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Roger Langridge Interview


[ Roger Langridge ]

This interview with comic book and webcomic writer and artist Roger Langridge was conducted by Director Sebastien Dumesnil via email during the making of Adventures Into Digital Comics. This interview is a part of the first set of interviews, which means that Roger Langridge received a part of the shotlist, and was asked to answer the questions as if they were actually shooting the interview together. Roger Langridge was offered the possibility to interact this way with the members of the cast.

By sending the same questions to all interviewees, Dumesnil wanted to get the most necessary element of narrative filmmaking: conflict. Despite the repetitive aspect of the questions, we hope you will be surprised by the large panel of answers and opinions offered by the interviewees.

Can you tell us about your background?

I was born in New Zealand in 1967 and, for me, comics were always around. I learned to read from Carl Barks' comics. By the age of six I'd decided to be a cartoonist when I grew up. In New Zealand, there isn't a comic industry—the population is far too small to support it—so I knew traveling overseas was part of the shape my life was going to take from an early age.

I drew comics right through childhood, some on my own, some in collaboration with my brother Andrew. By the time I got to university, I was drawing a strip for the student newspaper and publishing minicomics by me and Andrew on the Student Union's photocopier. After I graduated from university (with an English degree I'll never use) I got the first job I could find, saved like a demon for a year, and bought a ticket to England to try and "go professional". By this time Fantagraphics were publishing Andrew's and my minicomic, Art d'Ecco, so this seemed like a perfectly attainable goal; in hindsight, I must have been insane—not one person in a thousand actually breaks into comics without years of rejection. But I got lucky. I was working as a full-time comic artist within six months of arriving in London, and I haven't had a proper day job since.

What do you find in comics that you wouldn't find in another type of visual exercise?

The total control the cartoonist can have over a project. Animation shares many qualities with comics, but it's much more labor-intensive and requires delegating tasks to other hands, which is something I've never been happy to do. And animation is less visually flexible, I think—design elements (like, say, those of Chris Ware) that work on a comic page would probably translate badly to the screen.

1993 was the last profitable year for the American industry. The market has been shrinking ever since. What do you think are the causes of the industry's collapse in the 90's?

* Companies abusing their readers' goodwill by milking them dry with multiple covers, enormous crossovers and multiple titles featuring the same characters—a lot of readers threw up their hands in disgust and walked away, me included.

* The fact that there are so few comics suitable for younger children, and those that exist are impossible to find outside of specialty stores, so there's no new generation of readers coming up.

* The fact that so many comics are impossible to understand unless you've followed the company's "universe" for decades—it's really, really off-putting to a casual reader. There are very few comics that are self-contained stories. (Even Marvel's sixties soap-opera style comics were relatively easy to jump into the middle of, compared to today's comics.)

For the past few years, we've seen the big companies trying to improve quality: better paper, big names from other industries, etc. Do you think that it had an impact on sales? What could be a key to solve the sales problem?

It's made the books more expensive, which has probably lowered sales a bit, but I don't think that's as big a factor as the content. Me, I like newsprint—I like black and white, too. There's an idea that pops up all the time, which sounds like good common sense to me, that the major companies ought to put out really thick, cheaply produced black-and-white paperback comic albums (and have them paid for by bulk advertising), and get them out of comic stores and into mainstream outlets. Marvel's Essential series is a step in this direction, but they could do a lot more with the format I think.

In the 90's, publishers began to create alternate covers, and made a lot of—sometimes unnecessary—relaunches. Let's call this commercial experimentation. What do you think of those "gimmicks"?

They're what made me stop reading superheroes of any kind. I felt my intelligence was constantly being insulted.

To make more money and be able to reach different places such as bookstores, the publishers have created the trade paperback. As an example, many people have read Sandman when it was available on paperback, but not before. Do you feel that the comic book format had its days, and could be replaced by the paperback?

Paperbacks and pamphlets should ideally co-exist, I think, with the emphasis on the paperback side of things (at the moment the emphasis is still very much on the periodical pamphlet.) Regular 32-page comics are good entry points, especially for kids, because they're cheap.

The early 90's saw the first digital lettering and coloring in American comic books. Do you think that it opened a new world of possibilities as far as storytelling is concerned?

Er, no. I think these can be filed under "gimmicks" as well. A good hand-lettering job still looks better than a computer-lettered comic. And most computer color looks garish and ugly to me, and is rarely in harmony with the artwork.

Also around the same time came the internet. Did you guess at that time that the internet could become a distribution system for independent artists?

Not at the time, though I worked it out eventually...

Diversity seems to be a key problem for the industry. Do you think that current comic books are oriented mainly toward an audience in its 20s?

I think it's more complicated than that—they're aimed at adolescent boys with incomes of people in their thirties. In other words, they're aimed at a market that doesn't actually exist.

The average price of a comic book in the US is around $3. Do you think, regarding the production and distribution system, that it is too expensive? What are the sales like nowadays in the US?

Way too expensive. Considering you get maybe five minutes' reading out of the damn things, and they're rarely deep enough or clever enough to reward repeated readings.

I heard that superhero sales now are like a tenth of what they were in the early 90s. Although the indies and alternatives have stayed pretty stable.

When you go to comic book conventions, do you feel that people come to buy comics... or toys, busts, and whatever merchandising has to offer? What do you think of that merchandising? Can it help the sales of comics?

The conventions I've been to are the UK ones, where people are mostly after back issues from the 60s and 70s. Haven't seen much merchandising being bought. I'm not interested in the merchandising personally; I don't see how it can be good for comic sales... I mean, it's being bought by the people who already buy the comics they're based on. You don't entice new readers with a T-shirt or a statuette. They have absolutely nothing in common with one another.

In the biggest comic conventions we can find print and digital artists. Some print artists seem to be ferociously anti-digital. Do you feel that there are now two clans of comic book creators?

No, there are far more than two clans. Actually, I think the split between alternative and superhero artists is much more significant than the split between digital and non-digital artists. Most artists fall somewhere in the middle on the digital scale—there are very few who are at the extreme ends of the scale.

Many forgotten artists who can't find a job in the industry because they are told they are "outdated" make money thanks to commissions on their personal websites. Others create those digital comics but don't really make money out of them. Do you think that the internet could be the solution to the current state of the comic book industry?

I think in some ways the industry would be better off dying. Then everybody would have to rethink everything from scratch, instead of taping a digital band-aid over a dying dinosaur. Digital comics' main strength seems to me to be the fact that they reach an audience that never goes anywhere near a comic shop. That's a whole new audience. The industry is more or less entirely disconnected from them. So I don't see that digital comics are going to affect the industry one way or the other, really.

Some digital comics use animation; others sound, etc. For you, what is a digital comic? What would be the aesthetic definition?

A good rule of thumb I've heard is that if you read it, it's a comic; if you watch it, it's animation. The boundaries are certainly blurring, though. I personally like to use static images, but I'm happy to see limited animation in other people's comics. Doesn't really matter whether it fits neatly into a defined set of parameters, it seems to me; the important question is, is it any good?

Do you think that digital comics offer much more diversity than the paper market?

There's a lot of diversity in paper comics too, but the more diverse stuff tends to be marginalized to a greater extent in the print world (until it gets into bookstores, anyway.) Whereas in digital comics, there's more of a level playing field (for now.)

Only big publishers would have the financial asset to afford the legal support needed in the piracy issue. How do you think that the big companies will make their way into the digital world? Do you think that independents will have to wait for those companies to make money in a safe way?

I think the majors are waiting to see how well the independents do, actually—Modern Tales is a good example of a small company that's making money from digital comics. Piracy is, I think, not much of a threat—web images are so low-fi that you can't print them decently anyhow, and the subscription fee is small enough that the piracy incentive is pretty low. It's probably no more likely than people photocopying print comics.

Do you think that readers are into comics for collecting and need to touch a comic book to enjoy it, or would a computer screen be enough for them? What about you?

I could probably part with my pamphlet-format comics quite happily if a digital alternative existed. I like books, though. I'd hang onto those. I think there is definitely a collecting mentality that wants a physical object to hold, though it's probably less true of the population as a whole than it is of comic fans.

There are many issues that could prevent digital comics from growing, such as piracy. Also, and even novelists ran into that wall, it seems to be hard to get paid, even with systems such as PayPal. Subscription, advertisement, micro-payments: what do you think is the best option to be paid on the web for digital creations?

There are a few different models around, all of which could be useful. Modern Tales uses a subscription model. My own website offers webomics for free, but I sell artwork and print comics through the site. Shannon Wheeler also offers free webcomics, but makes a bundle off his T-shirts and other merchandise. Scott Kurtz makes his income off advertising. Whatever works, I guess. To be honest, micro-payments seems the most unlikely solution of the lot right now.

There are different ways to compose a comic book story on the internet. Some artists like to consider the screen as a page, others still use a typical comic book format. We can also use the screen as a panel/link leading to another panel and so on. Finally, other artists use the internet as an unlimited space to compose a story. Do you think that digital comics offer more possibilities as far as composition is concerned?

Sure. I don't happen to be that interested in exploring them personally (I'm thinking of print collections all the time) but others like Cat Garza, demian5 and Scott McCloud are all doing pretty interesting stuff with these ideas.

Do you think that scrolling is the main limitation of digital comics?

It's a bore, and it limits the amount of space you can use in some ways (there are times when you want the reader to see an entire page composition at once), but I think the main limitation is probably slow download times and people's short attention spans for anything they see on a screen. It's much more difficult to get people to read longer works.

One can find digital comics on the web, but also short films produced especially for the internet. Do you watch such films sometimes? What do you think of them?

Some of them are really good (Aaron Augenblick's www.augenblickstudios.com and Karl Will's www.comicbookfactory.net animated movies spring immediately to mind.)

We talked earlier about the unlimited space and animated digital comics. Do you think that we could apply some of those compositional ideas to live moving pictures, instead of just drawn panels?

There are kind of two opposing impulses there—comics use space the way animation uses time, so putting the two together sounds like it would just cause problems. No doubt somebody will try it, though.

Bad artistic, and moreover marketing, decisions have been the main reasons of the industry's downfall. The digital technology seems like a good solution to create art without any form of concession. Do you think that the internet is an open door for new creative voices?

Of course. It's also opened the door for a lot of crap, but you have to accept that as part of the price, I guess.

Now that comic books have become a niche market (whether they are on paper or digital), pretty much like painting, do you think that we're going to see a peak of creativity and quality as a reaction to the current situation?

Not really. I think the best cartoonists will continue to do the best work they can, same as they always have, and the market has nothing to do with it. If anything, I think you might get a lot more commercial comics sinking to lower and lower depths as they resort increasingly to lowest-common-denominator stuff to save their sorry asses.


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