Interview: Roger Langridge on Popeye
Given Popeye’s penchant for mumbling and mangling pronunciations, one almost never knows what’s going to come out of the sailor’s misshapen mouth—unless the one in question is cartoonist Roger Langridge, who has been putting words into Popeye’s mouth as the writer of IDW’s new Popeye comic book series.
Langridge has been making comics since the late 1980s, mixing work on his own creations like Fred the Clown with more commercial work on characters as various as Judd Dredd, Dr. Who and Fin Fang Foom.
In the last few years Langridge began attracting a lot more attention from a lot of new fans for his work on the critically acclaimed Muppet Show comic for BOOM! Studios, which he wrote and usually drew, and his equally acclaimed Thor: The Mighty Avenger, a short-lived YA version of Marvel’s superhero that he scripted for then up-and-coming artist Chris Samnee.
His relationship with BOOM! outlasted their rights to the Muppets license, and he launched a comedy adventure series for the publisher starring his own versions of Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter entitled Snarked. The series just wrapped up its twelfth and—for now—final issue.
Langridge started writing, and occasionally drawing, a new Popeye series for IDW last year; it was launched as a four-issue miniseries but was popular enough to almost immediately graduate to ongoing monthly status. As popular as it was, though, it must not have been popular enough to continue indefinitely, as it too will be ceasing publication with its twelfth issue.
The first trade paperback collection of the Langridge-written Popeye comic, which ought to bring the work to a well-deserved wider audience, was released just last Wednesday. We took the occasion to talk to the prolific cartoonist about writing new adventures for E.C. Segar’s iconic cartoon sailor in the 21st century.
GC4K: Can you tell us a little about how you came to be writing Popeye? Did you pitch for it, or did IDW seek you out?
Roger Langridge: I was approached by IDW. I think I was on their radar for this book for a couple of reasons: I was working on Snarked at the time and had said in a number of interviews that it was partly a love letter to Carl Barks and E. C. Segar, and I’d had some contact with editor Craig Yoe previously and he knew I was into old-time newspaper strips. And Craig has Muppet connections going way back, so I guess he would have been aware of my work on the Muppet Show comics.
GC4K: One aspect of your writing I’ve been quite impressed with is your ability to write so many different of these sorts of pre-existing licensed or franchised characters from different media (in addition to your own characters). You come up with comics that not only seem authentic to the characters but are also quite good. How do you shift gears so drastically from, say, a Marvel superhero to a a bunch of puppets from a TV show to Snarked and so forth? Do you do quite a bit of research? Are you like the method actor equivalent of a comic book writer?
Langridge: Well, that’s very kind of you to say. To be honest, I always thought I had quite a limited range! With both the Muppets and Popeye, I had the advantage that they were both big influences on my comics from an early age, so there was a certain amount of overlap with what I do naturally anyway. In the case of Thor, that was harder; I was never hugely into Marvel comics as a kid, so in order to get a handle on the essence of the character I read the Kirby Essentials volumes and then tried to find a way in that I could connect with emotionally. That turned out to be the Thor/Jane Foster relationship, so I built around that. I think, particularly with a more dramatic/less overtly funny story, nailing down the emotional core, the human center of the story, is the important bit. Otherwise, to quote the Simpsons, it’s just A Bunch of Stuff That Happens.
GC4K: As an artist as well as a writer, how different is your creative process when you’re writing something you know you’re going to be drawing yourself vs. something you know someone else will be drawing?
Langridge: I think the main difference is that I try to write to the strengths of whichever artist I’m writing for. I remember talking to Dylan Horrocks about this years ago. He used to write for DC, and after a difficult start, his breakthrough moment was when he realized that, because comics are a visual medium, the artist’s vision is always going to be the dominant one, so the writer’s job is essentially to be a ghost writer for that artist. So if I’m writing a Chris Samnee comic, I want to write the best Chris Samnee comic I can—not the best Roger Langridge comic I can. That’s been a little more difficult with Popeye, because I rarely know who’s going to be drawing any given issue, so I’ve tried to just imagine E.C. Segar will be drawing them and hope we get away with it.
GC4K: Do you like drawing Popeye and his cast? (Popeye strikes me as a particularly challenging comics character because of all the lines in his face; his arms drive me crazy too, the way his swollen forearms connect right to his hands as if he had no wrists.) Do you have a particular character you’re drawn to drawing…and/or writing?
Langridge: Yes, I’m drawing an issue at the moment and I’ve struggled with Popeye a bit. I felt like I was just getting the hang of him on page 20! I’m really impressed with the way all of the artists on the book have been able to nail the Segar look much better than I have. As for personal favorites, I regard Wimpy as one of the towering achievements in the history of comics. He’s such a perfect character. Writing him is probably the most fun. Drawing-wise, I really, really enjoy Alice the Goon for some reason—possibly because she’s funny and creepy at the same time.
GC4K: Have you had any input into which collaborators you’ve gotten to work with on the book? One impressive aspect of the comics in this first Popeye collection is that you’ve worked with different artists on (almost) every story in it, but they’re all quite good, and they all vary somewhat in style.
Langridge: I’ve had no real input—I’ve suggested a few people but Ted Adams and Craig Yoe never took me up on any of them. That said, I was delighted to work with Tom Neely on a few stories. We’d been talking about maybe doing something together for ages, and that it turned out to be our mutually-beloved Popeye was the icing on the cake. We’d love to work together on something again at some point.
GC4K: In your introduction to the trade, you walk readers through some of the decision-making process that went into crafting a version of Popeye for this comic, and which sources you were drawing on, and in what ratios. Can you tell us a little more about that process? Was it in place before you came aboard, or was it all your thinking, or was it something you and IDW hammered out together? Was there a process or journey involved getting to the perfect version of Popeye, or was everyone pretty much on the same page about the ideal Popeye depiction from the start?
Langridge: The idea that we’d draw mainly from Segar’s interpretation was in place before I was approached—that was mentioned in my first phone conversation with IDW. Then, when I wrote up my first round of story pitches, I suggested having Bluto pop up on an irregular recurring basis—because, despite being such a minor part of the Segar years, he’s such a big part of what constitutes Popeye in the public consciousness—and Ted shot back with, “Oh, yeah, we have to have Bluto in there.” So I guess we were all on the same page about borrowing from other, later versions where appropriate without really ever saying so.
GC4K: On a purely practical level, how hard is it to write Popeye’s dialogue? He has a very peculiar way of talking, to put it mildly, but is there a logic to his mispronunciations? Is it difficult to have him pronounce a word wrong the right way, for example?
Langridge: Oh, it’s bloody difficult! Popeye is a slow book to write, partly because early on we made a deliberate decision to make the stories quite dense, but mainly because I can never get a line of Popeye’s dialogue right the first time. It’s not as if there’s a formula; or, if there is, the inconsistencies are part of the formula, so there might as well not be one. I often find myself pulling back from pure Popeye dialect in order to make the dialogue comprehensible, too, because if you go all the way it can sometimes become unreadable. In the issue I’m working on now, I had Popeye pronounce “sentimentality” as “sedimenkalicky” and “sedimenkalicky” before finally settling on “sedimentality.” And it’s like that for every line!
GC4K: I’m talking to you on behalf of the Good Comics For Kids blog. These comics are definitely all-ages, and Popeye seems to fit pretty easily into stories for such a broad audience—he’s one of the few characters that both the youngest and oldest members of my extended family are equally familiar with, for example. Is that the range of audience you have in mind on your end? During the writing process, is there ever any concern that something is maybe too grown-up, or, conversely, that you have an idea that is too childish?
Langridge: I’m occasionally tempted to have, say, Poopdeck Pappy say something blue, because that’s part of his character, but there are usually tasteful ways to create that impression if you think hard enough. Essentially I always try to write something I wouldn’t mind reading myself, so I tend to naturally avoid anything too childish; and if I think of anything too grown-up I actually enjoy the discipline of making those elements oblique. I think there’s a higher level of creativity going on when a character says something original instead of falling back on a swear word. (That said, I do like swearing, I think it can be funny and clever. But not in Popeye so much.)
GC4k: Do you have a sense of who the typical reader of this particular comic might be? Is there a typical Popeye reader?
Langridge: I have no idea, really! If pressed, because the comics are being sold in specialty stores, I’d have to assume that most of them are being sold to old farts like myself. But the book collections may be more likely to end up in the hands of younger readers because they’ll be in bookstores and, dare I hope, libraries. I do hope so. And licensed material can sometimes have a long life outside of what the original publisher intended—I doubt Bud Sagendorf ever thought his old Popeye comics would still be in print in 2013—so who knows whose eyeballs will see this stuff eventually?
GC4K: Between your Popeye comic, IDW’s Classic Popeye comics and their Sagendorf collection and Fantagraphics’ six-volume library of the original Segar comics, there are a lot of Popeye comics available now—heck, he’s even in a crossover story with Mars Attacks. Do you think the current proliferation of Popeye comics can be explained simply by our being in a sort of Golden Age of reprints, or is there maybe some broader cultural factors explaining why Popeye now…?
Langridge: I’m sure the Golden Age of Reprints is a part of it. I think the IDW and Fantagraphics initiatives probably appeal to different audiences, really—I know of plenty of people who have no interest in Popeye post-Segar, and a lot of the reviews of the IDW series have expressed puzzlement about Popeye not eating spinach to get super-powers like he does in the cartoons. My suspicious, cynical mind thinks that keeping a trademark alive has probably got a lot to do with it—Popeye is already in the public domain in Europe, so King Features might be more keen to get some trademark-reinforcing product out there than they might have been otherwise.
GC4K: One major subject of conversation in the comics industry this past year has revolved around creator’s rights, and the way the major publishers have treated their freelancers past and present. You were one of the writers to come out very strongly against DC and Marvel’s treatment of creators and to publicly swear off working with either—no doubt to the consternation to many fans of Thor: The Mighty Avenger (If I recall correctly, you mentioned not wanting to work for “The Big Two” anymore during the course of an interview, and some of the comics blogs picked up on your statement and tied it into the broader conversation that was going on at the time).
I was wondering if you could talk about the distinctions you personally may draw between, say, working on a Jack Kirby creation for Marvel Comics vs. a E.C. Segar creation for IDW…? How different are those experiences, on your end?
Langridge: Of course, this is something I thought about. My reading of Segar’s relationship with Popeye is that he was never separated from his creation, working on the strip right up to his death; he was always well-compensated for his work and got a piece of any profits from licensing or movies. I feel I can work on Popeye with a reasonably clear conscience. With the Rocketeer, as well, the character is being managed by Dave Stevens’ estate in accordance with his wishes. This is something I’ll continue to examine on a case-by-case basis, but my bottom line is always going to be how I would feel if this were my creation.
I should clarify that my reluctance to work for Marvel is really not about how they treat all their creators; I was treated quite well, and I would be happy to work with any of the individuals I worked with again any time, as long as it wasn’t at Marvel. It’s really about the company’s treatment of their founding creators, particularly Jack Kirby, and that’s a problem at a corporate level these days, nothing to do with editorial.
The actual people there, the human beings you deal with day-to-day, all seem very nice in my experience, and I would guess many of them have their own difficulties with the way Marvel as a company go about their business, which they keep quiet about if they want to keep their jobs. A couple of ex-employees I’ve spoken to have told me as much.
But this is all pretty moot—I don’t really think I have anything Marvel wants, and Marvel don’t really have anything I want, so I think we’re both quite happy with the current arrangement.
GC4K: Now that you’re so many months away from having made that statement—and so many people have parsed it— how do you assess it at this point? Do you have any regrets? Were you surprised by any reactions from your fellow creators, or from the comics community in general?
Langridge: Funnily enough, after a decade with nary a peep from DC, I was approached a few days ago with an offer of work which I had to turn down. While the money would have been nice, I think it’s probably the right thing for me to do—not just because of Before Watchmen and Siegel and Shuster and all the rest of it, although that would be enough, but because over the last few years I’ve felt myself gradually becoming “one of those Marvel/DC guys” in people’s minds, and that’s not the kind of cartoonist I want to be.
I took on Thor: The Mighty Avenger to see if I had a superhero comic in me. Turns out I did, but I think it should probably remain my only one. It was never intended to be a wholesale change of direction for my career, and it would have been so easy to let it become that. The things about comics that are valued by Marvel and DC and their readers are not the things about comics which I value, and that disconnect would only become a source of frustration if I stuck around, I think. I always aspired to be more like Carl Barks than Stan Lee.
I think my profile needs some recalibration right now, and doing more creator-owned work with more of an alternative-comics aesthetic seems to me to be the way to do that. So, probably best that Marvel and DC aren’t an option. It would be too easy to fall into that groove and never do the kinds of comics I truly care about.
GC4K: Popeye began as a four-issue miniseries but was then upgraded to an ongoing, so I assume IDW was pleased with how it’s been received. And you’re still writing it, so I assume you’re happy with it to. I was wondering if you could tell us what about the experience you find gratifying? Do you personally get something out of writing Popeye that you might not be getting from Snarked, or have gotten from some of your other past work?
Langridge: As much as I enjoy writing Popeye (and I do!), the main reason I’ve stuck with it as long as I have is because it’s a regular source of income doing something I wouldn’t mind reading myself. I’ve got a family to support and bills to pay, and there aren’t a huge number of paying gigs in the comics industry that aren’t superhero-oriented. Gratifyingly, there are a few more than there were five or ten years ago—there’s been a nice flowering of diversity in commercial comics recently (the alternatives have always been diverse)—but I’m still in a position where, if I find myself with a paying gig I don’t hate, I’m going to hang on to it for as long as I can.
To be honest, I think the main thing I get from Popeye that I didn’t get from Snarked! is an audience. I like doing work that people actually read. I’m so proud of the work I did on Snarked!, but we couldn’t give that thing away in the direct market; I’m hopeful that the book collections will help it reach the audience I think it deserves.
GC4K: As a writer, do you look at Popeye and see the sort of endless opportunities for stories that you could imagine writing the character and comic for years and years, or do you think there would have come a point where you’ve said all you have to say or done all you can do with the characters?
Langridge: The thing I’ve found with characters who aren’t my own, and this is true of both Popeye and the Muppets, is that I tend to reach a point after a year or so when I’m ready to move on or when the ideas start to dry up. I’m not sure why that is; possibly it’s to do with the fact that the characters can’t evolve significantly, because you have to hand them back in more or less the condition you found them in, and there are only so many times you can press the reset button before it all starts to seem a bit pointless. As it happens, Popeye #12 is the last one, so that worked out nicely. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to end before things start to get stale.
Ironically, I have more ideas for Snarked which I’ll probably never get a chance to do.
About J. Caleb Mozzocco
J. Caleb Mozzocco is a way-too-busy freelance writer who has written about comics for online and print venues for a rather long time now. He currently contributes to Comic Book Resources' Robot 6 blog and ComicsAlliance, and maintains his own daily-ish blog at EveryDayIsLikeWednesday.blogspot.com. He lives in northeast Ohio, where he works as a circulation clerk at a public library by day.
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