Thursday, August 2, 2012

Mine's Bigger

MAD artist and Groo the Wanderer creator Sergio Aragonés 

It was apparent by the way he was struggling to rise and steady himself with a cane that he was in a great deal of discomfort. But as I rushed to his side to help with a concerned “Are you okay; what happened?” escaping my throat, he was quick to explain.

“Nothing serious. I had an operation on my back…” And then he gave me a mischievous grin and a sideways glance, his eyes atwinkle. “I was playing Spider-Man and swung into a building!”

That’s when I knew the world-famous cartoonist of Mad magazine fame was going to be all right. I was attending this year’s San Diego Comic-Con International in my occasional role as exhibitor for Fanfare/Ponent Mon, UK-based publisher of translated graphic novels. It was Wednesday, Preview Night, and I—having little interest spending the first night of the greatest show on earth (with apologies to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily) in line to drop a fortune on an exclusive Jar-Jar Binks cookie jar, Willie Lumpkin action figure (his ears wiggle!) or Steuben glass vial of Stephenie Meyer’s drool—forded the crowds to the Small Press area where Aragonés has set up shop for decades.

To my delighted surprise, the playful Spaniard was signing an “Artist’s Edition” of Groo the Wanderer. Introduced by publisher IDW in 2010, these tomes, measuring an impressive 12 x 17 inches, feature the art form’s most distinguished comics at their rawest, each page scanned directly from the penciled and inked pages and including all corrections, blue-pencil lines, paste-overs and such. They’re like having a complete book of original comic art. The inaugural volume, “Dave Steven’s The Rocketeer,” celebrated the late artist’s signature creation and won an Eisner Award. Later editions spotlighted John Romita’s Spider-Man, Walt Simonson’s Thor and Wally Wood’s EC work.

I was unaware of IDW’s new crop, but pleased to see the comic-book equivalent of a Blue Ray Director’s Cut was going strong and downright giddy to see my ole buddy Aragonés so honored. He is probably the most known unknown cartoonist on the planet, whose risible renderings have delighted generations. Anyone who’s ever picked up an issue of MAD magazine has seen the mustachioed maestro’s work.

My introduction to MAD came in the early 70s by way of a young man who worked for my father at his ice-cream stand. Not knowing what to do with the towering—to a wee lad of ten it was staggering—stack of the satirical serials messing up his room, he gave them to me (OMG!!!). As I vociferously pored over the volumes, I couldn’t help but be chagrined by their state. Even then, a ding on the corner of a book kept me up at nights. You’ll be happy to know I’ve learned to control my idiosyncratic penchant for publishing perfection and have been able to live a full, happy life despite the occasional smudge on a page or tear on a cover (eye begins to twitch uncontrollably).

Anyway, what I mistakenly tried to brush away as dirt in the gutters of the pages turned out to be wee witticisms; cartoons created by Aragonés. And they were hysterical, not simply endearing because they were minuscule, the way some things are, like Chihuahuas. I mean, seriously people, they look like the sodomitic result of Marty Feldman and a rat. And please don’t be sending “Chihuahua Council” after me. I love the dainty doggies; they’re cute (ahem).

Since 1963, Aragonés’s “marginals”—those teeny, tiny ticklers, abounding the edges and betwixt the borders of the parody-packed periodical—have graced every issue except one, due to the misplacing of that month’s submission by the postal service. The enjoyment of reading them is only matched by fun in searching for them; it’s like a treasure hunt. And if the dozen or so Lilliputian laughers per volume weren’t enough, the artist’s monthly segment, “A Mad Look at…,” which skewered the pop-culture trends of the day in single panel and sequential strips, always delighted.

From Sergio’s “A Mad look at Spider-Man”

Not long after my initiation into MAD’s fraternal order of frivolity, I discovered the first issue of PLOP! at a pharmacy, back when the establishments featured a soda fountain where one could purchase such delectable offerings as Lime Rickeys and root beer floats with real seltzer, not that bottled crap. I hadn’t yet been bitten by the superhero bug. My comic purchases to that point were of the funny animal, Harvey Comics—Hot Stuff, Spooky, Richie Rich—variety. My mania for MAD showed I had a penchant for parody, which extended to Alfred E. Newman’s bastard children Cracked, Sick and Crazy. So the explosion of my brain upon perusing PLOP! should not have been a surprise.

PLOP! was a DC Comic of “weird humor,” as stated in its marquis, but it was like nothing I had seen before. For one thing, the cover featured a single image, a grotesque mockery of humanity designed by the singular artist, Basil Wolverton. The aberration’s name, with short description, accompanied each. The debut spotlighted “‘Arms’ Armstrong” and read as follows: “‘Arms’ Armstrong has divulged to a PLOP reporter that he was forty years old before he realized that his arms were outgrowing his legs. ‘I’m proud to say that I have never had either broken pins or arch trouble,’ he added.”

Surrounding the cover grotesquerie was an ivory border of pure Aragonés mayhem, a “Where’s Waldo” of the Spaniard’s signature silliness. The artist’s work also served for the framing sequence of the cartoons and comics therein, a buffet of the bizarre, off-beat and chilling, by a variegated assemblage of the genre’s best. The final story of the inaugural issue, “The Gourmet,” written by Steve Skeates and drawn by Bernie Wrightson—wherein an obese, slobbering gourmand of the Mr. Creosote type gets comeuppance for his fondness for frogs’ legs—still gives me the creeps.

By the time PLOP! was canceled in 1976 after 24 issues, I was a true Aragonés adherent. So in 1981, when I espied his work in the back of Destroyer Duck #1 after a five-year fallow period of his genius in funny books, I was agog. Published by the late-but-still-sorely-missed Eclipse Comics, Destroyer Duck was a parody of Marvel’s Howard the Duck. It, too, was created by the late Steve Gerber as a means to help defray the litigation costs of suing the comics giant for ownership of the latter fowl. The four-page back-up feature by Aragonés introduced Groo the Wanderer, and I’ve been a fan of the character ever since.

Groo was Conan the Barbarian by way of Jerry Lewis, a stout-hearted misanthope, whose enthusiasm for joining a fray is only matched by his ineptitude and stupidity. The loveable brute is a walking disaster waiting to happen. At least, that is to what he quickly evolved—or perhaps devolved is more apropos. Initially, Groo was no less a heroic barbarian than his inspiration. It was the outcome of his attempts that proved his undoing. The aforementioned inaugural 4-page foray, for example, has Groo valiantly confront a monstrous giant in order to save a damsel. He succeeds in gutting the beast only to watch in horror as the dying behemoth crushes the fair maiden upon its collapse.

Aragonés created his bumbling barbarian in the 70s, but there were no avenues to publish the character and still retain the rights at the time, so Groo languished in the artist's files until the 80s and the advent of such creator-friendly comic book publishers as Pacific and First

The wayward Wanderer’s misfortunes seemed to haunt the title’s publishing schedule, as well. In 1982, Pacific Comics launched Groo as series, but after a mere eight issues, the company shuttered its doors. A one-shot special, collecting the completed work that had yet to see the light of day, was released by Eclipse in 1984. Luckily, Aragonés found a home for Groo a year later, signing a deal with Marvel’s Epic imprint, where the bumbling barbarian found his stride, cementing his anemic cerebral activity and obsession with cheese dip. The title ran for an impressive 120 issues before moving to Image Comics in 1994. Dark Horse picked up the baton in 1998 and has published Groo’s exploits on and off ever since.

I’d first met Aragonés in Edmonton, Canada, at the third comic book convention staged by husband-and-wife team, Darwin and Lola (see “Survival of the Fittest,” Parts I and II). Their previous two funny-book festivals, which respectively featured notable Spidey artist of yore and Spawn progenitor, Todd McFarlane, and equally renowned former X-Men artist and WildCATS creator, Jim Lee; and Marvel Universe über-architect Stan Lee and legendary Hulk and Not Brand Ecch! artist Marie Severin; were resounding successes, and this sequel promised to top even those stupifying shows with a slate that included pioneering S.H.I.E.L.D. delineator Jim Steranko and Aragonés, among others.
Your nattering narrator speaking with Marie Severin as I perch between Stan Lee and artist Paul Ryan

As my Faithful Bloglodytes may recall from my “Football Hero” post of the Paleolithic Era, my first published work as a writer appeared in 1990 in Marvel Age #96, a one-page article, which would serve as a predecessor for Heroes In My Closet. In it, I reminisce about my exploits as Spider-Man, including my 1988 appearance at the first Darwin and Lola extravaganza, where I met the aforementioned Todd McFarlane. In fact, the photo of Yours Truly and Monsieur McFarlane accompanying the piece was taken at that show. Aragonés provided the cover for the ’zine, which also featured a Groo article. So it seemed fitting that my initial encounter with the world-famous cartoonist occur at the crazy couple’s con two years later.

Long overdue big thanks to Faithful Bloglodyte Steven Gettis who sent me this pick of my signing at the Edmonton Convention (circa 1989) more than a year ago. 

In what had become a tradition at the Luxford’s funny-book fests—basically because there wasn’t anything else to do—the opening night of the show was devoted to a field trip to the Edmonton Mall, a massive Mecca of merchandise and merry-making. On my first jaunt to the Canadian Canaan of capitalism, I braved the facility’s indoor loop-de-loop rollercoaster, marveled at the water park, which included a man-made beach and wave machine, and scratched my head at the submarine ride that traverse the canal running through the concourse. Aragonés had heard of the mall and was most excited to see the “authentic Spanish Galleon” heralded in its marketing literature; not surprising for the native of Castellón, Spain.

 Please tell me that’s YOUR hand Lola!

I tagged along like Marley, nipping at the heels of one who’d brought immense joy to my life with his work. With the dark features and swarthy complexion traditional to his home-country, the hirsute Hispanic appeared as if he’d just stepped off the set of an Errol Flynn swashbuckling epic. Although I was taller by two inches, Aragonés’s six-foot frame and exuberant spirit overshadowed all, with a charismatic personality, warmth, and playfulness, which was far more huggable than imposing. I don’t believe I’ve met anyone who was more endearing.

I had no recollection of this nod to the Spanish Armada, but given the mall’s mind-boggling acreage and numerous wonders, an aircraft carrier could be easily overlooked. Aragonés had done his homework, which was impressive in an age a decade before the Internet, when the research tool of choice was the Encyclopedia Britannica and one had to pay a visit to a brick-and-mortar travel agency for such info. He walked with purpose, navigating the complex’s labyrinthine causeways as I strode beside him.

The artist’s obvious love of classic sailing vessels is no more exemplified in his character’s adventures. As certain as the sun arises in the East, any vessel Groo boards will sink. The Wanderer’s capsized whole fleets in complete ignorance of his doings until only after he’s gotten his own feet wet, and then he’s still scratching his head as to what happened. It is said you only hurt that which you love, and this adage is no truer than in the works of humorists.

“Mira esa fillette; yo comiendo pan aqua nada…” I uttered as a particularly attractive woman passed. By no means am I fluent in Spanish, as anyone with a passing knowledge of the language could attest from my bastardized spelling of the phrase above, which translated should read, “Look at the filets and here I am stuck with nothing but bread and water.” (I welcome corrections from any Spanish-savvy Bloglodytes in the audience) The saying was taught to me by a good friend, an émigré from Caraças, Venezuela, who was a fellow waiter at Tavern on the Green. He explained that it was a common lament in his country when a man espies a fetching female. The moment seemed right to test my usage of the maxim on an honest-to-goodness Spaniard.

“You speak Spanish,” Aragonés responded in surprise.


My facility in mastering the language would later be off-set, when Aragonés talked of his daughter who was starting a career in modeling. He pulled a picture from his wallet that would’ve made any Man of the Cloth rue his vows; a tall, curvaceous creature with sultry dark features held in abeyance by the signature Aragonés smile. As the cartoonist explained of his progeny’s plans to move to New York City in pursuit of her dream vocation, I casually remarked that she could crash at my place while she searched for a more permanent residence.

“I don’t think so,” Aragonés snorted with a smirk and a “what-do-you-think-I-was-born-yesterday?” type of look. The photo was quickly secreted back into his billfold.

Note to self: refrain from making lewd comments about women before discovering about a person’s knockout daughter. Yeah, like Aragonés would never have seen through my ruse otherwise!

The so-called “authentic Spanish Galleon” was about as authentic as “New-York-style bagels” outside of New York. And it didn’t take an expert to come to that conclusion. The fact that the boat was about the size of the S.S. Minnow was a clear giveaway. The ships in Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride were more credible. Aragonés was visibly and audibly annoyed. “This is what they say is an ‘authentic Spanish Galleon?’” he grumbled before about-facing in disappointment. The instant lasted about as long as a heartbeat. Aragonés is not one to dwell on the negative, instead embracing the positive, finding wonder and excitement in every new thing he confronts regardless of how small. I half-expected him to abruptly stop and blurt, “Look, squirrel!” at any minute.

About a year later, I bumped into Aragonés again at the 1991 Mid-Ohio Con (see “I Slept With Stan Lee, Part I”) The Roger Price-produced annual comics cavalcade—one of the best in the country—was celebrating its first year away from the Mansfield, Ohio, fairgrounds. I couldn’t be happier. The hangar in which the shows transpired had all the ambience of the DMV and its cement floors were easily felt through the nigh-existent leather foot pads of my Spider-Man suit, freezing this itsy bitsy Spidey’s tootsies and stiffening my agility, so I moved like a Ray Harryhausen stop-motion dinosaur.

The new venue was the ballroom and anterooms of a hotel in nearby Columbus. The space was blessedly carpeted. I was so happy. Upon making my entrance I almost hit the floor and began squirming on my back the way some dogs greet their masters. Along with the new environs, RAP Productions—Price’s media company, which ran the conventions—also redirected its charitable efforts. The proceeds from the event’s customary art auction would now benefit Ronald McDonald House.

 Once again, Spider-Man would aid in this noble endeavor, assisting auctioneer Price as the Carol Merrill to his Monty Hall, presenting each item as it came up for bids. I had no qualms about being the event’s mobile easel. It was fun, gave me a opportunity to see everything up close, and allowed me a way to share in the excitement without losing my shirt… or webs, as it were. At least, that was the theory. I wasn’t exempt from partaking in the bidding if I so chose—my money was as good as the next person’s!

The yearly bidding bonanza was always a highlight of the show and featured lots from all the guests, whether pages of original comic book art or custom items created especially for the affair. Internationally-renowned “duck” artist, Don Rosa, painted a jaw-dropping Scrooge McDuck, with Donald and nephews Huey, Dewey and Louie, playing in a treasure-filled room of the sort one could envision Aladdin discovering his legendary lamp. I would have attempted to win this tour de force myself had I not been saving my shekels for another prize, one that would encompass both the thrill of an extraordinary piece of artwork with the unforgettable memory of watching its creation.

Upon the far side of stage left/audience right was erected an easel, on which was placed a huge sheet of Foam-Cor, measuring approximately 41 x 31 inches. At the auction’s start, Aragonés climbed to the stage to much ballyhooing by the attendees. With his back to the audience, he planted himself on the chair set before the awesome art board and was presented with a half dozen black Sharpies. The minute the first lot went up for bid, Aragonés put marker to matte. There wasn’t a moment’s hesitation, a period of taking in the canvas; Aragonés proceeded as he always does, as if his stream of consciousness and hand were one. No pauses; just drawing. It’s a remarkable thing to watch, the illustrative equivalent of a ballet. I often find myself agonizing over the construction of a single sentence. Aragonés’s ideas and manifestation thereof are just shy of instant.

Five minutes later...

Even while carrying out my duties, I watched the uncanny cartoonist create magic. And given my position to the left of Aragonés, a right-hander, I had the best seat in the house. The audience was none the wiser. And it’s not as if the audience couldn’t see the whites of my eyes. That’s all they could see. It was the pupils behind the whites of the Spider-Man costume’s occipital region they couldn’t make out, and they remained askance, watching the MAD illustrator most of the time. Heck, I’d have been able to keep my peepers closed and no one would’ve noticed… until I fell off the stage, that is.

Aragonés doing what he does best

Aragonés began in the board’s center, and immediately I recognized the prominent proboscis and googly eyes of Groo. It was soon evident that the witless Wanderer was in the midst of a fray, his dual swords afrenzy. I cheated over to where Aragonés was working. “You may as well sign that to me when you’re done,” I whispered.

“You want it signed to ‘Spider-Man’?” he replied with a devilish grin.

The Don Rose pièce de résistance came up for bid and was stolen for a mere $210! I bit my lip under the mask at the low-ball figure and silently tsk-tsked the attendees for not recognizing Rosa’s talent. Damn! If I’d had the slightest idea how much Sergio’s piece would go for, I might have tried to capture the duck masterwork myself as well as the grandiose Groo.

Aragonés, meanwhile, had exhausted one Sharpie, and was quickly heading toward his third, which he’d made ample use of before abruptly standing. “What should I do with these?” he asked, holding out the remaining Sharpies.

A dumbfounded Price held out his hand, taking the writing instruments from Aragonés as he stepped off the stage and headed back to the main floor and his booth, where a line of fans awaited him. There weren’t more than a couple dozen lots total, and Price worried that wouldn’t allow enough time, even for the quick-drawing cartoonist. But with a fair number of items still awaiting the auction block, Aragonés had completed his masterpiece. And what an eye-opener it was: Groo slicing, dicing and making julienne fries of a mass of miscreants—although knowing the brain-dead barbarian, they very well may have been innocents—accompanied by faithful dog Rufferto, taking a chunk out of one victim’s leg, and witnessed by series regulars witches Arba and Dakarba.

Finally, the last lot standing was Sergio’s Groo, which seemed appropriate since the character was often the only one still on his feet by the end of his stories! As the bidding progressed it quickly became apparent that my biggest opponent for the lot would be comic book writer Roger Stern. Soon we were in a bidding war. I love Stern’s work. I believe him to be one of the best Spider-Man scribes ever. I was also fortunate to know Stern, the person, through my frequent appearances at Mid-Ohio Con at which he was a beloved perennial guest; a sweet, unassuming man, whose stellar work is only matched by his humility. I would rather my rival for the Aragonés have been a complete stranger, someone I could resent had I lost the battle.

The bidding flew past the hundred-dollar mark; two hundred, then three. I wondered whose bank account would falter first, mine or Stern’s, as the price crept toward four hundred. But suddenly Stern blinked, hesitating just long enough for the gavel to land, making me the highest bidder. Price thanked everyone and the auction was officially over. I’d been in the suit for more than two hours and long overdue for a break. But instead I carried my new acquisition to Aragonés’s booth.

“You got it!” he enthused.

“I told you it was mine,” I asserted, before asking for his autograph.

Vroom! and Aragonés, San Diego Comic Con 2011

Aragonés deferred adding anything more to the art, on which he’d already bestowed his John Hancock. Instead, he created a fresh piece for me: Grew and Rufferto skulking through the jungle, tracking something. Behind them stands Spider-Man about to tap the mindless misanthrope on the back (And as soon as I find the piece, I will post it—UGH!). Curiosity eventually got the better of the artist and he inquired about the winning bid. He seemed nonplussed. I couldn’t determine from his reaction whether he was satisfied with the result or not. For me, $400 was a hearty chunk of my savings, but an expense I’ve never regretted.

So as I watched Aragonés sign the IDW tome exalting Groo, I couldn’t help but think of my own oversized artwork of The Wanderer, which the cartoonist had assured me was the largest work he’d ever done. Sure, The Artist’s Edition was impressive… but mine’s bigger!

Getting this home was NOT easy!


Vik Gill said...

They practically gave away the Don Rosa piece at $210! It's a shame that people stateside are only recently starting to recognize his talent.

The Aragones auction piece is pret-ty darn detailed for something that was drawn so fast with Sharpie. You'd better post that other piece here the moment you find it!

Finally, it's fresh in my mind so I just have to ask: have you seen The Amazing Spider-Man, yet? I won't spoil it if you haven't, but I will say that there's a (well-judged?) Footloose homage in there. That's all I have to say about that.

John III said...

I so loved me some Groo back in the day!

Icecypher said...

It would be "mira esos filetes y yo aquí comiendo solo pan y agua". And no way any parent would fall for that, man.

I am loving your blog. It must have been so special to be these characters and meet all those people.

Except the bungee part from the other post. I suffered as I watched the video...

Thanks for letting us see this part of your life.

Vroom! said...

Thanks, César!

I knew my Faithful Bloglodytes would eventually come through!

Welcome to the fold and thanks for the kind comments!