Friday, April 15, 2011

PING! Roger Langridge PING!

Roger Langridge is the New Zealand born cartoonist behind independent cartoons such as Knuckles the Malevolent Nun and Fred the Clown. Most recently his work has been seen on the pages of BOOM! Studios acclaimed The Muppet Show comic and Marvel's acclaimed (and summarily canceled; what is this, the FOX network?) Thor: The Mighty Avenger. He was good enough to sit down with us for the maiden voyage of the PING! interview segment and he did not disappoint.

You are obviously inspired by a classic comic strip style of cartooning. Do you remember what first drew you to the comic strip as a method of storytelling?

I don't really know what started me off trying to actually make my own comics - but, looking back and trying to put the pieces together, I think it probably started with being exposed to classic Disney from before I could read (Carl Barks & Paul Murry stand out as early favourites, although of course I didn't know their names at the time) - my brother Andrew and I used to go on long car journeys with my mum & grandad, and the comics were usually lobbed at us at some point to get us to shut up. And then when I was six or seven, my class at school did comic strips as part of our art lesson, and something clicked at that point, I think. For everyone else in my class, that afternoon was the first and last time they were cartoonists, but for me it was the sound of a starting pistol. Never stopped drawing after that.

Which cartoonists were you obsessed with/inspired by when you were younger and whose style did you find yourself most trying to emulate when you first began pursuing art?

In approximate order of exposure: up to about age 10, it would have been Carl Barks and Paul Murry, then Robert Nixon, Leo Baxendale, Ken Reid (and the British weeklies crowd generally), plus a bit of Kurt Schaffenberger, Ramona Fradon and Joe Staton; from around 10 to 18 I was into Will Elder, Basil Wolverton, George Herriman, E.C. Segar, and to some extent the 2000AD boys (for me it was mainly Kev O'Neill and Ian Gibson); from around 18-25 - the point at which I was starting to get published - it was Crumb, Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware. I was hugely into Jamie Hewlett for a bit. I don't know if that really answers your question, as I don't think there as ever one artist I tried to draw like - I was always a complete magpie, taking a little bit from here and a little bit from there and mashing them all up. Usually badly.

Growing up in New Zealand, what was your exposure to comics? With a lack of a true comics industry in New Zealand, did the comics you read growing up come to you through self publishers and/or did you read a lot of comics imported from France and England?

There were always the Australian reprints of DC comics (Marvel not so much), the British weeklies, and every school library had Asterix and Tintin. I grew up in the 70s, so there were a lot of black-and-white reprints from DC's 100-page giants, which in turn reprinted work from their entire history, so I was hugely fortunate to be exposed to the work of Jack Cole, Dick Sprang, Jerry Robinson, C.C. Beck, Jack Burnley, Alex Toth, Frank Robbins, tons of other Golden and Silver Age artists. (In black and white, which I think was important - I could really see the lines.) And Kirby! Kirby from every era simultaneously, from his lush 1940s stuff to his 1970s golems, looking like three or four completely different artists. For me, it was a great time to be reading comics, even though I know now how troubled the industry was at the time.

As for reading self-publishers, that came much later; I would have been around 18 or 19 when I first saw New Zealand-made comics like Jesus on a Stick or Razor - although I was vaguely aware of Dylan Horrocks at the time because of his work in the student papers, and a fanzine called The New Zealand Comics Gazette which our local comic shop published once a year or so. I got into them as a way of figuring out how I could fit in to the scene, really - my curiosity was entirely self-interested at first. I was as surprised as anyone to find that I really, really liked a lot of it.

You moved to England in the early nineties in effect because it had a comics scene and your native country did not. When you were attempting to break into the industry, location had a larger effect simply because the connectivity of the internet hadn’t yet changed how we think about publishing. How important then was it that you be immersed in an environment where comics were being published and cartoonists were getting work?

I certainly felt it was important at the time - my attempts to get published long-distance had met with a certain degree of success (my brother Andrew and I had managed to get our mini-comic, Art d'Ecco, picked up by Fantagraphics by that point), but I wanted to be able to knock on doors, show my portfolio around, meet people at conventions and get some face-to-face feedback. Partly, I wanted to get out into the wider world because, in New Zealand, it's ridiculously easy to become prominent in any field if you have the tiniest smattering of talent, simply because the population, and therefore the talent pool, is so small - so I felt I had to leave in order to find out if I was really any good. Another part of it was the rite-of-passage element that many young New Zealanders go through, where they do a year or two of overseas experience - "The Big O.E." - before they have to settle down and take life seriously. I was killing two birds with one stone, in a way.

Given the rise of the internet and the ease with which it enables collaborators to communicate and publish cheaply, do you believe that an aspiring creator can still benefit from being in a publishing mecca like London or NY, or are those days largely over?

I still think that's important, even today. I try to attend at least one American comic convention every year to remind people that I'm still around. Once your foot is in the door I guess it's not quite so important to do that, but I think starting out, especially, you're more likely to get a job if you've met Joe McEditor at a show and come across as someone who might be good to work with, or at least as someone who made him smile. If it comes down to a choice between somebody he's never met and somebody he met and liked, he'll probably go for the guy he liked. So I definitely think that first year was important for me, even if I'd had the internet to sustain things after that. Which at that time I didn't, of course.

A lot of comics fans were only recently introduced to your work, given your involvement in more high profile projects like Thor: The Mighty Avenger and The Muppet Show. Could you give readers some insight into your first work as a cartoonist and your early relationship with your collaborator Cornelius Stone?

I started out publishing my own mini-comics in 1988 - Art Dekko, written by my brother Andrew (we changed the name later) - and contributing occasional strips and illustrations to Craccum, the Auckland University newspaper. That was the year I resolved that I would move to London to make cartooning a full-time thing, so I was looking for any venue in New Zealand that might publish my work in order to build up my resumé - and that's when I discovered Razor, and Cornelius Stone, its editor, publisher and chief writer. I started contributing the odd thing here and there to Razor, and soon Cornelius and I began collaborating on a few things. One of those things was a throwaway two-pager, an epilogue to a completely different "jam" story featuring Tisco George, a Dylan Horrocks character. We came up with this thing called "Knuckles the Malevolent Nun", and that led to a weekly strip in Craccum in 1989... and it sort of snowballed, really. I came to London in 1990 with a LOT of comics under my belt, mostly featuring Knuckles, which by that point had been the subject of a couple of print collections, a gallery exhibition and a stage play. Still to come were a radio show, more print collections, a couple of comics of new material from Fantagraphics and a single (of sorts!) on Auckland's student radio station, BFM. Fun times.

After moving to London in 1990, I began scrounging for paying work almost as soon as I hit the ground. I'd worked for a year for the Inland Revenue doing menial clerical stuff, just saving the money for the trip (and to live on for a few months), but I was keenly aware that the money wouldn't last long, so there was some urgency on my part to get some paying work coming in. I was lucky to arrive at a really productive and energetic time for the UK comic industry - there was a lot of paying comics work around, most of which would be gone in a couple of years, unsuspected by anyone at the time: 2000AD, Judge Dredd the Megazine, Revolver, Crisis, Deadline, Viz, several Viz imitators, A1, and Tundra UK just around the corner... heady days. I got some scraps from Deadline and a couple of pages in A1, and just bombarded everyone with submissions, proposals, requests for portfolio meetings for about six months, until (somehow!) I managed to get a regular spot in Judge Dredd the Megazine, doing a strip called The Straitjacket Fits with fellow New Zealander David Bishop. It was no great shakes in either story or art departments, but it was work, and it got my name seen by people (including whoever wrote my Wikipedia entry, which to this day insists it's my most notable work - grrr!). I continued doing (essentially non-paying) work for Fantagraphics throughout this period - three more issues of Art d'Ecco, a couple of Knuckles comics - so my published credits were building up pretty quickly.

Thinking I'd cracked it, I returned to New Zealand in 1991 with the intention of working long-distance - which very much didn't work out. So I once more set to saving the pennies and returned to London in 1993 on a more permanent basis. Been there ever since, and have done a lot of comics and a lot of illustration work while I've been here - my most well-known thing (pre-Muppets/Thor) probably being my web strip and self-published comic, Fred the Clown, which was collected by Fantagraphics and was up for a few awards - utterly failing to win a darn thing, mind. Along the way I freelanced for Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and various other outfits, got involved with Doctor Who Magazine, and kept doing mini-comics and personal projects all the while - because, funnily enough (and I've learned this the hard way) it's my personal, non-paying work which has sustained my career and led to every paying job I've ever had.

Throughout your work, there is a general theme of vaudeville vulgarity and classic comedy. Were you exposed to a lot of that as a kid or did your love of such entertainment start later in life?

I can see that influence coming from a few different places - I remember seeing silent comedians like Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd on TV as a pre-schooler, I loved strips like Thimble Theatre, and I got into the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields and Buster Keaton in my teens, all of whom had vaudevillean roots. Then there was The Muppet Show, which wallowed in that iconography and which I think is largely responsible for that side of my comics manifesting itself later on, even before the Muppet Show comics. Mainly, though, I think it's Spike Milligan and The Goon Show, which I think is the single biggest influence on me, creatively. Even though it was only on the radio, I count it as a huge visual influence, because I have spent most of my life trying to capture the feeling I got from those shows on paper. I first got into all things Milligan when I was about 8 years old, through the recording of his children's book Bad Jelly the Witch and some of his other books, like The Milligan Book of Records and A Book of Milliganimals. Then I heard the Goon Show episode, The Spectre of Tintagel, when I was about 11 or 12 and I was hooked for life. I saw Milligan's one-man show a year or so later when he visited New Zealand, and I literally ached from laughing for two days afterwards. For a time The Goon Show was being broadcast at 3am - I would set my alarm clock, put my hand-held tape recorder next to my transistor radio and record the shows, trying not to laugh (sometimes painfully) in case my laughter ruined the recording.

You’ve watched your career grow and change as the internet did the same. How has the internet affected how you approach your work?

I started putting my work regularly on the internet in 1999 - partly because I was going through a too-much-illustration, not-enough-comics period in my career. I had bought a computer in order to make producing colour illustrations easier, noticed people like Mark Martin using the web to share comics and build a presence online, and thought, "why not?" So I started doing Fred the Clown as a weekly strip, and I think it revitalised my comics career, to be honest. It gave me regular visibility, "rebranded" me (horrible term, but it's accurate) from being someone who drew other people's scripts to someone who did everything himself, kept me productive, made me very easy for prospective employers to find, cost me zilch... in short, I think it gave me a bit more control than I used to have. Even when it hasn't been possible for me to produce new content on a weekly basis for the web, I've tried to maintain some sort of regular web presence because I think it's a fantastically useful thing for any cartoonist to have; it's a bit like the modern equivalent having your own title where you could dump any idea you had, an essential part of the typical indie cartoonist's arsenal during the 90s.

How important do you believe it is that the comics industry aggressively and intelligently pursue digital distribution?

First, we should decide what we mean by "comcs industry" - I assume you mean the current major players and the current direct-market distribution system. To them, I think it should be very important if they want to survive. To me, I guess I can't help seeing the bigger picture. The comics industry is in terrible shape, largely because a lot of short-term thinking over a couple of decades has finally caught up with them, and it seems to me that any cartoonist worthy of any serious attention at this stage either has a digital presence already sorted out, or else has something other than the comic industry (e.g. book publishing) to see them through the eventual, inevitable demise of the comic industry as we currently know it. Good comics will survive the death of the industry because cartoonists are resourceful and creative and don't quit easily, and the really good ones are already lowering the liferaft into the sea, ready to jump. It probably won't be easy, and it might hit a few individuals pretty hard who don't really deserve to be hit, but the medium will survive the death of the industry, and might even be healthier for it.

Given your love of the classic comic strip, does it sadden you to see traditional print media struggling and are we seeing the final days of that medium?

I grew up in New Zealand, where the traditional comic strip has never really had much of a look-in, so to me it was always something of a romantic ideal rather than an actual presence in my life - my exposure to the traditional strip has been primarily through reprints of things that were already dust before my father was born. So it's hard to get sentimental about the end of something I was never that attached to in the first place. The strips I care about - the ones by old, dead guys - are more visible now through archival reprints than they have ever been. If anything, I think the way the web has embraced the daily strip format has revitalised the form to a thrilling degree.

Over the last few years of your career, you’ve gained more work at larger, more traditional comics publishers. How does that experience compare to working for companies such as Fantagraphics or publishing on your own?

I get paid! That's the plus side. There are negatives, of course - you have a lot less control; you're at the mercy of unsympathetic collaborators and business decisions which you can't challenge because your point of contact at, say, Marvel is never the one actually making the decisions; and in the case of the Muppet Show, you've got the owners of a worldwide franchise looking over your shoulder at every turn, which can lead to conflict on occasion. But the nice thing about having those more independent strings to our bow is that they're always there to go back to when the mighty corporate machine has chewed you up and spat you out. I've tried to think of the corporate properties I've worked on lately as a detour in my career, a temporary thing, rather than a wholesale change in direction. It's not where my heart lies.

Were you ever taken aback or did you otherwise feel constrained by the level of editorial control on mainstream superhero titles? I imagine that it must have been much different than having total control over what you were creating.

It was certainly different, but I wasn't really taken aback - I kind of knew there'd be hoops to jump through when I took the job. And, to be honest, the hoops were not that daunting, because I had the amazing good fortune to be working on a book that wasn't set in mainline Marvel Universe continuity, so I didn't have all that crap to navigate. I had a few boxes to tick which were dictated editorially whewn I started, and that's about the worst of it - and they were pretty helpful, if anything, because I like to have some constraints; it's easier than being given a blank slate and told to do whatever you like, because with no parameters to work within, you often don't know where to start. So, yeah - issue to issue, it was a pretty good experience.

Thor: The Mighty Avenger, which you did with the phenomenally talented Chris Samnee, was one of the most critically acclaimed books of the year last year. Were you shocked when you learned of its cancellation and how proud are you of the work you did on that title in particular?

I was certainly surprised, because one of the things I was told when I took the gig was that it was locked in for a minimum of twelve issues, with the possibility of becoming an ongoing. So I wrote an overarching plotline that covered twelve issues, and which only really makes complete sense with the last four as a part of the story. So, yeah, I was disappointed we didn't get to wrap up the story, but I'm very, very proud of the work we did - and it was great to work with Chris Samnee, who not only consistently made that book sing visually, but was an absolute joy to work with.

Let’s talk for a minute about Muppets. Your Muppets Show comic for BOOM! Studios is a personal favorite, as it truly captures the voice of the original show. Were you a big fan of Jim Henson productions growing up?

I thought I was - I mean, I watched The Muppet Show every week, I absorbed the thing into my cartooning DNA, I knew sketches off by heart - and then I started working on the comics and the really hardcore fans statrted to come out of the woodwork and I began to realise I'd only been paddling in the shallow end. But yes, of course I loved it. How could anyone not?

Which is your favorite Muppet?

I'm torn between Gonzo and Miss Piggy - Gonzo because he's so utterly unique (and unashamed to be so!) and because he seems to have deep, dark obsessions you only ever see the surface of; and Miss Piggy because she's such a mess of contradictions, apparently strong but actually very, very vulnerable. I think those tensions in their characters make them the most interesting.

BOOM! has impressed me a great deal since their launch, largely due to the fact that they’ve published smart, entertaining kids comics since day one. As a creator on their new kaboom! line, how impressed have you been by BOOM!’s willingness to pursue a younger audience?

I think it's totally admirable, long overdue in terms of the industry as a whole's attitude to younger readers, and a necessary antidote to the short-term thinking I referred to earlier. Delighted to be a part of any initiative to produce good comics for younger readers. Maybe they'll grow up to be older readers and support the current generation of cartoonists in the twilights of our careers, instead of giving comics up in disgust or, worse, never reading them in the first place. Stranger things have happened.

As a postscript to that question, do you feel the industry as a whole is doing enough to court a new, younger generation of readers?

As a whole, no. I really don't think Marvel and DC are helping things by having gritty, R-rated versions of their superheroes in their main comics - what they sell as the "real" versions - while simultaneously selling those exact same characters in kids' comics and plastering them all over lunchboxes and animated cartoons. Only a parent who actively follows the comics - which most don't - has a hope in hell of knowing which Batman comic is okay for their kids and which ones they shouldn't be allowed to touch with a ten-foot bargepole. Casual readership by kids, or by parents for their kids, is effectively impossible the way things are currently structured. And I think the waters are muddied too far now to claw that ground back. I think it's insane that DC have spent 70 years making Superman as big as Mickey Mouse, and branding him to be understood by parents as being pretty much as kid-friendly as Mickey Mouse, only to piss that brand away in a decade. Nothing wrong with doing mature content in comics - in fact, it should be encouraged as often as possible - but doing it with characters who are on your kids' lunchboxes is kind of moronic. Take a lesson from Watchmen and come up with new characters for that stuff. And then go back to Superman and Batman and put the same kind of love and effort and craft and intelligence you've been putting into all those rape scenes and body mutilations into something kids can read, and adults can also be proud to read because of all the love and effort and craft and intelligence you've put into it, and make those the "real" versions.

Woof! I may have gone off on one just there.

What, if anything, can you tell us about Snarked, the series you're currently developing for BOOM! Studios' kaboom! line?

I can't really tell you a whole lot at this stage, but you can probably guess from the teaser image and the title that there's a Lewis Carroll element to it. It'll be my own spin on those concepts, though - it's not a direct adaptation or sequel or anything like that. I could conceivably tell you more than that, but then I would have to kill you with my bare hands.

To close us out...have you ever seen a hobbit?

I once kicked one down the stairs. Ghastly little things.

Wow, right? Wow.

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