Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Some of Raymond Briggs' children's books, which are actually comics

As I mentioned yesterday, I have a review of Drawn+Quarterly’s new edition of Raymond Briggs’ Gentleman Jim over at Newsarama.com.

I rather enjoyed the book, which is pretty amusing, but I got more value out of the introduction than the story itself, as it introduced me to the work of Raymond Briggs.

Well, that’s not actually true. My first introduction to Briggs was an animated version of his The Snowman, which my little brother and I stumbled upon while flipping through television channels one winter evening. It was silent, and we thought it was hilarious, because it’s basically about a snowman breaking into this little boys house and then wrecking shit. I think at one point it steals a motorcycle? And then goes flying around with him?

Years later I saw that it was actually a children’s book, and I remember reading it and the similar The Bear and really digging them both. And then I pretty much forgot about Briggs. I certainly didn’t think of him as a comics creator or graphic novelist.

And then I read Seth’s introduction to this new edition of Gentleman Jim, and it got me thinking: Is Briggs a comics creator or is he a children’s book author? Or is he both?

Here’s Seth on Briggs:

It is remarkable that an artist could be such an innovator, so ahead of the crowd and could have produced such an impressive list of comics novels and yet still somehow be overlooked when people talk about “the graphic novel.”

Seth’s point is more of an observation about a weird occurrence rather than a tirade against a grave injustice, as it’s not like Briggs has suffered in obscurity or anything. It’s just that he doesn’t get as much credit as he should, at least not from those of us in comics.

Seth again:

It’s simply the old story of pigeonholing. He started out as a children’s book author, and the label has stuck. Will Eisner’s A Contract With God, published in 1978, is often trotted out as the first official graphic novel (ignoring the fact that it is actually a collection of short stories and not a “novel” at all). Whi is it that no one has ever noticed that Briggs’ The Snowman, which came out the same year, is actually a better candidate for the title? In fact, Briggs had two full length, self contained “graphic novels” published several years earlier: Father Christmas and Father Christmas Goes On Holiday. *

Seth goes on to theorize that perhaps it has something to do with the audience for those works of Briggs’, although, “The fact that these were written for children shouldn’t remove them from the contest.”

As I mentioned in my Newsarama review, it may have as much to do with the publisher, format and presentation as it does with the intended audiences. Since I’ve been blogging, I know I often come across children’s books that look like, are labeled as and published and sold as children’s book, but which are actually straight up comics: sequential images that tell a story in the exact same way that Batman or Maus or Astro Boy does. Sure, a lot of children’s books are in a gray area between comics and not-comics—for example, if there are no panels, but every page functions as a panel, is that comics or not?—but some are clearly comics. Although, if you didn’t know what comics were exactly, if you weren’t familiar with that medium, you might not notice that hey, this picture book is actually a comic book.

And until quite recently, there was no profit in selling a children’s book as a comic book, because “graphic novel” wasn’t even a word in the publishing industry’s lexicon in the late ‘70s. If a book had a spine and a hard cover and was sold in a bookstore rather than a drugstore, it was probably a children’s book and not a comic book, regardless of if it had panels or contained sequential art and was devoid of prose.

So suddenly curious to read (and, in a few cases, re-read) Briggs’ work to see if what he did was comics or kids books, I rounded up as many of his works as our local libraries carried, excluding quite a few in which he was simply listed as the illustrator and another writer as the author (And there are actually a lot of these; Briggs had had a hand in what I’d guess is somewhere around 17 million books during his career).

My conclusion? Hell yeah, Briggs makes comics. A lot of the time. He also makes kids’ books. And he makes some books that are hybrids between the two; mostly comics, with a few pages that are illustrated prose.

Let’s take a look at a few of them in the comics category.

Let’s start with The Snowman, because its Briggs’ signature work. As you’re probably aware, it’s the story of a little boy who makes a snowman during the day (one with a golem-like body, rather than the three big snow spheres format). When he wakes up in the middle of the night, he checks on his snowman only to discover that he’s come to life. The snowman comes in and they get up to some hijinx together.

I didn’t notice when I had read it some ten years or so ago, but now it seems like one big long dark joke. Throughout the whole thing there’s this heartwarming vibe, as the two friends play together, and on the very last page, there’s only a single, tiny panel, of the boy standing over the puddle that used to be the snowman, now melted in the sunlight. Ha! His friend is dead! Get it? Wow.

There doesn’t seem to be anything equivocal about this: This is comics/a graphic novel/sequential art/whatever you want to call it. The pages are almost all broken up into panels, save for a handful of splash pages. The story is silent, so there’s zero prose to this at all.

I just reread the publisher’s text on the flaps for the book, and it doesn’t mention comics at all. The summary on the front cover flap says “Raymond Briggs uses more than 175 subtly colored, neatly arranged picture frames to tell” his story, and the back flap says “Briggs showed illustrators a new way to expand the limits of a picture book from within.”

The Bear is from 1994, but it’s extremely similar to The Snowman, in its story and its visuals. Another ginger-haired little kid—this one a girl—receives a big white visitor into her house, and has some fun with him before he leaves.

It’s not a snowman, but a giant polar bear. Her parents don’t believe her, and think her talk of a bear in the house is simply her imagination, and so for a few days they seem to keep missing the bear until it eventually goes away.

The big difference between the two works is the words. While Snowman was silent, The Bear is not.

I suppose you could say this was a hybrid book, though. Much of it is told just like Snowman, with the actions occurring in panels, and there’s even dialogue bubbles.

There are a few pages that resemble illustrated prose though; splashes in which the page is dominated by one large picture, and then words are written in straight lines in a white space nearby. This usually only happens in scenes with a lot of dialogue in them.

Now let’s jump way back to 1973 for Father Christmas, Briggs' book about the guy we call Santa Claus here in America.

This one is comics all the way; there’s no ambiguity about it at all. The images are all in panels, there are multiple panels per page, and the only words that aren’t in dialogue bubbles are the words “Father Christmas” across the top of the first page.

This book is also hilarious. It’s probably my favorite Briggs book, in part because the lines and colors are all so bold and solid, unlike his Snowman and Bear, with their soft lines and colors, and in part because it’s just really funny.

Father Christmas doesn’t live in a magical wonderland with a Mrs. and a cadre of elves suchlike; he seems to be an old bachelor who lives alone with his cat and dog. And man, he doesn’t even seem to be all that into Christmas.

He wakes up pissed, and we follow him through his longest day in great detail (his morning chores, his breakfast, getting ready for the day, making his rounds, et cetera). He swears at the weather, the snow, the winter, chimney, aerials, cats, stairs and soot. He sees he’s left a bottle of coke at one stop and says, “Hm, better than nothing I suppose;” when he opens his own presents at night, he complains about the blooming terrible tie and socks he’s given.

In other words, Santa’s pretty much just a cranky old man. He’s not totally bitter all day; he’s nice to his pets, and smiles quite a bit and enjoys some of the things he’s given (well, the alcohol only, actually) and sings a Christmas carol while showering, but he’s not the maniacally jolly caricature we’re used to. This is Father Christmas’ job after all, and Briggs has him relate to it the way pretty much everyone relates to their own jobs.

Here’s the very first page:

Here’s Santa leaving the house (I love the panel of the dog looking out the window):

And here’s the very last page, as Santa calls it a night:

(There’s also a panel of Father Christmas on the toilet with his pajama pants pulled down, a piece of toilet paper in his hand as he scowls at the toilet paper roll and shouts “I hate winter!” to it, but I lost the scan I made of that page, unfortunately. Oh, hey, someone else posted it on their blog already).

There’s a sequel to this book, mentioned in the quoted passage from Seth above, but I couldn’t find it; I wonder if it’s even in print anymore, as the copy of this book I got from a library had an “Out of Print” sticker affixed to the front, apparently to warn librarians not to discard it.

Interestingly, the comic Father Christmas reminds me of the most is Seth’s own Clyde Fans Book 1, or at least the first part of it. Both feature old men going about their days in minute detail; in Clyde Fans the old man is talking to the reader about the titular business and salesmanship, while the old man in Father Christmas is just muttering to himself and pets about shit.

Another of Briggs’ funnier books is Ug: Boy Genius of the Stone Age. It is about a boy named Ug and his search for soft trousers (“trousers” is a much funnier word than “pants,” although I’m not entirely sure why that is).

Here’s the first page:

Life really sucks in the Stone Age, as you can see. The folks back then lived a lot like us, but were missing a lot of the things that make modern life less sucky.

As you can see, they sleep on beds under blankets, but the beds are stone, as are the pillows and blankets. And they word pants, but they were stone pants.

Ug’s a dreamer though, and wishes he had soft trousers; he dad tries to talk him out of it, but Ug is always looking at life and wishing it could be different.

For example, his mother serves him bits of dead animals for breakfast, and he wishes they could have something different, like hot dead animal bits.

The kids play soccer, baseball and tennis with rocks, which isn’t as much fun; Ug wishes they had something that could bounce to play with.

He thinks about boating, the wheel, fire, animal agriculture, building houses to live in instead of caves, but his mother is hardly supportive: She thinks he’s slowly going insane, and keeps yelling at him (and his henpecked father) about all these crazy ideas.

Ultimately, nothing comes of them, but he and his father come awfully close at the end:

That last panel is so heartbreaking, isn’t it? They’re almost there, they just need someone to invent sewing and they’ve got it. That's actually the second to-last-page, above. This one also had a darkly amusing ending, but not nearly as dark as The Snowman.

One of the running gags in the book is all the anachronisms in it; the characters refer to increments of time like the week, minute or lunch, and Briggs dutifully explains them with footnotes:

This book is also unequivocally a comic book.

The most recent Briggs book I could find was 2004’s The Puddleman, which is a bit of a hybrid comic/picture book, along the lines of The Bear. Most of it is told with panels and dialogue bubbles, but there’s a page or two in which the large amounts of dialogue are presented as prose floating in white space above the characters.

The title character is an old man in a raincoat who carries puddles on his back and delivers them to the holes where one would find puddles. The little boy who stars in the story meets the puddleman while on a walk with his grandfather, although not until his grandfather gets distracted by a neighbor and the boy rounds the corner to talk puddles with the puddleman.

While the puddleman gives the book its name and makes for the most magical event in the book, the story is really about the relationship between the inquisitive, rambunctious little boy and his somewhat put-upon grandfather.

It’s a rather sweet little story, and one I imagine anyone who’s spent much time around a little kid would find sweeter.

The final book I read was When The Wind Blows, a 1982 book that blew me away. Seth refers to it in his Gentleman Jim introduction (it stars the Jim and Hilda Bloggs characters that are in Gentleman Jim). “Certainly his lasting importance is alone assured by the critical attention he received for When The Wind Blows…the book is almost universally recognized as one of the most touching and powerful treatments of nuclear war.”

And yet that didn’t really prepare me for the book at all. By the time I was finished, I was downright shocked that I had never heard of it—or Briggs in terms of a graphic novelist—before. Why wasn’t this mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen, Maus and The Dark Knight Returns, the holy trinity of transformative works that people are always citing as the tectonic shift in the comics medium?

Like all three of those books, When The Wind Blows is a deceptively mature** work that addresses the major anxiety of its day, captures the zeitgeist of its era, and deal with some of the same subject matter as those other three works.

If you haven’t read it, I highly suggest you look for it at your local library. It’s definitely a comic/graphic novel; it’s all panels.

Most of the action concerns the Bloggs; retired Jim and his stay-at-home wife Hilda, and is set at their home in the English countryside. Neither is very political or even interested in world politics; he goes to the library to read about current events, but seems to retain very little, while she isn’t interested at all.

That doesn’t mean they’re exempt from nuclear war though. When a man on the radio warns that the Cold War is about to get hot, Jim goes about preparing their home for a nuclear attack, following the guidelines in a pamphlet he got at the library, with Hilda barely understanding what’s going on.

The first half of the book is downright comical, as the Bloggs are very much like naïve, grown-up children (something played for laughs in Gentleman Jim). In fact, there was a great deal of suspense about whether there would be a war, because a nuclear missile going off at some point just seemed so dissonant from the tone Briggs establishes around the Bloggs household.

The pages are jam-packed with little panels—20 to 30 per page, more often than not—but would occasionally give way to a double page splash, of a dark missile or a dark submarine, and a caption like “Meanwhile, on a distant plain…” or “Meanwhile, in a distant ocean…” slowly building suspense.

At the risk of spoiling it if you haven’t read it, the bomb goes off (in an incredible sequence, involving an all-white flash on a double-page spread, one that temporarily destroys the comics grid on the following pages, and we watch as the sequence of panels gradually return to normal after being bathed in hot white light and shaken violently.

From there, the rest of the book is the Bloggs coping with what’s going on, trying to keep a stiff upper lip and encourage one another, and it is just heartbreaking stuff. Neither seems to know what’s going on exactly, not even recognizing the onset of deadly radiation poisoning (or refusing to recognize it), and throughout the entire narrative they keep comparing the Cold War (and the threat of nuclear war) to the World War they lived through, which has become completely romanticized by the early ‘80s in their minds. They also keep forgetting to say “Ruskie,” but keep slipping back to talk of “The Jerries.”

We all know, at least in an abstract sense, than all wars inevitably cost the lives of innocent civilians, but it’s one thing to know that as a faceless fact, and quite another to see innocent civilians caught up in a conflict they don’t understand, know anything about, or particularly care about. Briggs doesn’t really delve into things like who shot first or why, and the Bloggs are totally out of it; they don’t even know who their prime minister is, or what’s going on with the Russians and the Americans at the time. And yet they still have to pay the same price as those that do.

Reading this last week was a strange experience, because I haven’t really thought about horrifying the prospect of nuclear war—something I used to actively worry about as a little kid—actually is for so long, and I actually felt a bit of relief reading this; a “Whew, well at least that’s over.”

But then I thought about the fact that, nuclear conflict or not, there were probably thousands of people like the Bloggs in Iraq, people that were completely ignorant of their government and that of the United States and the powers in the region and whatever conflicts the rest of the world might have with their leader, people who were more than content to live their own lives as they were. And those people got destroyed anyway.

And now it’s Tuesday night as I type this, and between reading When The Wind Blows and thinking about the Cold War and our current hot wars, Russia and Georgia have gone to war, and the Cold War seems less over than it did last week.

So, if you haven’t, read When The Wind Blows. It will make you feel horrible, which is as good a testament to how effective a work it is as anything else.

*Here I should note that if Contract With God should be disqualified from being called a “graphic novel” simply because it’s a collection of short stories instead of a novel, so should all three of these Briggs works, as they are more “graphic short stories” or, perhaps if one’s generous, “graphic novellas.” But little good ever comes out of arguments over what to call these damn things we read; “graphic novel” is what the most people call them, and language is ultimately democratic. The mob says “graphic novel,” and the mob rules.

**I am allowed to call a Frank Miller book “mature” without losing all my comics blogger cred right? To clarify, I mean mature as in dealing with subject matter beyond what people off the street might expect, be it a Batman comic book that has child-molester Joker breaking his own neck and Batman and Superman beating each other to death, or a book about cartoon mice that is actually about the holocaust.


Andrew Hickey said...

Briggs is pretty much revered over here in the UK. I think the reason his stuff isn't rated by 'comics fans' is that - much like Posy Simmonds, his closest contemporary - he wasn't promoting his stuff as 'comics'.
There's an excellent animated version of When The Wind Blows, BTW. And you should really track down Briggs' Ethel And Ernest, a comic about his parents...

Phillyradiogeek said...

I've posted the animated versions of both The Snowman and When The Wind Blows on my blog previously. I've never actually seen his books, although I know they were the original source of the stories. I'll definitely need to check them out now. Thanks!


SallyP said...

I have to admit that these all look fabulous.

David page said...

Father christmas last seen shilling for kit kat


Philip said...

Briggs is wonderful. I'm going to have to track down Ug and The Puddleman, which I had never heard of before now.

I second the recommendation for Ethel and Ernest. It's very touching.

If you can find it, it's worth checking out The Tin Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman, which is a children's book about the Falkland Islands War.

Fungus the Bogeyman is gross, but a lot of fun. It presents the monster under the bed as just a guy doing his job.

Caleb said...

Thanks for the suggestions for future reading (and viewing) all.

Briggs is pretty much revered over here in the UK.

Just in google image searching for cover images of his books to post, I noticed most of the sites about Briggs seemed to be British ones.

Earlofthercs said...

Thanks so much Caleb! I was taling to a friend about how much we both like Shaun Tan's work a while back, and that got us started on `is it a picture book or a comic' discussion. We could both think of newish books that blurred the line, but I was sure I'd read other, older, childrens books that seamed more like comics before... but couldn't think (coherently) of any examples. So, thanks for reminding me! (I'd read `when the wind blows' a ways back, but couldn't remember who wrote it or what it was called exactly).

Anonymous said...

Pure classics :). I'm always on the hunt for great children's books and have recently discovered Bayard and their series of StoryBoxBooks, AdventureBoxBooks and DiscoveryBoxBooks (which is a special Olympic edition) They have work by acclaimed children's books illustrator Helen Oxenbury appearing in the Storybox series for September. In addition to this, they also have some great activities for rainy days: http://www.storyboxbooks.com/potatoprinting.php, http://www.adventureboxbooks.com/macaroni-picture-frames.php, http://www.discoveryboxbooks.com/skittles.php Enjoy!

Steve Flanagan said...

Reading Ethel and Ernest makes When the Wind Blows all the more horrifying, as it becomes very clear that Jim and Hilda Bloggs were based on his own parents.