Classic Comics Criticism: Langridge Barrier

In honor of the trade paperback release of the most entertaining all-ages comic I’ve read in forever, The Muppet Show: Meet the Muppets (as well as the 2nd ish of The Muppet Show: The Treasure of Peg-Leg Wilson), this week’s Classic Comics Criticism celebrates Muppets writer/artist Roger Langridge!

This is a review I’m kinda proud of. As I mentioned in a few weeks back, I actually got a message from one of the Langridges (Roger, as I recall) about how happy they were to find out that someone actually “got it”. I think this led to my receiving a bunch of Rogers’ mini-comics (like this one) later on, which I’m sure survived my last move in 2003.

If you’re trying to get kids into comics and you were a fan of The Muppet Show, you’ll do just fine by starting ’em off with Roger’s Muppet book. Zoot Suite? Wait till they’re a little older.

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Zoot! Suite • Roger and Andrew Langridge • Fantagraphics Books

Is there something perverse about waiting for the conclusion of a story based on Zeno’s Paradox? If so, then label me a pervert. The story in question, “The Journey Halfway,” from the Langridge Brothers’ Zoot!, began as a relatively light jab at the Kafkaesque workings of the DMV. Over the course of six issues, as Zoot! grew increasingly bizarre (and, one presumes, unsaleable), the story evolved into a traipse through Beckett’s theater, then launched into a near-death experience culled out of Finnegans Wake. And then Zoot! was canceled.

I held out a minor hope that there would be a wrap-up of some kind, a final installment of the Langridge Bros.’ criminally underappreciated comic. That idle optimism faded just around the time the brothers’ work began appearing in various comics from DC. I wrote off Zoot! and “The Journey Halfway” as another casualty of the comics marketplace, buried in the graveyard with Puma Blues and Big Numbers.

Coming across Zoot! Suite, then, was like Hanukkah in March for me. This 80-page collection includes several short humor strips from Zoot! and a previously unpublished coda of sorts, but its main attraction is the “conclusion” to “The Journey Halfway.” After four long years, would Mr. Bodkin at last find out what had become of his impounded and possibly demolished car? Would the meaning of his unnamed friend’s Joycean trip to the afterlife be made clear/ Would the actor playing the lead in Waiting for Godot ever show up at the theater?

Ultimately, of course, no questions are answered. Though Bodkin and his friend seek a shortcut home (through a graveyard, naturally), they never get more than halfway. Despite this pre-set limitation — Bodkin’s friend describes the paradox on the second page of the story — Andrew Langridge (the writer) manages to make this odd story work remarkably well by playing off the absurdity of the premise. The brothers’ work in Art D’Ecco achieved the same trick, beginning with absurdist humor and somehow bringing on authentic, if existential, human feeling.

This is a difficult feat, not only given the logical premises of the story, but also because of Roger Langridge’s strange artwork. It would seem that his cartoonish, at times Muppet-like figures would be suited for the collection’s gag strips but not its 50-page serial. Somehow, Roger manages a full range of expression with these seemingly limited figures, while managing to play up their physical appearance for several sight-gags. Further, with its mixture of tones and ross-hatchings, Zoot! Suite‘s artwork gives its ludicrous figures weight, bringing them into a more arresting visual context.

Besides concluding “The Journey Halfway,” Zoot! Suite also has another previously unpublished work by the Langridges. “I Dreamt I Was In Heaven,” which closes out the book, is a double treat, albeit a befuddling one. Visually, it ties together each of the strange (and, one presumes, unsaleable) cover illustrations for Zoot!. A “roving eye” carries the reader from one absurd setting to the next. For someone who bought the whole run off the shelf, it’s a nice, asbsurdist form of nostalgia, but it would be completely baffling for the (ha-ha) new reader who decides to give this strange comic a shot. Forget I wrote that.

The written story doesn’t pertain in the slightest to the visual one. Instead, it relates the narrator’s dream about an “entrance exam” to get into heaven. The prose is quite graceful and the overall story, in its meandering way, is a delight. In all, the collection showcases bizarre humor (“A Dictionary of Oubliettes” is one of the strangest joke ideas in history) and apparent existential dread via cartooning that would make E.C. Segar proud. While several other strips from Zoot! should have been included (“The Answer,” and “Short Story,” to name a pair), Zoot! Suite comprises a fine survey of a fantastically inventive comic that no one ever read.

Now if they could just get to work wrapping up “The Derek Seals Story” . . .

–Gil Roth, originally published in The Comics Journal #204, May, 1998

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