by Alex Dueben
Roger Langridge’s work has often worn its influences on its proverbial sleeve. In comics like Fred the Clown and The Muppet Show and Popeye, he’s shown an affinity for early 20th Century culture, vaudeville, and silent comedy. It should come as no surprise that he was approached to write a new Betty Boop miniseries which launches from Dynamite in October. Along with Gisele Lagace, Langridge brings the character into the 21st Century , and he talks about the kiniseries and the three other books of his that are coming out in the next few months.
Alex Dueben: How did you end up writing Betty Boop?
Roger Langridge: Dynamite were kind enough to ask me. They inferred from my earlier work on IDW’s Popeye comic that this might be a property I had an interest in (they were absolutely correct!), so they approached me last year about it and I wrote up a pitch. There were some rights issues to disentangle, I believe, but once they were sorted out we were off and running.
Dueben: You were familiar with the cartoons?
Langridge: Yes. I remember seeing Betty Boop in Snow White on TV when I was a kid–this would have been the mid-70’s–and being fascinated by it. It was plainly a cartoon, but as far removed from Yogi Bear as it was possible to be; even my beloved Looney Tunes seemed quite staid by comparison. Logic seemed dream-like, there were weird horror elements, everything pulsed to a jazz beat, and there was an adult quality to it that I couldn’t put my finger on at the time. Anyway, I wanted more of it. I caught Fleischer cartoons on TV (or, later, at film festivals) whenever I could from then on.
Dueben: The world of Betty Boop is this strange adult funhouse world of the 20s and 30s. A lot of your work like Fred the Clown take place in these strange invented but familiar landscapes. Did it feel somewhat familiar? Was the tone and setting something that felt comfortable?
Langridge: To a large extent, yes. As you point out, it’s something I’ve visited in Fred the Clown in the past, and even in my Muppet Show comics to some extent; vaudeville theatres are more of the ‘30s than they are of today. It’s often a problem for me that my primary influences are all from the first half of the 20th century, but once in a while it’s exactly what the job requires.
Dueben: Having grown up with mostly bad kids cartoons, I remember Betty Boop as weird because they were adult but then there would be a musical number, then it would get goofy then it would be almost not suitable for children. It’s a strange amalgam of elements.
Langridge: That’s what’s so compelling about them, though! You get the feeling that there was no focus group, no calculation, it was just what the Fleischers were into and what amused them at the time. The strange mixture of random elements, the rough edges, are what make them interesting. The same is true of most great art, frankly. It’s the unplanned, the subconscious elements bubbling to the surface, that elevate them.
Dueben: What do you think–or in your experience what have you heard from other projects–that a contemporary audience takes away from that an audience in the 30s wouldn’t have?
Langridge: I don’t know about the audience, but what I get from visiting that world is an aesthetic built on things crafted by hand, a world that’s less slick and full of things that are pre-manufactured than that of today, and I find that extremely attractive as someone who still draws most of his comics with a brush on bristol board, someone who values the human touch. The carnivalesque aspect of Betty Boop’s world, with its ghost trains and amusement park atmosphere, is like that aesthetic ramped up to 11. For a 1930s audience, that was just the world they saw around them. To us, it’s an exotic, lost world. I’m sure I can’t be the only one for whom that resonates.
Dueben: Betty Boop is this very male gaze kind of character. How conscious are you of this and do you play with this idea and address it in the book?
Langridge: I was acutely conscious of that, and quite keen to take the edge off that aspect for a modern audience, to be honest. The cultural context is completely different now and Betty Boop is seen by a large part of the population these days as essentially just another pretty-girl graphic design, a brand, when they’re aware of her at all – and consequently the book is likely be picked up by people, including young girls and women, who won’t have that historical context at their fingertips. So I was really happy that Gisele Lagace was picked to draw the book – a female perspective is exactly what was required to address that aspect of the character.
Dueben: What has it been like working with Gisele Lagace on the book?
Langridge: I’m really enjoying what she’s bringing to it. I actually wrote the first couple of issues without knowing who was going to draw them, which is always a bit tricky, but for the last couple we’ve had a little bit of back-and-forth – although, really, I’ve mainly just been admiring the pages as they come in. She’s done her homework on the old cartoons, but there’s a modern feeling to the style as well. It’s a very effective mix. She totally knows what she’s doing.
Dueben: You’ve worked on a number of different projects now like The Muppets, Popeye, Rocketeer, and others, and I’m curious if you think there’s something that makes it possible for some characters to survive and be reinterpreted and if some characters are just products of their time and just resist that?
Langridge: I don’t know if there’s any hard-and-fast rule about it. We seem to be living in a time when, rather than take a chance on anything new, we’re far more likely to see old properties dusted off and reinterpreted; there are probably a lot of reasons for that – my own theory is that, because of the uncertain times we currently live in, people crave the comfort of familiarity in their entertainment – but I doubt if there’s a reliable formula to predict what will work and what won’t. My gut feeling is that it’s all in the way it’s done, and there’s always going to be a weird alchemy in any successful creative endeavour that will be impossible to predict, or to produce on demand. Which is a wonderful thing, in its way.
Dueben: I know that you also have a few collections coming out in the coming months. Do you want to say a little about them?
Langridge: Thanks for the plug! There’s The Baker Street Peculiars, which is written by me, illustrated by Andy Hirsch and coloured by Fred Stresing, about a gang of kids with a connection to Sherlock Holmes who investigate supernatural mysteries. Their first adventure is “The Case of the Cockney Golem”. Then there’s Abigail and the Snowman, written and drawn by me (with colours once again by Fred), about a girl who meets a yeti in the park one day that only children can see, and the friendship and adventures that develop (and the sacrifices that are made!) as a result. Finally, there’s The Iron Duchess, which is a graphic novel featuring my Fred the Clown character, a tribute to the films of Buster Keaton. Keaton is a huge hero of mine, and I’d always promised myself I’d one day do a Fred the Clown story in the Keaton style, so this is it. I’m printing up a small run to sell through my website and at conventions, although ideally I’d like to find a bigger publisher for it eventually. The self-published edition will be debuting at SPX in Bethesda, Maryland on the 17th and 18th of September.
Dueben: So how many issues is Betty Boop, when is the first issue out, and for people unsure, why do they need to pick it up?
Langridge: The first issue is out in October in time for Halloween; there’ll be four of them, all relatively self-contained, although they’re written to hang together as a bigger story when they’re all collected. And as for why you need to pick it up: well, we’ve got adventure, gags, ghosts, musical numbers, romance, beautiful artwork – and one of the greatest female cartoon icons of all time. Don’t tell me you don’t need that in your life!