Gentleman Jim by Raymond Briggs – a classic back in print at long last
by Raymond Briggs
Raymond Briggs occupies 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 this country and is one of the most popular authors in the country. But he’s primarily known as a children’s author thanks to his incredibly successful early books: Father Christmas, Father Christmas Goes On Holiday, Fungus The Bogeyman and, of course, The Snowman. 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 or this most wonderful book..
And incredibly it works the other way as well. The mainstream may dismiss Briggs as 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.
(Father Christmas 1973. An early Graphic Novel before we even knew what they were. Back they it was just called a children’s book and Raymond Briggs became a children’s author.)
But Raymond Briggs has been making comics for an awfully long time now. And if his 1973 Father Christmas doesn’t rank as one of the earliest Graphic Novels then I don’t know what does. He’s produced some of the best, most memorable and varied comics of anyone in Britain or abroad. Unfortunately because he hasn’t necessarily done it the accepted way, his work doesn’t receive the accolades it deserves from within the comics industry. Not, I imagine that Briggs necessarily minds, as he gets plenty of accolades from the wider world. It’s our problem, not his. His position is not unlike that of Posy Simmonds, another best-selling cartoonist whose work was easy to find in the pages of the Guardian or a large bookshop, but until recently would be found in only the more enlightened comic shops. Thankfully, Posy Simmonds is beginning to receive the attention she deserves, but Briggs’ work is still criminally underrated by many.
Case in point, his latest Graphic Novel: Gentleman Jim. After years of producing comics such as Father Christmas and Fungus the Bogeyman which were children’s stories with a dark side to them, Briggs’ turned his attention in 1980 to chronicling the life of toilet attendant Jim Bloggs. There’s much in here that a child could appreciate, after all, like much of Briggs’ work there are moments of fine comedy in Gentleman Jim. But this was where Briggs put down his marker and created his first work for adults. And it’s criminal that it’s been out of print for so long. Fortunately we have those nice people at Jonathan Cape to thank for bringing it back. (Drawn & Quarterly are publishing it in the USA). That such a seminal book as Gentleman Jim has been out of print is, frankly, shameful. In fact, would it be too much to start petitioning for some sort of collected Briggs volume?
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. Of course, after reading many of Briggs’ books and especially Ethel & Ernest, his beautifully written, heartbreaking celebration of his parent’s lives it’s obvious that Jim & Hilda Bloggs are Briggs’ own parents. Highly caricatured perhaps, but recognisable nonetheless.
(Gentleman Jim. Originally published 1980, now hetting a long overdue reprint. This is Jim. Living the mundane life of a toilet attendant. But Jim has dreams…..)
Jim Bloggs; 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”……………..
“It’s these Levels all the time in these adverts….. I wonder what they are? I bet it’s all to do with education – that’s what it is…. They give them these things at school nowadays. All we got was a Bible and a think ear.”
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 charge when he tries to broaden his horizons. Of course, his quest to become a cowboy was doomed to failure, not least because he can’t afford the boots and the gun dealer wants to see both his certificate and an export licence if poor Jim is going to live his dream of moving to Texas. After this he settles on living the life of a Highwayman, just like the Gentleman Jim in one of his books. But every step he takes toward his Highwayman goal takes him one step nearer disaster. Oh, Jim. Can’t you see it’s all going to end so badly for you?
Our hapless hero throws together his Highwayman’s outfit; 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. But it’s the donkey that proves his undoing….. and an increasingly threatening procession of authority figures march into Jim’s life bringing all manner of trouble. Nothing Jim does can stop this tide of authority. 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. But the final page offers a redemption of sorts. And 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.
Briggs’ characters are a rich mix of gentle caricature for the most part, with Jim and Hilda drawn as uncomplicated, round of face, ruddy of cheek and almost childlike in both appearance and body language. But when Briggs comes to detail his authority figures there’s a viciousness in his line, as each authority figure becomes just a blank stereotype, whether it’s the faceless, robotic traffic warden or the threatening joviality of the bumbling RSPCA gent. And then finally Briggs lets rip with a judge worthy of Scarfe, with harsh, sharpened features, you realise what a master of his artform Briggs truly is.
(Four faces of Authority that poor Jim comes up against. The traffic warden, council official, R.S.P.C.A. inspector and the judge. Every one incapable of seeing what Jim is trying to do. Each one insistent they are right and he is wrong.)
There’s some amazingly beautiful visual imagery going on in Gentleman Jim. Briggs uses his pages to create a sense of the crushing nature of our hero’s dull, comfortable life. The panels after Jim finds his dreams of a Cowboy’s life in Texas crushed and dejectedly walks home through dreary, greying streets with huge, bright One Way signs mapping out his future for him. There’s no way Jim’s going to escape this life. Everyone can see it. Everyone except Jim.
(One Way. Jim’s life down these rain soaked streets. Birth, school, work, death as the saying goes.)
And there are visual flourishes of this quality all through Gentleman Jim. Briggs’ uses a lot of panels in his books but they all serve a purpose to emphasise the sheer claustrophobic mundanity of everyday life. But when Jim dreams Briggs opens his pages to pastel beauty to give us the sense of the enormity of Jim’s ambitions and his wish to be something else:
(Jim dreams in huge swaths of technicolour. Before coming back down to the toilets once more and back to the deliberately claustrophobic feel of Briggs’ panel layouts.)
Gentleman Jim is an absolute masterpiece of the mundane, the whimsical and the power of the imagination. It’s also heartbreaking in it’s utter destruction of a simple man’s dreams. Maybe not on the level of utter despair of When The Wind Blows or heartbreaking sadness of Ethel & Ernest, but it’s a dark tale nonetheless. It’s also strangely uplifting and funny. The sheer inability of Jim and Hilda to understand the world around them is by turns sad and funny, and the rueful smile you’ll develop will have to compete with the sadness in your heart for the inevitability of Jim’s fate. You’ll find Raymond Briggs has much to say on the nature of our lives and the ways that our world cannot cope with it’s dreamers.
(Your essential reading for the weekend, along with Gentleman Jim, these two books form a loose trilogy of Briggs’ work.)
Gentleman Jim is published by Jonathan Cape. They published Briggs’ Ethel & Ernest a couple of years back and I’d like to think they’ve got plans for his other works as well. Go and find Gentleman Jim. It’s a beautiful work of quiet sadness and simple genius. But even this was nothing compared to the brutality of When The Wind Blows or the absolute wonder that is Ethel & Ernest. Please, please track all three of these books down. If all you know of Raymond Briggs is the Snowman movie you’ve no idea what wonders you’re missing.
Richard Bruton could have written about how good Raymond Briggs truly is for much longer than he has here. He’s now off to email Jonathan Cape about reprinting anything with Briggs’ name on it.