The Uncoziest Catastrophe: Raymond Briggs’ ‘When the Wind Blows’, 1982

Exhibit / June 19, 2018

When the Wind Blows_We Are the Mutants_11

 

Object Name: When the Wind Blows
Maker and Year: Raymond Briggs,  Penguin Books, 1982
Object Type: Graphic Novel
Image Source: The author
Description: (Richard McKenna)

As the nuclear crisis between the Western powers and the Eastern Bloc deepened, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists‘ Doomsday Clock stood at four minutes to midnight, perplexed children across Great Britain were treated to the release of When the Wind Blows, a graphic novel by British artist Raymond Briggs that narrated the aftermath of a nuclear attack from the perspective of the Bloggses, a working-class couple who have recently retired to the country.

Briggs was a much-loved author of comic books and had previously released a string of highly successful graphic novels, all executed in his idiosyncratic, scratchy style, including Father Christmas (1973), Fungus the Bogeyman (1977), and The Snowman (1978). Though superficially upbeat and jolly, something dour and tragic lurked behind Briggs’s beguiling images: in 1980’s Gentleman Jim—the book in which the characters of working class couple Hilda and Jim Bloggs were introduced—he had already begun to transcend the divide between adult and children’s books, narrating the bittersweet misadventures of the Walter Mitty-esque daydreamer and public toilet cleaner Jim as he struggles against officialdom.

By this time a consolidated figure in the British cultural landscape, Briggs’s fame exploded after the animated television adaptation of The Snowman, directed by Dianne Jackson together with Jimmy Murakami (the latter had helmed two Roger Corman films in 1980: Humanoids from the Deep and Battle Beyond the Stars). Aired on the nascent Channel 4 in 1982 on Boxing Day—traditionally a time for British families, exhausted by Christmas overconsumption of food and alcohol, to slump together helplessly in front of the television—and birthing the enormously popular song “Walking in the Air,” The Snowman was a huge success, thanks in part to its smoothing of the corners of the comic’s rather less sentimental tone and its cheering conclusion. (Briggs himself was no fan of the adaptation, calling it “corny and twee,” and complaining that it misrepresented his message that “The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die. Everything does. There’s nothing particularly gloomy about it. It’s a fact of life.”) For The Snowman‘s US premiere, an introduction by the latest version of David Bowie, who was a longstanding fan of Briggs’s work—perhaps in part due to their both being “lower-middle-class London suburbanite(s)“—was added.

Many of those who loved Briggs’s books for the artwork were ignorant of his dour vision of life (and his unavuncular feelings towards his readership: he claimed to have “never been particularly interested in children at all, as such”), and the success of The Snowman meant that the misapprehension took hold even more firmly, turning Briggs into a reluctant poster boy for uplifting children’s fare. Despite their occasionally gloomy tone, though, there was nothing in any of Briggs’s earlier works to prepare readers for the grim descent into radiation sickness and inevitable death that was When the Wind Blows.

Despite the mushroom cloud in the background, the book’s cover—with its chipper OAPs and Westminster typeface—seemed somehow to promise something other than the grim fable that lurked within. Inspired by The Bomb, a documentary made by Jonathan Dimbleby for Yorkshire TV, Briggs took up once again Gentleman Jim‘s “innocent as well as dim” Bloggses, whose surname in British parlance is synonymous with an unremarkable everyperson. The Bloggses represent an exaggerated version of the peculiarly British “mustn’t grumble”-ness of a generation of working class and lower-working class people trained to soldier on stoically and remain obedient to the dictates of those in charge. Hilda and Jim have retired to a small isolated house—named “Jimilda,” the archetypal critique of the limitations of the parochial imagination—in the country, and, as the buildup to the nuclear strike grows increasingly tense, When the Wind Blows pokes sarcastic fun at Jim and Hilda’s naive trust in “the-powers-that-be,” and especially Jim’s faith in Protect and Survive, the much-ridiculed pamphlet published by the British conservative government in 1980 containing advice on how to build nuclear shelters from materials to be found around the home.

With fond memories of childhoods spent in garden bomb shelters during the Second World War, the pair are initially united by “Blitz Spirit,” which they manage to maintain even after the nukes have hit—at first. The malapropism-prone Jim makes a speech explaining to Hilda how they will have to acclimatize themselves to post-nuclear life: “It could be OK – wiping the slate clean… starting afresh – a new world! Perjured (sic) of all the old vices – like London after the Fire of London! The new Elizabethan age will dawn! (…) The old empire will live again – rising like a phenis (sic) from the ashes,” before realizing that the redness on Hilda’s lips is not lipstick but blood. In a 1987 interview with The Guardian, the reliably self-critical Briggs stated that in hindsight he found the book’s humor “a bit facetious, silly and possibly a bit patronising”—and some of Jim’s solecisms, like “govern-mental,” can certainly be a bit labored and groan-inducing.

When the Wind Blows concentrates the attention far from the epicenter of the action and highlights the difficulties for the average person of grasping the full scale of nuclear war and its profound differences with the wars that had preceded it. It is also Briggs’s most successful book visually; for the most part, he reigns in his more rococo tendencies, dishing tight, disciplined frames punctuated by dramatic, ominous two-page spreads. Throughout the book, the Bloggses are penned in tight, caught by frames that underline their slavery to the official narrative of peace and war, and that melt away only when the two reminisce about the past or indulge in flights of fancy, or when nuclear weapons make their awful appearance. When it comes, the violence of the nuclear detonation is rendered with an unforgettable graphic force that shakes even the frames of the drawings.

One of the ways in which When the Wind Blows differs from the standard post-apocalyptic narrative is in its choice of protagonists: credulous, staunch believers in the status quo, completely lacking in any kind of libertarian agenda and, above all, getting on in years, the Bloggses will not be donning radlands finery and setting off to manifest-destiny the wastes. If the elderly appear at all in post-apocalyptic narratives, it is usually as repositories of wisdom, but the Bloggses are no sages: gullible and naive, they have nothing to offer in this new post-apocalyptic world—they are simply doomed to become the rotting corpses littering the path of less unfortunate hypothetical survivors in other, less pessimistic nuclear war fictions.

For this reason, perhaps the artifact it most closely resembles is Lynne Littman’s film of the following year, Testament, another narrative that placed at its heart atypical, and transitory, survivors—in the case of Testament, a mother and her children—who, like Hilda and Jim, cannot fight their way out of the inevitability of atomic death, but must watch in horror as it arrives. It also shares with that film a lack of the usual symbology of nuclear war—except for the book’s cover, we see no mushroom clouds, no radiation symbols, not even a decontamination suit.

After being adapted for a 1983 BBC radio drama and a one-act play (which The Guardian‘s reviewer called “Possibly the most bizarre theatre I have seen”), in 1986, with the Doomsday Clock now at three minutes to midnight, the book was made into an animated film, once again directed by Murakami and featuring David Bowie, who recorded the film’s title song. Though well-intentioned, the film entirely failed to capture the tone of the book, and made little impact.

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