‘When The Wind Blows’: Raymond Briggs’ Apocalyptic Masterpiece
by Richard Bruton
Raymond Briggs passed away this past week at the age of 88 – to celebrate the life of this genius of comics, it’s time to revisit some of his greatest moments – starting off with When The Wind Blows.
When The Wind Blows is a tale of nuclear devastation, viewed from Briggs’ familiar everyman character’s perspective, and is possibly the greatest modern example of speculative graphic fiction and is just as moving and frightening now as it was 28 years ago when first published.
The book’s huge emotional impact is due to Briggs’ down-to-earth characters; the ruddy-faced James (Jim) and Hilda Bloggs. Having retired to their little country idyll, their quant little house that they’ve called ‘Jimilda’, this old-fashioned working-class couple, obviously devoted to each other, potters on doing the simple little things, innocent and ignorant to everything going on in the world beyond them, apart from the reports in the newspaper and on their little radio.
And even when the news gets darker and darker, with a three-day warning of hostilities, they have this unshakeable optimism, believing that things will be okay as long as they do what they’ve been told, just like it was in the last war.
“Well, if the worst comes to the worst, we’ll just have to roll up our sleeves, tighten our belts and put on our tin hats till it’s VE day again.”
“It won’t be like that this time love.”
“Well, we survived the last one, we can do it again. It’ll take more than a few bombs to get me down.”
“Yes, we must always look on the bright side, ducks.”
Unprepared and confused, they’re helpless as the radio issues dire warnings of the unthinkable and then, faced with imminent nuclear attack, they blindly and naively rely on the government’s inadequate “Protect & Survive” leaflets, James busying himself with constructing shelters from doors, painting their windows white to shield from the blast whilst Hilda frets over the mess he’s making, gathering enough food and water to last them.
“You are not going to ruin the paintwork, James!”
“Oh, don’t worry. I can soon touch it in again after The Bomb’s gone off.”
“Well, mind you do. Just you be careful, James! I’ll put the screws in a plastic bag. You’ll only go and lose them.”
That it’s all useless, that we know that no preparation will keep them safe, that’s where Briggs really turns the emotional screws. We immediately recognise this lovably quaint and quintessentially British couple, full of that old-fashioned stiff-upper-lip belief that doing what those in charge tell them to do will keep them safe, cheerily making preparations to survive when we know they won’t – it’s heartbreakingly brutal from Briggs.
With When The Wind Blows, there was nothing in Briggs’ earlier work that could prepare any of his readers for the horrors, the misery, and the absolute heartbreak of this one. Not even the cover, with its obvious mushroom cloud overshadowing the sweet old couple, could dispel the idea that Briggs was back with another lovely little tale.
When it was released in 1982, with the nuclear clock ticking and with the world full of news of the latest political posturings of the super-powers, there was a palpable sense that nuclear war was a real possibility. And despite the government’s reassurance, most people realised all the government advice found in those handy little leaflets ‘Protect and Survive’ and ‘The Householder’s Guide to Survival’ were just completely futile things, nothing would save us.
It’s a more effective anti-war message than anything any government could make. From the moment the bomb explodes it’s obvious that James and Hilda are going to die a horrible, lingering death from radiation sickness, but it’s the heartbreaking deterioration you witness; sickness, hair loss, sores, all coupled with the futile determination to make the best of things that stays with you long after the book is finished.
Throughout When the Wind Blows, Jim and Hilda’s tiny little existence is matched by Briggs’ artistic choices, with most of the pages utilizing a cramped, confining seven-tier layout, one that really emphasised the small, parochial lives we were observing. And it’s that uniformity of the pages that make the exceptions stand out, terrifyingly so at times.
Early on, the seven-tier pages of Jim and Hilda are interrupted by the nuclear weapons being slowly brought to bear, with huge, bleak, dark double-page spreads of missiles, aircraft, and submarines preparing to unleash their deadly cargo to incredibly striking effect.
And then, inevitably, it happens, and the simplicity of it is as brutal as the realization, just a double page of white, blinding, obliterating white, edged with red, followed by a page in the aftermath of the blast, so damaging that it even causes the very panels of the page to shift and sway with the force of what’s happened.
And then there also a magnificent tonal change we see on the pages as things progress; lush countryside palette gives way to sickly brown/green/yellow post-detonation. Briggs drains the life from his own artwork as the radiation drains the life from his characters. It’s simply incredible artwork from a master storyteller.
“We won’t have to worry about a thing. Just leave everything to them… they’ll know what to do. The Powers That Be will get to us in the end…”
“You have got the box with our Medical Cards and Birth Certificates, haven’t you?”
“Yes dear. They’re quite safe. Night, night Hilda.”
“Night, night, Jimmy, dear.”
When The Wind Blows manages to be sentimental, gently funny and horrifying in equal measure, proving yet again the genius of Raymond Briggs.
When The Wind Blows still sends a shiver down the spine and should be held up as a masterpiece of speculative science-fiction writing. It’s unmatched, for my money, in any medium, for bringing the absolute horrors of nuclear war and its effects on normal people to an audience.
If you’ve never read it, add it to a list of the essential books you need to read. But be prepared, this is no easy read, and it’s one that, one read, will never leave you. Such is the power, the brilliance, of what Briggs puts on the page.