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    Thursday, November 30, 2023

    Mad magazine’s oldest active artist still spoofs what makes us human

    Sergio Aragonés had long read Mad magazine back in Mexico by the time he first landed in New York, toting fresh artwork and hope. He stepped through the humor outlet’s front doors 60 years ago, expecting to find the place as wild in spirit as the publication’s satirically hip pages. This was, after all, the home of the staff’s self-anointed “Usual Gang of Idiots.”

    Instead, the recent college student was introduced to a relatively staid Madison Avenue office. Where was the whimsy? The Mad-cap frivolity? This was no clubhouse of high jinks.

    “I thought it was going to be a lot of jokes on the walls,” Aragonés says by Zoom from his home in Ojai, Calif., where he celebrated his 85th birthday in September. After he was hired that day he walked in to sell his work, he suggested to publisher William Gaines, “Why don’t we paint one of the doors to make it look like an elevator, putting fake numbers at the top?” and befuddling visitors attempting to exit. Or perhaps better yet: “Why don’t we put a bomb in the roof with the sound effect ‘tick-tock-tick-tock’?”

    “Bill looked at me like: ‘Sergio, this is an office of working people.’ He wanted the office to be very functional.”

    What cartoonists cannot create in life, however, they are armed to imagine on the canvas. So for a new comic, Aragonés has drawn busy Mad office workers momentarily donning character masks — think “Spy vs. Spy” and grinning mascot Alfred E. Neuman — to entertain kid visitors taking phone photos.

    That strip is among a selection that Aragonés contributed to a special edition of Mad, published in October, that marks the magazine’s 70th anniversary. Although the outlet has predominantly reprinted past material since it ceased regular publication in 2019, most of this special edition is original content, including a Johnny Sampson back-page “fold-in,” a film parody of Robert Pattinson as “The Batman,” and a mini-essay by fan Jordan Peele, whose film “Nope” features a fictional Mad cover.

    The special edition also spotlights Aragonés’s status as the oldest artist currently drawing for Mad. (Al Jaffee, 101, retired in 2020.) He says he has been blessed with six fruitful decades at the iconic magazine, which reached millions of monthly readers at its 1970s peak and influenced writers at such shows as “The Daily Show” and “The Simpsons,” as well as Judd Apatow and “Weird Al” Yankovic.

    Aragonés’s high standard for consistent creativity is legendary. For decades, he only missed contributing to a single issue, and that was because the mail from Europe was slow in the 1960s. The cartoonist, who also produces the fantasy comic book series “Groo the Wanderer,” attributes his mental fertility to mixing things up creatively, from narrative stories to the wordless art for the Mad margins, his signature domain. “The variety of my field,” he says with gusto, “allows me to never get tired of it.”

    What you must understand about the beloved Aragonés, his colleagues say, is that beneath all his charisma is an ever-flowing fount of imagination. “I suspect if Sergio were to go and donate blood, ink would come out of him,” says John Ficarra, former Mad editor in chief. “He is incapable of not drawing.”

    Aragonés acknowledges that he does not suffer writer’s block because cartooning is second nature: “Drawing has become like walking.”

    And if there is a central dynamic connecting his art and his life, it is that of being a man of action. Figures flow in fluid motion through his deftly loose cartoons, fitting for a world traveler who has spent much of his life on the go, able to draw from wherever his next destination is.

    Aragonés was born in the Spanish province of Castellón, in Sant Mateu, but within six months, his mother fled the Spanish Civil War — Sergio in tow — while his father fought for the Republic. The family reunited a few years later, but by 1942 they were World War II refugees in Nazi-occupied France. They headed to the North American nation that would take them in: “I have a debt with Mexico I will never be able to repay.”

    By the 1950s in Mexico City, Aragonés was reading the fledgling Mad. He didn’t yet grasp many of the references and colloquialisms — English would become his third language — but he could appreciate the artistry. Still, working for Mad seemed a world away.

    In high school, Aragonés drew his own cartoons (a creative “form of escape,” he says), which a classmate submitted to a humor periodical unbeknown to him. They were purchased and published, sparking his self-belief. He briefly trained to be an engineer in college, then studied architecture with his father’s approval: “But I knew I wasn’t going to be an architect. I was going to be a cartoonist.”

    He studied famous gag cartoonists like Virgil Partch, but another vital step in his development was meeting a mime troupe in Mexico City. He soon studied mime with future French-Chilean filmmaker and cartoonist Alejandro Jodorowsky, not to become an actor, but to master the art of pantomime within his drawing. Once Aragonés left for New York in 1962, he didn’t know whether editors there would appreciate these wordless cartoons.

    “The humor that I do wasn’t popular in the United States because American humor is always based on words, the British inheritance of the punchline,” he says. Pantomime humor lacked such respect in the States. “Mimes are a joke — you make fun of a mime in the park — but in Europe and other countries, pantomime is a very serious art form.”

    Mad editors, though, valued Aragonés’s work immediately. They bought his cartoons featuring astronauts and asked for a piece on motorcycle cops. Aragonés decided then and there not to return to Mexico. He embraced entering the realm of such legends as Jaffee, Jack Davis, Dick DeBartolo, Antonio Prohías and Mort Drucker.

    “When Mad accepted me, that was a change of life, a change of mind, a change of everything. Somebody liked what I did,” Aragonés says. Yet despite this “radical mind change,” he appreciated: “I didn’t have to change at all. It was what I had been doing since I was a kid, drawing, drawing, drawing.”

    Aragonés also cherished the famous annual Mad trips, sometimes to far-flung places. He roomed with his heroes in Switzerland, went on safari with them in Africa, and while onboard near Bermuda, helped surprise Gaines by re-creating the publisher’s favorite Marx Brothers moment: the crowded cabin scene from “A Night at the Opera.”

    Aragonés’s favorite place for a Mad prank, though, was Mexico. As trip host, he ordered the “cheapest and ugliest wines” he could find, yet had waiters present them to Mad staffers as if it were a high-end tasting. By the third bottle, Gaines the connoisseur — laughing heartily — knew he’d been had.

    That trip also touched Aragonés’s heart, as his mother made paella for the globe-trotting Gang of Idiots. In that moment, he felt the career approval of his Mexican family and the deep bonhomie of the Mad crew, which he calls his “American family.” Mulling that memory, he smiles wildly beneath his signature broad mustache.

    “To this day,” he says, “it is one of my most precious moments ever.”

    Today, near a framed photo from that trip, Aragonés draws regularly, basking in each day at the table: “Your only fear is that with age, your hand or brain will fail. So far, I’m 85 and I’m still okay: The brain is still thinking and the hand is not trembling.”

    Aragonés cherishes that line by liquid line, as his ties to Mad remain vital. “The feeling is indescribable to have acceptance with your family and have acceptance with a medium you like and with the public. It keeps you alive.”

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