Celebrating Raymond Briggs – ‘Gentleman Jim’ And ‘Ethel & Ernest’ – Two Incredible Works

In tribute to Raymond Briggs, two more of his finest works, all about family and dreaming…

Gentleman Jim and Ethel & Ernest are perhaps Raymond Briggs‘s first and last words in terms of graphic novels for adults. The former from 1980, the latter from 1998. Both should be considered essential works from the man who sadly left us on 9th August 2022.

It all starts in 1980 where, after huge successes with Father Christmas, Fungus The Bogeyman, and The Snowman, Raymond Briggs turned his attention to something more adult, chronicling the life of toilet attendant Jim Bloggs. Such a lowly position, yet fittingly down-to-Earth for Briggs, whose work with the everyman and everywoman and a sense of railing against authority would become a feature of what was to come.

 

Gentleman Jim is important, not just because it’s Briggs’ first adult work but also because it’s the first book to feature Jim & Hilda Bloggs, later to appear in Briggs’ masterpiece of nuclear terror; When The Wind Blows. And yes, of course, it’s obvious that Jim and Hilda Bloggs are Briggs’ own parents. Highly caricatured perhaps, but recognisable nonetheless.

 

Jim Bloggs is our hero, toilet attendant, innocent, uneducated, and almost childish in the way he looks out into the world from the safety and security of his mundane existence down in the Gents loos. His greatest wish is to escape, to start out again with Hilda at his side and do something more worthwhile. But he can’t, he just doesn’t have the drive, the passion, or, for that matter, the ‘right Levels’

But what Jim does have is an imagination. He’s a dreamer, longing for adventure, romance, and a little freedom. But poor, innocent, sweet Jim rapidly falls foul of those in authority when he tries to broaden his horizons. His quest to become a cowboy was doomed to failure, not least because he can’t afford the boots – and he definitely can’t afford the horse. But his idea of living the life of a Highwayman, just like the Gentleman Jim in one of his books, is far more attainable – but every step he takes toward his Highwayman goal takes him one step nearer disaster.

 

Setting out in his thrown-together Highwayman’s outfit of old wellies, a silk blouse, jumble sale black cloth for a cape, and an old donkey that will have to make do for a dashing steed, Jim soon falls foul of an increasingly threatening procession of authority figures. But poor Jim still believes he’ll be alright, still trusts in his innocence carrying him through it all. So off he goes, out to rob the rich to feed the poor. And it ends as you expect it would – although of course there’s a little dash of redemption of sorts when Gentleman Jim finds his talents are of use in his new home at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. After all, even a prison needs a toilet attendant.

Just as you see in Briggs’s work on When The Wind Blows and The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman, Briggs switches magnificently between the simple, uncomplicated character work of Hilda and Jim trapped in the claustrophobic mundanity of their lives in tight panels, through to expansive visions of Jim’s dreaming, all the way through to vicious imagery in his portrayal of the authority figures, whether it’s the faceless, robotic traffic warden or a Judge worthy of Scarfe.

 

Gentleman Jim is an absolute masterpiece of the mundane, the whimsical, and the power of the imagination. It’s also heartbreaking in its utter destruction of a simple man’s dreams, yet because it’s Briggs, it also manages to be strangely uplifting, funny, and angry at authority with Briggs having much to say on the nature of our lives and the ways that our world cannot cope with its dreamers.

 

Now, if Gentleman Jim was the first real look at Briggs’s parents, Ethel & Ernest Briggs, much more was to come in what should be considered his masterpiece, 1998’s Ethel & Ernest.

In Ethel & Ernest, Briggs tells the tale of his parents’ lives, from their first meeting all the way through to their deaths – it’s one of my favourite graphic novels of all time and will never be finished without tears flowing.

 

Their first meeting sets the tone here, something so simple and yet so lovely. It’s 1928 and Ethel is working as a ladies’ maid whilst Ernest is working as a milkman. One morning, as Ernest is cycling by on his way to work, Ethel shakes out a duster from the window and receives a cheeky wave in reply from the passing cyclist. The next morning, the same happens, Ernest waving his cap back at a blushing Ethel. By the end of a week of this, on Ethel’s only day off, he turns up on the doorstep, a bunch of flowers in his hands, and offers to take her to the movies.

After that, as the years roll by, we see these two wonderfully down-to-Earth people fall in love and live their lives in a simple, yet enthralling fashion, a true love that enchants in the telling. Sure, this Ernest may not be quite as much of a dreamer as the proto-Ernest Jim Bloggs, but he’s got a heart of gold and a love to share.

 

Of course, given the times they were living in, there’s tragedy in there as well, both personal and then particularly in the war years, where Briggs shows us all the destruction and devastation wrought upon the everyday people.

 

And as was always Briggs’s way, the sentimentality that could have proved somewhat overpowering is always tempered by reality. Yes, this may be a love story, but it’s the sort of love story we can all dream of, not the hearts and flowers of a Hollywood rom-com.

In Briggs’s telling, he gently lampoons his parents throughout, the gentlest of teasing as time moves on and they absolutely fail to keep up with it, lampoons their foibles and their sometimes outdated ideas, but all of it, absolutely all of it is done with a huge amount of love.

Just as he’d done in his other works, Briggs’s telling of his parents’ lives also works as a quite brilliant piece of social history as we travel through time with these two people, watching the world change as we do, through Briggs’s consummate grasp of detail in his storytelling.

Throughout it all, Briggs stuns with his artistry, never failing to capture the moments, always delivering beautiful imagery in all the mundane moments. But there’s a sequence of near full pages scattered throughout the book that are profoundly impressive, as Briggs shows events moving on against the backdrop of Ethel and Ernest’s simple little house, the one they bought to live married life in, the one they had their troublesome, headed for art school son in, and the one they grow older together in.

And, heartbreakingly inevitable, it’s the house where they see their final days – and if those last few pages don’t leave you in tears then honestly, I don’t know what will.

 

Simply put, to me, it’s perfection in comics form.

So, with the passing of Raymond Briggs, I implore you, if you already have them, get out his works and read them again. And if you don’t, head to a bookstore and buy them.

Buy Father Christmas for its grumpy wonder, buy When The Wind Blows to be chilled by the most powerful tale of nuclear war you could ever read, buy Gentleman Jim for an exploration of a dreamer.

And then, because you need to read one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever read, buy Ethel & Ernest.

 

 

In tribute to Raymond Briggs, two more of his finest works, all about family and dreaming… Gentleman Jim and EthelCOMICONRead More

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