Briggs’s next project, the understated, charmingly off-kilter “Gentleman Jim” (1980) (not to be confused with the 1942 Errol Flynn boxing film), heralds a new period in the artist’s career, at the same time it introduces the semi-autobiographical couple Jim and Hilda Bloggs, based loosely on Briggs’s parents; these same characters would re-appear in fictional guise in Briggs’s subsequent “When the Wind Blows” (1982). “Gentleman Jim” tells the story of Jim, the eponymous hero of what is, in the end, a deceptively simple meditation on aging, sacrifice, the compromises of adulthood, and the importance – if at times absurdity – of pursing one’s dreams.
Jim, a simple, uneducated men’s lavatory cleaner, dreams of living a life of adventure, imagining himself as alternately a businessman, a pirate, cowboy, a tail-gunner, a Parisian painter, and a Highwayman – occupations more in keeping with boys’ adventure novels than 20th century England – anything to escape his humdrum life. These often absurd dreams, however, ironically cause his life to unravel. He has a run-in with the police, is arrested, subjected to a trial, and swiftly incarcerated, where his occupation is to clean the toilets. Poetic justice, indeed.
The book’s satirical tone becomes increasingly acidic, as Briggs shifts his attention from the Jim’s naiveté to the callousness of city officials, who are unable to differentiate between Jim’s idealism and what they see as criminal behavior. Briggs portrays in an exaggerated, caricatured form, the first example of a style Briggs later utilized more pointedly in “The Tin Pot General and the Old Iron Woman” (1984), his “children’s book” about the Falklands War.
The figures in “Gentleman Jim”, in comparison to Jim and Hilda, depicted in soft tones, are functional bureaucrats, snooty shopkeepers, red-faced park wardens and police officers, and RSPCA inspectors. The traffic warden, observes Briggs biographer Nicolette Jones, is, for example, a “featureless blank,” whose only distinguishing features are line for a nose and prominent moustache, reminiscent of Hitler. “The council surveyors [are] styled to boxiness and angles,” observes Jones, “and the judge … is just a nose and a wig, until he reveals himself to be mad, and a demented expression emerges” (185). (Briggs’s parents, notably, had considerable respect for authority. In their depiction in “When the Wind Blows”, for example, Jim and Hilda obey – to a ridiculous degree – a preparation manual for nuclear war, naively assuming that if they closely follow this manual, no harm will come to them.)
One way street arrows point Jim mercilessly to his inescapable fate. When picked up by police, Jones notes how Briggs draws the car “retreat[ing] into the distance, so that Jim’s ineffectual protestation, [that as a highwayman he] ‘wanted to give to the poor’ is dwarfed by the motorway at night,” depicting Jim’s increasing hopelessness.
Briggs says that the inspiration for “Gentleman Jim” derived from a comment made by his partner’s young son. “He was seven,” tells Briggs.
He said he didn’t want to go to work; he wanted to live in the woods, have campfires, catch rabbits. I was saying “You can’t really do that. You can’t light fires: you’d get arrested. The rabbits belong to someone else.” Poor kid. He was getting upset. I was destroying all his dreams. That made me think what would happen if a grown man, albeit not of great intelligence, tried to put into action the fantasies of a boy. (Cooke, 20)
Like Fungus in “Fungus the Bogeyman” (1977) before him, Jim is undergoing an existential, mid-life crisis, though, unlike Fungus, Jim at least attempts to escape his drab life. Yet Jim’s idea of an alternate lifestyle is entirely unrealistic. Where one might seek an education to improve one’s status, Jim considers an education to be a hindrance. The only thing he believes to be standing in his way of becoming a tail-gunner or a highwayman is this very lack of education, yet, pursuing the classifieds, Jim never considers those occupations he acknowledges a lack of education prevents him from obtaining. His pigheadedness is thoroughly frustrating.
Looking at Briggs’s interviews and reviews, “Gentleman Jim” is one of the least discussed of his works, which is odd, given that it is an immensely readable, impeccably composed early example of the graphic “novel” form – though Briggs takes exception to the term, given that the book is a mere 30 pages or so – and because it is in many ways a key transitional work. “Gentleman Jim” in essence draws to a close Briggs’s long association with specifically children’s books, at the same time it introduces characters and themes that will be explored in greater depth in much of his subsequent work.
“Gentleman Jim” does have its admirers, including, notably, Seth, who would write an admiring introduction to a 2008 reprint edition by Seth’s publisher Drawn & Quarterly, which provides new context for the work as a key early graphic novel. “I didn’t think it was bad,” Briggs says of “Gentleman Jim” in response to Seth’s revisionist critical assessment,
though I don’t see that it was all that revolutionary in terms of the graphic novel … they’re not all novels, and ‘graphic’ is such a meaningless word; it just means writing. I prefer the French, bandes dessineés. If you say strip cartoons, which is what I say, it implies something a bit comic and Beano-ish. It’s never been an accepted form in England, that’s the trouble. (Cooke, 20)
Next: “When the Wind Blows” (1982)