Smash Pages Q&A: Roger Langridge on ‘The Iron Duchess’

The cartoonist discusses his latest book from Fantagraphics, as well as ‘Zoot!’, the status of ‘Criminy’ and more.

Roger Langridge has had a long career in comics, crafting a unique body of work that ranges from Fred the Clown to Abigail and the Snowman, The Fez to The Baker Street Peculiars, Art d’Ecco to Snarked. Langridge however is likely best known for a lot of the licensed projects he’s worked on which include Jim Henson’s The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow, The Muppet Show, and Popeye. It’s a shame, and not just because people who love The Muppet Show could pick up Fred the Clown and some of his other work and find that same love of wacky characters, vaudeville, silent comedy, music and hijinx.

Fred the Clown: The Iron Duchess shows Langridge’s love for old silent films, in particular those of the late great Buster Keaton. Langridge likes to use Fred as a character the way old silent comedians played the same “character” in one film after another. The book manages to combine a mad scientist, a wealthy man and his daughter, the making of a film, a horse, a pig, a train chase, and much more. It manages to be a madcap adventure, but also a beautifully structured story with multiple threads moving along and leading to some strange and hilarious surprises by the end. The Iron Duchess is out now from Fantagraphics Books, and Langridge has also released Zoot! #1, a new one-man anthology that is a available from his website.

So what is Fred the Clown: The Iron Duchess?

The Iron Duchess is a 100-page comic featuring my character Fred the Clown, about whom I’ve been writing stories for about 20 years, off and on. What it really is, I suppose, is my attempt to write my own Buster Keaton movie, with Fred as a Keaton surrogate. I’ve been a huge Buster Keaton fan since I was in my teens, so this book is sort of a love letter to his work, taking elements from his films and weaving my own story out of them.

Now this was originally posted online. Is that the entire story that’s in this book or is there more?

All of the pages that were online are in the book. The book is actually slightly expanded from the online version, as I’ve added ten pages near the beginning. So this print version is really the definitive one.

For people who don’t know, who is Fred the Clown?

I guess he’s my catch-all, blank slate, everyman character. When I first came up with him in the 1990s, I intended for him to be an actual circus clown and a total idiot, but he evolved over time, especially once I began writing a weekly online Fred strip in 1999. Before long, his stupidity became more of an unworldliness or naiveté, and the circus clown idea gave way to a more generalised (dare I say “Keatonesque”?) silent movie clown persona. I found I could drop the new, less specific version of Fred into a variety of styles and genres, and that he’d kind of work in all of them. As a character, if he has a defining characteristic, it’s probably that he is his own worst enemy; things tend to end badly for Fred, usually because he’s failed to grasp a situation or to learn from an obvious mistake.

What is it about the character that you love? Because you do keep coming back to the character.

The five-year period when I did the weekly strip and self-published a regular Fred the Clown comic book was the first time I really felt I’d got the hang of this comics-making lark. Pretty much every opportunity that’s come my way since has been as a result of the work I did then, or connections I made during that period. So I tend to return to the character whenever I feel like I’m losing my way creatively: I find him a useful way to get back in touch with my creative priorities, and to remind myself of why I do what I do in the first place. I suppose I think of the Fred the Clown years as the last time I was confident that I was, more often than not, getting things basically right, and I kind of regard the character as a talisman of sorts.

Now for this new story you played with Fred’s design a little. The lips are gone, the one tooth isn’t emphasized as much. What was behind the redesign because you make the character a little more subtle.

Yes, I felt that the original design was slightly too grotesque to be a credible “everyman” in a long-form work. I wanted his features to be a little more neutral (again, that’s a nod to Buster Keaton, whose face in his films was nothing if not neutral). It’s far from the first time I’ve tweaked the original design; I tend to adapt it at least a little for every new story. I like to think of Fred the Clown as an actor who plays a variety of different parts, and adapts himself to each new role appropriately.

When you were thinking about the story, was the plan always that it would have no dialogue – or rather it has one line of dialogue. Was the plan always to be a wordless story?

Very much. Apart from the Buster Keaton aspect (this is basically a silent movie comedy in comic form, after all), I have always enjoyed making wordless comics. I think it may be what I’m best at. I love the idea that the silent movie form was the first time the human race had a truly universal language that could cross any cultural boundaries. The talkies threw that out the window, but the tradition has lived on in comics, and you can find examples of wordless comics throughout the medium’s history. And, again, it’s a way to make Fred’s character seem more universal; when he’s not talking, you can project onto him your own assumptions of what he might say, or his motivations, or what he might be thinking.

This is also a different kind of Fred the Clown story. The tone is a little different – and it has a happy ending.

Well, happy-ish (the Keaton short that inspired it has a similar ending, but it’s quite abrupt and shocking in that context). But I guess you’re right that the tone is a bit less antic. It’s partly due to the length of the book; my suspicion is that a too-heavy reliance on fast-paced slapstick would wear you down over a longer work (although there’s room for a bit of that). The panel count per page has something to do with the change of tone as well, I think. My earlier Fred stories tended to be denser, but with an average six panels per page here, there’s a bit more room for the story to breathe. Also, I felt that in the course of a longer story, Fred needed to grow or to learn something, to undergo some sort of change between the start and the end; so that’s definitely a new element for a Fred story.

So tell me about the pig.

There are a few Keaton films where Buster forms an alliance with an animal of some kind (Go West, in which he befriends a cow, being the most obvious example), so Fred’s relationship with the pig is my nod to that aspect of Keaton’s character. Also, a pigsty is where you might reasonably expect to find a low-status character like Fred, who I’ve always felt belonged on the bottom of society’s ladder. As I was writing it, it became clear to me that the pig represented everything that Fred was looking for elsewhere throughout the story – affection, companionship – and there it was, right under his nose. Is the grass greener over the fence? Well, the pigsty is situated between green fields and a rubbish tip, so it’s an open question, and I suppose that’s what the story is about at its most fundamental level.

You always seem to be working on your own projects and then working for various companies of licensed books – everything from Thor to Betty Boop to Doctor Who to The Muppets. How do you balance those things? Do you enjoy jumping from one project to another and doing a lot of very different things?

I find it difficult, to be honest, and if I had the option I would vastly prefer to focus exclusively on my own projects, but unfortunately I’ve never found a way to make a sufficient living off my own stuff in the long term. So I do some (not all) of the licensed work I’m offered in order to keep afloat financially, trying to pick the things that seem the most fun, or the most suited to my particular interests or abilities. It’s been sobering to realise that many of the people who say they love my work are really only interested in it if it’s associated with a licence they’re invested in, but that’s the reality of it. That said, I’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to earn a living working on things like Doctor WhoPopeye or The Muppet Show that I have a genuine interest in and affection for.

So what else are you working on right now, or want to start, or want to talk about?

I recently released a new self-published issue of Zoot!, a series I originally did for Fantagraphics in the 1990s before Fred the Clown was even a twinkle in my eye, which I’m selling through my website at www.hotelfred.com and at comic conventions. The new issue has some new Fred material, as well as a number of other short stories of various kinds. I’ve also written and drawn a short story for Archaia’s upcoming Labyrinth special, full of Bowie references (because why wouldn’t you?), and I’m currently doing some illustrations for a non-fiction work by Jeff Ryan about the relationship between Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks, called A Mouse Divided. After that I’ll begin drawing a graphic novel called Criminy, written by Ryan Ferrier, which is a sort of tribute to the cartoons of the Max Fleischer studios, with a dash of modern issues as subtext – that’ll be about six months’ work at the drawing board, to be released next September by Dark Horse Comics. At the end of that I hope to self-publish another issue of Zoot! for the 2018 convention circuit. That should keep me out of mischief for a while.

You mentioned that you were going to make another issue of Zoot! next year. Is this your one man anthology?

Yes, Zoot! is my one-man anthology. I’m hoping to do an issue every year going forward, really for my own satisfaction as much as anything; I turned 50 earlier this year, and I feel like I ought to be spending however many productive years I might have ahead of me doing as much of my own work as I possibly can. The first issue has the first chapter of a new Fred story, a western, called Arizona Daisy; there are a couple of autobiographical pieces, a couple of short stories about my absurd superhero/mystical bastard The Fez, and various other bits and bobs filling it out to 40 pages. Everything pretty much stands alone, even the Fred chapter; if there’s going to be a year between issues, cliffhangers aren’t really an option, so I tried to make everything a satisfying, self-contained reading experience.

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