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Gentleman Jim is a graphic novel by Raymond Briggs and was first published in 1980. Briggs is probably still best known for The Snowman (not least for the animated film it spawned which is still a fixture on television each Christmas) but he has produced much darker, adult oriented work and is probably still a little unappreciated when it comes to comic artists and writers. The brilliant Fungus the Bogeyman was a very dark children's book but the later When the Wind Blows and Ethel and Ernest were perhaps aimed much more at adults than children. The former depicted the aftermath of a nuclear strike on Britain through the eyes of a retired couple (obviously based on his parents) in the countryside and the latter was a poignant tribute to the lives of Briggs' actual parents. Before both of these classic books though, Briggs had dipped his toe into slightly more adult work with Gentleman Jim which features Jim & Hilda Bloggs - who were of course later to appear in When the Wind Blows.
The title character in Gentleman Jim, Jim Bloggs, is a toilet attendant who dreams of a more exciting and fulfilling life, to escape from the mundane trappings of his surroundings and work ('There's not much opportunity for self-advancement in toilets') and do something different. A Cowboy or a Highwayman perhaps, just like the ones in the adventure books he reads. However, the real world doesn't work like this as the daydreaming and innocent Jim will have to discover for himself...
Gentleman Jim is an interesting book to look back on as an early forerunner to When the Wind Blows and Ethel & Ernest, the three of them forming an unofficial trilogy of sorts. Many of the elements that make Briggs' work interesting are present here like his sympathy for the underdog and daydreamer, distrust of authority, strong sense of nostalgia and frequent habit of making his stories rather sad and touching. There is something very cosy and British about Briggs' art here and I love the way he contrasts the daydreams and unrealistic flights of fancy of Jim with the actual mundane reality of life. 'Crumbs! Yes! Cowboys! Riding the range, wrestling steers, lassoing cows, I might be a Sheriff, chasing bank robbers. Crumbs! Yes Hilda, we ought to move out West!' Jim's excitable musings are intercut with some beautiful pastel illustrations of him as a Cowboy playing cards in a saloon or as a masked Highwayman riding a woman away on his horse under a yellow moon.
Jim's dreams are crushed at every turn by stuffy officialdom and the real world - which is a truly terrible place compared to Jim's imagination. Jim is rather crestfallen when he is told that it will cost £900 for him and Hilda to take a return flight to the West by a bossy woman at a travel agency. 'Well, er, in light of that information I may be forced to reconsider. Would you like a spangle, miss?' He trudges away gloomily down a street past a drab grey wall with a yellow arrow that has 'One Way' written above it. A rainy sky is visible at the end of the street with a Stop sign. There are some lovely little touching moments like this. The drawings of the public bogs Jim works in are lovely in their own way too with all the individual tiles and the sheen of water on the floor from his mop. Jim is mystified by qualifications, or 'Levels' as he calls them. 'I wonder what they are? I bet it's all to do with education. That's what it is. They give them these things at school nowadays. All we got was a Bible and a thick ear.'
An obvious strength of the book is that Jim and Hilda are loveable characters and you want everything to turn out alright for them. They don't really understand the world around them in the slightest and this aspect of their personality is charming I find. Jim is the little man who dreams of doing something he would actually want to do for a living but is forever crushed by a system that has little time for daydreamers and ordinary folk. Jim's (comical) attempts to buy Cowboy boots or a gun are met with some stern figure from the other side of the counter (always drawn to tower over Jim and look somewhat irritated) pointing out the ridiculous nature of his vague attempts to change his life and finally puncturing his fantasies for the time being with some outrageous price tag that Jim couldn't possibly afford. Jim turns his attentions away from being a Cowboy and decides to be a (very homemade) Highwayman and steal from the rich to give to the poor.
Gentleman Jim doesn't have the power or ambition of When the Wind Blows or Ethel & Ernest or the surreal imagination of Fungus the Bogeyman (one of the greatest children's books of all time in my estimation) but it certainly anticipates the first two of those classic volumes. It has that same bittersweet quality of When the Wind Blows and Ethel & Ernest, that sense of comfort, nostalgia and cosiness intertwined with sadness. What is doesn't have is the scope and, of course, those two later Briggs' works take us to much darker places than Gentleman Jim ever touches upon. It is wonderful though the way that Jim's pastel daydreams abound with sweep and colour as they rise beyond the grey toilets where he works or escape from the sofa where Hilda sits knitting and he babbles on about some of the things he would like to do if only life gave him a chance. The authority figures that Jim comes up against become increasingly grotesque and faceless as the story moves to a conclusion and Briggs' art is wonderfully cutting and effective in some of these panels.
Anyone who has enjoyed Raymond Briggs' work should certainly think about adding Gentleman Jim to their collection if they haven't already done so as it's an important book in his career and a pointer to the more adult direction he would later take. At 40 or so pages this isn't the longest or most ambitious of the Briggs' books but it's a lot of fun in its own right with some poignant moments and the usual lovely art.
For the past few weeks I have been reading a bit of Raymond Briggs' graphic novels. Briggs has made a career (one that I would love to have myself) of sitting at home drawing stories of things that interest him and then in turn hoping that someone else will enjoy them too. Luckily enough many people have enjoyed his work, most notably the Christmas classics 'The Snowman' and 'Father Christmas'. Briggs' later work has been more politically orientated with anti war graphic novel 'When the Wind Blows' and the biography of his parents in 'Ethel and Ernest' (well worth reading and well worth reading my review - selfless plug).
Gentleman Jim is a graphic novel / comic book story about a toilet attendant who dreams of doing something different. He dreams of being a cowboy, joining the army and robbing the rich on the highways like Dick Turpin. However, rather than imagining these things he actually tries to do them resulting in some amusing situations. At one point Jim decides he is going to be a cowboy but cannot afford a horse - so buys a manky old donkey instead. This leads to council inspectors after Jim for breaches of the peace and crimes against animal cruelty!
Jim is such a likeable character. It must be really hard to write and draw a really likeable character like Jim. He does his best to try and make his life a little bit more exciting, but he gets so bogged down in cost and petty red tape. He means well, but is eventually squashed by the 'man'.
The drawings are superb. They are a lot harsher in some sections than Briggs' previous Snowman and Fungus the Bogeyman books and much more exciting. The sections where Jim is talking about his dreams of being in the army are clever, as are the sections when he is arrested for robbing on the highway.
One thing that is true about all of Briggs' work is that they are irritatingly short. I suppose thats OK if it's a child's book, but this is certainly not a child's book by any means. It doesn't have any swearing or obvious violence, but it does deal with burocracy and to a certain extent mental illness - not obvious themes for a kids book. I read the book in a little over half an hour and could easily read it again and again just because it was so well written. Another annoying thing about reading the book (and this is probably just me) was that I was concentrating too hard on the words and not really looking too hard at the imagery. I suppose that means I will just have to read it again!
I enjoyed Gentleman Jim, but it certainly wasn't as impressive as Ethel and Ernest or When the Wind Blows. I enjoyed the work of Briggs and will be trying to read as much of his stuff as I can in the coming few weeks!