Ojai museum fetes Mad magazine’s Sergio Aragonés

Cartoonist Sergio Aragonés poses with his self-portrait at the Ojai Valley Museum, whose "Mad About Sergio" exhibition runs through Oct. 4.
(Ellen Webber/Brooks Institute/Ojai Valley Museum)

So you’ve just dipped into one of Sergio Aragonés’ cartoons. Relax. Make yourself at home. The artist would like you to feel perfectly at ease in the miniature cosmos he has created, which, you may have observed, is as spatially balanced and packed with information as a Medieval prayer book.

Notice the careful detailing -- of the rustic Mexican village street, the rock concert, the battlefield, whatever. Aragonés, the 71-year-old master of Mad magazine cartoon marginalia, is obsessed with such accuracy and verisimilitude. No matter how outlandish the premise or bizarre the subject, he inspires his loyalists, some of whom have been following his work for 50 years, to believe in the well-ordered truthfulness of what they’re seeing, and sense the elegant, disciplined mind behind it.

“My cartoons are always in equilibrium,” says Aragonés, arching his bushy eyebrows over round-rimmed glasses and a formidable Zapata mustache. “They do what I want them to do. They’re very obedient.”


“The viewer feels comfortable,” continues the artist, a tall, solidly built, still-handsome man in shorts, sneakers and a sky-blue guayabera shirt, with a small graying ponytail that jiggles like a nervous question mark when he laughs. “It’s a natural, subliminal encounter with a little universe. And the people who look at my comics, they get hooked. And I think it’s because of the attention to detail.”

There’s a plethora of reasons why Aragonés is being honored over the next few weeks with what the Ojai Valley Museum is billing as the first exhibition about his life and work, “Mad About Sergio” (through Oct. 4).

He’s a distinguished artist who has carted off many awards, including the National Cartoonist Society’s Reuben Award and the Will Eisner Hall of Fame Award. Besides his “Marginal Thinking” cartoons for Mad, which have embroidered the fringes of the humor magazine’s comic panels for decades, he has acquired a worldwide audience for his comic book character Groo the Wanderer, a dim-witted but well-meaning warrior-ubermensch -- Don Quixote’s benign cluelessness matched with Conan the Barbarian’s brawny bloodlust -- created with his frequent collaborator, Mark Evanier. And he’s been tapped by Matt Groening to provide the entire contents as well as the cover art for the 50th issue of Bart Simpson Comics, due in October.

Aragonés and his family have lived in this artsy, upscale community for a quarter-century, after his wife was first drawn here to attend talks by the philosopher-spiritualist Jiddu Krishnamurti. A familiar figure downtown, where he often can be spotted drawing at a favorite coffee shop, he’s an entertaining, neighborly presence, a highly cultivated and engaging practical joker.

“He’s very charming and he’s very affable with people,” says Bobbie Boschan, vice president of the museum’s board of trustees, explaining why the museum is toasting Aragonés. With the exhibition, she said, “we thought we would add some humor to life in Ojai.”

The show offers glimpses of the artist’s creative process and hints at the odyssey that propelled the artist from his native Spain, which his parents fled as civil war refugees, to Mexico City, where he grew up playing on the back lots of the national film studio, to the giant sandbox for adults that was Mad in New York in the early 1960s.


Pages come to life

Fred Kidder, the museum’s art director, said that Aragonés helped design the exhibition to reflect the way he constructs a creative environment. Drawings and panels are used to illustrate how his art evolves from a preliminary idea or sketch into a full-fledged illustration. “We’re going to let him create it, like he would one of his comic books,” Kidder said. “When you walk in the door, you’ve got to be like, ‘Oh, I’ve walked right into Mad magazine.’ ”

Aragonés’ work reveals a restless, eclectic intellect, a fascination with subjects as wide-ranging as sports, the history of the Mexican Revolution and the humorously mannered behavior of people in love. He freeze-frames action and comic epiphanies in a single image, like a filmmaker. And he regards accuracy as an imperative; he considers historical anachronisms in cartooning to be practically sacrilegious.

His cinematic eye and talent for summoning entire miniature worlds with an ink pen dates from his youth. Some of his earliest flights of fancy took place in movie palaces, and even on the grounds of Mexico’s national dream factory. His father, an actor who helped form the national actors’ union, built his family a house near the Churubusco film studios. It was a golden age for Mexican movie production, and as a boy Aragonés would play on western film sets equipped with weapons and other props.

“It was a magic grow-up,” he says in accented, occasionally quirky English. “I had a great youth, and of course that gives a great imagination.”

The expert sense of comic timing and dramatic happenstance that’s a hallmark of his drawings has another source in Aragonés past. As a young man he saw Marcel Marceau, the French pantomime godfather, perform. “I wanted to apply the pantomime to my cartoons,” he recalls. “I realized that that man [Marceau] knew his body so well. He could pick a flower and you saw the flower.”


That encounter also inspired Aragonés to apprentice for a while with one of Marceau’s acolytes, Alejandro Jodorowsky, who helped develop the so-called Panic Movement, based on a radical performance style that combined surreal imagery with hyper-kinetic, shock-effect action.

Aragonés began drawing cartoons for Mexican humor magazines and hanging out with prominent Modern artists and members of the bohemian intelligentsia, all while ostensibly studying to become an architect. Feeling that his destiny lay outside Mexico, he moved to New York in 1962 and paid his rent by working at a Greenwich Village coffee house. He also began shopping around his cartoon portfolio, at first with little success. “They would look at my work and they would say, ‘These cartoons are crazy, you should go to Mad!’ ”

To the young Mexican beatnik, Mad represented a pinnacle of the cartoon industry, stocked with some of the business’ top talent, such as Jack Davis(cartoonist) and Fold-In inventor Al Jaffee. “Suddenly, I am amidst them,” says Aragonés, his voice still awash in amazement. “I didn’t have time to think about it. I was in glory.”

His colleagues were as generous as they were skilled, helping him with his English and tutoring him in the more arcane aspects of U.S. pop culture (high school proms, lesser-known comedians). “Mad is not just a magazine,” Aragonés says. “It is a family.” (Another of Mad’s signature artists, Basil Wolverton, is being given an exhibition this summer at Barbara Gladstone Gallery in New York.) As devoted as he is to the discipline of hard work, Aragonés is equally committed to the ideal of a well-lived, wide-ranging life. A world traveler (“from Bhutan to Antarctica”), he has spent countless hours engaged in woodworking, ceramics and other folk art, examples of which will be displayed in the exhibition. He likes to carve replicas of traditional Mexican saints and whimsical versions of African fertility goddesses. After learning to knit, he made his wife a scarf and a shawl.

Fateful encounter

On a few occasions he has played bit parts in film and television, including a role as an armed policeman in the 1985 mystery thriller “To Kill a Stranger,” opposite Dean Stockwell and Donald Pleasence. That led to a surreal encounter between Aragonés and Marty Feldman, the bug-eyed British comic actor, who happened to be shooting “Yellowbeard” on an adjacent set.


Aragonés was a fan of Feldman’s and greeted the actor with enthusiasm. But Feldman only perceived a large man in a police uniform striding toward him, gesticulating and speaking loudly. “Scared the hell out of him,” Aragonés says.

A few hours later, Feldman died of a heart attack, likely induced by some combination of Mexico City’s high altitude, Feldman’s heavy smoking habit and possible food poisoning. But Aragonés feared he might’ve partially frightened the actor to death, and later dramatized the episode of how “I Killed Marty Feldman” in a DC Comics book.

Lingering over coffee at a sidewalk cafe near his home, Aragonés recounts the story with a rueful laugh. A shadow momentarily skitters across his mirthful features.

But soon he is re-engaged with the business of present life. He expresses a touch of uncertainty for the future of the medium he has devoted his life to. Although he believes that “the content of comics has never been better,” the medium is changing rapidly, and not necessarily for the better.

“Newspaper is no longer the mainstream because it doesn’t pay very well, and when it doesn’t pay very well, young talent doesn’t want to go there,” he says. “So talented young artists don’t want to go there. And they leave the field to very mediocre talent.”

As for comic books, Aragonés thinks they “abandoned kids to cater for the adult readership,” thereby losing “a very important part of the readership.” “Our craft hasn’t been killed by the lack of quality, it’s been killed by the kids discovering something better, which is texting to their friends.”


But Aragonés own routines are undisturbed. He still works until 6 in the evening. He carries a small looseleaf notebook with him to jot down ideas or make doodles and stream-of-consciousness scribbles, which he also stuffs into his shirt pocket. He doesn’t blog or Twitter, professing that he doesn’t have the time and is “still very ignorant about the computer.” And he still draws everything by hand. “I’ve been doing it so long,” he says, “it would be impossible to change.”