Picture Books 004: Raymond Briggs, GENTLEMAN JIM

Drawn & Quarterly · 1980

The Comics Journal saved my life.

Okay, that's too melodramatic. And even if, in retrospect, I'm sure I would have found my way out of the aesthetic and moral dead zone which comic books at the close of 1998 had become for me, the Journal's list of the hundred best comics of the twentieth century (officious, elitist, and pugnacious as the Journal always was) blew in air from a clearer, more human country. Superheros had become my life, the only narrative form I was willing to consider. Sure, like many comics fans I gave lip service to the idea that comics was a medium and superheros only a genre, but it wasn't old Pogo and Tintin books that littered the carpet of my one-room. I was beginning to feel desperate, my dreams slipping away from me; if Vertigo didn't respond to my proposal for a serious, gritty take on Ultra the Multi-Alien, I would never be a writer.*

I think I first became aware of the Journal's list when some cantankerous denizens of the superhero-centric message board I mostly called home posted a link to gripe and cavill at. Only a handful of superhero titles! Jack Kirby (himself) no higher than #30! Magazine cartoons on a list of comics! It was the worst, most fraudulent exercise in humbug elitism yet perpetuated by those assholes and degenerates at Fantagraphics, Inc.

I stared thunderstruck at the list. Names I had almost forgotten washed over me, names from the Smithsonian Book Of Newspaper Comics which I had pored over in youth, checked out from the library again and again in order to watch Hu Shee save Terry Lee's life with a car and a revolver, puzzle over the long-dead slang employed by the raffish Moon Mullins and Barney Google, learn what sex was from Al Capp, and stare at the J. R. Williams panel cartoons so hard as to practically will myself to step into their lazy, nostalgic neverland. It was in that instant, though I wouldn't realize it for another five years, that the spell which superheros had cast over me in my late teens (something surely to do with sexuality and power and a weak sense of self) was broken. The day the 210th issue of the Journal came out, I bought it and devoured it. The first thing I bought after that was Seth's It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken (#52 on the list).

(I cannot express how it altered my life. I was finally given permission to love all the old things I had always loved as a child — black-and-white movies, early comic strips, blues and jazz and ragtime, civilization built out of wood and stone with no plastic anywhere — but I was also, in Seth's sad chase after a fictive shadow, warned not to let nostalgia get the upper hand; love what you love, but think first. But all of this is nothing to the point.)

I began to steep myself in the history of cartooning, haunting used bookstores and snapping up old New Yorker cartoon collections, old newspaper strip collections, old comic books that did not feature superheros. I read allusive European art comics, flashy Japanese sci-fi comics, dry Canadian autobio comics and the weird, gross effusions of the underground. Most of the places I got my education from are no longer in existence; but one of the books that most thoroughly reoriented my outlook, and marked a subtle sea-change in all of comics even at the time, I bought at a national chain store which still does a roaring trade today. The store was Borders; the book was Ethel And Ernest by Raymond Briggs.

This isn't the place to go into a description of Ethel And Ernest; I'm six paragraphs in and haven't yet mentioned the nominal subject of this review. Suffice it to say that I consider it one of the four or five greatest works of art in the medium of comics, and reading it actually made me angry that the Journal hadn't waited until after the century was over to compile its list: how would the comics scavengers of the future be alerted to its presence? They needed this book. Well; I needed it, anyway. Its rich depiction of two ordinary, almost defiantly humble lives (the author's parents) set the standard for the vision of humanism which remains my most important criterion in evaluating art. The sickening self-satisfaction and meaningless eventness** of superhero — hell, nearly all — comics were intolerable after Ethel And Ernest.

So when Drawn & Quarterly republished one of Briggs' old books from the 1980s, there was no question but that I would snap it up. I'm pretty sure its purchase price set me in the red (that's true of about half the books I've really wanted for the past ten years), but just having it was enough. I didn't even read it. (Well, I tried once, on a long road trip. I've rarely been sicker.)

Gentleman Jim isn't Ethel And Ernest (very few books are), but as Seth's*** introduction notes perceptively, the dreamy, uneducated Jim Bloggs isn't a million miles away from Ernest, and simple, agreeable Hilda Bloggs is uncomfortably like Ethel. (If you've read or seen When The Wind Blows, it's the same couple again.) It's about as savage a caricature as Briggs seems capable of when dealing with people — the real target of his satirical scorn isn't Jim's rather stupid, Walter Mitty-esque attempts to live out a romantic fantasy, but the hyperlegalization of British life that has passed him by; officials and busybodies and superior persons of all sorts earn his ire. Though flipping back through the book it's not the dryly whimsical plot that stands out, but the fantasies, two-page spreads in gorgeous colors belying the drab hues of 1980 England.

But what's most fascinating that among the adventuresome fantasies Jim entertains — highwayman, cowboy, RAF pilot — is wedged the Executive, as seen in advertisements of the late 70s, all feathered hair and miles of brass. Briggs's sardonic point being that the illusion of wealthy competence is just another addled dream borrowed from the fantasy-merchants of television and magazines.

It's a beautiful book — Brigg's colored-pencil aesthetic was only bettered in Ethel And Ernest — but it is nevertheless slight, a brief fable of modernity that looks and reads so much like 1980 Britain that I half expect to hear the theme from Fawlty Towers as I close it. I'm glad to have read it, but I'm much more eager to see Briggs tackle another book for grown-ups.

*Sadly, nothing in this sentence was exaggerated for comic effect.

**By which I mean just one damn thing after another.

***Yes, him again.

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