Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ben's Indy Odyssey: Fred The Clown

My buddy Jordan recently recommended and lent to me a collection of Roger Langridge’s Fred The Clown, the material that from what I understand put Mr. Langridge on the map and led to such gigs as The Muppet Show and Thor: The Mighty Avenger. As more of a “civilian” than a lot of my other comic-reading buddies, Jordan certainly brings a different sensibility in terms of what he digs, so I was keen to read this just to try and get a handle on his tastes. However, that aside, I love Langridge’s work that I’ve seen in the mainstream, so I was even more curious to check out his signature series and see him really cut loose.

If like me you had heard of Roger Langridge peripherally prior to his more recent high profile stuff but are more familiar with his Muppet or Thor work, Fred The Clown is certainly a departure from that. This collection pulls together an unconnected series of strips and stories featuring a dim-witted and (mostly unintentional) clown in a series of misadventures that range from straight up slapstick to several somewhat bleak commentaries on a variety of subjects tinged with black humor. Again, if you know Langridge via his uplifting all-ages stuff—or just from meeting him, because he’s a heck of a kind gentleman—Fred The Clown may take you a bit by surprise with its often adult subject matter, fearlessness in embracing vulgarity and antithesis of the happy ending at most turns.

That’s not to say it’s not really good stuff, because it is.

To be honest, the very first story in the collection, “Dummies,” almost lost me. Despite knowing what I was in for, the darker elements definitely caught me off-guard, but Langridge infuses enough quirkiness in that even if the humor skews a little gallows for your personal taste, I think you’ll still find some appeal. What proved a challenge for me was that “Dummies” is a silent strip, most definitely not up my alley as while I can appreciate great art, I’ll always be a writing guy at my core and have trouble keeping focused on stories that don’t lead me with words. However, Langridge’s cartooning is so strong and adept that I still found enough to like not to bail out.

I’m glad I didn’t ditch after the first effort, because the enjoyment curve for me went sharply up. Langridge does a complete 180 with “Fred The Clown: An Illustrated History,” a text piece broken up by several short strips aping various classic cartooning styles over history and inserting the fictional evolution of Fred into the real life history of comic strips. It’s an absolutely brilliant piece of work that makes you wonder “is this real?” one sentence and the chuckle at the absurdity of it all the next. Langridge weaves a bizarre tapestry of Fred’s imagined creators and stewards, infusing sexual deviance, bizarre murder-suicide and illegitimate children into a piece that still packs in the humor and comments pretty incisively on the landmark movements in cartooning; it’s definitely Langridge at his best and showed a level of skill truly demonstrative of a great creator unfettered by restrictions.

“Illustrated History” sets the tone for the rest of the volume, as Langridge is wildly and boldly experimental, switching up formats by the page and proving up for anything; it’s a mix of hits and misses, but more of the first.

Stuff like “The Wretch,” a multi-page faux newspaper complete with articles, ads and miscellany, shows off the level of work Langridge is willing to put in. “Alphabent,” in which a Fred tale unfolds over a series of strips each hinging around a letter of the alphabet in the title, also demonstrates the creator’s ability to use clever formatting to improve upon an already-solid story. Also worth noting is something I already knew from Muppets but saw in spades here, and that’s Langridge’s proficient poetic ability and knack for creating sing-song rhymes that make you laugh with seemingly effortless skill.

There are some more “silent” bits and short stories that fell flat for me, but as I became ingratiated to Fred and what Langridge was doing in the stuff I did dig, I found myself discovering more redeeming qualities to just about every story and feeling genuine empathy for the poor clown in his professional and romantic misadventures.

Fred The Clown to me is a demonstration of the commendable imagination and impressive skill set of Roger Langridge, a man of capable of heartfelt drama, fun family fare, super hero work with a broad appeal and humor with a dark edge. I enjoyed seeing another side of his oeuvre and am anxious to see where else he can take me.

You can purchase Fred The Clown here.

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