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Ojai Valley Museum fetes Mad magazine's Sergio Aragonés

The cartoonist and co-creator of Groo the Wanderer is honored by his adopted hometown with 'Mad About Sergio' exhibition.

August 09, 2009|Reed Johnson

OJAI — So you've just dipped into one of Sergio Aragones' 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. Aragones, 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 Aragones, 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 Aragones 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.

Aragones 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 Aragones. 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 Aragones 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.' "

Aragones' 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 Aragones 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."

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