Raymond Briggs, creator of The Showman, Gentleman Jim, Father Christmas, When The Wind Blows, Fungus The Bogeyman, The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman, Ethel & Ernest, Time For Lights Out and so many more comic books, died yesterday morning at the age of 88, leaving a career in comic books across six decades, but something he only came to in his late thirties.
Forty years ago, when I was a very young boy, I read The Snowman by Raymond Briggs. It was a number of comic book titles that my grandmother, known as Gugga, kept for visiting children. Alongside Gentleman Jim and the Father Christmas titles by Briggs, and plenty of Oor Wullie and The Broons annuals, this was my first, and probably more importantly back then, parental and grand-parental approved entrance to the storytelling possibilities and appeal of comic books. Over forty years later, and partially thanks to the Channel 4 adaptation of The Snowman, turning it into a Christmas favourite, Raymond Briggs is a household name in the UK. He is one of the most famous comic book creators we have – to the extent that many don't even consider his works to be comic books, they are a medium to themselves – a Raymond Briggs book.
Born in 1934, he went to Wimbledon Art College at the age of 165, wanting to be a cartoonist, later studying at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. Becoming a commercial illustrator, and drawing and painting children's books for established authors, he started drawing his own stories, winning and winning awards, before deciding he was going to reinvent the comic book strip, with a full-length book that was all comics, Father Christmas, in 1973. If you want to find the first British graphic novel – or at least graphic novella, it begins there. A working-class Father Christmas, who treated his job as a plumber might treat his, it was a massive hit, and popularised the swearing euphemism "blooming". Fungus The Bogeyman came next in 1977, taking toilet humour for kids to its greatest height, long before it became a more acceptable thing. And then came The Snowman in 1978. It was the runner-up for the Kate Greenaway Medal from the Library Association and was added to the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award list in 1979. The book was adapted into a half-hour animated television special by Dianne Jackson in 1982 for Channel 4 for Christmas, was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film and won a BAFTA. The animated special became prominent in British popular culture, and its showings have since become an annual festive event.
Then he changed everything again with works of political and social satire, with The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman and When The Wind Blows in the eighties, shocking many a parent who had bought the latest Raymond Briggs for their kids,. Certainly did mine. He based the character of When The Wind Blows, a tale of impending nuclear apocalypse on his parents – before then giving them the starring roles in Ethel & Ernest without the fictional framework. And then continued to create more comics for kids, such as The Bear, The Man and UG: Boy Genius of the Stone Age and His Search for Soft Trousers.
Calling Raymond Briggs on the phone (he was in the book) was one of my most nerve-wracking experiences, and even beats doing the same to Alan Moore. Raymond Briggs was probably the first comic book creator who I realised was a comic book creator, courtesy of the Father Christmas and The Snowman comics, which were considered middle-class family staples – and then Fungus The Bogeyman which was definitely not. Finding a route to publication that involved taking the then-established children's picture book format and turning it into comics did more to justify the form than Maus, Watchmen, Persepolis and Fun Home combined. And then to take that children's format which he had wrangled to tell comic books, and use it to tell rancorous works of political satire The Tin Pot General And The Iron Lady or heartbreaking tales of pathos such as When The Wind Blows, was a master stroke, and later coalesced around Ethel And Ernest.
He was our first graphic novelist to gain mainstream recognition and praise, even though it was unclear that's what he was at the time. He was a ninja comic book creator and much of his influence and impact in the field can only be seen in hindsight. I exhibited his work as part of the Great British Comics exhibition I curated at Harrods twenty years ago, and it was a pleasure to speak to him then, as he marvelled at how the world of comic books had grown around him, and was thrilled to be part of such a gallery. Even in his last days, he was still writing and drawing new art as he enjoyed being constantly in print. Notes From The Sofa published a few years ago, collected his weekly illustrated columns in The Oldie Magazine, there was a screen adaptation Ethel And Ernest.
One of his last works, Time For Lights Out, illustrated poetry and prose, was a more melancholy affair, looking at his life and the hinterland of death to come. It remains haunting, fulfilling and maybe, just maybe, a guide as to where Raymond Briggs has gone now.