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David L. Ulin on Sergio Aragones

December 3, 2010 |  1:15 pm

Sergio Aragonés is a pure cartoonist -- one who works in pictures, not in words. Since 1963, he has also been among the most prolific contributors to MAD Magazine, for which he has drawn tens of thousands of strips, many of them one or two panel gags, under the umbrella title “A MAD Look At …” In the front matter to “MAD’s Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragonés, Five Decades of His Finest Works” (Running Press: 272 pp., $29.95), former editor Nick Meglin explains that although the artist’s first feature for the magazine, “A MAD Look at the U.S. Space Effort,” was bought as a “one-shot,” he “carved a niche for himself to create pantomime gags on any given subject.” That’s a good thing, or else my childhood (like many of yours, I suspect) would have been considerably poorer; I’ve been a fan of Aragonés’ skewed visual caricatures since I was 8 or 9.

“Five Decades of His Finest Works” begins with that first cartoon and traces Aragonés’ efforts up to the present, ending with “A MAD Look at Hard Times.” It’s a fascinating journey, both because of the constancy of his style and vision and what it suggests about how the world has changed. From the space race to hard times in 47 years: What better metaphor for the slow fade of American promise, the inexorable progression from the New Frontier to the end of the line? This is what MAD has long excelled at, that secret subversive vision, and with his pointed ability to pierce our illusions, Aragonés is a major reason why.

Aragonés is also a master of the visual gag. In “Pollution Alert,” a four-panel comic from the 1970s, workers investigate a pipe that’s leaking sludge into a stream; by the final frame, they have transformed the leak into a torrent: Job well done. In “A MAD Look at Sexual Harassment,” a flasher opens his coat to two young women, only to slink off in embarrassment as they laugh at him. Silly? Yes. Childish? Perhaps. But here we have the mission, for both Aragonés and MAD itself -- to make us think by highlighting the absurdity of everything, the iron fist in the velvet glove.

-- David L. Ulin

See a gallery of Sergion Aragonés cartoons.

Image: "The Vampire" by Sergio Aragonés. Credit: Sergio Aragones, from "MAD’s Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragonés, Five Decades of His Finest Works" by Running Press.