In the late 1980s, Raymond Briggs produced some of his most adult-oriented work, including the Tin Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman, first published in the United Kingdom in 1983, and the droll Unlucky Wally books, published in 1987 and 1989, respectively. The Tin Pot Foreign General (hereafter cited as TPFG), and the two succeeding books, Uncle Wally and Unlucky Wally 20 Years On, represent Briggs’s least successful publications in part because readers mistakenly assumed, based on their formats, that they were children’s books, and not, like When the Wind Blows, “graphic novels.” In fact, the style Briggs chose was quite intentional, as the children’s book format is an integral aspect of their presentation; these are “children’s books for adults,” an uncommon product in the 1980s. One is a scathing satire of war and the other principally concerns (in a style reminiscent of Fungus) body horror and sexual anxiety. Though not as profound as When the Wind Blows, nor as witty as Fungus the Bogeyman, nor as poetically understated as The Snowman, nevertheless The Tin Pot Foreign General (hereafter cited as TPFG), remains an effective – if decidedly transparent – satire, and the Uncle Wally books, with their focus on bodily decay and mental decrepitude, are pointed, precise meditations on the insecurities and horrors of middle age.
As with When the Wind Blows, TPFG is a reaction to a specific political event: in this case the outbreak of war on the Falkland Islands. TPFG was published only one year after the conclusion of the short-lived Falklands “crisis,” which began on April 2, 1982 when Argentinian General Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the disputed islands that lie some 300 miles off the Argentine coast. In response, the British fleet sailed 8,000 miles in an attempt to reassert sovereignty over the islands, which had been a British settlement since the 18th century. The conflict lasted two months; by June 1982, following the deaths of 904 soldiers and three female islanders (many more were injured), the British claimed victory. International reaction to the British response to the Falkland sovereignty dispute was highly critical, particularly among the anti-Thatcherite left. Says Briggs: “[The Falkland conflict] was so awful in every possible way I just couldn’t believe it was happening. It exposed the flaw in the nuclear deterrence argument. Possessing these weapons was supposed to mean that no one would dare attack you; in fact they do attack you because they know you will never dare to use them” (Jones, 226).
One month after the cease-fire, Briggs contributed to a collection of responses to the conflict (published in July 1982), Authors Take Sides on the Falklands, which featured reactions to the conflict from 100 authors. In it Briggs asked “if the Falklands are so important to the British it would be interesting to know why the Falkland Islanders lost their British nationality under the 1981 nationality bill; why they have no MP; why they are not entitled to a British pension; why they get all their major education in Argentina; and also if the regime is so bad, how is it several thousand British people have chosen to live there? If the regime is so corrupt why have the British for years been selling them arms and training their serviceman? This issue was not worth the sacrifice of one single life” (ibid, 227).
TPFG is essentially told in the format of the fable, utilizing the structure of a children’s book with its full-page renderings accompanied by narrative text. To Briggs, TPFG was a “ready-made satire … it was like a fairytale. There were two giants, larger-than-life, and both apparently puffed up with their own pride and vanity” (ibid, 226). The metallic depictions of Galtieri as the “tin pot foreign general” and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as the “iron lady” are intentionally exaggerated, depicted in a style that intentionally alludes to the work of political satirist and cartoonist Ralph Steadman.
“It was Punch and Judy really,” says Briggs. The general and iron woman consist of plates of metal, and their fiery, cauldron-esque eyes, rendered in ink with brush watercolor, provide a window to their burning, coal-fired innards. As Nicolette Jones observes, the iron woman’s belly is swollen as if war were a kind of “fruitful consummation” (ibid, 227), and certainly the expected patriotic zeal that seems to accompany any military effort, helped Thatcher to win re-election in 1984. The iron woman’s “war chest” consists of two missile-shaped, fire-spurting, breasts which, when opened, pour out vast amounts of gold, a comment on the incredible expense of the Falkland effort to the British taxpayer (the final cost for the war was an estimated 1.6 billion pounds, or roughly $1,000,000 for every dead soldier and Falklander). The tin-pot foreign general, meanwhile, has a warhead for a cigar; so much for subtlety.
Compared with the political leaders, there is nothing satirical or larger-than-life about Briggs’s depiction of the soldiers or islanders. In fact, the islanders are, somewhat lovingly depicted as simple shepherds who eat nothing but mutton. No cheap jokes accompany the portrayal of the soldiers whose efforts, Briggs says, “I didn’t want to really cool.” Rather, in his depiction of the soldiers, rendered in sorrowful monochromatic pencil that contrasts with the full-color general and old lady, dominated by oranges and reds, Briggs means to convey the gravity of actual human loss, and the astounding cynicism with which political leaders – possessed by an insane military pomposity – willfully and unhesitatingly dispose of human life.
A two-page splash depicting a row of crosses is accompanied by the simple caption: “Hundreds of brave men were killed and they were all real men made of flesh and blood. They were not made of tin or iron.” One another page, Briggs notes how three of the islanders were killed, yet “nobody was to blame,” as both the Argentinians and the British refused to take responsibility for their deaths. Briggs, noting that maimed and wounded soldiers were not included in a parade callously celebrating victory, so as not to embarrass military and political leaders “in case the sight of them spoiled rejoicing,” worked this into the concluding page. Pointedly, two epigraphs are included: one from Albert Einstein (“Nationalism is an infantile disease it is the measles of mankind”) and the other from Samuel Johnson (“patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”).
In a turn away from the political to the personal, the woefully underrated Unlucky Wally books, reminiscent of Fungus the Bogeyman in their revoltingness – hairs are found in soup and slugs in gardens, zits and boils burst; there is also a puerile interest in such things as flatulence and the unevenness of testicles – the Wally books are decidedly autobiographical. Briggs was by the mid-1980s entering middle age, thus these works represent a kind of cathartic psychological undressing of the indignities of aging. Explains Briggs: “Fungus started with lots of unpleasant things in everyday life and then a character emerged to hold them together. With Wally I started thinking of pet hates, like treading on a jellyfish, fleas in a bed, people eating tapioca and getting earwigs in their ears. These silly sort of joke horrors. This had to happen to somebody so this bloke evolved” (May 1987).
Ostensibly a narrative of Wally, a socially-awkward, sexually-oppressed man who still lives with his mother, the Wally books also address such decidedly non-children’s book themes, including the discovery of pornography (then becoming increasingly omnipresent in culture thanks to the advent of VHS), visits to prostitutes, and concerns about homosexuality. Briggs in an interview with Nicolette Jones, refers to the Wally books as a “self-indulgence” (190) and an altogether unkind self-portrait. He insists that the books are “completely” autobiographical, yet, as Jones notes, this isn’t entirely true, as Wally “fails medical for army and Briggs served two years.” While critics accused Briggs of insensitivity for making fun of certain topics they felt should not be lampooned, such as homosexuality or pornography, Briggs is careful to note that in this work he was not satirizing society so much as himself. One scene in the second book is particularly autobiographical and anticipates a similar scene from Briggs’s masterpiece Ethel & Ernest. As happened to Briggs, Wally’s parents die within a year of each other. When Wally visits his dead mother in the hospital she is shown lying on a trolley with a packet of Kleenex and a carton of Vim near her head (Jones, 190). Again, as in so many instances in Briggs, we are shown a character from the back (as, Briggs says, “backs are more expressive than faces distorted by emotion”) with Wally at his mother’s funeral standing with his back to the reader.
Responses to the Wally books were even more divided than TPFG. As with Fungus, Wally’s spiritual counterpart in existential irreverence, Briggs jokingly included both positive and negative reviews on the back cover, including “unfunny and infantile” and “a dreadful misconception” as though Briggs were in total agreement, and that bad reviews were just the sort of thing that should happen to the luckless and perpetually trampled Wally (Jones, 191).
During the 1980s, Briggs encountered far more success with television adaptations than he did in print. During the production of the filmed version of When the Wind Blows, Hamish Hamilton, Briggs’s publishers, faced with economic hardship during the recession-plagued 1970s, established a relationship with the animation film company TVC, who were offered all of Briggs’s subsequent work on a first-refusal basis. Clearly, as with TPFG and the Unlucky Wally books, media exploitation is not a primary goal in Briggs’s creative process – as evidence of this disregard for commercial considerations, note that the commercially unsuccessful Unlucky Wally book is one of only two books (the other being Father Christmas) to produce a sequel. Though Briggs has “contributed in no small part in no small measure to the adaptation enterprises” when writing the When the Wind Blows radio and stage plays and in submitting unsolicited manuscripts to BBC radio, this move into adaptations of his work resulted from Briggs wanting to move away from books into something that was less labor-intensive (Jones, 224). Briggs eventually returned to books in part because of the lack of creative control he encountered in other mediums. Too, the success of the Snowman adaptation from 1982, now a perennial holiday favorite that spawned a non-Briggs-scripted sequel (about which the less said the better), a sweetly – if not sickly – sentimental theme song, and a “mini-industry” of conventions and fan clubs, may have further pushed Briggs away from taking part in additional adaptations of his work. Certainly, Briggs never misses an opportunity to decry the popularity of The Snowman film and merchandise, which now considerably overshadow Briggs’s only contribution – the book – to its vast body of merchandising, though, with no small touch of self-awareness, he does keep some the Snowman merchandise in his home, whatever he doesn’t decide to sell on EBay.
Next: The Man and The Bear