Raymond Briggs and other things I don’t know a lot about

Caleb Mozzocco has a nice post surveying some of Raymond Briggs’ books, and describing the “aha” moment when he realized that the mind behind that trippy Snowman movie from his childhood should be ranked with the great graphic novelists.

The final book I read was When The Wind Blows, a 1982 book that blew me away. … By the time I was finished, I was downright shocked that I had never heard of it—or Briggs in terms of a graphic novelist—before. Why wasn’t this mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen, Maus and The Dark Knight Returns, the holy trinity of transformative works that people are always citing as the tectonic shift in the comics medium?

Funnily enough, Paul Gravett’s book GRAPHIC NOVELS does precisely that — places When the Wind Blows in Gravett’s canon of 30 or so essential GNs, then links it to thematically similar works. Considering that Gravett is (in my limited understanding) basically the key figure in the modern British graphic novel scene, it’s a fascinating illustration of the differences between the British and North American comics cultures.

But I can relate to a lot of Caleb’s post. I remember there was a day, during one of the collegiate summers I spent at my parents’ house, when I literally went down to the shelf where the old beloved children’s books were kept (old editions of Narnia and Tolkien and Gary Paulsen and such), found The Snowman, flipped through it to find my suspicions confirmed, and brought it back upstairs with me to place onto my comics shelf. At this very moment it’s in my bedroom standing next to Chester Brown’s Louis Riel. (Amusingly, it also has a “Merry Christmas, Leigh; I love you” inscription from my aunt dating to 1987, complete with the signature of two-year-old Leigh.)

Since my own rediscovery and reclassification of The Snowman, I’ve seen Briggs as a graphic novelist who was never regarded in those terms because he never participated in the comics scene. He’s too popular to be a graphic novelist. By that I mean, for some reason his work is something that the general public can easily embrace without any of the qualms that keep them from embracing a “comic book,” and since he’s been selling gangbusters without being classed with comics, there’s never been any motive for him to make the connection. More cynically: he escaped the comics ghetto.

I was sorry to read in the Guardian that some abusive contracts seem to have kept him from enjoying the profits of his success, though. Here I assumed in the Real Books industry things were different.

I mentally classify Briggs with Edward Gorey and maybe a couple others — people who spent the 20th century hacking through the same jungle as the “canonical” graphic novelists, but independently rather than in affiliation with Team Comix. Interesting how, say, Jules Feiffer makes it into the canon but somebody like Shel Silverstein doesn’t quite (though both are incredibly popular).

I dunno, maybe that’s my subjective take based on historical accidents like whose rights were available for a recent Fantagraphics collection and whose weren’t. Well, not to mention that Feiffer wrote the book on early comic book culture… but I digress.

What’s so interesting about this at the moment is that as the “graphic novel”/”comic book” label has become Hot Stuff in the mainstream, whether we’ll see more attempts to reconceptualize the great cartoonists who found success outside of those labels. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home strikes me as a book that would have completely avoided the comics scene altogether if it had been published ten years ago — i.e. she would have been another Gorey or Briggs — but we claimed it as “one of ours” and her publisher was happy to position it that way. In 2006, it was the right move. Fantagraphics has been treading an interesting line with the Peanuts edition, framing it primarily as a Great American Comic Strip and Hey Remember Pigpen? but with subtle hints of connection to the contemporary Graphic Novel hotness.

I find these questions of identity endlessly fascinating. Not the tedious debate of What’s In and What’s Out — I’m easy, as far as I’m concerned it’s All In — but the way some things get accepted as Comics and others remain invisible. We encounter these things in such different contexts that sometimes it takes a crossover moment (Gravett covering Briggs, Maus winning the Pulitzer, Marvel publishing ElfQuest, my public library shelving ElfQuest next to Tintin and Asterix, Marvel publishing Frank Cho, Marvel publishing Gary Panter, Dark Horse publishing Nicholas Gurewitch, Disney Adventures publishing Bone, Scholastic publishing Bone, Pantheon publishing Posy Simmonds, Playboy publishing the author of The Giving Tree, Top Shelf publishing the creator of Earthworm Jim, Tom Spurgeon covering editorial cartoonists, etc) to force people to reevaluate their categories.

3 Responses to “Raymond Briggs and other things I don’t know a lot about”

  1. 1 Katherine Farmar August 14, 2008 at 4:31 am

    Briggs is extraordinary, isn’t he? His versatility is something else — compare When the Wind Blows to Fungus the Bogeyman to Gentleman Jim to Ethel and Ernest

    Categories are tricky things. I’m always a little surprised (though I should be used to it by now) when people talk about newspaper cartoons as something classed in the same box as long-form comics. It just… on some level it seems wrong to me, and I could probably come up with a rational justification (in some ways they’re very different things), but the justification isn’t where the feeling comes from.

  2. 2 eric reynolds August 14, 2008 at 6:52 am

    “Interesting how, say, Jules Feiffer makes it into the canon but somebody like Shel Silverstein doesn’t quite (though both are incredibly popular).”

    Well, to be fair, Jules worked in the comic book and comic strip field, Shel really didn’t. Jules wrote the Spirit, attempted a syndicated daily (Clifford), wrote a defining book on comic book culture, and virtually invented the alternative weekly strip. He’s removed from the industry in a lot of ways, but is nonetheless a part of the field in a more substantive way than Shel ever was (don’t get me wrong, I adore Silverstein).

  3. 3 David Wynne August 14, 2008 at 7:11 pm

    it’s a fascinating illustration of the differences between the British and North American comics cultures.

    It certainly is. I don’t think you’d find many people on this side of the pond who would be surprised to hear Briggs described as a graphic novelist, or even simply as a cartoonist. But then, we’ve never had an industry dominated by one genre the way you guys have, so it’s a lot easier to see the links between, say, Posey Simmons, Steve Bell, Leo Baxendale, Frank Bellamy, and Carlos Ezquerra.

    that said, you would, even today, have a hard time convincing most non-comics people that their work is anything other than juvenalia. The comics ghetto mey be more inclusive here… but it’s still a ghetto…

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Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).


Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.

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