Portrait of a comic genius

31st October 2003 at 00:00
A biographical celebration of author and illustrator Raymond Briggs is picture perfect for Jane Doonan

RAYMOND BRIGGS: Blooming Books. Words by Nicolette Jones. The Bodley Head pound;19.99.

Raymond Briggs is on record as saying that, as a childless widower, he doesn't have a great knowledge of children - except his partner's grandchildren - he doesn't go into schools, and, above all, he hated to be given books when he was a child. (Hated to be given books! Set that in capital letters on a speech balloon with jagged edges.) What irony then, that Briggs has created so many perfect presents that find their way into Christmas stockings and class libraries and engage with recipients of all ages: illustrated nursery rhymes, Father Christmas, The Snowman and The Bear for the youngest children; The Man and Ug: boy genius of the Stone Age, for youngsters old enough to relish banter and bathos; Fungus the Bogeyman, especially for bookworms; When the Wind Blows, The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman for the peacekeepers; Ethel and Ernest for budding social historians and their teachers and grandparents; and now there's Raymond Briggs: Blooming Books for anyone curious to know the intentions that lie behind the stories.

Blooming Books is a biographical celebration, sumptuously illustrated with examples of Briggs's work, with words by Nicolette Jones. Her commentary primarily focuses upon the underlying philosophy of Briggs's themes and how this relates to his family background as the son of a Labour-voting milkman and a fastidious mother - a former lady's maid who wanted the best for her son but was bewildered by the choices he made for himself.

Jones organises the book into four main sections, each illustrated with one or more complete picture book texts, and shorter sequences from others.

This format allow us to appreciate how Briggs has advanced the range of the picture book medium through the art of comics, the astonishing variety of characters he has created, and the many graphic styles at his command; it also reveals just how truly the epithet "boundary breaker" applies to him.

Briggs has chosen the art form of the comic for most of his major works, which is well suited to exploring his often complex themes and creating rounded characters. Comic book art, with its sequence of many frames on panels of varying shapes and sizes, offers greater possibilities for showing all kinds of developments than the traditional picture book, which has fewer frames on which to show the story.

Thirty years ago, when Briggs published his first book in strip frame format, Father Christmas - "the book that guaranteed his immortality", as Jones puts it - he also encountered the snobbery that assumes a picture story is not worthy of serious attention. As Briggs was to show over the years, the art of the comic book - associated with trivia, children's reading and humour - could bear the weight of the most serious themes.

Mainstream book publishers entered the graphic novel field in the 1980s with limited success, but Briggs's When the Wind Blows, written in 1982, at a time of tension between the nuclear superpowers and the revival of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, was an unexpected and deserved hit. Jones gives us an interesting account of the history of the book's publication, and how copies were sent to MPs courting their opinions. (No prizes for guessing who ignored the invitation.) Technically, Briggs is an innovative cartoonist. For When the Wind Blows he designed his work to fit the medium, making the page-turn itself structure changes between international and domestic events, and building up suspense and tension.

In Gentleman Jim, the story of a lavatory cleaner who wants to better himself, Briggs designs complex double-page frames that show his hero in the present, dreaming about a career in the future, by conjuring up images of the past. And The Bear, featuring an attempt at home-sharing between a small girl and a polar bear, shows a dramatic use of the scale and shape of individual panels to imply movements through time and space, and to enhance the innocent sensuousness of the relationship between the protagonists.

Briggs's characters and themes amply demonstrate his belief that comic book art is "a subtle and expressive literary and visual form". He favours heroes who are limited by background and circumstances, but have intimations that greater possibilities exist. Briggs repeatedly explores gaps of various kinds: in The Man, between the educated and uneducated, the aesthete and the philistine; in Gentleman Jim, the gap between dream and reality; in Ug: boy genius of the Stone Age, the generation gap; and the conceptual gap between living a life of squalor and thinking philosophically, as bogeymen such as Fungus do.

Briggs also likes playing with contradictions within a character's personality; indeed, his psychological accuracy rings bells for his readers across the age range. And he goes boundary-breaking among the genres, designing the The Man and The Bear to function on the surface of a page as a play does on the stage, where the actors' words are experienced as an integral part of the action. In these two intriguing picture books the text is either in speech balloons or delivered like a playscript, with lines assigned to the speaker by proximity or changes of print style. As there is no narrator, the reader involuntarily gives a performance in character to accompany the pictures.

Briggs blurs the genre boundaries in Ethel and Ernest, regarded as the key to understanding all his works. It is an unsentimental, moving account, in graphic novel form, of his parents' marriage, and a social history of the 1920s to the 1970s that chronicles changing attitudes, personal domestic details, technological advances and world-wide events. Jones makes the point that schools use Ethel and Ernest as a set text to illuminate 20th-century history, and anyone who has lived through that period will savour the visual details.

Paradoxically, Briggs chooses the picture book format, associated with the young, for his satirical work for adults, The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman: at once a historical testament, a tribute to the dead and his condemnation of the political events surrounding the Falklands crisis.

Readers who enjoyed Shirley Hughes's autobiography, A Life Drawing, published last year, or Quentin Blake's account of his life's work in Quentin Blake: words and pictures, initially might miss the artist's personal voice so evident in those books, but there is a sense in which every one of Briggs's picture books speaks of, and for him; through them we can have no doubts about the values he holds, and we get more than an inkling about his personality. Mostly all designed in comic form, too: blooming marvellous.

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