Synopsis: Fred the Clown’s rambunctious misadventures are a curious blend of bleakness and joyful absurdism, More often than not, they involve the pursuit of a lady – any lady will do, it seems, but bearded ladies are at the top of the list.
Fred the Clown is the signature creation of the cartoonist Roger Langridge, whose work betrays a restless stylistic playfulness, a pessimism about human nature, and an absurdist perspective on human folly. Fred’s predecessors can be traced back to Monty Python, the Goon Show, and even Lewis Carroll. Visually, Langridge’s approach harkens back to the inventiveness of Max Fleischer cartoons, classic newspaper strips, and the children’s books of Maurice Sendak ad Dr. Seuss. The Sensibility, though, is thoroughly modern – no classic style goes unsubverted, no story ends without a “Huh?” – including emotional ambiguity or a pomposity-puncturing ironic gag.
Fred the Clown. In the tradition of Buster Keaton, Samuel Beckett, Charlie Brown, and that other clown named Koko. Only moreso.
Fred the Clown, by Roger Langridge 8.5
What can one say about Fred the Clown? He’s an idiot, but he means well. He’s lovable, if you can get past the smell. He’s a buffoon, but that’s his chosen profession. And his face is always stuck with a goofy expression.
I first discovered Roger Langridge’s ‘Fred the Clown’ seven years ago. I don’t even remember how. I think it might have been back when I was requesting every new graphic novel that the library got – in which case this one stood out.
There’s not much back history on the Fred the Clown comic strip online. Langridge keeps shelling them out, but I don’t know which came first: the strip or this book, which was first published in 2004. It looks to me to be the book.
‘Fred the Clown’ consists of ten chapters, which are each titled after Fred’s “Ten Steps to Happiness”, and which includes such advice as “Love Your Work”, “Don’t Be Afraid to Look Like an Idiot”, and “Embrace Your Uniqueness”.
Each of these chapters are composed of a variety of strips, some merely panels, others many pages in length. The variety of the material included here is impressive; Langridge has covered pretty much every style of cartoon.
The most astonishing of them all is chapter two, “Know Your Roots”, which concocts an extremely thorough -and satirical- mock history of the Fred the Clown comic strip, peppered with a few sample strips along the way to back up the writings.
It goes back over a century to explore its origins, exhaustively going through the faux behind-the-scenes melodrama that split Fred the Clown into two camps, eventually passing the character down from one hand to the next and eventually to Langridge.
It’s an amazing piece of work on Langridge’s part, even if it’s plodding, because he put so much work into it – including the many strips, which are done in varying styles depending on these fictional artists and the era they were made in.
I especially loved how the “author” of this historical account was filled with an enthusiasm for Fred the Clown that was counterbalanced by the captions on each strip, which were derogatory of the quality of the oeuvre. Too funny.
In any case, one gets a complete sense of what brought Fred the Clown to where it is now, in Langridge’s hands. Forget the fact that it’s all made up: by the end we totally know its roots and appreciate why Fred is who he is today.
The rest of the book is an easier read, thankfully. Since Fred doesn’t speak (and rarely did throughout his history), much of the book has no text. This leaves us to peruse the page to understand the action, taking very little time.
Langridge is stellar at guiding us through his stories and strips. The art is so brilliant it’s beyond words. He’s capable of so much depth and detail and knows how to adapt his style to suit the strips. He’s extremely versatile.
But it’s not all silent, and in “Value the Written Word” (chapter five), he breaks out in limericks, bad poetry, crossword puzzles, spoofs of well-known strips and all sorts of other oddities, proving that Fred is not just another… ugh… pretty face.
I simply can’t recommend ‘Fred the Clown’ enough. It’s pure delight for any lover of comic strips and graphic novels. There’s depth, brilliance and eye-candy galore in this book. And plenty of humour: zany, twisted, and just plain odd stuff.
It’s got heart, too. For all his flaws, Fred is endearing. His endless, misguided yearnings for love in all the wrong places makes one laugh but also has us empathizing with the pathetic schlep. He may or may not find true love, but he earns our sympathy.
And Langridge, our unreserved admiration and respect.
Post scriptum: after reading ‘Fred the Clown’, I had requested what little I could find of Langridge’s work from the library. There was this terrific book called ‘Art d’Ecco’ which was amazing. Sadly, the library no longer has that book on its shelves. A damned shame; I would have loved to revisit it and share it with you.