Sunday, March 30, 2008

Talking Theory - The Art of Comics Storytelling - 4/05

Talking Theory

Raymond Briggs

by Bill Morse
April 18, 2005

I find that the instant we start idealizing our genre we miss some good work and forestall creativity. So today I would like to look at a comic creator who, while extremely well known and popular, is not usually identified with comic books. Raymond Briggs is the creator of such classics as The Snowman, Father Christmas and When the Wind Blows. A cameo of Briggs’ father running into a fellow working stiff.
Briggs is best known as a children's book illustrator, most of them done in a comic book format, but he has also produced some extremely powerful adult pieces. It is not a secret, but it is often overlooked, that many popular children's books are also comic books. Examples, along with Briggs, include Maurice Sendak and Jules Feiffer, Gregory Rogers, and Marcia Williams. Briggs' work is popular throughout the world and many of his works have had successful film adaptations made.

Briggs' work, while often sweet, shows a refreshing lack of sentimentality. I find it interesting that when most people think of comics they think of superheroes or other mythological figures. It is refreshing that most of Briggs' characters are 'smaller than life' British working class people who seem primarily motivated by inertia. Even when dealing with a fantasy character, such as Father Christmas, Briggs writes him as a lovable and grumpy old teamster, stoically going through his busiest day of the year, and dreaming about his next vacation.

One of the advantages of a book format is that you are not as constrained by a particular size or shape. The usual proportions of a comic book are 1x1.5, which does put some constraints in composition choice. For a children's picture book, the format is the choice of the creator – the book can be as wide or as tall as the creator wants it to be.

The first thing you notice in Briggs’ composition choice are the panels. He uses a lot of them. Typically he will use as few as 12 and as many as 20 panels per page. This allows for a slow methodical pacing, almost as if it were a storyboard project. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons all of the animated adaptations of his books have been so good.) The panels are presented in standard grid composition, 3x4, 4x5, etc., but Briggs never allows himself to be a slave to these formats. He will change the number and size of the panels depending on the needs of the narrative. The most obvious effect here is with pacing, here the size of the panel depends on how long we are required to look at the subject matter. When we are going at an average slow pace, the panel is a perfect square, or thinner; when more of our attention is required the panels stretch horizontally into rectangles.

Briggs' storytelling has a documentary quality to it. There is generally no more action than a character doing chores and he usually has the camera following the characters through their day, slowly orbiting them and switching between medium shots and close-ups. Briggs revels in the tiny little details of ordinary life. Lovingly following tiny events, a child putting on his winter gear before going out to make a snowman, an old man loading up a sleigh (after packing his lunch), a pensioner building a fallout shelter out of wooden doors, or a middle aged bogeyman riding up to the surface world on his bicycle for a long night of scaring people.

It is difficult to generalize all of the works of a creator into one set of rules. A cartoonist can and will use various tricks throughout his or her work and take different approaches to each project. Still I will now try to briefly summarize key elements to Briggs' various The Snowmanworks.

Snowman is a sweet little piece, done lovingly in pastel, about a boy and his snowman come to life. It is probably Briggs' most conservative work in composition, staying true to its 3x4 panel format and only using larger panels as punctuation in moments of whimsy. Briggs increases the magnitude of the fantasy by switching to two page panels when the snowman takes the boy on a magical flight.

Father Christmas follows the Snowman's basic composition. The story follows the not so jolly old elf through his day. Briggs begins to uses larger panels and more two page spreads as Father Christmas goes through his rounds. My favorite is a page where we see Father Christmas heading out to do his rounds; Briggs fills two pages with four row single panels detailing the length and hardship of the trip.

Fungus The Bogeyman takes us to the wonderfully disgusting world of Bogeydom. Here Briggs sets the atmosphere immediately by making the panels look as if they were glued, bolted or tacked to various surfaces or backgrounds. In this instance the panel format is usually 2x4, and in a spoof of Rein Poortvliet and Wil Huygen's Gnomes Briggs takes up a good third of the book with asides and commentaries on Bogey biology and culture. In the process he provides a wry satire of British life. (My favorite is the Fungus The BogeymanBogey words for Library and Librarian: Liberality and Libertarian.)

Gentleman Jim introduces the perpetual innocent, Jim Bloggs. Bloggs is a janitor who cleans public lavatories while dreaming of moving to better things. Most of the pages have as many as 25 panels, which gives the whole piece an atmosphere of claustrophobic mundanity. These constraints are exchanged for borderless clouds of pastels whenever we are witness to Bloggs' dreams. As Bloggs fruitlessly tries to pursue his frequently ridiculous fantasies he is blocked by various authority figures. Briggs does a wonderful job portraying them as stylized archetypes so obsessed with the minutiae of the law that they are oblivious to what Bloggs is actually doing.

When the Wind Blows returns us to Jim Bloggs and his wife, Hilda. Bloggs, now retired, has just discovered that World War III is imminent. Briggs continues to use the 25-panel format as we When the Wind Blowswatch Bloggs prepare for the imminent apocalypse by following all of the government instructions carefully and as if it were just a new hobby to help pass his retirement. Briggs then switches periodically to two page spreads of submarines or B52 bombers looming out of the darkness, allowing us to fully take in the inevitable doom that Bloggs will never understand.

Ethel and Ernest is probably Briggs most personal work. Many of the characters in his other stories are based on his own parents. Here he tells the story of their life, from a chance meeting in the depression to their deaths in 1971. It serves simultaneously as the biography of a couple and as a social history of England in the twentieth century, as seen through the eyes of the couple. Briggs tells this story as a series of short, frequently trivial, vignettes that add up to a larger story. Briggs uses 3x5 panels, but here he uses them more as a template then a format. He rarely uses the full 15 Ethel and Ernest look optimisticly to the future.panels per page potential, except for long conversations. Otherwise his composition choice is varied, depending on the scene. He usually uses the larger panels for setting a new scene, or for emotionally charged events – such as Ernest being devastated by his wartime job of unloading corpses from the boats, his disgust about the first hydrogen bomb being dropped, or when the couple optimistically look towards the future.

Briggs has made an important contribution to comics and illustration. Many of the works are hard to track down, but they are definitely worth the effort – and do not feel embarrassed to look in the children's section to check out the rest.

Bill Morse is a freelance illustrator and the creator of the webstrip Rhapsodies, his portfolio can be found at

No comments: