New York and MAD
THOMPSON: How soon after that did you meet up with the MAD gang?
ARAGONES: Once I was in New York… well, I didn’t speak English then.
THOMPSON: What year was that?
ARAGONES: 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.
ARAGONES: 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.
ARAGONES: 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”?
ARAGONES: 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.
ARAGONES: 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?
ARAGONES: 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?
ARAGONES: 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…
ARAGONES: 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.
ARAGONES: 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?
ARAGONES: 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?
ARAGONES: 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.
ARAGONES: 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?
ARAGONES: Oh, yeah, sure.
THOMPSON: They control their characters to a much greater extent.
ARAGONES: 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’s heyday.
ARAGONES: Yes. And it was fantastic. I had a few of my cartoons published over there. And I also met the people from Hara-Kiri — Wotinski, 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!
ARAGONES: 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?
ARAGONES: 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?
ARAGONES: Which one?
THOMPSON: The one that Marvel and Denis Kitchen did with underground artists? It was called Comix Book. A magazine…
ARAGONES: 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…
ARAGONES: 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.
ARAGONES: 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.
ARAGONES: 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?
ARAGONES: 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…
THOMPSON: And The Little King…
ARAGONES: 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? I understand 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.
ARAGONES: 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…
Creator’s Rights, Pacific, and Groo