Prior to his beginning work on Father Christmas (1973), cartoonist Raymond Briggs, in quick succession, lost his mother and father to old age (his mother died at Christmas 1971 of “what seemed to be leukemia [Briggs 2002, 2], and his father died the following September of stomach cancer “misdiagnosed as indigestion” [ibid]). Tragically, on Christmas Eve 1972, Briggs’s wife, the painter Jean Tyrell Clark, awoke with considerable swelling on the right side of her body. Sent immediately to the hospital, Jean died less than two months later at the age of 42, on February 21, 1973, of leukemia. Following Jean’s death, friends urged Briggs, normally a homebody, to travel. “We had been together for 15 years and life has never been the same since,” writes Briggs.
There was a peculiar quality of unreality about everything, all very strange. I’d be somewhere and think: “What am I doing here? I should be at home with Jean.” It was an almost dreamlike experience. I found myself doing things I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t been bereaved – for example, I had three holidays the year after she died. It took about four years before I began to feel normal. (Briggs 1996, 5).
In the summer of 1974, Briggs visited friends in France and Scotland, and attended the American Library Association Conference in Las Vegas. In keeping with the increasingly autobiographical nature of his work, Briggs used these three locales as Father Christmas’s travel destinations in the sequel Father Christmas Goes on Vacation (1975), visiting them in the same order as did his author.
As if to underline the tragic events that preceded the books’ publications, Briggs dedicated Father Christmas to his parents, and its sequel to his wife (Jones, 94). The sudden loss of both his parents and his wife undoubtedly colored the tone of all of Briggs’ s subsequent work, which is elegiac in tone, especially compared to his earlier work. Briggs’ Father Christmas, a curmudgeonly old sot, is not without his complaints, yet he still manages to find enjoyment in his tea, cognac, pudding, a hot bath, ale, reading travel brochures, smoking cigars, drinking cocoa, and fraternizing with his dog and cat. The two Father Christmas are gentle reminders that the true rewards in life, and our only respite from its endless drudgeries, are the simple things. Later books are concerned more overtly with mortality and death. Some deal with the slow ravages of time – Gentleman Jim, the Unlucky Wally books (1987, 1989), Ethel & Ernest (1998), and Briggs’ yet unrealized next work, Time for Lights Out (the latter apparently drawn entirely in grey pencil, which Briggs earlier used to great effect in the funeral scenes of The Tin Pot General  and which he says “will definitely be my last” [Secher, n.p.]: “if I ever finish it, if I get to the end before it gets me” [Tucker, 6]). When the Wind Blows (1982) and The Tin Pot General, on the other hand, deal with death by warfare.
Even The Snowman (1978), Briggs is quick to point out, is about death, stating in one late interview that the “snowman melts, everything comes to an end. It’s all very depressing, of course, as is life” (Grice, 6). In an interview with Adam Sherwin, Briggs remarked that, because of this, he has always felt uneasy about the book’s position as a “festival favorite.” The Snowman’s death was intended to “introduce children to the concept of mortality and should never have become a heart-warming accompaniment to mince pies and gift giving.” Nor is Briggs pleased by the animated film adaptation (released in 1982), which he believes was “hijacked by Christmas sentimentality,” in particular the filmmakers’ inclusion of a Christmas tree in the boy’s home–there is no Christmas tree in the book, and there is nothing to indicate a holiday setting – the song “Walking in the Air,” a motorcycle ride, and a visit to Father Christmas at the North Pole (“a bit corny and twee,” Briggs complains). A self-described “miserable git,” Briggs admits he was never much a fan of the holiday anyway (Sherwin, n.p.), preferring to spend Christmas “in an Anderson shelter, waiting for it to blow over” (Wagner, Williams, Donaldson 2012, 38). The holidays, he complains, are
a time of dread and anxiety… It’s a very lonely time for people, they always say it’s a wonderful family time but a lot of people my age haven’t got all that; the generation ahead of them are dead, if they have no children, no grandchildren, it’s a miserable thing. It’s a particularly grim time; the suicide rate goes up… if you are not happy, it emphasizes loneliness. (Pegg, n.p.)
Among the myriad reasons why Briggs does not romanticize Christmas is that, for his father, it was a particularly grueling holiday. “Christmas was his most hectic day of the year,” tells Briggs,
as he had to complete his milk round in time for family lunch. By the time he got back, the house would be full of uncles, aunts and cousins, while my mum would be cooking the turkey in her tiny kitchen. He’d come in around 1 p.m., with hands as black as a coal miner’s, and wash at the kitchen sink among all the food. The bathroom was too good to get dirty. (Gravett, 261)
As he would later do with The Snowman, Briggs employed a strict comic book format in Father Christmas and its sequel Father Christmas Goes on Holiday, a format that would be utilized in subsequent works with the same grace, skill, and artistry, in particular Gentleman Jim (1980), When the Wind Blows and Ethel & Ernest. “When I was writing Father Christmas,” he explains,
I realized I needed far more than 32 pages, so I had to do four, five, six pictures a page and sometimes 10 or almost 20 a page. So I was actually forced into doing strip-cartoon, which is a nightmare form to work in because it is so laborious, and there are so many pictures to do. (Baker, 27)
(Briggs has elsewhere described strip cartooning as a “bottomless abyss” [Wroe, 20], and keeps a handwritten health warning on the wall of his studio: “Do not work in strip cartoons” [Grice, Haney, 2012, 6]). The strip cartoon format, argues Richard Kilborn, allowed Briggs “to combine his literary and graphic talents,” with Father Christmas a “distinct watershed” (Kilborn, 31).
Briggs’s use of this format, however, had the unintended result of medium “ghettoization,” as Father Christmas was neither strictly a children’s book – a medium of high regard, particularly in Britain – nor was it a comic book (a medium then generally held in low regard). Unlike comic books, then primarily printed on cheap newsprint, Father Christmas was longer than the average comic book and printed in hardcover on heavy paper stock. Such elitist dismissiveness irked Briggs, a professed admirer of Rupert, Peanuts, Tintin and Asterix (Moss, 29). “If anything is part of the folk culture of an age, you can’t just pretend it’s a load of rubbish,” Briggs maintains (ibid). The comic book format, Briggs maintains, in fact is a much more versatile medium than the typical children’s book format of a single image per page or splash page:
I think you find a size you want to work to and that gives you four rows per page, and you think what you’re going to show on each page. Each page is a little chapter, really. You have to turn over the page and have something else happening; you can’t have scenes trailing from one page to the next. (Gravett, 261)
Briggs subsequently became an avid collector of comic books, in part because of his work in the field. Briggs’s dissatisfaction with the British critics’ failure to take comic books seriously appears to have influenced his decision to tackle weightier subjects; When the Wind Blows in particular. Utilizing the comic book form allows an artist to tell any story he or she wants to tell; as he tells John May, comics do not “have to be about violence or comic cuts. It’s just as good a medium as film if it’s used properly” (May, n.p.).
Father Christmas established Briggs’s new method of creating. He begins with dialogue – Briggs thinks of himself first and foremost a writer, probably because of the respect generally given to writers in the UK – then draws around it. A “dummy” is drawn first, in pencil, primarily for editorial consideration, then Briggs re-draws the entire book once more in pencil, after which he inks and colors using crayons and watercolors. Finished lettering is completed last (Kilborn, 33). The Father Christmas books were also the first works to feature Briggs’ unique narrative style, a decidedly distilled dialogue (no captions) and stylistically amateurish lettering, which also lacks punctuation beyond the occasional exclamation point.
As a children’s book, the tone is unusual. There is realism in dialogue and presentation, and the quotidian details of Father Christmas’ home – tea boxes on the shelves, the copper water heater – underline the central conceit of Father Christmas as working class, as does his Cockney accent. For biographer Nicolette Jones, Father Christmas “guaranteed [Briggs’] immortality” (Jones, 63). The realistic setting combined with the decidedly unrealistic subject matter – fantasy and reality intermingling – is a theme Briggs would revisit in a number of later books, most notably The Snowman, The Man (1992), The Bear (1994), and The Puddleman (2004), all closely related works. “All these books are done on the same principle,” Briggs explains,
just taking something that’s wholly imaginary like Father Christmas and saying right, let’s assume he does exist. He’s got to live somewhere, he’s got to go to bed and get up and do all [the] things everyone does. It’s a working class kind of job. I couldn’t just imagine him married with children, didn’t want to tackle his bloody elves and all that side of it. I just treated it as a normal working job. (May, n.p.)
Briggs’ Father Christmas is portrayed as a distinctly working class Londoner, forced to work in the cold to make ends meet. “This was a far cry from the regal Santas in glittering palaces, and the factory owners with a staff of elves,” notes Jones (Jones, 63). The brick house where he lives has a decidedly 1930s feel – the chamber pot, the outside lavatory, the non-electric kettle, the coal-fired stove, a copper water heater, hens for eggs – details so specific the reader imagines similar furnishings adorned the homes of Briggs’s working class childhood.
As was becoming increasingly characteristic of his work (see the semi-autobiographical Midnight Adventure and Strange House [both 1961] as well as his tongue-in-cheek referencing of earlier nursery rhyme and fairy tale works in Jim and the Beanstalk ), Briggs in Father Christmas employs several autobiographical touches. The home Father Christmas visits is an accurate depiction of Briggs’ home near Ditchling in Sussex – complete with a depiction of Raymond and Jean – and the Edwardian terrace where he makes a delivery is based on Briggs’s childhood home, the same home Briggs would lovingly recreate in Ethel & Ernest. For example, Briggs’s father Ernest was a milkman who, like Father Christmas, rises early in the morning to make deliveries in inclement weather. The milkman Father Christmas encounters on his route is based on his father; the registration number of his float reads ERB 1900, Ernest’s initials and birth date. Moreover, Briggs patterned Father Christmas’s early morning activities and mutterings – primarily complaints about the weather, the snow, chimney soot, and trouble with the television aerials – on Ernest’s. Briggs’s Father Christmas is “old and fat and has a working-class sort of job a bit like my dad, who was a milkman,” Briggs explains. “Because he’s been doing it all his life and he gets cold, dirty and tired, it’s perfectly logical that he would be fed up with it and so he is going to be grumpy (Wrote, 20). ““My father always grumbled,” says Briggs, “but in a humorous way … I’m a bit of the same. Always moaning, but not fundamentally as depressed as I sound. If I was, I would be dead long ago” (May, n.p.).
Besides visiting an igloo, a lighthouse and a caravan, the locations Father Christmas visits on his route are distinctly English; the aforementioned residential homes, but also the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace. In an instance of editorial interference, American publishers, astonishingly ignorant of Briggs’ delightfully Anglocentric fiction – which, with the aforementioned Cockney accent of its protagonist, and references to tea, pudding, and ales, is already quintessentially English – suggested Briggs replace Buckingham Palace with the White House. Father Christmas also provided an early instance of Briggs causing some controversy among parents and teachers (a controversy that, astonishingly, continues to this day) when depicting Father Christmas visiting the toilet during his morning constitution.
Following the positive reception of Father Christmas and its sequel – the book, unexpectedly for Briggs, appealed to both children and grown-ups – Briggs ceased illustrating work for other authors, focusing solely on expanding his own body of work, which by 1973 numbered only four books. As a result, his output dropped from as many as five books a year to one book every two or three years. In fact, Briggs would not illustrate another author’s work until 2001 (The Adventures of Bert with Allan Ahlberg). First, Briggs completed the aforementioned almost compulsory sequel (the first of Briggs’ career), already hinted at in Father Christmas, with its depiction of Father Christmas perusing various travel brochures, as well as the posters of Majorca, Malta and Capri tacked to his wall. He then spent the next two years working on the cult classic Fungus the Bogeyman, in many ways a precursor to William Steig’s notoriously successful Shrek (and its several off-putting Hollywood film adaptations). The Bogeys are a greenish, oafish looking race of subterranean dwellers. They prefer things dirty, wet, and slimy. It is their job to venture above to the clean and warm world of humans, or “Dry Cleaners” as they are referred, and distribute to it all of the disgusting attributes of their netherworld, i.e. snot, lint, muck, mold, grime, and so on. The book is essentially a mock guide to the world of the Bogeymen in the form of a dictionary/encyclopedia, following the titular Fungus, as in Father Christmas, during his daily peregrinations (like his mythological holiday counterpart, Fungus is decidedly working class). In fact, the book is largely Briggs’s response to what he perceived as the “prissiness” of children’s books during that period, motivated by the controversy ignited by the brief toilet humor of Father Christmas. “I wanted to show the pretty nastiness of life,” Briggs explains, “slime and spit and dandruff, all this awful stuff which is slightly funny because it detracts from human dignity and our pretensions” (Jones, 167). As Elaine Moss observes, Fungus “represents the dirt in everyone’s daily life, something we all have to cope with but don’t talk about – dandruff, body odor, toenails, sweat, etc.” (Moss, 30).
In Fungus, Briggs delightfully – and scatologically – revels in the bodily functions of his protagonists (something he would later repeat with equal glee in his two Unlucky Wally books). “I wasn’t trying to shock people,” Briggs maintains (ibid). In fact, the character of Fungus is among Briggs’s most sympathetic, largely because the character suffers from an existential malaise common to all people. “Fungus is revolting but not horrific,” observes Nicolette Jones. “The truly disgusting aspect of human being is not that they sweat and have pimples. As Briggs’s complete body of work demonstrates, what should really dismay us is man’s capacity for inhumanity to man.” (168) The Bogeymen are in fact a quite likable, gentle people; just like their human counterparts they love their families, and mean to provide for them. While the Bogeymen follow some of the traits commonly associated with children’s book monsters – “bogeyman” is a play on “boogeyman,” naturally – stalking around in the dark, only coming out at night, and so on, they are in fact quite gentle and not all that monstrous. Fungus in fact strikes a tragic tone and is among Briggs’s most elegiac works. As he notes in an interview with Jones, “I’m noticing that all my characters now are sad old men, or rather, sad middle-aged men, which is what I am probably… Life is sad really but there’s also love, which makes life worth living. Fungus has a loving relationship with his wife, which makes it bearable” (ibid, 168-69).
Fungus is peculiar among Briggs’s work in that it had a long gestative period, underwent several major revisions, was subject to significant editorial input – some might say interference or even censorship (some of the censorship, black bars covering toilets and so on, were drawn by Briggs himself and were quite intentional [a nod to Father Christmas in fact], though some things were censored at the publisher’s behest, notably the words “spermatic” and “monstrous,” purloined from the work of British poet John Donne, and a Bogey umbilical cord replaced with a “Bogey stick”) – and was intended to be the first of several books, which, despite a few novelty offshoots, were never realized. Fungus has also been adapted to both the stage and television, yet these incarnations were difficult undertakings, with many stops and starts. Indeed, there is something about Fungus that carries with it a degree of difficulty in adaptation; much of that has to do with the world-building required to successfully portray the Bogeymen.
Initially, Briggs intended Fungus to be a children’s alphabet book; for example, F is for fart, “S is for spit, B is for bottom,” and so on, according to Briggs (169). The vestiges of this incarnation appear as posters on the wall of Mould, Fungus’s son. Yet as Briggs further mapped out the Bogey world, he became increasingly interested in the narrative possibilities offered by this world. Using the two-volume Shorter Oxford Dictionary as his inspiration, Briggs devised a language specific to the Bogeys, and Briggs delighted in creating a vast dictionary of Bogey terms, of which only roughly one-third made its way into the book (Moss, 30). Briggs planned to include more of them in the aborted sequels, and claims to still have many of these definitions tucked away in a file drawer (Kellaway, 27). As a result, Fungus is probably Briggs’s wordiest book; indeed, each page contains a considerable amount of dialogue, incorporated directly into the artwork of the page. The book is, as noted above, essentially an encyclopedia of all things Bogey, with only the thinnest of plotlines – that of a disillusioned Bogeyman questioning the purpose and meaning of his life – to thread together the onslaught of wordplay and world-building that makes up most of the book.
Fungus proved to be a considerable success – selling over 325,000 copies in its initial run – and was, perhaps not surprisingly, popular amongst the more scatologically-minded teenagers. When Briggs began work on Fungus, he believed it would appeal mostly to “rather grubby, rather lazy anti-establishment intellectuals, messing about hitch-hiking ‘round the world with their guitars” (Moss, 30). Yet the book’s release (1977) coincided with the apex of the punk era, and Fungus managed to ride the wave of anti-establishment culture that predominated among British and American youths of the era. (In true punk spirit, Briggs included negative reviews on the paperback version of the book, including Reveille’s description of the book as “porn for the potty-trained”). The Oxford magazine Isis went so far as to declare – tongue firmly planted in cheek – that Fungus was “a figure to tower above such cultural colossi as Albert Camus, T.S. Eliot and Johnny Rotten” (Jones, 175). Yet the book also appealed to what Elaine Moss describes as the “latent adolescent, of all ages, because it dares to challenge the standards not of decent behavior (Fungus is a model citizen), but of subjects that can be decently discussed” (30).
There were many attempts to capitalize on the book’s success. A television pilot was filmed, directed by Terry Gilliam, starring fellow Monty Python alum Terry Jones and Michael Palin, and utilizing animatronics, yet despite the talent involved, the project went nowhere. A few years after its release, publisher Hamish Hamilton released the delightful Fungus Plop-Up Book (1982), a collaboration with paper engineer Ron Van der Meer, among the more interesting and notable merchandizing spin-offs capitalizing on the book’s success. (In true Bogey fashion, Briggs wanted to include a method for lowering Fungus’s pants, an idea the publisher ultimately rejected.) Several other spin-offs were planned, including the enticingly titled The Fungus the Bogeyman Book of Manners, Fungus the Bogeyboy: The Prequel, and the Bedtime Bogey Book, yet none were realized. Briggs also planned an aforementioned sequel, Fungus and the Michelin Man, which was to act as a Michelin Guide to the world of the Bogeys, with its narrative thread involving Fungus attempting to close the mend the divide between the Bogeys and Dry Cleaners. After finding a Michelin Guide in the trash, Fungus dreams of devising a tourist industry wherein Dry Cleaners could visit the Bogeyworld on vacation. He invites Monsieur Michelin to visit the Bogeyworld, with M. Michelin ultimately deciding Fungus’s idea is misguided. A third book, Fungus and the Bumper Book of Verse was to have Fungus trying an alternate means of introducing the Dry Cleaners to the Bogeyworld, this time by distributing a book of Bogey poetry, not understanding that the Dry Cleaners hardly care for their own poetry, let alone poetry dealing with snot and muck. Finally, a fourth book was suggested, Fungus and the Triumphs of Bogey Technology, in which Fungus decides that commerce, rather than art, is the best means of bringing the two worlds together, only this time it is the Bogeys who reject Fungus’s idea, which involves the Bogeys altering their world so that it is more like that of the Dry Cleaners. Finally, Briggs proposed a crossover book, Fungus and Father Christmas, in which Fungus encounters Santa on a rooftop and attempts to persuade Santa to include the Bogeyworld on his route, to which Father Christmas responds “Not blooming likely!” Father Christmas instead suggests Fungus act as his counterpart in Bogeyworld, and, following his suggestion, Fungus fabricates a “sludge” (a Bogey sleigh) out of rotted wood. Just prior to taking off, however, Fungus realizes he hasn’t any presents, and abandons the idea. (Interestingly, all of Briggs’s proposed sequels, much like Fungus’s plans, were self-aborted.)
Following the completion of Fungus, and disappointed with his need to jettison much of the linguistic material he’d amassed, Briggs toyed with the idea of writing a novel. “You haven’t got the maddening limitation of space,” Briggs explained in a 1982 interview. “In Fungus, I’d just about introduced the character and set the scene and I’d run out of paper. There was no time to tell the story of Fungus’s great dream of healing the breach between the Dry Cleaners and the Bogeys and the schemes he tried to bring this about” (Triggs, 1982). This idea, too, was abandoned. Notably, the next work Briggs completed following Bogey was to be the exact opposite of a novel; instead, Briggs wrote and drew his first entirely wordless children’s book, The Snowman, and it was to prove to be the most successful book of his career, eclipsing even Father Christmas and Fungus.
The Snowman is Fungus’s polar – no pun intended – opposite: where Fungus is dominated by muddy greens and browns, The Snowman’s color palette opts for cool whites and blues. Where Fungus is wordy; The Snowman is wordless. Inspired by waking one morning to a “room filled with the light and silence of snow outside” (Jones, 103), the initial drawing of The Snowman took much less time than Fungus. Illustrated in pencil and crayon, the book contains a dreamy, soft focus that is quite the contrast to decidedly dark, shadowy Fungus, and the story is simpler: during a winter day in an unspecified time and place, a little boy makes a snowman. Called in for supper and then tucked in bed, the boy finds it hard to sleep, being drawn back to the snowman. Rising from bed in the middle of the night, he goes to the window, only to find that the snowman has disappeared. Hearing noise from downstairs, he encounters the snowman inside his house. He shows the snowman around his house, plays with him, shows him his sleeping parents (modeled again after Briggs’ parents; the boy like Briggs is an only child, as are the protagonists of his later magical books The Man and The Bear), after which the snowman takes the boy on a magical flight to Brighton (in one of the book’s other autobiographical details, a seaside resort not far from the artist’s home). “It just seemed to make sense for a snowman to fly up in the air,” says Briggs, “because snow flies down from the air” (ibid, 105). The snowman and boy return to his home, after which the snowman returns to his spot outside. The next day, the sun rises and the snowman melts.
The Snowman’s incredible success is due in part to its near-universal appeal: wordless, the book’s audience includes everyone from pre-literate children to the elderly. Moreover, the character of the Snowman – soft, plush – exudes a non-threatening friendliness. As Nicolette Jones acknowledges, the Snowman is trustworthy, playful, curious, an overgrown child that finds pleasure in the most quotidian things, such as turning on and off a light, playing with balloons, or pretending to drive a car (Jones, 104). The Snowman received several prizes, including the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Francis Williams Award, the Boston Globe Horn Book Award, the Dutch Silver Pen Award, and the Italian Premio Critici award.
While adaptations of Fungus proved almost impossible – from Briggs’s own aborted sequels to the ill-fated television series, a foundered stage play adaptation and film, unrealized radio adaptations and finally an abysmal television adaptation decades after its release – The Snowman renewed media interest in Briggs’s work and led to plethora of adaptations; with its “simple fairy tale narrative” and “strong visual appeal,” the book, observes media critic Richard Kilborn, “virtually constituted a ready-made storyboard” (Kilborn, 23). The animated, 26-minute film adaptation (which Briggs has ultimately disowned; his one contribution to the adaptation was the script for a spoken introduction by David Bowie), with its Christmas setting, its syrupy addition of the song “Walking in the Air,” which accompanies the boy and the snowman’s flight, and tonally inconsistent addition of a visit to the North Pole and a cameo by Father Christmas (complete with dancing snowmen), proved to be a phenomenon with audiences, and was awarded a BAFTA award. In 2012, it inspired an animated sequel, the poorly-received The Snowman and the Snowdog, for which Briggs’s sole contribution to that film was his approval. The Snowman continues to be aired annually at Christmas and receives a viewing audience of some two million, and is easily the most merchandized of Briggs’s works, with everything from fourteen spin-off books – including a pop-up book – cookery, stationery, toy puzzles, plush dolls, clothes, figurines, biscuits, jelly lollipops and novelties. There are Snowman-related conventions and fan clubs. The popularity of the animated film, argues Kilborn, is a “key factor in the further exploitation and adaptation of Briggs’s work” (23), most notably the various media incarnations of what is perhaps his most controversial work, When the Wind Blows, discussed at much greater length in the next installment.
By the early 1980s, Briggs achieved the highest echelons of success, both critically and commercially, that was achievable in children’s books, yet, rather than follow up The Snowman with another appealing, sentimental story, Briggs, true to form, would use his newfound cache produce some of his most challenging, cynical, adult-oriented and politically-themed work of his career.
Next: Gentleman Jim. When the Wind Blows. The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman. Unlucky Wally. Unlucky Wally Twenty Years On.
© 2015 Eric Hoffman