I think it’s safe to say that Roger Langridge is one of contemporary cartoon’s best pure-fun cartoonists – he belongs to the class of John K., Kate Beaton and others whose work shows a complete, unashamed attempt to get a laugh. His work on MUPPETS, SNARKED and many other monthly comics constantly impress and always get a laugh. That being said, FRED THE CLOWN is a far more ambitious project – it’s the history of cartooning, everything comics as a medium is capable of accomplishing, turned into one single narrative, the history of one clown’s life. It’s insane and it’s beautiful.
FRED jumps through the world of comics greatest legends and influences – Seuss, Kirby, Herriman, Crumb – hell, even the character and world of Fred seems to draw from modern cartoonists’ work like Seth and Clowes. It ends up going even deeper, too – to what inspired the earliest comedic cartoons, at least as we recognize them. Comedians like Keaton, the Marx Bros, W.C. Fields, and jazz music (specifically CAB CALLOWAY, who infamously starred in several especially surreal Fleischer cartoons) is instilled into the clown’s story. Chapter two is surely the most memorable chapter of this ten part story – told in a satirical, mocking text based on the style of comic criticsm, it tells the history of Fred as a fictional character, and rewriting in a briefer, funnier way pretty much every cartoon history book you’ve ever read. The drama is exageratted, the styles change to reflect different the changing world and changing styles of cartoon history, all the while mocking the idea of funny book criticism DESERVEDLY SO WE CAN TAKE IT.
The greatest part of the book is, as much as it draws on cartoon history, it always feels fresh and modern. Also, as funny and filled with crude humour as many of the stories are, some of them hit heavier than a lot of more ‘serious minded’ books do. Fred’s surreal dream of comic history, discovering his Dad and comedy’s roots, is surprisingly raw and touching. And again, as much as the book jumps from style to style, it always looks coherent, like one piece of work, one story that just happens to travel through all cartoon-time. And as much as the story is visually dominated, with many of the shorts told completely in pantomime, the wordplay is also brilliant and very Seuss inspired. Whimsical, inventive and charming.
Finally, the end of the story is unforgetable, breaking down boundaries of story, of creator versus character, in a way reminiscent of Morrison. Langridge himself appears, with the sad news that he no longer has time for Fred – life gets in the way, and his child has just became a bigger priority. Fred walks off to the HOTEL FRED, joined by characters and versions of himself throughout time. Fittingly, it’s only a hotel, not a prison. He’s free to check out anytime we go back to the comics. It says one of the most beautiful things of on going fiction, and why people keep coming back to cartoons and comics as an art form – not only are they funny, action packed, beautiful or filled with interesting characters. They are magical and they never die, and as so many others have said, they star characters that outlive us all. The ending of Fred said all of this in such a powerful, understated way, it moved me incredibly. FRED THE CLOWN is a beautiful story of what cartoons are, where they come from, what they accomplish and why we’ll never stop going back to them.