Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Actions Speak & Louder Than Words

If you look closely, the word you'll see most associated with summer is escape. We escape the heat, escape on vacations, escape from our regular grind, escape to mindless movies, and most importantly, we escape into summer reading. For as much as I resented reading during the school year I couldn't wait until summer to read whatever I wanted, never mind that I could read whatever I wanted any time of year via my local library. Summer was meant for escape.

In that light I'd like to propose a pair of books by Sergio Aragones that provide the satisfying escape from even the most escapist of summer books, two collections of wordless comics.

If Aragones name isn't familiar his comics might be: for over forty years his "marginals," the little doodles that serve as visual one-liners, have been tucked into the borders of MAD magazine while comic book aficionados might be familiar with the barbarian spoof Groo the Wanderer. But in Louder Than Words, and the follow-up Actions Speak, Aragones' drawings not only get the chance to stretch out into longer narratives, the increased space allows for a crazy volume of detail that serve as a sort of Where's Waldo in terms of hidden humor. The "joke" can be gleaned at a glance, but the devil, as they say, is in the details and he's a pretty clever devil!

Describing any Aragones comic is a little like explaining a joke because a great deal is lost in the telling. Describing a trio of ghosts who leave the country graveyard in the first panel, come to the big city and see it full of vice and greed in second, and flee back to their graves in the third panel fails to capture to scope of the humor because to do so would require so lengthy a description of the human condition captured that by the end of it the humor would be lost. The eye can grasp in an instant the scope and shock of the scene and just as instantly understand why the ghosts fled. This is typical of Aragones' application of the expression "a picture's worth a thousand words" and is only part of what makes his work brilliant.

Beneath the surface of these deceptively simple gags Aragones employs two very simple conceits that are at the heart of his humor: stereotypes and false conclusions. The humor is always at the expense of the characters he has drawn, but the twist comes from the fact that we as readers have either bought into the stereotype (only to have it busted) or by our assumptions about what will happen next (based on our collective expectations). A cop points out a good looking woman on the street and suggests she's a hooker (his word balloon is filled with an illustration, a device Aragones is an expert at using) only to discover that the woman is his buddy's wife. An art teacher praises his students abstractions to their face but derides their efforts behind their backs only to have his students take the top places in an art show. And he doesn't stick to the timeless images of the real world, riffs on old movies (Frankenstein, Tarzan) and period settings (Revolutionary Mexico, cavemen) come into the cross hairs as well. Nothing is sacred, except for Aragones love of humanity in all its foibles.

Which sounds pretty deep for escapist summer reading, but that the subversive joy of Aragones. He holds up his comic mirror and we all laugh in embarrassment together.

Actions Speak (2002)
Louder Than Words (1998)
by Sergio Aragones
Dark Horse Comics

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