A splash page from MAD Magazine #134 perfectly represents the genius of the magazine’s longtime contributor Sergio Aragonés. Taken from the chapter that celebrates his work in the ‘70s, it’s a two-page spread of “The Wondrous Woodstock Music Fair”. Tiny acidheads cavort in bushes, impromptu love-ins take place while hippy minstrels play their guitars in trees. Someone is inexplicably carrying a caged bird while a cop watches helplessly as peace signs are painted on his cruiser. These two large panels contain hundreds of perfectly rendered figures. I stopped counting the number of pantomime gags, jokes within jokes within jokes, at 70.
Aragonés’ began his career with MAD in 1963 with his MAD Looks at the Space Race . He used this template over and over to expose, or really to celebrate, the goofier aspects of our cultural obsessions. This volume takes us through five decades of Aragonés’ work, with hundreds of sight gags drawn in his sometimes baroquely detailed pen and ink style. In true Mad style, the collection even includes a poster of tiny panels of Aragonés finest, most hilarious, work.
The MAD Greatest Artist series has already celebrated the work of Dave Berg and Don Martin. The current volume is beautifully designed with page after page of the artists’ works. One of the treats of the collection is new drawings by Aragonés’ that illustrate each phase of his career, often including hilariously unflattering portrayals of himself in the best MAD style.
Aragonés transformed his inks into a free fire zone, tracking his targets across the cultural landscape. His abilities allowed him to snicker at the silly aspects of the everyday (MAD Looks at Dating) but also to crack wise about fairly extreme experiences (he successfully pulled off MAD looks at Prison Life).
His work, like MAD itself, could also be strikingly political, even delving into the politics of cultural change. An ‘80s send-up of the “We are the World” phenomenon took a pointed look at the politics of the baby-boomers and what had become of their ‘60s idealism in the Reagan era. Like his Woodstock splash pages, Aragoné’s included innumerable small jokes skewering that generation’s utter capitulation to the Reagan Revolution as they attend aerobic classes, go to their kids little league games, hold outdoor barbeques and buy cars and boats while a chorus of “We Were the World” celebrates selling out.
Aragonés work could also, again like the magazine he worked for, be surprisingly prescient. An ‘80s MAD looks at a Terrorist Training Camp made a few jokes about American policy in the middle east and the support for Afghan rebels, jokes that seem prophetic and rather darkly funny now. Even into the ‘90s, as Aragonés’ took a MAD look at Halloween and a MAD Look at Drinking, sexual harassment and gun control also got the comic treatment.
Although clearly a celebration of MAD Magazine as much as Aragoné, it’s still a shame that some of the artists other work is not on display in this volume. Most fans of sequential art think of the comic series Groo the Wanderer whenever they hear the name Sergio Aragoné.
Groo is the hugely popular humor series,one of the only humor comics that have proven popular in the modern era. Drawn by Aragonés and written by Mark Evanier, Groo parodies the muscled, barbarian heroes of sword and sorcery epics.
The series has remained remarkably fresh and vital for more than 40 years. This is due in part to the continued popularity of fantasy and how the pomposity of the genre makes it especially easy to satire. Aragonés’ style perfectly suits the ridiculousness of the warrior-hero who is all brawn and no brains, leaping into combat even when he is uncertain the reasons for the fight and becoming enraged whenever someone calls him a mendicant, even though he has no idea what the word means.
Aragonés certainly deserved this celebration of his work and MAD Magazine deserves some celebration as well. MAD will likely be seen as a key element in the forging of American snark, a cultural style that owes something to Abby Hoffman and something to Lenny Bruce. In the last decade or so, MAD has increasingly taken a straight razor to the ballooning grandiosity of Hollywood blockbusters and pop culture. This is unfortunate, given the magazine’s somewhat more politically subversive past, its bad kid in the back of the class laughter at everything from Richard Nixon to Reaganomics. Still, the Stewarts and Colberts of contemporary comedy have Aragonés and his fellow merry pranksters to thank for the comic energy that can shame the powerful.