Today it was announced that renowned, award-winning, English illustrator and one of the parents of the British form of the graphic novel – including dark nuclear war parable When the Wind Blows – Raymond Briggs has died, aged 88. He had been suffering from pneumonia.
Fondly remembered in the UK for being the author of the Snowman (1978) – which was turned into a beloved 1982 Christmas TV animation that has become an annual institution – Briggs’ work emerged in the category of “Children’s Picture Book Literature” but closer inspection would reveal that many of his titles, from Father Christmas (1973) to Ug (2001) carried the evident hallmarks of the comic book.
Born January 18, 1934, in Wimbledon Park, Surrey (now part of London), Briggs knew fairly early in life that art would be his vocation. At the age of 15, young Raymond decided to leave school and join the local Wimbledon Art College and later London’s Slade School of Fine Art. His interest in commercial art was reportedly met with disdain by his instructors.
Raymond Briggs related an early experience of academy snobbery in a 2004 Guardian interview:
“I never thought about being a gold-framed gallery artist and was only pushed into painting when I went to art school. I went there wanting to do cartoons.” Briggs remembers the interviewer at Wimbledon College of Art nearly exploding when he expressed this ambition. “He went purple in the face and said, ‘Good God, is that all you want!’ It really was the lowest of the low and so I started to paint because when you’re only 15 and the big man with a beard tells you what to do, you generally do it.”
As a commercial illustrator Briggs for much of the ’60s was often paired with writers to illustrate but in the 1970s he managed to make a name for himself as a solo writer-artist. His first big original solo success was Father Christmas (1973) which depicted Santa Claus as a grumpy, working-class delivery man. It was so well received that it earned Raymond Briggs his second Kate Greenaway Medal – a British literary award for children’s book illustration (his first award was in 1966 for illustrating Hamilton’s The Mother Goose Treasury).
As well as an illustrator, between 1961 to 1986 he worked as a part time instructor at the Brighton School of Art. Among his students was now-renowned children’s book illustrator and political cartoonist Chris Riddel. For services to literature, in 2017 he was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the Queen’s birthday honours.
Among his many, many achievements, he was one of the first people in the UK to foresee the maturity of the comic book form and inaugurate the graphic novel – alongside the efforts of Posy Simmonds‘ newspaper-serialised comic novel work, and Bryan Talbot’s efforts of a mature comic novel with Luthor Arkwright in the UK independent press and underground comic scenes.
Explorations of more mature material – whilst retaining the open charm of his earlier work – began with Gentleman Jim (1980), about the life of a toilet cleaner with a wild imagination and then developed further with his standout cold-war graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982) about a retired couple trying to survive the aftermath of a nuclear attack. Both of these books could be regarded as among the first of what has since become a wave of graphic novels to be published in the UK.
When the Wind Blows proved to be both controversial and influential. In 1986 it was adapted into a chilling animated film, directed by Jimmy Murakami and starring Peggy Ashcroft and John Mills, and was met with wide critical acclaim.
In 1984 Raymond Briggs veered into political satire with The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman. While marketed as a children’s book, it was ostensibly a commentary about the 1982 war between the UK and Argentina over the Falkland Islands/Malvinas.
In 1998, Briggs’ turned to the biographical with Ethel & Ernest, published by Jonathan Cape, a tale about the life and love of his parents, from their first meeting through to their deaths in 1971. It won Best Illustrated Book of the Year at the British Book Awards and was later adapted into a 2016 animated film, with Jim Broadbent and Brenda Blethyn voicing the lead roles.
In 2004 Briggs released his final children’s book, The Puddleman, and seemed to largely step back from the publishing life – albeit with a regular column, Notes from the Sofa in British humour and lifestyle magazine The Oldie. A selection of these columns were eponymously collected by Unbound in 2015. In 2019 he made a publishing return with Time For Lights Out (Jonathan Cape), a collection of short pieces of text, illustrations and comics, where he mused on mortality and old age.
Because of his impact on the childhoods and lives of so many, tributes were across social media.
“RIP To the mighty Raymond Briggs. Who despite his protestations did more for the idea of mature comics in Britain than just about anyone else. Fungus the Bogeyman was the first comic for ‘Adults’ I ever read. My Dad bought it. When the Wind Blows is an exquisitely moving story about love and nuclear war. Who else but Briggs could do that?”
On Facebook, Maltese professor, artist and cartoonist Ġorġ Mallia,
“How sad to hear of the death of someone I consider to have been one of the best visual storytellers the world has ever known. There was a human intensity in the drawings of RAYMOND BRIGGS that can only be found in a very few illustrators. I adore his cold war, anti-nuclear comic ‘When the Wind Blows’ and use is as an example of what can be achieved with the genre. He is understated, but all the stronger for it, and his development of character, even in anthropomorphised figures (“The Snowman”, “The Bear” … and so many others) is second to none. His children’s books are too numerous to name here, as are the awards he won for his work. Though at the venerable age of 88, it’s still sad to know there won’t be any more tales from the sofa, and that Father Christmas, this year, won’t have Raymond Briggs to tell his story. I couldn’t not draw the master storyteller as a way of remembering him. I doubt a lot of people in Malta know of him, so this is also my way to point him out to them if they don’t, and the wealth of books he left behind for many more generations to enjoy.”
RIP Raymond Briggs. This had a huge impact on a generation of kids in the 80s just as much as the like of Threads. A comic to break your heart. pic.twitter.com/SUhjeHyG0C
— Rob Williams (@Robwilliams71) August 10, 2022
Raymond Briggs was one of the first comics that were around my house as a kid, and absolutely formative. I wrote a piece about this for a comic site back in the day, which I'll see if I can find to lob in the newsletter later. Huge, unique talent. pic.twitter.com/G0ewxlnzX3
— Kieron Gillen (@kierongillen) August 10, 2022
I happened to be standing next to Raymond Briggs at some Buckingham Palace do, both of us wearing linen jackets. The Duke of Edinburgh came up and said 'You two chaps have got the same tailor.' 'How dare you!' said Briggs fiercely. The Duke vanished.
— Philip Pullman (@PhilipPullman) August 10, 2022
Artists who make innovative, field-changing work are rarely the same as those who make it really popular. Raymond Briggs was both. Ethel and Ernest and Where The Wind Blows transformed the way I thought about comics. 1/3
— Stephen Collins (@stephen_collins) August 10, 2022
I never got to meet him, but was blown away when he was kind enough to do a quote for the back of my first book. I just couldn't believe he'd read it, let alone taken the time to support a younger cartoonist. I loved his work, and after that BBC documentary, I loved him. RIP
— Stephen Collins (@stephen_collins) August 10, 2022
RIP Raymond Briggs. Appreciated the way he went for truthful endings over forced happy endings. Such an amazing talent. pic.twitter.com/wIqV4JFqSc
— Malorie Blackman is away. (@malorieblackman) August 10, 2022
Lovely memories of talking to Raymond Briggs when he received the @Booktrust Lifetime Achievement Award a few years ago. A beautiful illustrator and storyteller of our time ❤️ pic.twitter.com/PKJk9ALIId
— Deborah Texeira 📚❤️ (@debtex) August 10, 2022