOMPSON:The one that Marvel and Denis Kitchen did with underground artists? It was called Comix Book. A magazine…
ARAGONÉS:Plop! I think was earlier.
THOMPSON:I think so too, yeah.[Plop!began in the summer of 1973, Comix Book a year later.] It’s interesting that you were behind one of the first attempts to assimilate the undergrounds into the mainstream…
ARAGONÉS: Yeah, but it was never done. It was not understood. Also, by then, I was living in California so it was very difficult. The magazine was not the way I thought it should be, and then they began using cartoonists whose work I didn’t care for very much, and by then the magazine died its natural death. It was amazing, because it had a lot of very good artists — Wally Wood and Basil Wolverton. Nobody collects Plop! — not even collectors. Very few people do. Why not? It had two of the best artists who ever worked in comics: Wolverton and Wood! [Laughter] Just because of that Plop! should have been one of the top magazines. But it was humor.
THOMPSON:There’s a real prejudice against humor comics.
ARAGONÉS: Very much. Very much — in this country. Because in Europe, adventure and humor are part of the mainstream.
THOMPSON:It’s funny because it’s exactly the opposite in the syndicated comics field. There’s a prejudice against dramatic strips.
ARAGONÉS: But that has to do with logic. When television took over the job of providing the news, people stopped reading newspapers on a regular basis. So a lot of continuity strips suffered, not because people didn’t like them, but because they couldn’t follow them any more. And the size reduction hurt, too — you couldn’t see the quality of the art. So they had to eliminate any type of logical continuity. This makes humor very comfortable — just a simple gag. And the less words the better.
THOMPSON:Did you ever think at that point in the early to mid-70s of trying to take another stab at the syndicates?
ARAGONÉS: No, I have never really wanted to be syndicated. I never had a character. And I never felt syndication was for me. When I’d gone to the syndicate, it hadn’t even been to get a daily — I just wanted to be part of the union. No, I’ve never submitted a strip or anything. I have never thought of doing a strip. First of all, it was very hard to do a pantomime strip then. There was Henry — but he used words once in a while — and Ferd’nand…
ARAGONÉS: Otto Soglow’s The Little King, of course. But they’re very so few, so I never even thought of it. No, I had Mad and I was very happy there.
THOMPSON:At which point did you come up with the notion of doing your own regular comic book — what turned into Groo? Iunderstand you had been kicking around the idea for a very long time before it actually came to fruition, partly because the market was against humor comics, and also partly because you didn’t like the idea of signing away all the rights.
ARAGONÉS: Yeah, that’s right. I’d always wanted to do a humor comic book. I’m not an editor or a publisher, so doing a compilation of other artists is not a project I would undertake. So I had to do it on my own. I figured out that I wanted to have an adventure strip. I was playing around with a lot of characters in my head. One of them was a Tarzan type of character — I’ve always liked Tarzan jokes and animals — and the other was T.C. Mars, who was a detective, a female detective I did for Sojourn. And I had other characters that I played with. I had a proposal for a comic called Sergio’s Inferno, which featured stories very similar to the ones I did for Plop!, with the traditional Serling ending. And barbarians. At the time, there was nothing going on with barbarians in comics. It was like a virgin field. I would go to DC and Marvel — because I travel a lot — and talk to everybody there about it. Every time I went to New York I’d visit Neal Adams…
THOMPSON:Ah — this is where your clash with mainstream comics over creators’ rights came to a head, right?
ARAGONÉS: The whole thing started when I brought some pages to DC, as I usually did, and when I arrived there, Joe said, “You have to go and see…” Uh… [Aragones searches for the name, can't think of it, and holds his hand about four feet from the ground.]
THOMPSON:[guessing] Paul Levitz?
ARAGONÉS: Paul Levitz. [Thompson chuckles.] And so I went to Paul Levitz and he said, “You have to sign this.” And it was a work-for-hire contract. I already knew about the work-for-hire contract, which I never intended to sign, and I said, “But I have never signed these and I don’t want to sign it. I have always worked without having to sign anything.” And he took the check and ripped it up right in front of my face. My God, nobody has ever done something like that to me. I said, “This is it. No way am I ever going to do anything that I don’t own. Never.” So for many years I never went back to that company. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t still good friends with a lot of the people there. Joe Orlando is a dear friend of mine, and Julie Schwartz, so I’d always go there and say hello to all my friends at DC, whom I adore. And I have so many stories of things that have happened at DC, friends that I met. One of the presidents, Mark Iglesias, was a friend of mine. I met him a long time ago when Warner merged with Kinney. He was the president of the comic book division, and also the owner of the marina where I had my boat. So we became friends. It was a very beautiful era and I still love all the people at DC. Professionally, it’s different. The way I was treated…
I would go there and they would say, “There’s no way that we can ever give any rights to anybody.” They would take books out to prove to me that it was impossible.
THOMPSON:Right, they’d be breaking the law if they let you keep the copyrights.
ARAGONÉS: And every time I talked to that tall fellow at Marvel, he also said it was impossible. And I didn’t have any contacts in Marvel, so there was no way they were going to do it. They later changed their mind, but at that time, there was no way. I never talked to anybody about Groo, because I didn’t want anyone stealing the idea; so I was selling “a comic book” which I had in mind. And they weren’t even able to talk on a theoretical basis — nothing! They wanted nothing to do with it. So I decided I was going to publish myself. By now Pacific Comics had published the first few issues of the Kirby book [Captain Victory], so I thought, “Well, they have very good distribution. These are the people I need.” So I had a meeting with the Schanes brothers at Canter’s [a famous Los Angeles all-night deli, much plugged in Groo], and I showed them my project. I had already talked with Mark [Evanier]; he was going to help me.
By that time, Groo had appeared in Destroyer Duck. Mark had called me and asked, “Do you have a piece for this benefit thing?” I said, “Yeah, I have this character that I’ve been toying with.”
THOMPSON:It seemed really appropriate, since Destroyer Duck was supposed to finance Steve Gerber ‘s lawsuit against Marvel over the copyright to Howard the Duck.
ARAGONÉS: Yes, very. So he sent it to Eclipse and it appeared in Destroyer Duck #1. By now I had drawn a lot of single page drawings of the character, a few pages of which were later incorporated in the special that Eclipse did. So I talked to the Schanes brothers and they said, “Not only will we distribute it, but we’ll publish it for you,” which was terrific. It saved me the trouble of having to spend time doing things other than drawing. And it came out and that was it. They weren’t too happy with it, because it was humor. Every second issue they wanted to cancel it again, and I would tell them, “O.K., I’ll buy it, I’ll publish it. I’ll be the publisher. Let’s make an arrangement. It’ll be my company.” And immediately the publishers would say, “Well, we’ll do another issue.” [Laughter] But they never had too much faith in the humor comic.
THOMPSON:What kind of sales were they racking up on Groo at the time?
ARAGONÉS: I have never been able to get out of anybody how many they printed, but in the beginning, at issue number one, it was about probably 50,000 copies. Later issues were lower, to the point that they were only printing 30,000 or less of the early Groos. Sales were average — not too good because, again, it was humor. The only thing that probably saved me was that I had been working with MAD for so many years that I had a certain following that liked humor — or liked what I do.
THOMPSON:And presumably you also got at least some Conan fans, because sword and sorcery was going very strong at that time.
ARAGONÉS: Yeah. It was not an offensive comic. It was drawn professionally and with care. Then Pacific ended up going out of business because of many other things. I don’t think they were that interested in the publishing end of it. They were more into distributing and big business. By now Mark had talked with the people at Marvel, or the people at Marvel had talked with him, about doing it for a new line they were going to do called Epic. That was fine as far as I was concerned. So we started negotiating contracts, I told the people at Pacific, and everything was all right — they were going out of business and I said, “Well, I’ll continue with you until we start with Marvel,” and they said fine. It just happened that they were planning to do a special issue, and by then they’d gone out of business. I couldn’t give it to Marvel because we were still negotiating, so it went to Eclipse. And by the time that special came out, the contract was finished. It took a long time. It took months and months to negotiate.
THOMPSON:Doesn’t it always with Marvel, though?
ARAGONÉS: Yes. [Laughter] This one even more so because it was the first comic ever owned by somebody else to get newsstand distribution. It was very strange. And we had a lot of legal details to be solved over there; things about the indicia, the names on the splash page, stuff like that. But when everything was satisfactory for everybody then number one came out. So there wasn’t even a lag between the Pacific issues, the Eclipse issue, and the Marvel issue.
Groo: The Technique of Humor
ARAGONÉS: The big problem was that when I did the Marvel number one I didn’t know what to do. It had to be a number one because it was totally different from the previous version. Out of respect for the readers I already had I didn’t want to start all over again, but I also didn’t want all the new readers I was going to gain wondering what I was talking about. How was I going to start off? That was what really took me a long time, and I figured out the best way: that’s how the Minstrel started. I figured out that in issue number one I’d have somebody telling stories about Groo. It was good for the new readers: they could understand it because I had someone talking about Groo, how idiotic he was. And it was good for the older readers because he was part of a nice continuity without having to start all over again. And then by issue two I was back on track. So that’s what I did and it worked all right: the transition was smooth. Of course, first issues always sell very well, and now we were printing hundreds of thousands because now it was in the direct sales and the newsstand sales. The sales have been very steady.
THOMPSON:Does it sell better in the direct sales market or in the general market?
ARAGONÉS: It sells about the same — a little more in the direct sales market. Not a lot. Still, it’s a humor book, and the direct sales market is such a false market that we really don’t know how many people buy it to put it in a plastic bag, how many read it, and how many buy two copies. So it’s very strange. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it.
THOMPSON:It’s a hard market to read. Let’s talk about how you assembled the “Groo Crew” — Mark, Tom, and Stan.
ARAGONÉS: Well, before I worked with him. Mark has always been a dear friend of mine and I’ve known him for many years. And he has become invaluable. What was done for Bat Lash by…
ARAGONÉS: Denny O’Neil, thank you very much. What Denny O’Neil did for Bat Lash was give him a voice, a Western voice, and that’s what Mark has done for Groo. And more — he’s given it his special brand of humor. Stan Sakai also had been a friend and a very good letterer, as well as a very good artist. And Tom Luth is an excellent colorist. So it was a very natural meeting; they have stayed and they have enjoyed the relationship. Without Mark, Groo would talk a little bit differently, because the characters write themselves. No matter what people want to do for a character, the character takes a certain direction. You’re not writing him — you end up writing for him. Groo started off less stupid, but once you inject oral humor, which is what Mark does very well, it plays more on the stupidity of the character, so he becomes a little more stupid. So Groo has become stupider than he was when we just started it, but it hasn’t been any trouble. It’s easy.
THOMPSON:How far ahead do you think your stories up? I remember reading an interview where you talked about how many ideas you had, and one of them being that Groo would acquire a dog. This was in ’82, and the character turned up four years later…
ARAGONÉS: Yes, I’m a few issues ahead. Like right now I’m inking #56, I finished #55. Issue #51 is out, I’m writing #58 — I have to give it to Mark pretty soon. See, I can play with a story, because I have many months to work on it. Other artists have a month to ink, a month to pencil, and everything. I have a month to do everything, but since I’m working on three or four issues at the same time — inking one, penciling one, writing one — I have three months to write it. So I take a long time to write a story. A humor strip is not like a regular adventure strip. It’s harder to give variety to the character. With a hero strip or an adventure strip, being so close to life, you can do a lot of things, you can play in a lot of fields. But when you are dealing with humor, you have certain parameters you can’t get away from. If you look at a comic strip, it’s always the same. It’s one gag. The whole 50 years of Blondie is one gag. It’s how you say it, and how comfortable you are with it. American audiences are not familiar with humor in comics so they want a humor comic to be like a super-hero comic, and they want a lot of things that cannot be done. I can’t take Groo out of what I think is humor. I can’t have him fighting Conan, no matter how many fans want it. Groo belongs to a world of humor, and Groo is going to be a barbarian who’s stupid, and through his stupidity, he’s going to ruin either a town or a friend; something’s going to happen. A lot of the readers don’t understand that. They want it to be changed. But if you look at Asterix — many Americans are not familiar with it. But Asterix is a very comfortable character because whatever he does, it always ends the same. They sit at a banquet, they’ve tied up the character who sings too much, and for the last 30 years, that’s how that story’s been ending. Well, mine change a lot because at least I have a little more to play with. [Laughter]
So I have to bring in a lot of new characters to compensate for the very rigid limits I set for humor. I have to think of a funny ending: I just can’t have the hero beating the bad guy, like a regular comic book. I can write “serious” comics: it’s very simple. I can give you 20 “serious” stories for each Groo story, because the only thing you have to change is the villain. Somebody attacks something, the hero comes and saves it, and that’s it. No more; no less. You can have more pages of fight, you can have a lot of more dialogue if you want, but it is exactly the same. With humor, no. You have to have a gag. You have to have jokes. And you have to spend a lot of time making it a little different even though it is the same. It’s very complex, but I am very grateful that I have 30 years of humor writing behind me.
When you bring in a character, there has to be a need for that character. I needed a very intelligent person, which is how the Sage came to be. When we were at Pacific, every comic that you did, you always left a five-pager at the end for a new artist to introduce an upcoming character. So I’d left five pages open in issue #1 to introduce some other character, but of course the five-page story didn’t show up. I’d decided that deadlines were very important to me and I wasn’t going to miss one, so I created a character over a couple of days so that our issue could get into print. I thought of a catapult joke, but suddenly I realized that Groo couldn’t cope with the concept of a catapult. So I had to create a new character for the joke — it was a very good joke and it would work very nicely — so I created the Sage. Just like that. Not too much thought behind it, but I wanted a guy who was very wise, a little mixture of Mr. Natural and the guy from Smokey Stover — that guy with the beard. It came out and it worked all right. Now I had a character who was a wise character. So any time Groo needed wise thought, I had the Sage. Any time he needed a bandit — I created Taranto, who was a bandit. Every time I need a character I will create him.
The Minstrel’s terrific because I can introduce other stories that have nothing to do with that continuity, even though Groo is not a continuity. One of my early memories when I was a kid was reading The Spirit. The Spirit is one of my favorite comics ever. And what I learned from Eisner was that he could tell in seven pages a story that you could read anytime without ever reading any of the other stories and it was there. It had a sense of humor, pathos — it was perfect. I liked that, that I could go to back issues and read it comfortably. And also the stories written by the Donald Duck…
ARAGONÉS: Carl Barks. Carl Barks would tell a story, and no matter what issue you read, it was there — complete, perfect, great ending, great adventure, and it was ended. So I figured out that was what I wanted to do. Oh, it would be very easy to make a continuous saga out of Groo. But then you couldn’t read a back issue and enjoy it just by itself. And I wanted the kids, or the people who read Groo, to have the same feeling that I got from the comics. To be able to read an old issue and enjoy it and put it aside.
See, I don’t want people to collect Groo. I want them to read it and forget about it. I’m glad they’re keeping it, because they can look back at it again and again. So each character has a reason to be, but they are not a continuity. They can be interchanged. Groo has no age. Groo has no history: Characters are born old. You do all their lives because people want to know more about them. But I know less about Groo’s parents than any reader. They can imagine his parents as well as I can.
So I’ve been creating characters for him as the need arises. With Groo being a loner, I had arrived to the point where I could write a lot of loner stories; but he needed a companion. I figured a companion would do him good, and would provide a change of pace. Humor is fine, but that change of pace is very important. So a companion was important.
Now what? If I do another human, he’s going to take over the comic within three issues because Groo would become a second banana.
THOMPSON:If he’s smarter than Groo then he’ll fake over the comic. If he’s stupider than Groo — well, that’s sort of hard to imagine.
ARAGONÉS: Absolutely! [Laughter] No way any character could! So I thought of an animal. And the first thought behind Rufferto was that the only companion Groo would have would be an animal he wanted to eat. Why else would Groo have an animal? But everybody loved Rufferto when he came out, so then I said, “Oh, let’s play with him a little more, and a little more.” And he stayed. He’s an animal, but he has a certain devotion toward Groo. The only people who could love a mercenary like Groo would be an animal. A dog. A dog will love his owner no matter what. He doesn’t know if he’s a criminal or a good guy. A dog loves his master. The relationship can work, and it has, Rufferto’s still there and they work together.
THOMPSON:How do you and Mark work together? From what I’ve heard, it’s a fascinating process.
ARAGONÉS: Once I have idea, I go to Mark and we sit down and I say, “This is what I’m going to do.” He laughs or says, “Well, yeah,” or “it’s too close to that.” Then I write the story out on 8 1/2-by-11 sheets of paper, sitting at the coffeehouse, and when I have 22 pages, I sketch it out in very rough pencil. Then I draw it in blue line on the big paper, and go to Mark and read it to him right there. And if he understands what I have there [laughter] then he goes and writes the dialogue correctly, puts gags in it, writes the poetry; often he changes the order of the story, sometimes he makes a change in the ending. He has saved many stories because he finds things — not that there’s a deficiency in the storytelling, but he improves it. He finds something better. Much better. And of course he has carte blanche to do that. Sometimes I don’t agree with what he says and we talk about it and change back stuff. But that’s very rare because he’s a very good writer. And if his change makes more sense, I’m not a fool. Anything that improves it I take! So he does a lot of…
ARAGONÉS: Oh, yes, very good editing. And a lot of very good writing. All the poems. Sometimes I see where a joke — a written joke — could go. So I write, “Joke here,” or, “Mark, please save this panel” [laughter] or “Put Mark-ism here,” and he does that, too. Then he gives the pages to Stan Sakai. Stan Sakai does the lettering, following Mark’s new dialogue. Stan can follow the drawing because it’s in blueline. Then it comes back to me. Then I start doing a little more penciling because now I have to change the expressions. See, sometimes I didn’t know what the final dialogue was going to be. So now I start putting in expressions that fit the dialogue. But nothing very much gets changed. Let me show you. [Showing a page of rough pencils] This is the blue pencil that I’m talking about. As you can see, none of the drawings gets changed. Then I put in all the lines — the panel borders and balloon outlines, and then I start…
THOMPSON:So you draw all the panel and balloon borders?
ARAGONÉS: Yeah. I like the balloons to fit the style of the comic. I put a little more black in.
THOMPSON:Your penciling is very loose…
ARAGONÉS: Very loose; very loose. When it comes back to me, I just finish it up a little more completely.
THOMPSON:Have you ever tried working with tighter pencils?
ARAGONÉS: No, it’s not necessary. Because I know what’s going to be there. I only pencil it out entirely when I’m doing, say, a Japanese uniform, for the first time. I get all my research material for Japanese uniforms and I go through it until I really understand. I build a few samurai suits in plastic and then I understand it perfectly well so it’s as natural to me as a regular shoe. So I know how everything gets tied up, all the knots. The first time it’s hard, but no more; then I can do it with very little pencils because I know exactly how the whole thing goes.
THOMPSON:You actually do a lot of research for Groo
ARAGONÉS: Oh, yes. Very much.
THOMPSON:Itsounds surprising, but when you look closely at the book you realize how authentic a lot of the backgrounds are. I noticed you have the cartoonist’s traditional collection of National Geographics.
ARAGONÉS: Oh, yes. The research gives you a feeling for the place you’re going to. One of the stories that I was doing — I don’t remember what one it was — took place in a village set on stilts. I was drawing it and had already done a couple of pages, but I realized it would be more proper if it was a New Guinea type of environment — Papua. So I went back to my National Geographies and started looking through them. And then you get an idea of the houses, the decorations, the costumes. And after you look, you make a few sketches just to familiarize your hand with it. And then you just close the magazine, forget about it, and invent your own, based on the suggestion your mind has now of that particular place. I did the same thing when I did a few early stories set in Africa. You go through all the books — statues, decorations, weaponry — and from there on you… Japanese, the same thing. Castles. You don’t exactly do the research for the comic. You do it for you. Once you know a lot about a subject, everything comes very comfortably and it’s not out of place. Even if it doesn’t show up in the comic, it has a feeling for what is important. With a little research, anybody could probably just copy something and make it just as good, but I feel better. So I do a lot of research about everything that has to do with a particular period.
THOMPSON:Your technique has the double quality that your work is well researched enough to be logical and feel right, but it also has the spontaneity you like.
ARAGONES: Yeah. The looser humor is… You see, when I’m doing cartoons for MAD. I want to be looser. Sometimes I can’t because MAD has very strict guidelines about drawing. But a cartoon has almost no background. It has to look very simple, like the Marginals. The idea’s there, you don’t have costumes, the guy’s just dressed — if he’s a fireman he has a little fireman hat. But the less you put, the easier it is to understand. But now I’m drawing a comic book. Everything I have been talking about for cartooning I have to totally disregard. Now I need environment. I need ambiance, I need costumes, I need continuity, I need directions for the characters to come in. And suddenly everything is different. It’s two totally different jobs. The humor is in the content. The humor is in the characters themselves. But the backgrounds can be as elaborate as you want. And the more you put in, in my opinion, the better established the character gets. You establish where everything is: if he is in the desert, in the mountain. You pay attention to the time — whether it’s morning or night, whether the sun is setting and the guy has just eaten. So instead of just having the guy walking all the time, you know it’s time for him to eat or to go to sleep, so you can get involved with the timing; I have a very good time doing that. And it’s like I’m doing it all as I draw it. I know when everything’s happening. If somebody else was doing the pencilling, sometimes they wouldn’t follow what’s going on, so they would always draw the same. But I try to pay a little more attention to a lot of details. I like to stay in a particular period. Groo don’t exist; ergo, the place where he lives doesn’t exist either. But even a nonexistent place has to have certain canons of logic. If he’s in the period of swords, then there’s no guns. If there’s no guns, there’s no powder. If there’s no powder, there’s no explosions. So, in the whole 51 issues, I have never used a gun nor powder explosion. See? Not only because I don’t believe in guns, but because I don’t think it fits. So I won’t use it. Also, it would be the death of Groo. The death of the samurai was the arquebuse. Anytime somebody has a gun, what’s a guy with a sword going to do? So I would never put guns in Groo. Everything has to fit. The animals. The architecture. But I can go from one period to another. I can have an almost medieval era, which feels very very comfortable to me — castles from the 14th, 16th centuries — and then cave-type people.
THOMPSON:You can slide back and forth in time, in the same way that Prince Valiant‘s backgrounds are actually anachronistic, but they work because it’s what readers think that period looked like.
ARAGONÉS: Yeah. You invent your own mythology.
THOMPSON:If it looks right, it works.
ARAGONÉS: And I think it works with Groo.
THOMPSON:When you have an incredibly elaborate background, how hard is it to direct the eye to the main figures? Is it something you do automatically at this point, or does it take a kind of thinking?
ARAGONÉS: Uh… I don’t know. [Laughter]
THOMPSON:To me it’s amazing, because you see these huge spreads with all these things going on and the eye goes naturally to the main characters.
ARAGONÉS: Well, that’s composition. I guess you learn it through the years, watching the movies and thinking about how the directors led your eyes to that. Like the director of Lawrence of Arabia [David Lean], that guy can pinpoint a figure in the desert and you can see it. It comes through practice. Also, I don’t do it all at once. See, I start here [indicating a penciled rough for a typical Groo spread, but with only the main figures inked in] and then 1 continue my regular drawing and inking. When I’m finished with the rest of the book and I have a little time and I’m tired, I take the big splash and start adding a little more. Or before I start drawing, or when somebody gets on the telephone, or if a television program is very interesting — then I pick a page that I have to do a lot of work on and I can just… play with it. So it takes me a whole month to go over those two pages, but if I did it all at once, it would be very wasteful because I would waste precious time I could use to finish this story. Like this, I don’t feel like I have to rush it, so I take the whole month to work on it. What you do… First you draw that point of it and then you start to go around it [indicating a spiral going out from the central figures], adding here and taking off there. And it slowly comes out to be finished. And I juggle a lot because it’s a lot of fun. Oh, when we were talking earlier about the process of doing the comic, I forgot to mention that once I finish drawing it, it goes back to Mark, and Mark corrects again. He will read the finished story and get a kick out of it because he didn’t see the drawings until they were finished and it’s like reading a new story, just like when I got it back from Mark I laughed because there were a lot of little gags there that I didn’t know were there. Then he corrects the language again. We’re very careful about that. There are no spelling mistakes in Groo. And he always checks that Rufferto has his black eye, and then, when it’s all finished, we make a Xerox and it goes to Tom Luth. Tom is such a good colorist that I don’t have to give him any color schemes or anything. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s been doing it so long and so well that I have total confidence in his work. It is excellent. Once in a while he’ll call me and say, “What is this, a puddle of blood?” — something that is not legible and he just can’t solve. And from then on, I don’t know what happens until I get the printed copy. And then it’s, “Oh my God! They forgot to put color in Groo’s hands!” and stuff like that.
THOMPSON:You must be the longest-running team of people to put together a comic book. Shortly, you’ll have done two thirds as many issues of Groo as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby did of Fantastic Four.
THOMPSON:They only did 103.
ARAGONÉS: Ah, but did Kirby do pencil and ink?
THOMPSON:No. It was mostly Joe Sinnott.
ARAGONÉS: Well, maybe I did a hundred if we add up pencils and inks. [Laughter]
ARAGONÉS: No, but I do so little pencilling it doesn’t count.
THOMPSON:Actually there was Jim Davis’ Fox and Crow, which was also a single person. But anyway…
Europeans, Americans and Humor
THOMPSON: Groo’salways seemed to me more in touch with the tone of the European comics than the American comics. I think of a series like Lucky Luke…
ARAGONÉS: I’m very much influenced by the European comics, and the European artwork. I have, all through my life, read European comics and I visited Europe in the ’60s. So, yes, as a humorous comic book artist, there’s not too much work here I can draw a parallel with — only Barks’s Donald Duck adventures, those fantastic worlds. But if we get into the context of European comics, there’s so many of them. They are based on the same principles. They are comically drawn characters that do adventure, not funny stuff. So I feel very comfortable with the European market, or readership, or product that’s coming out of the minds of Europeans, because they think like me. Many of them. In Pilote, half of the content is humor. Groo in Europe is like one among a lot of them. It gets lost in the shuffle, which is fine with me. That means I belong to a particular genre, which is humor. And here I feel bad — like a sore thumb. A lot of the kids don’t want to read it because they don’t understand — they laugh if the super-hero is not correct. They are not trained for this type of material. It’s very strange. I wish there was much more humor; Groo would fit very comfortably surrounded by the other cartoons.
THOMPSON:My theory is that American comics readers are mostly adolescents, who have no sense of humor. Kids do and adults do, but somewhere in the middle period there, I guess things aren’t as funny.
ARAGONÉS: Yeah. As you say, I have a big very young readership; I have an adolescent readership, but not as big as the young one. And then I have the older group who really enjoy Groo a lot. I get a lot of mail, and it’s in two parts: the people who are more grown up and can talk a little more seriously about humor, and the kids who love Groo as a character and talk about him and want him to do this and to do that. But children laugh. American audiences don’t laugh in public. They are so used to getting their laughs in their homes, privately, through television, that people don’t go to parties to tell jokes. See, in Europe, or in Mexico, where television is not so strong, the first thing you do when you arrive at a party is tell jokes. Because nobody knows them. You have heard a joke at your barber’s or some- place, so you go to a party and you tell the joke. And then you laugh a lot. And then somebody else tells another joke related to that: you spend a lot of time telling jokes all over Europe. But here, if you’re going to tell a joke, everybody read it or everybody heard it on Johnny Carson, so what’s the point in repeating it? It’s been said. And you’ve got all these professional comedians to tell the jokes; you don’t have to bother telling them. Put on any comedy routine, and there they are, people who tell professional jokes better than your neighbor. You see?
So on that principle, there’s not that many humor magazines. Very few. All the humor appears in the pages of other things. If you want sophisticated humor, you get it in the pages of The New Yorker — but as a supplement. If you want girlie humor, you get it in Playboy — another supplement. You want gun jokes, you get it with Sports whatever. Each cartoon comes as a supplement. There are very few cartoon magazines, just cartoons in magazines. People are not trained to read humor.
Comics have always had that stigma of being bad, or bad for children, and adults would never be caught dead reading a comic book in a public place. In Europe, comics are as normal as other types of literature, and you can see an architect or doctor reading it, and the boss in the subway. It feels normal. In Japan, also. But here…
THOMPSON:Do you think it’s changing at all?
ARAGONÉS: Yeah. It is changing. People are getting a little less embarrassed about reading humor, but there’s still not much humor to read. There’ll always be this and that, but proportionately to other things — proportionately to super-heroes, how many adventure comics do we have? Not that many. Sable is adventure.
THOMPSON:Even so, it’s super-hero adventure.
ARAGONÉS: Yeah, but still it’s adventure and not completely super-heroes. But there’s a very minimal percentage of humor comics. And then there is that strange area of cartoony humor vs. “serious” humor. See, you have a line that divides — in Europe, for example, we have Valerian: the adventures are very serious but the drawings are cartoony. We don’t have any of that here. The cartoony characters have cartoony adventures. Groo adventures are cartooony, and Groo is cartoony. But we haven’t had one serious adventure drawn in a cartoony style since Little Orphan Annie — or Dick Tracy. Those were serious stories drawn by humorous artists.
THOMPSON:Early Roy Crane, or Caniff.
ARAGONÉS: Early Roy Crane, absolutely, that was serious adventures done in a cartoony style. But Caniff was a serious artist. He had left the bigfoot style; his characters were realistic. They weren’t jumping around with both legs going “YAHHK!!” You see?
THOMPSON: Dickie Dare and the very early Terry were quite cartoony, though.
ARAGONÉS: Oh, yeah; but I’m talking a little more contemporary. The divisions have been very clearly established. If you draw seriously, it has to be serious. And if you draw funny, it has to be very funny. You can’t have a serious adventure drawn funny — which is what I would love to do. When I started T.C. Mars,the female detective I did for Sojourn, it was going to be serious adventures drawn funny. Don Rico, who was a very good artist, was writing some scripts for me, because we thought it was going to continue. It never did, so we never sold those stories. But he also started writing humorously. I said, “No, no, no. I want it written as if you were writing for a regular character; then I’ll draw it funny.” It’s very hard for a people to see a humorously drawn character behaving seriously. It happened before in the comic strips and it can happen in the comics.
THOMPSON:In a certain way. isn’t Maus that?
ARAGONÉS: Yes. But again we’re talking percentages. We go back to that one example. In the undergrounds we had it constantly. On one hand, you had the Freak Brothers doing funny stories, but on the other hand you had Binky Meets the Virgin Mary. There was a very funny drawing with a very serious subject — his [Justin Green's] personal traumas and stuff. The underground would take very serious stories and tell them with funny cartoons. Crumb!
ARAGONÉS: But again, it was underground. In the overground we can’t have that. I don’t know who will break the barrier. And it’s important to break it. The more variety you have in comic books, the better for the public.
Dollars and Sense
ARAGONÉS: But now we have to talk about economics, because everything is based on economics here. We have a system of books or bookstores that are so mechanical. Everything is so pigeonholed: you have to have a specific product to go to a specific place so it can be specifically sold to specific readers. And this is very bad when you want to play with something. Because they don’t know what to do with it.
THOMPSON:Maybe that’s why all the graphic novels wind up in the humor section.
ARAGONÉS: I wish they did. But they don’t even do that. It would be a terrific place for Groo. The graphic novel is a very good idea. It’s what Eisner has been drawing and what that gentleman who did The First Kingdom…
ARAGONÉS: …Jack Katz wanted to do. He wanted to take a comic and put it in a very serious format, rather than a regular format. And a lot of people started saying, “We’re going to get out of the comic book shop. And we’re going to go someplace else.” Well, it didn’t happen like that because the big companies are there for the money; they are businesses and we have to be very realistic about that. Business is not a place to have fun. Business is there to make money. Business has a responsibility to the people who invest in this particular business. So a business has got to do what is good for the business. But if you don’t have somebody with creativity in the business, you’re not going to improve the business very much because the business will concentrate on what’s good in the short term. But without any regard for the larger point of view, of what is going to happen 10 years from now. So those are not visionaries; they’re just accountants who want to make money for the next quarter. And they’re very happy because their accountants make more money like that, but in four years they have to get out of office and [claps] that’s it. They leave their job. They did their job.
But they didn’t really do their job. They screwed up the magazine or the company because they didn’t look to the future. In Japan, companies look to the long term: they go slowly, slowly, slowly. The Americans build up a company in a very short time and suddenly POOF! they collapse. And the Japanese keep going and 10 years later, they own it. Why? Because business also have to do with vision. In the comic books it’s the same thing. The people who are doing the comics have no vision. They do the graphic novels. [Claps] “We can sell them all in the comic book shop! There’s all these little kids that buy everything that we put out.” The graphic novel goes into the comic book shop and that’s it. You don’t see it in the big stores. Why? Because the big store doesn’t know where to put it. The graphic novels are very thin. They look like comic books. And they don’t fit in the rack with the comic books. So they don’t know what to do with them. So they don’t sell any. They don’t want them. They are a pain in the neck. They are too esoteric. They don’t have a particular subject. They don’t know where to put them.
If you had a little more vision, you’d say, “Well, we have to start opening the market. Let’s not be mercenary and try to sell the whole print [run] immediately in the comic book shop. Let’s look into the future.” What do we need? Compartments. If we do a graphic novel in science fiction, we should make a point that the bookshop puts this graphic novel in the science fiction department. Because the people who love science fiction are going to go to the science fiction pigeonhole and are going to see that graphic novel there and they’re going to buy it because it’s good. And if it’s no good, they’re not going to buy it. But now you can’t blame it on the system. It was a bad graphic novel. The humor goes in the humor department. Adventure goes in the adventure department. Comic book heroes? They don’t have a place in the graphic novel. They are comics. They go into the comic book department. But if you want to do Stray Toasters —a good graphic novel: good art; good writing — give it a name. Is it science fiction? Is it fiction? It is science? Let’s put it wherever it fits. Don’t try to invent a new category, because it doesn’t exist. In the future, when each one is in their place, you can create a new category called “graphic novels” and put them all together. But right now, there’s no place like that. So you have to think a little more in the future — more than the immediate money. See, the graphic novel is a great solution. But then they make The Hulk into a graphic novel. If you wanted to put that in a book store, where would you put it? In the humor department? It’s not humor. Are you going to put it in the history books, or research, or what? So this is a problem. You have to sit down there and study the problem with a little more vision to figure out specific market.
THOMPSON:There was a period, right after Dark Knight and Maus, when all the publishers thought that graphic novels were the next big thing. They put out a lot of projects that failed, and now they’re retrenching again.
ARAGONÉS: They do that with almost everything. Maus got a lot of publicity because it’s a book that has a value in itself. Its value has nothing to do with comics or novels. It is one’s man work, and a very good work. So that can fit wherever they put it. They don’t put it with comic books. It’s a fiction book and it goes in fiction. It’s just an illustrated fiction. They don’t think of it as a graphic novel. And it’s a matter of opening the market up. We can sell no more comics if there’s no more market. The comic book itself has discovered the comic book shop. We are not going to sell more comic books until they open more comic book shops. It’s not going to get out of the comic book shop. Supermarkets can’t carry them.
THOMPSON:How did you get into animation?
ARAGONÉS: Well, I’ve always liked animation. I’ve read a lot of books about animation, and I never really separated cartoons from any of the other things I do. All the fields are together. What you learn about cartooning, you learn about animation. When I was in high school, my father was in the movie industry. He was producing a movie called Santa Claus in Mexico. And the director of the movie, Rene Cardona — he’s a very good director, has directed a lot of movies — his son was a very entrepreneurial guy. One day we were talking about Santa Claus; we’d heard that they were going to need some animation, so his son, who was even younger than I was — and we’re talking high school — decided that we could do the animation. Because I knew how to draw and he knew how to shoot it. We had both read the book by Preston Blair, How to Animate. I said that it couldn’t be done and he said that it could be done. So my father said that if it was good, he’d buy it from us. Between his father and my father, they gave us the money, so we build all the equipment. We built the drawing table and I drew hundreds of cels — hundreds and hundreds. I spent a whole winter vacation — in Mexico, you have a winter vacation instead of summer vacation. So I spent a whole week of drawing these Santa Clauses, with reindeer walking around and everything. Well, it was so poorly done that there was no way they could ever use it. But it was a great experience. I learned how to animate just by doing it. We had to cut our own cels and everything. It was the hard way to do it, but I learned a lot about it and I just liked it a lot. And when I was here in the States, I was called by George Schlatter. He called me as a writer to do some writing for a show called It’s a Wacky World. And during the conferences I did some sketches which were used for the animation on that show. I’d done some animation before, but I would always design the characters and hire a studio to do it. Then, when I did Laugh-In for him, I hired a young man from UCLA to be my assistant, but he was such an expert animator I was learning from my assistant. [Laughter] His name was Hoyt Yeatman, and he’s the boss at Dreamquest Studio. He does a lot of special effects for a lot of big studios. I had carte blanche with George to do anything we wanted to do. They were doing six one-hour specials, so whatever I wanted to learn, I asked, “Hoyt, can we do this?” And he’d say, “Yeah!” So I would write a storyboard for a piece we needed, George would approve it and then I would learn how to do it. So we did all kinds of things. We did front screen projection, we did pixilation, we did people with puppets, puppets with people, animation with puppets. Everything that could be done with animation I learned there, and I learned by doing it.
And even before that, I wrote storyboards for Jack Mendelsohn when I was in New York in the ’60s. So I’ve always been involved in it in one way or another. And when they did TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes,they called me to do the animation and I did a few in the beginning all by myself. But I always have a Mark Evanier: I had an animator who would correct my cartoons, put in the right timing. For TV Bloopers and Practical Jokes I had Lee Mishkin Studios. He’s a very good animator; he did them all in his studio himself. But you get into animation like you get into comics.
THOMPSON:You studied mime.
THOMPSON:With some interesting people.
ARAGONÉS: Yes, Alexandro Jodorowsky. That was another very strange thing. When I was at the university, all my friends were studying architecture, but they did not end up in architecture. They became actors, directors. Architecture is a very beautiful career: it leads to many other things. It’s very creative, and very artistically oriented. We had a theater group. I was not in it, but my friends were all there, so I would go to rehearsals and wait for them to finish so we could go and have fan. I had to sit around there so often I would end up taking the place of other actors, just as a substitute because they hadn’t arrived, things like that. I figured if I was going to work for my friends while sitting in the audience, I’d better be part of the group. So I became an actor in the theatre group for architecture.
We did plays. We did The Skin of Our Teeth by Thornton Wilder, The Beautiful People by Saroyan, and Mexican and Spanish plays. And while we were in the group, Marcel Marceau came into town. That was a total revelation. I had seen pantomime in movies, like Jean-Louis Barrault. But when we saw him live… We had student passes. I went every day. I couldn’t help it. And Alexandro Jodorowsky was with Marceau’s troupe. He had written pieces for Marceau. One of the most important pieces that Marceau does was written by Jodorowsky.
Jodorowsky’s an incredible talent. Besides comics and theatre and movies, he did Fando Y Lis, El Topo, and Holy Mountain. He’s a superb mime — a super technician with an incredible capacity for mime. So he stayed in Mexico and opened a school of pantomime. And I joined the group not to become a mime but to apply mime to cartooning. But eventually I got involved with the whole thing. When Jodorowsky was with Marceau he’d come out with a title card, “The Butterfly Catcher” or whatever the title was, and they would write it in the language of whatever country they were in. So we figured out, with my cartoons we could even go one step beyond. Without words, I would draw what was going to happen. So when we were doing the pantomimes, I would appear in my costume and I would draw what was going to happen. If it was a magician, I would draw a magician instead of writing “The Magician.”
So I applied cartooning to the theater; we did pieces, we did television pantomime, and it was a lot of fun. By then I was planning to leave to the States, so I left — I left the theater and everything.
THOMPSON:How useful was mime to your cartooning?
ARAGONÉS: Well, it allows you to know yourself from the inside out. See, many artists have to look at themselves in a mirror to understand facial expressions; but having done pantomime cartooning for so long, and knowing pantomime, allows me to understand the movement of the body without having to look at it in the mirror. You can feel it. And feeling action is very important, feeling balance. I think more than anything else, pantomime is balance, and having balance in your cartoons is very important. I don’t think it shows in a particular drawing: it applies to the overall work, that everything is balanced. That the expressions arc right, are proportionate, that the action, the exaggeration fits. When you’re doing a swordfight, you have the right elements — the pain, everything is there. The movements of everything — even waves, trees… places. When you know that, you automatically start drawing the curves — because I have played backdrops. When I was a mime, I was so big compared to the other guys, I was background. I have played artificial fires, I’ve been trees, I’ve been pieces of furniture. I was an armoire once. So even with inanimate objects, you can feel them. You can make jokes about feeling like a butterfly, feeling like a tree — well, I have done it. It is true. You can feel like a tree. You can feel like the leaves. You can feel it, so you can draw it. It becomes easier for you. It’s another skill that you acquire. I thought it was important for my personal growth, I did it, and I had a great time. I never intended to be a mime professionally. But I could do it [laughter] — if I was thinner.
But all those years with Jodorowsky in Mexico were a great learning experience. Even before doing that, he had been part of a group called the Groupe Panique in France which had a lot of very good writers; Arrabal, Topor, very important people like that. An intellectual group. He’s been very much part of that. So those years with people who think very much ahead of what’s happening, it helps you a lot. I think I profited a lot from being with Alexandro.
THOMPSON:You also worked as an actor.
ARAGONÉS: Yes, that was part of it. I don’t work as an actor because I like to act. It just happened that all my friends have become directors. Any time I was in a play or a movie, it was because the director was a friend of mine. “Oh, who will take this part? Sergio!” So they call me and say, “Hey, Sergio, do you want to come and play a general?” I say, “Sure.” Or George Schlatter — he needed a Mexican motel manager for a movie called Norman, Is That You? with Pearl Bailey and Redd Foxx, so he called me. So there I am in a movie as an actor. It is fun. It’s also part of the spirit — the theater, everything that you can do. Travelling is very important. Everything that you can feed to your brain, your activities through life. I believe that is better to live than to sit there. Not that you can use every activity and everything that you’ve done in your work, but it makes you grow as an individual. And you can apply it to your work. Every book you read. Every scene you see. Every day you go camping in the mountains. Every time you take a book about flowers, go to a field and find out the names of flowers and the names of the trees. Maybe you don’t ever have to use them, but it’s such a great feeling knowing that you know it! And this gives… more of a roundness to your life. You become more complete. I think acting is part of that. I wouldn’t do it as a profession. I grew up with it, my father being in the industry. So it never had that magic for me: “Oh, I want to be a famous actor.” I knew it was a hard-working career. You have to go to work very early. You have to rehearse. You have to learn your lines, and then you have to sit under the light for many hours. That’s what acting was to me, so I didn’t want to be in that career.
THOMPSON:While we’re on that topic, you served as a stunt double, too, right?
ARAGONÉS: Oh. [Laughter] That was a fluke. In the ’50s, my father was doing, with an American company, Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. I went on location with my father, and the stuntperson didn’t show up. They had to improvise. They wanted a dive from a rope into water and the lady [Irish McCalla] didn’t want to do it. And of course Sergio has been swimming all his life. I said, “I’ll do it.” Sergio’ll do it! So they put me in a woman’s bathing suit and a wig, and I took the rope and — aaaaaah! —jumped into the water, and that was the scene. One of the chapters in a serial. I never saw it, but I did it. I did a few Westerns, also, when my father was doing cowboy movies. Not because of the money, but because it was a lot of fun going through paper walls, faking fights, and dressing like a cowboy. I’ve always been an athletic person.
Money for Nothing
ARAGONÉS: A lot of people do things for money. They equate money with what you do — like a great cartoonist is the one who makes most money. Well, it doesn’t work like that. You go into something because you like it. A lot of kids come to me, they want to be cartoonists, and the first thing they ask me is, “How much money can I make with this?” Well, you know he’s not going to be a cartoonist. Because you have to spend many years not making any money. Actors, too. The people who make it do so because they don’t care for the money. They care for the career. For the craft of it. And they keep at it and keep at it until they have done so much that they become very good. All the very good actors have spent all their lives working in theater, learning, working — and suddenly they’re very famous and making millions. Good for them. They deserve it. They have done what has to be done. They have learned by doing it.
Cartoonists, too. You want to make money immediately, you’re out of luck. You have to work years and years and years. And a lot of people don’t want to wait those years. They say, “I’m going to make my own comic book. Right now.” I say, “But, you’re not good enough.” “I don’t care! I’m going to make it anyway.” And they go and they print their black-and-white comic immediately. And they’re not ready for it. Of course, issue #1 sells very well because it’s number ones. They think it’s because of the comic. No, it’s because there are a lot of kids who buy number one because they think they’re going to sell it for more money. If an issue #2 comes, they put a lot of money in it because they think they made it with issue #1, and they die.
THOMPSON:And of course you have a couple of well-publicized flukes that raise everyone’s expectations.
ARAGONÉS: Yeah. There’s flukes in everything. In movies, in comics, in everything. And that’s terrific. Why not?
Around the World
THOMPSON:You mentioned that you’ve traveled a lot.
ARAGONÉS: Yes, I have. Not so much any more because of Groo, but before, when I was doing cartoons for MAD, those you can mail in from anyplace. So I have spent a lot of time in Europe and traveling all over the world. Africa. Antarctica. I’ve done a lot of expeditions. With MAD alone, we take a trip every year, paid by Bill Gaines.
THOMPSON:Are those still going on?
ARAGONÉS: Yes. This year, we’re going to Germany again, and Switzerland. We’ve gone all over the world. And I have a dear friend, Dick Young; he produces documentaries. When he was starting in the ’60s, I went with him to a lot of places, doing documentaries with him. I went with him to the Himalayas, to Bhutan, to Africa, and to Morocco. We went to South Africa and we went to Antarctica. A lot of places. It’s been very interesting; I was learning first hand a lot of things that is almost impossible for a lot of people to do. So in that I’ve been also very fortunate. And now that I’m doing Groo, I can apply all those travels. It’s like I know the feeling of the places. The deserts, Africa, the mountains. Everything. The Buddhist temples in Bhutan — I’ve been there. I’ve seen the monks. I know how the atmosphere is. Sometimes I wish 1 knew how to draw, so I could really draw the places exactly as they are. It has helped a lot.
THOMPSON:Are those MAD trips as wild as they say?
ARAGONÉS: Not any more. [Laughter] We’re becoming old, all of us. But we’ve done our share of drinking, making jokes, and playing tricks on each other. Embarrassing the town folk. But, yes, we have had very, very good times.
THOMPSON:What’s the most outrageous trick you’ve played on each other?
ARAGONÉS: Oh, very basic things. I remember one I did in Italy once. We were in Florence, and I was taking a picture of the whole group of MAD guys on the steps of a church. I was trying to include the church in the background of the picture, and as I was backing into a corner, I saw on the other street that they couldn’t see a group of people in a demonstration, with all kinds of signs and everything. I read Italian, so I saw that they were just shoemakers asking for a raise. I went over there and took one of the posters from one of the girls, hid behind it, kept walking, and when I was in front of them on the steps, I started shouting at them, “You filthy Americans! Go back home! Porco Americano! Arrrrr’.” And since the tourists couldn’t read the signs they didn’t know it was shoemakers demonstrating for higher salaries. They thought it was an anti-American demonstration. My friends knew me, so they were laughing their heads off, but I didn’t realize there were a couple of groups of tourists around who totally panicked when they saw this crazy “Italian” guy jumping at them waving his fist and shouting, and some of them started running all over the plaza. “Hey, wait a minute. It’s a joke!” [Laughter] There were Americans running all over Italy. We’ve done a lot of that type of stuff.
THOMPSON:Do you continue to follow the European comics scene?
ARAGONÉS: Oh, yeah. I get invited a lot to Europe to the comic book conventions.
THOMPSON:Are you published a lot in Europe?
ARAGONÉS: Well, Groo is published in German, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Spanish, and MAD is published in every language, and all my books are also published in all the languages. If I don’t get invited for Groo, I get invited for MAD. So I have made a lot of friends all through the world. When you’re a cartoonist — not so much a comic book artist, because that’s a career where people spend a lot of time sitting and drawing — but when you’re a cartoonist, you have a lot more freedom because usually you’re freelance, or you do one-panel cartoon, and you can travel a lot and get more exposure. And I found out that all the cartoonists, all over the world, know each other. You know about these guys because you’ve seen their cartoons, you’ve read their interviews in magazines, and you’re a fan. You could be a cartoonist and never read a cartoon, but the majority really like cartoons and really know the people who do cartoons.
I went to Brazil and called a cartoonist whose work I knew, Ziraldo. It was like meeting a lost brother, because he knew me. He knew about me from interviews. And I knew everything about him. We met, and it’s like you know the guy. You know that in school the teachers punished him because he wasn’t paying attention, you know what he likes, you know that as a kid he was an introvert — because we all come from the same mold. And suddenly you’re incredibly good friends, and you have met a family. It’s the same thing in any country.
It just happened to me again, from Malaysia. I was there and I saw this book about a cartoonist called Lat, where he talked about his experiences in life. And it was fantastic. So I bought all of his books, most in English, some in some Malayan. That was a few years ago. A few months ago, I got a letter from the United States Information Service that they had this cartoonist from Malaysia visiting, who would love to meet me. Of course, I was delighted that it turned out to be Lat. And when he came here, he was so surprised. I was waiting for him to autograph my books! He couldn’t believe it! He comes all the way from Malaysia and there’s fans here getting his autograph. He was going to get my autograph. And it was the same thing: we had the same tastes, the same things had happened. We became instant friends, instant brothers. And Malaysia — that’s as far away as you can get. So, yes, I do follow not only the European but the international comics scene.
In Praise of Craft and Care
THOMPSON:Whose work do you particularly admire?
ARAGONÉS: Well, I admire not a particular… Mœbius, of course. He’s a genius in many respects, he has such talent. But I respect very much any well-crafted comic. I like when there’s professionalism behind it. And in Europe you find it a lot. They spend a lot of time on their work. I can tell you, something I detest is — no matter how good the art is, because not everybody’s fortunate to be very good. I was not good. I can see a drawing from a month ago and be very embarrassed by it. “Jesus, I can’t believe I did that!” But there are other people who, no matter how bad they are, there’s effort, there’s care. No matter how loose the work is. There’s a very big difference between looseness and sloppiness. And this is what I can’t stand. They misunderstand looseness to mean sloppiness. I don’t care if a comic is black-and-white or color, if an artist is a sloppy artist, and he gives me as an excuse, “Well, I don’t get paid enough.” that’s even sadder. That a guy is putting down the work he gets paid for, like he’s a mechanic. If you’re an artist, you’re an artist. If you get bad pay, well, that’s bad luck. But your art, you never compromise because of money. I have a total disregard for that kind of thing.
You see people like François Walthery [creatorof Natacha], and Franquin[creatorof Gaston Lagaffe, Gomer Goof inEnglish], who put so much attention into their work. These people are dedicated to their work. The simpler style of Peyo[creator of The Smurfs] — wonderful. You don’t see a mistake there, in any form. So there are a lot of people in Europe that I really love. Not only humor, but the guy who draws the… What’s the name of the character, the little kid from the orphanage in Spain…?
THOMPSON:“Paracuellos” [written and drawn by Carlos Gimenez]?
ARAGONÉS: He’s fantastic. I met him also, and he’s a terrific artist. He did that thing about the guy on the mountains. A great book. I admire a lot of the Europeans.
THOMPSON:What about among the Americans? Whose work do you really follow there?
ARAGONÉS: Well, the classic cartoonists — who I think become classic not because of age, but because they have spent a lot of time doing it. I love Kubert’s work. You know that guy has been working since he was a kid and has developed a style. [Sam] Glanzman — ah! It’s a loose style, but he tells an adventure so well. He specializes in war comics. I love his work. He’s so realistic and at the same time loose. I think he’s a terrific artist. Spiegle, I love his work. Did you see the Blackhawk that he did? The one that Mark Evanier wrote?
ARAGONÉS: There’s so much research in that work. You can see it in the backgrounds. When the Tour Eiffel is there, it’s the Tour Eiffel. It’s not just a few shadows to pretend you are over there. There’s a lot of work involved. And the new kids, I like the new styles. They are very interesting. Sometimes I have mixed feelings about it, trying to use the comic medium for all types of experiments in art — it’s fine, but sometimes it get away from what the comic book medium is. Maybe I’m too old-fashioned about it, but it’s like animation with humor vs. very modern animation. Not all the cartoons should be big foxes with big eyes, you know, and it’s the same thing with comics. It’s hard for me to understand some of the new ones, but I do respect the talent. Sometimes I don’t understand them. It’s all right, it’s my English. I can always blame it on my English.
Why Super Heroes
ARAGONÉS: I sometimes believe that old characters should be left alone or killed because just to maintain them because of…
THOMPSON:I guess you’re not very sympathetic to the idea of having characters being taken over by successive generations and…
ARAGONÉS: No. A character like Superman I think has been done to death. And just to keep the comic and the movies alive, he has been made into such an unreal character in many respects. Being a super-hero, he can do whatever he wants. He can even make himself young again, just by going back in time and space. And Batman — trying to make him a super-hero takes away from the human who’s defending the poor.
C.C. Beck has a lot of very good points — that when comics were drawn in a little more fantastic way, when super-heroes were perfect, you could play with them a lot more. Take Superman: when he was drawn the old way, you know, very squat, he would take a building, pick it up by the corner, and lift it — and you believed it. It was logical. There was nothing wrong. Now, along comes a good artist and puts every muscle on a super-hero — he’s a good artist, he draws perfectly well, but he’s so realistic that when Superman picks up a building, you know that the corner’s going to come off and crumble into his hands. So now you can’t do it any more because visually, it doesn’t work. Batman, when he was drawn the way Kane did it, he was squat and he was cartoony. He would jump from a gigantic clock and with one punch knock out five people — and you believed it. But when the Batman is drawn realistically, suddenly, every time he throws a punch, he can only hit one person. So now you have totally eliminated that aspect. And you’ve got other types of problems because my God, who would believe a gigantic clock? Or a gigantic umbrella that opens and flies away with five people? When there’s fantasy in the drawing, it can be done. The Spirit will throw a little uppercut and knock a guy 10 feet away. If The Spirit was drawn realistically, in a less humorous way, it could never have been as popular as it was. So all this affects very much how you treat the comic. If you take a character through so many years, so many facets, you change him so much. I don’t know. When Groo ceases to be logical, I will stop. The first time that I want to send him to the future, that means I’ve run out of ideas [laughter}, and that'll be the end of it. Prince Valiant in the future? Comics characters fit in a place, and once you run out of that particular place, then a character has ceased to exist.
THOMPSON:When you look at something as absurd as the new version of Captain Marvel that DC did — what is the point of drawing it "realistically"?
ARAGONÉS: Yeah, what's the point? Well, for business. They have to maintain the merchandise. It's like Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse has become just a representative of the business. When it was an adventure strip, it was terrific. Mickey would go with Goofy and his other friends hunting ghosts, starring in Westerns. There was a lot of action.
THOMPSON: Mickey Mouse was a great adventure series in its early days.
ARAGONÉS: Yes! And look what it's become. It's become Blondie and Dagwood. Donald Duck, too. Sure, you have to maintain it because you have to maintain this corporate image, this little mouse who created this incredible empire. But as a character from a strip, he ceased to function a long time ago, except as a master of ceremonies.
State of the Art
THOMPSON:Do you think comics are getting better or worse?
ARAGONÉS: Well, in general, they're getting worse. A lot of them are getting better individually. But there's so many of them now that the quantity has diminished the quality. It's the same with the black-and-white thing. It started because a few people were so mad at what the color people were doing and they had something to say, like the undergrounds. They did their own comics. They didn't have money, so it was black-and-white and small, limited editions. But along came all the people who were not good enough to be accepted by the big companies. They were not good enough to be accepted by the small companies, of which there are plenty, either. So they printed their own. That's a comic; there it is. The cover's in color — sometimes done by an artist friend or by a professional artist — and it looks exquisite. And a lot of people buy it. The comic book shop buys it because of the promotion and the beautiful cover that they run in the ad, and when they get it, there it is. It's a very bad comic. I understand not so well drawn, but they are sloppy. They are quickly done. They are badly done. And that infuriates me. Some are very good, and some should be printed in color, but those are the ones that sell very well — everybody knows who they are — and they buy them and they will be there for a long time. And they deserve even better recognition.
But again we come back to the system of buying and selling comics which doesn't allow quality to survive because we don't know... Readers are not buying the comics. Collectors and people who deal in the business are buying the comics. A lot of people buy to collect and they usually know which ones are selling better and so the statistics are very false. You get a very false sense of what's happening. It's a very inbred, self-contained readership. The same people are reading the same comics. We are not bringing in new people. So, yeah, the quality is diminishing because so many independent comics have come out, because these people are doing their own comics now. Personally, I think they're getting worse, generally.
THOMPSON:Entropy is the way of the universe.
ARAGONÉS: Well, as the quality of life diminishes, education diminishes. The less educated you are, the less you know what is good. It's like McDonald's. If when you were a kid you ate at McDonald's, and you never ate better, you think McDonald's is terrific. So — I like McDonald's [laughter], but as an extra, you know. But when that’s the only thing you consider good, and you never had a chance to taste the best, then this is your perspective. Everything keeps diminishing. Same thing with comics. You have to maintain a certain perspective of what’s good and what’s bad, and when bad becomes the accepted norm, like in animation — a whole generation has grown up with very poor animation.
Another thing that’s happening is, the classic cartoonists started creating comics without reading comics. Because there were no comics. They were reading classics and books and coming from art schools, and they were drawing comics. But the new generation — the artists and the writers come from reading comics. So they have never read the classics, they have never studied under the classic illustrators, and they don’t know what good illustrations are. They are copying the people who copied the classics. So, as the new generation comes up, their idols are less qualified as artists. When they ask me for tips about cartooning… I look at them and they want to draw serious stuff, and I tell them to study anatomy, and they think I’m crazy. They want to draw these weird super-heroes that they’ve been admiring, but they don’t know that they are getting worse and worse and worse.
THOMPSON:That’s like a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox.
ARAGONÉS: Yes. It takes time, and they don’t want to spend the time learning. There’s a period of learning. It’s like wanting to be a surgeon and going, “I want to be a surgeon! Here! Let me operate on you!” Well, you need at least six years of medicine and then… It’s the same thing with cartooning. You need to study cartooning on your own. Not that you have to go to cartoonists school, but you have to sit there for hours. “But I have to make a living.” Fine! After you make a living, you sit there. That’s the way everybody I know who’s successful did it — not economically successful, but proud successful of their work. Because there’s a lot of comics that have become economically very successful but that doesn’t mean they’re also good. It’s two different things.
THOMPSON:As for deteriorating standards, the analogy that I always think of is that when you look at a Jack Kirby leg, he’d draw a squiggle. That’s because he knew what a leg looked like and a squiggle was his interpretation of a leg. And now you have 10 billion people who draw a Jack Kirby squiggle without having any idea what it’s supposed to be, and once it starts getting a little distorted it doesn’t mean anything at all.
ARAGONÉS: Well, it happened in the Dark Ages. The fine artists were all copying the sculptures done by masters, and as they keep copying the masters, the work increased, they needed more books, they needed more art, and so for a while we had very bad art — until the Renaissance came along. So it’s a normal process. Until the new artists start saying, “Wait a minute. I went to art school and I learned to draw.” This may also have to do with the facility that you have to publish your work in America. In Europe, if you are not good, you don’t publish. They’re very small countries, with very small circulations, and if you’re no good, you don’t publish. No way you can publish! So you have to be excellent before they even buy your work. You have to be almost a master before you get published, or even considered to be published. And that, as an assistant or doing backgrounds. But we have like 50 “countries” in these United States, size-wise and production-wise. Even if you’re very bad, there is such a need for product that as soon as you can make two squiggles, you go to a comic book convention and now you’re a professional.
Super-Heroes, Defeatism, and Pride
THOMPSON:And, of course, comic book companies at this point have a problem where anyone who is any good has by now found other venues than super-hero comics. They can go to other companies or create their own characters, so the standards on mainstream super-hero comics are declining even more precipitously.
ARAGONÉS: It seems like everybody’s fed up with super-heroes, but they’re still there. Is it because the collectors are buying them? I don’t know.
THOMPSON:Most of the people who write and draw them are really tired of them, but they claim they can’t afford not to do them.
ARAGONÉS: Also, it’s a direct result of the fact that television is a very major, important factor in this country. In the United States, television has how many channels? Hundreds of them. You can see detectives on every channel. There’s no point in having a detective comic book because it’s there, on TV. They walk, they shoot. People fall, blood splatters all over. But you can’t have superheroes on television because it costs a lot of money. I’m not talking Saturday morning. I’m talking about regular shows. So super-hero comics can still be an enormous field because it would be enormously expensive to do them on TV. In humor, you have so many situation comedies. And that’s probably why a lot of the comic strips have died, because you have all the situation comedy you need on television. But if you can do something in a comic book that television can’t do, you have a success… And then it becomes a Saturday morning show and there it goes! [Laughter] I don’t know. I think one of the reasons why there are no super-heroes in Europe is because there are so many other genres, and that’s because they don’t have television. You could talk for hours about why the super-heroes are…
THOMPSON:Well, super-heroes are so intrinsically American. European culture doesn’t really encourage the idea that you can solve a lot of things with your fists.
ARAGONÉS: Not just with your fists — that’s adventure. But super-heroes are based on the idea that divine intervention — a very strange intervention — is going to solve your problems. And it permeates the movies also. I’ve seen a lot of movies that people accept as good movies that are very negative. Like the one where the old people go to another planet. What was that thing called?
ARAGONÉS:Cocoon. Everybody thought, “Oh, what a great movie.” I said, “What is this? The solution is that to find eternal life you have to wait for Martians to come in?” It’s the super-hero syndrome, exactly. The one that just came out — Batteries Not Included — that every problem has to be solved by extraterrestrials. It’s out of your power to solve. It’s defeatism — you can do nothing about it. It’s like “I surrender.” The only way I can solve my problems is with a super-hero, or an astronaut, or somebody from outer space, or God helping me. And this is like throwing your gloves on the floor. When you have to fight, then you think you have a solution; but when you don’t want to fight any more, that’s when you go to total despair and then you go look for some super-heroes to solve your problems. Which is very bad. I don’t think those movies give any good messages. That the only love you find is with mermaids or with things from outer space. No! No! No! Reality is what can save you. And the more you see superior beings helping you, the less hope you are going to have to get yourself out of it. And the more you see economic success as the goal, the worse you’re going to get, because you’ll never get any satisfaction. Then, everything you do is crap to get money, because you think that is the goal. And the goal is not the money; the money is a direct result of it. The better you become at something, the higher you’ll get paid. So the only thing that works is: work very hard at what you do, do it well, and suddenly you’ll get remunerated. But wait until you’re good instead of just making the money out of something wrong.
THOMPSON:It’s sort of the Protestant work ethic stood on its head. It’s not the work that’s good, it’s the money you get from the work and that’s the measure of the worth.
ARAGONÉS: Yeah, but that’s not a real measure. Because if you want to make money, study money. Become a banker. Invest money. There’s nothing wrong with money. But I find more satisfaction when you’re doing something with your hands and it comes out right. What they pay you for it, it’s just a check to pay your rent. But what you do is there forever. And you’re going to look at it and look at it and say… “Eww! I could have done it better.” [Laughter] But I think pride in what you do is very important.