Vaudeville, Goons, and a Sex-Crazed Nun: Roger Langridge's Absurdist Comics

Roger Langridge began attracting attention in the early 1990s with two comic books. Knuckles the Malevolent Nun, starring a twisted sister who had more bad habits than most people could ever imagine, was rendered in R. Crumb–like crosshatching. Art d’Ecco, which featured a sadistic cad who casually tortured his idiot sidekick, was of course drawn in a slicker, more geometric style. Although these stories were scripted by others, they allowed Langridge to develop a distinct madcap humor that characterizes his best solo work, including his most well known creation, Fred the Clown.

 

Langridge at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Photo by M. Dooley.

Over the decades, Langridge has produced original web comics, worked on DC and Marvel stories, and contributed to prestige anthologies such as the Graphic Classics series. Lately he’s been drawing licensed, high-profile properties like Popeye and the Muppets. He’s also created Snarked!, a new action-adventure fairy-tale comic for kids that adults also enjoy. We’ll discuss Snarked! in the second half of our interview, which will be posted next Friday, September 28.

Although his fans are a loyal and devoted bunch, Langridge is woefully under-recognized in the comics field. In person, he’s modest and unassuming. Although his pages, panels, and period lettering are solidly and eye-catchingly composed, he claims to know nothing about graphic design. So this is where we began our conversation.

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How would you describe your training?

I’ve had no real training, and I don’t know any principles of graphic design as such. I try to make things look good, that’s about it. And I have a very small box of tricks for doing that, which I go back to repeatedly.

A lot of it was trial-and-error in the early days. I would just keep throwing things at a page until something worked, at which point it got added to the box. It’s still how I work to some degree, which I suppose is why my relatively simple style isn’t a lot faster to do; I’m constantly having to re-do stuff to make it work.

How much of the Knuckles stories are personal?

Not a whole lot. I didn’t write most of them; my friend Cornelius Stone, who was the co-creator of the character, threw a lot of his own interests into the strips, so they were a lot more personal for him, I think.

The most personal thing about Knuckles to me was her physical appearance. I based her very loosely on an aunt of mine who’d stayed with our family for a few months when I was a kid, when she and her skunk-bastard of a husband had fallen on hard times. They were both repugnant human beings. They deserved one another.

Anyway, the rubbery lips and big nose were based on her. Exaggerated for comic effect, of course.

How would you compare creating for children with producing your grown-up material?

I suppose I’m still mining the same box of tricks for both kinds of comics. I think I have a kind of limited range in terms of what I’m capable of as a cartoonist, so I tend to use the same basic style for all my work, with a few surface elements pushed forward or back depending on subject matter. So for example, with Knuckles I’d push the underground comic aesthetic forward by making Knuckles all gnarled and scabby, adding lots of textures, although the underlying drawing is not hugely different from what I do in Snarked! The Snarked! stuff is just a bit more open and cleaner-looking.

In terms of the writing, I think the difference is mainly one of theme. Once you decide you’re going to do a story about a child with a missing parent, the ways that you can explore that theme tend to dictate the child-friendliness of the content. You’re still using the same techniques as you’d use for a story about a sex-crazed nun with a pet fly the size of a dog, but you’re building on fundamentally different foundations.

How did you develop your fondness for con artists and hapless dupes?

I think it’s partly a residual influence from listening to The Goon Show as a kid, and on through adulthood. All the characters in that were, to some degree, losers, scoundrels, or idiots, sometimes all three at once. It’s a streak that runs right through British comedy.

The classic American sitcom is usually built around a bland central character who is surrounded by eccentrics; the classic British sitcom is usually built around a character who is somehow fundamentally flawed, broken, trapped, or miserable—someone at the bottom of the heap. That goes right back to Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son. I find those characters far more interesting.

My “con artists” are usually losers who are just trying to survive. It’s also partly an acknowledgement that flawed characters are much better for comedic purposes than unflawed ones. The villains always have the best lines, just like the devil has the best tunes.

As for the dupe, he’s usually there so the central character has somebody to talk to. It’s much more difficult to move a story along if there’s nobody to explain things to. And, of course, it appeals to my love of vaudevillian cross-talk acts.

And why do you set your stories in ambiguous locations and periods?

It’s partly a desire to do work that won’t seem horribly dated in a few years’ time, partly because many of my inspirations—E.C. Segar, Samuel Beckett—set their stories in ambiguous locations, and partly I think because I don’t feel like any place is particularly “mine” to build things around.

I left New Zealand as a young man to come and live in London, and I kind of feel like they’re both my home. And yet in a funny way neither of them is. And whenever I go back to New Zealand, I’m trying to see the place I left 20 years ago through the eyes of today. I’m sort of adrift in time in that way, like I jumped forward 20 years. I’m sure that all filters through to the work I do in some way.

Many of your stories either take place on a stage or seem made for one. Have you acted yourself? 

I did a bit of amateur dramatics as a kid, yes. I went to drama classes after school and we’d put on a play at the end of the year. And later on, as an adult, once I’d started collaborating with Cornelius on Knuckles, he wrote a few plays and asked me to be in a couple of them. And I really, really enjoyed the experience.

I felt for a little while like I might have pursued either course, acting or cartooning. But I realized pretty quickly that, while it was probably possible to do both, I couldn’t do both at a sufficiently high level to be a success at both. I’d have to choose one or the other if I wanted them to be anything more than hobbies. So I chose my first love, comics.

Do you still attend the theater?

Yes, I still try to get to a live performance whenever I can. Not just theater, but stand-up comedy too. Some of the most interesting stand-ups at the moment are blurring the line between theater and comedy.

It’s a fascinating world, theater.

 

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