WHEN IT HURTS TO LAUGH

Preface to the Spanish edition of

Roger Langridge's

FRED THE CLOWN

(published by Ediciones Balboa)


Like all great comedians, Roger Langridge is painfully funny. Not only will his comics leave you with aching ribs (from laughing so hard); they’ll make your heart ache too.

Although he now lives in London, Roger originally comes from New Zealand, a tiny country of barely three and a half million people at the bottom of the South Pacific Ocean. It’s a long way from anywhere else; even Australia is three hours away by plane. Being at the edge of the world can do strange things to your perspective on life, especially when you grow up on a steady diet of the Goons, Monty Python, Carl Barks and E. C. Segar.

"Comics were always around," Roger explained in one interview. "My mother used to buy Uncle Scrooge comics for my brother and me before we could read (and then read them herself). When I was six years old, a particularly enlightened teacher got the class to make their own comic strips. I did mine and thought, this is what I want to do for the rest of my life."

And so he has, with a mixture of natural talent and superhuman dedication that’s hard to match. When I met Roger about 15 years ago, he had already published his first mini-comic, written by his brother Andrew. This slim booklet was so impressive, so beautifully drawn and dense with comedy and visual cleverness, I was astonished to find that its authors were barely out of high school. I was, of course, instantly jealous of Roger’s immense talent – not to mention his dashing good looks and his quiet dry wit. Luckily, however, Roger’s virtues are more than balanced by a genuine humility and a disarming lack of faith in his own abilities. Believe me, there’s nothing false about his self-deprecation; another mark of a great comedian.

And Roger didn’t get this good just by sitting around reading comics either. On the contrary, Roger was – and is – one of the hardest working cartoonists I have ever known. I remember one occasion when I bumped into Roger on the street and told him I’d moved to a new address. He pulled out his address book and began writing my new details down. To my surprise, every entry in his tiny address book was carefully written in exactly the same graceful lettering style that you see in Fred the Clown. It turns out Roger had been writing everything like that for many years – from shopping lists to lecture notes – all as a way of training himself to letter comics more neatly. It’s the same with everything Roger does: this is a man who takes his art very seriously indeed. And the result of all those long hours and painstaking attention to detail is the awe-inspiring perfection you will find in each and every Fred the Clown strip in this book.

Anyway, getting back to those early mini-comics by Roger and his brother Andrew – or, as they were known for a while, the Langridge Brothers. Most of them starred a rich, suave, sophisticated hero named Art D’Ecco, who always had the perfect put-down line for every occasion and whose adventures were as surreal as they were entertaining. Before long, Art D'Ecco had caught the eye of Fantagraphics Books in America, and Roger’s international career was underway.

Fantagraphics published four issues of Art D’Ecco between 1990 and 1992. Although the tuxedo-wearing, martini-sipping Art D’Ecco was nominally the hero of the series, for me the star of the show was his dopey, ugly and unbelievably stupid sidekick the Gump. Nothing ever went right for the Gump. His kind heart was no defense against the consequences of his own utter stupidity, his disgusting appearance and his truly revolting habits. Sure, Art D’Ecco was funny. But the Gump? Now, he had the makings of great comedy.

After a while, Art D’Ecco metamorphosed into Zoot!, which ran for six issues before finally petering out in 1994 (to be later collected by Fantagraphics as Zoot Suite). In the meantime, Roger had emigrated to England and begun contributing comics to a range of magazines, from the ghastly Judge Dredd Megazine to the creatively ambitious Deadline. Unfortunately, Roger had moved to London at precisely the wrong time: the British comics industry had just entered a steep decline from which it has yet to recover. To pay the bills, Roger did some pencilling and inking work for American mainstream publishers Marvel and DC and illustrated children’s books and T-shirts. After a few years, however, he noticed that while the illustration work was increasing, the comics work was coming less and less often. Many cartoonists in this situation would have given in to the inevitable and abandoned the childhood dream. But not Roger. Instead, he made an oath to draw a new comic strip every week and built himself a website on which to publish them. And so www.hotelfred.com was born.

According to Roger, Fred the Clown first came to him in the midst of a personal crisis (appropriately enough) while on holiday in Spain. Here’s how Roger describes him: "Fred The Clown is about a clown with a broken heart – or, more accurately, one that is perpetually in the process of being broken, usually because of his own stupidity or lack of personal hygiene."

In many ways, Fred is the natural successor to the Gump, but without an Art D’Ecco to mitigate the sheer pathos of his constant failures. Misery doesn’t just happen to Fred – it’s usually self-inflicted. Which makes him the fool we all know ourselves to be, deep down, in that private part of our hearts where self-esteem is a hollow white lie and life’s hurts will never heal.

This, in the end, is what makes Roger a great comedian. Sure, he’s unbelievably skilled, talented and brilliant. Sure, he’s incredibly funny and entertaining. But what matters most is this: Roger’s comics are honest and truthful. Like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, like Franquin’s Idees Noires – like all great comedy – they’re about how hard it is to be alive, and how sweet it is to laugh.

So here’s to the hardest-working man in comics – and the saddest clown in show-business.

 

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