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Fred the Clown
By Roger Langridge
Published by Fantagraphics Books; $16.95 USD

The Fantagraphics website describes Roger Langridge’s Fred the Clown as “the thinking man’s idiot” and upon initial glance, Fred is certainly an idiot. Despite the title character’s endless pursuits of love, only to meet repulsion and hatred from the subjects of his awkward advances, Fred nevertheless rebounds from each setback, blissfully ignorant and ready to throw himself yet again into the crosshairs of rejection.

But where does the “thinking man” part come into play? Perhaps it is in Langridge’s ability to make the reader love Fred, despite the fact that every other character seems to loathe him. The consistent theme that runs throughout – that Fred the Clown is a buffoon – is classic British humor (the back cover even places Langridge alongside Lewis Carroll, Monty Python and Samuel Beckett). In Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most memorable characters, was a drunkard, a thief, a liar and a coward, yet the playwright’s skill at making this character likeable is the very reason he has endured. In a similar vein, we are drawn to Fred’s jovial incompetence because ultimately, we can relate to his misguided quest for love.

Fred the Clown is not one story, but rather a collection of gag strips that run from a single panel to multi-page sequences. These strips take many forms, including songs, poems, limericks, fake advertisements, a few longer stories and even an essay. The strips are cleverly organized into ten chapters entitled “Fred the Clown’s Ten Steps to Happiness.” Of course, the irony is that Fred himself never seems to find happiness, only misery, rejection and despair.

One of the highlights of this collection is the second chapter, entitled “Know Your Roots,” which contains a lengthy prose article documenting the fictional history of the Fred the Clown franchise which places it among the earliest American comics Sunday strips like the Yellow Kid and Little Nemo in Slumberland. The progression and evolution of the character is traced through to the modern day direct market, where sadly, legal battles and corporate meddling have bled the character dry of any remaining wit or charm. The essay demonstrates Langridge’s vast knowledge and appreciation of comics history, and is more than a little reminiscent of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, which essentially does the same thing, although to a much greater degree.

Throughout this section, Langridge’s versatility as an artist is perhaps most visible. His ability to parody virtually every major comic strip artist from Dr. Seuss to Charles Schulz, George Herriman to Jack Kirby demonstrates his considerable eye for detail. Langridge uses Fred the Clown as a vehicle to explore every genre from Sunday strips to superheroes while keeping a consistent theme. The result is fascinating because of Langridge’s skill in exactly capturing the artistic styles of these cartoonists. In many ways, this section felt like Langridge’s personal tribute to the great artists of comics past.

Langridge also makes full comedic use of the clown genre. There is the instantly recognizable clown suit, with its large bowtie, even larger shoes, white gloves and tiny flower hat. Custard pies are frequently hurled at the title character and the cast of other circus oddities also drop in from time to time, including the bearded woman, jugglers, talking apes, and the smarmy ringmaster. But Fred’s adventures are hardly restricted to the circus tent. Fred visits Mars, a deserted island, a psychiatric hospital, a haunted house and even takes a trip to Barbados.

In the longest strip in the book, Fred visits an abandoned movie studio where he discovers an old film archive of his father, “Frederick T. Clown, King of the Custard Pies,” who, like the Marx brothers or the Three Stooges, was a master of the early cinema gag reels. The entire 24-page strip is silently rendered, an homage to the old time movies, as we explore Fred’s father’s silent film career. In the end, we are given a rare and welcome moment of compassion, as we are left with the image of Fred entering a bakery to purchase a custard pie, a gesture endearing him to his deceased father.

Another highlight, the chapter entitled “Value the Written Word,” exemplifies Langridge’s incredible sense of design. This section includes several pages of fake advertisements, reminiscent of Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library, for ridiculous products such as the Spicky Spacky Spoon Co., Fred the Clown’s Beauty Treatment, Cooking for Nudists and Doctor Frederick T. Clown’s Thunder Water. There is even a crossword puzzle where the answer to every clue is the same word – idiot. As with so many of Fantagraphics’ publications, the production quality on this collection is outstanding. The heavy stock glossy paper used for the interior pages clearly reproduces the tiny panels, where no detail is insignificant, and allows for the reader to savor the artwork.

I thoroughly enjoyed Fred the Clown, but it is by no means a brilliant work of literature. It will not push the artform forward, nor will it attract the attention of a literary audience. There is very little in the way of character development or detailed plot. Yet what makes Fred the Clown so charming is the craft with which it’s rendered. Roger Langridge’s artwork is visually appealing in a way that few artists these days can compare. Though the panels are still, the action flows with the precision of an animated strip, each page ending with a carefully planned punchline. His use of silence is also a welcome change, and the skill with which the actions and emotions are conveyed without using words as a crutch, is a tribute to Langridge’s command of his art. Fred the Clown is an outstanding, addictive collection, which includes all of the Eisner and Ignatz nominated strips in one book. Grade: 4.5/5

-- Marc Sobel



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