Stephen Jewell talks to comic book artist and writer Roger Langridge about taking on cult superhero Thor.
Just as Shakespearian thespian Kenneth Branagh was not a logical choice to helm Norse superhero Thor's big-screen début, New Zealand cartoonist Roger Langridge did not seem like a natural fit to script the Thunder God's comic book adventures. For a start, he wasn't even a great fan of the popular Marvel comic series - unlike most comic book professionals his age.
"It's not like I have a lot of affection for the original material," says the 44-year-old. "Being allowed to play with those toys [the Thor characters] wasn't really the attraction for me. I was interested in being given a superhero concept to play with and seeing if I could push myself to do that. I wanted to see if I had it in me to make something that works within those parameters."
Thor first appeared as a comic book superhero in the early 60s but with his move to the big screen, Marvel Comics wanted a new, limited series. They turned to Langridge, who penned eight issues, Thor: The Mighty Avenger. The issues garnered rave reviews and quickly became a cult favourite.
"I was totally not expecting that because it was cut off from the rest of the Marvel Universe," he says of the all-ages title that has recently been collected into two graphic novels. "I wasn't really expecting it to get any attention at all so it was very gratifying. I was really lucky with the artist [Chris Samnee] as well."
After being offered the assignment, Langridge spent a weekend reading collected editions of Marvel pioneers Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's seminal 1960s run. "I got those big black and white phone-books and whizzed through them," he says, referring to Marvel's oversized reprint editions. "I made a shopping list of anything that seemed vaguely interesting. Marvel also had a few demands that they wanted me to work with."
While Aussie actor Chris Hemsworth emphasises Thor's royal nobility in the eponymous film, Langridge depicts Thor as an impetuous rogue who frequently talks about himself in the third person.
"He's prone to flattery, which you would be if you were a god," he laughs. "When you're worshipped, it goes to your head. Marvel asked me to have him as someone who acts first and thinks second. That could make him unlikeable, so the trick was to make him fundamentally decent as a core characteristic. So that when he does something stupid, you don't think it was because he's an arsehole."
Langridge attempted to base his otherworldly plots in some form of mundane reality. "The best superhero comics have always had a strong soap opera element," he says, admitting that he was inspired by the popular television adventures of a certain Time Lord. "Doctor Who was a big influence in that regard. When the BBC relaunched the series, they focused it on the human story in the middle of all the science fiction stuff and built everything else around that. I thought that was the best approach to take with something that is as overblown and cosmic as Thor."
In the series, museum curator Jane Foster brings to mind the Doctor's numerous assistants such as Rose Tyler and Sarah Jane Smith when she stumbles upon the Asgardian legend attempting to liberate his mystical hammer Mjilnor from a museum exhibit. "I wasn't directly thinking of that but I did think that you needed to see Thor from somebody else's perspective," says Langridge. "It's like Sherlock Holmes is always seen from Watson's perspective; you never get inside his head. Otherwise he's too fantastic and unbelievable so you have to see him from the point of view of someone who is more grounded."
Known best for his writing and drawing slapstick humour-oriented strips like Fred The Clown, Langridge decided at the age of 6 he wanted to be a cartoonist. Growing up, he drew comics with his brother Andrew, which eventually evolved into Art d'Ecco, his first mini-comic in 1988.
He admits he didn't grow up on a steady diet of Marvel titles. "I was more of a DC kid and even then it was the more oddball and less mainstream stuff," recalls Langridge, who is now based in London. "Marvel had a lot less of that. They had a few oddball things but they were few and far between."
Thor isn't the only famous character he's taken on: Kermit, Miss Piggy et al are also among his comic creations. In 2009, Langridge began writing and drawing The Muppet Show tie-in comic book for Los Angeles-based Boom Studios.
Although the storylines and art had to be approved by The Muppet Show owners Disney, Langridge's fiercest critics proved to be the classic children's show's dedicated adult following.
"There are few kid Muppets fans these days because it hasn't been on TV for 25 years," he says. "When you get people who are interested in characters like that, they want it to look like an episode of the TV show. They're not interested in the comic. You find it with Doctor Who as well. They're not interested in the comic because they're Doctor Who fans, not comic fans. And it's the same with The Muppets. The more I tried to play on the strengths of the medium, the more resistance there was."
Langridge says the likes of Kermit and Miss Piggy had an undeniable impact upon him as a child. "I'm pretty sure that the fascination with all that Vaudeville kind of stuff that is in my own comics came from The Muppets, because it's not like I was around for the original Vaudeville," he says wryly. "I hadn't really thought about the influence that they have had on me for quite a few years but I thought I knew quite a bit about them. But when I started working on the book and hearing from Muppets fans, I realised that I was paddling in the shallow end. I had no clue how deep it went with some of them. Hopefully what I did didn't jar too much with their sort of ownership of it because a lot of them took the announcement that I was working on it quite personally."
Langridge departed the book late last year but his work will be seen again thanks to Marvel reprinting his work, beginning with the introductory Meet The Muppets in July. While he hopes an unpublished four-part story will eventually see the light of day, he is not tempted to return.
"Initially it wasn't hard to think up stories but it got harder and harder as it went on, because it's pretty much all set inside the theatre," he says. "Everything has got to be back where you found it by the end of the story so that you can start the next issue in the same place. You've got to give the toys back to Disney in the condition that you found them in. After a while, it was getting more difficult to come up with new ideas, which is one reason why I'm keen to do something else. I felt like I'd gone to that well so many times that I'd drunk it dry."
Langridge is instead working on new series The Snark for Boom's younger reader's line, Kaboom. "I wouldn't say it's based on, it's more loosely inspired by Lewis Carroll," he says. "The Walrus and the Carpenter are the main protagonists and the Snark is like this big bogeyman, although you don't always see the monster."
He is currently putting the finishing touches on The Show Must Go On, a 200-page collection of his creator-owned mini-comics, anthology contributions and some brand new material that Boom will publish later this year. "My own stuff is always much more fun," he says.
"I get to set my own parameters and it also sneaks under the radar to a larger extent. I can do whatever the hell I like."
Thor: The Mighty Avenger, Vol I and II (Marvel, $27.99 each) are out now. Thor the movie is at cinemas now.