Raymond Briggs (1934 – 2022): What He Meant To Comics And Me
by Richard Bruton
Another genius of comics lost this week as Raymond Briggs, beloved comics creator, died on 9th August 2022, aged 88. The comics world is profoundly lessened by his passing.
One of the greatest of British comic makers, Raymond Briggs’ passing on 9th August has affected so many of us who loved his work.
We know we’ll not see his like again, a true genius, one of a kind, and responsible for bridging that gap, long before it was fashionable and popular, between comics as a niche little medium and a mass medium.
In Britain, Briggs was THE comics creator responsible for bringing comics to the masses. It was that simple.
Now, I don’t intend to give you an obituary here, you can go read extensive articles on the man’s life and work elsewhere – try this from The Guardian or this from the BBC, and read what others thought of him here in The Guardian. No, I’m going to talk about two things – how important he was to me, throughout my life, and how important he was as a comic artist. Elsewhere this week, I’ll do a celebration of his work through Art For Art’s Sake.
He may have started off in illustration, but his extensive and most important works are all comics (not that Briggs really cared all that much for making the distinction, he simply did what he did.) The author of Father Christmas (1973), Father Christmas Goes On Holiday (1975), Fungus the Bogeyman (1977), The Snowman (1978), Gentleman Jim (1980), When the Wind Blows (1982), The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman (1984), The Man (1992), and Ethel & Ernest: A True Story (1998), amongst many more, was a special creator whose work was and is beloved by generations, young and old, comics devotees and those who say they’ve never read a comic in their lives.
Briggs occupied a strange position in the lives of most people, whether they happen to be comic readers or not. Thanks to a series of monumentally successful titles he’s incredibly well known in the UK and abroad. But that fame and success came under the label of children’s author thanks to his incredibly successful early books, capped off by the stratospheric success of The Snowman, particularly once the animated film was released. But very few people ever really acknowledge him as making comics. And rarely do they bring up the darker, more grown-up works. No mention of When The Wind Blows or Ethel & Ernest and the rest.
Incredibly it works the other way as well. The readers outside of comics may call Briggs a children’s author, but so does the British comics industry. I know of comic shops that will not stock his work because they just don’t consider what he does as proper comics. Insane perhaps, but true. Go into your local comics shop and see if they stock any of his work. You’ll see that I’m right in so many cases.
But whether the often too narrow-minded comics community calls Briggs’ work comics or not, it really doesn’t matter. Let them sit in their little genre ghettos and ignore the work that really brings comics to a bigger audience, the work that broadens the medium, the work that trailblazers… and Briggs did all that in spades.
Because Briggs was making comics for an awfully long time – some of the best, most memorable and varied comics of anyone in Britain or abroad.
Briggs was one of our greatest comic artists, a man responsible for bringing so much joy into the lives of children and adults, but a joy tempered with realism amongst the fantasy, sadness and tears amongst the delight, Briggs balanced everything so delicately, and the heartfelt reactions his comics evoke, whether we’re reading his children’s tales or more grown-up works, are pure and wonderful and last a lifetime.
Now, that was Briggs’ life and impact on comics… but now I’m going to be selfishly personal.
In terms of getting me into comics, I’ve long cited many different series, many different creators, but thanks to the limited but brilliant choice found tucked away in the picture book section of the children’s department at Dudley Public Library, there’s a special quartet of authors and creative teams that truly inspired my love for comics. There was Goscinny & Uderzo‘s Asterix, Hergé‘s Tintin, Morris’s Lucky Luke… and then there was Briggs and Fungus The Bogeyman.
I can’t remember the exact date of getting my hands on my first Briggs, but I know it was young and I know it was the wonderfully wart-filled and gratuitously green snot-filled pages of Fungus The Bogeyman.
My memory of first reading it is so vivid, even this many years ago. We’d gone to the library and were on our way to pick my dad up from his teaching job. I opened up the pages of this very strange-looking book and was instantly transported into a world of Bogeymen; of dampness, dirt, and slime; and where rancid and rotten revoltingness was everywhere, on every page, packed with Briggs’ absolutely ridiculously perfect comics art – and I was absolutely and completely hooked. One of those transformative moments.
After that, I went back and found, eventually – the kids at Dudley Library might have only had a few comics to choose from, but they loved them all and it was always hit or miss that you’d find something new – Father Christmas, Father Christmas Goes On Holiday, and The Snowman. Frankly, I was perplexed… after all, I knew that it was Hergé doing all the Tintins, knew it was Goscinny & Uderzo doing all the Asterix books, and they were all recognisably familiar from book to book. But Father Christmas and The Snowman were as far from Fungus The Bogeyman as I could expect.
And then one day, sometime after 1982, I wandered into Dudley Public Library, round the corner into the kids’ department, past the older kids’ prose books, all the way to the back where the real kiddie books were, including the picture book section.
And there… well, I found this…
Imagine… I was at least 11, maybe 12, but not much older than that.
And I wondered into the kids’ department of the local library and got this out and read it.
Why the shock? Well, the cover should give it away to you.
Because, if you don’t know (you really should) When The Wind Blows was (and is) a book that showed us, beautifully, emotionally, heartbreakingly, shockingly, and quite brilliantly, not just the very real threat of nuclear war in those days but the devastating and ultimately deadly impact of a nuclear blast on a simple and lovely everyman and everywoman couple, the sort of couple that could be mine or your grandparents. And here’s the bloke who did Fungus the Bogeyman and The Snowman showing us, is brutal detail, the effects of nuclear fallout and radiation poisoning on a pair of loveable old folks.
By the final turn of the page, I was in something like shock. This was a body blow of a read. But I don’t say that as a bad thing. Myself and so many other kids around that time (including, from what I’ve seen on Twitter – Stephen Collins, Kieron Gillen, and Rob Williams) read it and were simultaneously shocked and amazed by what we read.
You want a formative comics reading experience? I say mine was When The Wind Blows and I will forever thank Briggs for that.
Stupidly, as I grew up in comics I rather forgot about the joy of Briggs. Other things took over. Things with capes. Then things that were as alternative as possible.
Sure, there were many great comics in there. But I rather forgot about what got me into comics in the first place. I’d forgotten Asterix, forgotten Tintin, forgotten Lucky Luke.
Worst of all, I’d forgotten Raymond Briggs.
Thankfully, there were two things that brought me back.
First came 1998’s Ethel & Ernest, Briggs’s masterpiece, a biography of the lives of Briggs’s parent, from first meeting in 1928 to their deaths, tellingly close together, in 1971.
It’s everything Briggs’s books do so well, just perfect storytelling, documenting the highs and lows with truth, wit, sadness, and real poignancy. One that never fails to bring me to tears by the end.
Second, a year after Ethel & Ernest, along came baby Molly and a Christmas tradition of seasonal books to read. Which of course is where Father Christmas came in again.
Coming to it again, many years later and with the benefit of looking at it through old and young eyes I could see it for what it was, funny and yet realistic where reality had no right to be, a perfectly cynical and grumpy Father Christmas who still managed to find joy in the world, and a master illustrator doing beautiful things on the page, bringing happiness and joy to young and old.
So yes, Raymond Briggs has gone and the outpouring of love for his work over the past few days has been indicative of just how important he was to comics. A body of work that will live on, full of invention and imagination, an ability to subvert expectations with what he did, always finding the balance in the work – he did raw emotion and he did realism, knowing it’s better for the work to give the light some darkness.
His works always gave you the sweet and the sour, a realism and truth that gives all of his books meaning and poignancy. There’s that inevitability of things that this honest storyteller never shied away from, whether it’s the realisation that maybe Father Christmas’s job really is a bit of a nightmare, following Ethel & Ernest through a life well lived but knowing that it has to end, heartbreaking and alone, or the brutal realism in those last few words of When The Wind Blows.
But for me, this is the man who gave me Fungus The Bogeyman and When The Wind Blows as a child and the sublime Ethel and Ernest and, eventually, the wonderful Father Christmas as a grown-up. They will forever be amongst the greatest comics I’ve ever read.