Roger Langridge on development, e-books and protagonists not just like himself

By, and courtesy of, Robert Langridge.

An artist and writer of comics, Roger Langridge takes the unique sensibilities he honed on work like Fred the Clown to everything he does — from Thor to Jim Henson’s The Muppets.  He’s won a Harvey Award, and in what may be another career highlight, I was able to interview him for this blog.  My questions in bold.  Roger (much more boldly) is not. 

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I guess this question supposes that one talent came a bit more naturally, but as someone who’s notable for both illustrating and writing comics (sometimes separately, sometimes not), which sensibility’s development was most pivotal for you as a storyteller?

I always wanted to be a cartoonist, but to me, the drawing definitely came first. For the longest time, any writing I did was mainly just so I’d have something to draw. I used to work with my brother Andrew a lot when I was starting out, and I was very happy to leave the writing duties to him; but he lost interest after a few years, and I didn’t, so it was down to me after that out of necessity, really. That said, once I finally realised that being a writer was a part of the skill set I needed to sustain a career, I really put a great deal of work into becoming a better one. I don’t think of myself as a natural storyteller at all (and actually reject the idea that the best comics are all about story; look at Krazy Kat, widely regarded as one of the best comics of all time, and it’s the same story every week. Its genius is almost entirely in the infinite variety of ways that story is told).

For a long time I stuck to short pieces because I didn’t feel I had it in me to construct a compelling long-form work without losing my way. But I read a ton of books and did a lot of writing and I gradually acquired those story-construction skills, and these days I think the writing is the most exciting part of the process – to the point where I can see my development as an artist has kind of stalled while I’ve been concentrating on that end of things. I look forward to the happy day when the writing and drawing parts of my brain are both working at the same speed.

A witless clown a in hostile world . . . taking a high and mighty character to ground level and keeping the ‘mighty’ . . . being able to tug the heart-strings of Jim Henson’s Muppets. On the most practical level, what do you think has helped you to bring these to the world?

I suppose, like most writers, you use bits of your own personality and your own experiences in order to find a way in. The Muppets are fairly universal character types, so I think most people can see an element of themselves in most of the characters. Fred the Clown was kind of me filtering my early 20s and my rubbish love life with a decade’s hindsight and trying to turn it into silly gags. And quite a bit of Thor: The Mighty Avenger was autobiographical – I arrived in London from New Zealand (not Asgard; Middle Earth, perhaps) in the early 90s and ended up sleeping on the sofa of the woman whom I eventually married. Though I never hit a Frost Giant that I recall.

As a group, they have tended to garner a pro-punch-on-sight reaction, unless one has a certain level of character like you obviously did. To get back to your work, I’m guessing the proving grounds for a lot of the early developmental stuff you did were the comics that you put up on the web — stuff like Fred the Clown. How do you see the world for comics there now? What’s different that would have been a positive or negative for you?

I suspect I would be tempted to be less experimental if I were starting Fred the Clown now – I get the impression that the things that really work on the web are gag strips, and to a lesser extent serialised graphic novels. My “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” approach which I used for Fred the Clown was, I suppose, a good metaphor for webcomics as they existed then – nobody quite knew what would work, so cartoonists were trying anything and everything. Now, things have settled down a bit, which is good in some ways – people have a better idea now about how to make a web strip pay for itself, the work is more respected, it’s seen as a legitimate publishing model – but I suspect people are less willing to take a chance on new and unusual things now. I feel web comics are at the point now that newspaper comics were in the teens and twenties of the last century – we’ve had a generation of pioneers who found out what the possibilities were, and now there’s a new generation coming up who see it as a legitimate, established career path and are interested in sticking with it for the long haul.

You’ve tweeted a bit about your feelings on e-books. Want to elaborate on them?

I guess I’m still making up my mind. I recently bought a second-hand iPad and for the past couple of weeks I’ve been filling it up with e-books and digital comics and trying to come to some kind of understanding with it. My gut feeling is that certain things are likely to work on a digital device very, very well indeed – particularly if it’s something that has been conceived with a digital platform in mind, but even just work that is more about content than formal concerns; I can see something like Love and Rockets being pretty pleasurable to read on an iPad, whereas something like Jim Rugg’s Afrodisiac, where part of the gag is the way it evokes print formats of an earlier period, might suffer from being read digitally – that tactile element seems more crucial to the whole experience. In an ideal world, both platforms would continue and each would do what it does best; I don’t know if the practical concerns of, you know, saving the rain forests and so forth will allow that to be the case. Interesting times, though!

The Muppets and your newest project, Snarked!, both feature, in part, anthropomorphic characters. Could you talk a bit about Snarked!, and why you chose the approach you did with it?

If you mean the anthropomorphic characters, that’s pretty ingrained into Lewis Carroll’s world – part of the reason I wanted to play with that world, apart from being a lifelong fan of Lewis Carroll, was because I realised that there were a lot of things that the Muppet Show and Carroll had in common, and I was hoping to carry over a few of my Muppet readers to my new project. There are the anthropomorphic characters, of course, but there’s also the rhymes built into the narrative, the surreal sense of humour, the way they both work on a children’s level and an adult level. So I felt there was a natural progression from the Muppets to Snarked!, and that I could retain a lot of the same sensibility without having to contrive an excuse to do so – most of it was already there, built into the fabric of the thing. So there’s that; there’s also the long, honourable tradition of anthropomorphism in comics. Many of comics’ greatest practitioners – Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, George Herriman off the top of my head – have worked in the “funny animal” genre, so I feel I’m in pretty distinguished company.

In a way that doesn’t require a physical likeness for actual comparison, the broad human qualities given to a frog like Kermit or a walrus like Wilburforce can appeal to people with faces rarely seen in comics. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Do you mean the idea that a non-human character can be more easily relatable because it doesn’t fit into any specific human demographic? I’m not sure. It’s certainly a powerful argument, and I guess it shares some common ground with Scott McCloud’s ideas about iconic, simplified faces being more relatable. It’s an argument that feels right to me, for whatever that’s worth; but unfortunately I don’t have a shred of evidence to back it up.

You may vaguely remember a year or two back when ‘Middle Earth’ was being populated again with its various hobbits and so forth, there were complaints about the lack of diversity among the actors used. I’m not a huge fan of Tolkien’s work, but the obvious practicality of that issue was that everyone in the author’s books were based on people like him. In this day and age, where such cultural icons still continue to influence generations, how do you think the comic and fiction industries are doing in trying to create cultural icons that aren’t, historically, just like them? Have you thought much about it before?

No, not a whole lot. I’m a white middle-class male living in western Europe, so that’s always going to be my baseline, because that’s the life experience I have to draw on. So to a certain extent I’m a part of the problem, if it is a problem. I do hope my protagonists aren’t just like me, particularly in Snarked!; Scarlett, in particular, is a very conscious attempt to write a strong yet emotionally complex female character. Jane Foster in Thor, The Mighty Avenger was another attempt to do this, from a slightly different angle. Both of those characters were, to me at least, as important as the male leads in their respective books. So I guess we’re all chipping away at this issue in our own ways; how successful we might be at it is for others to judge, but it’s definitely worth the attempt.

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Check out more about Roger at http://hotelfred.blogspot.com, and Snarked! here: http://snarkisland.blogspot.com.  Big thanks to him for his time.

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