Byline: PHILIP HENSHER
Ethel and Ernest
by Raymond Briggs
N&D Bookstore price: [pounds sterling]12.99
Raymond Briggs was born in 1934 and educated at Wimbledon School of Art and the Slade. At 17, he sold his first picture for eight guineas and went on to write and illustrate such classic picture books as The Snowman, When the Wind Blows and Fungus the Bogeyman. A natural pessimist, he can't see cut flowers without remembering they're dying.
It is four years since Raymond Briggs's last book, so the publication of Ethel and Ernest is a cause of celebration, even though we're unusual in this country in never having quite seen the point, or the potential, of the comic-strip book. In other parts of the world, it is not necessarily viewed as an inferior or superficial genre.
It enjoys a more respected status in other parts of the world. The extravagantly violent comic-strip books of Japan pursue themes of startling seriousness and impact. The French, it seems, do not recognise any necessary limits to what may be expressed in the bande dessinee - one brave fellow has just embarked on translating Proust in the manner of Herge's Tintin.
In Germany, literary fiction has grown self-absorbed and moved away from any popular readership. Some of the most brilliant inventions of German writing in the past 10 years have been in the form of cartoon-strip books; the superlatively funny farces of Ralf Koenig, which draw on a rich variety of sources from Aristophanes to Shakespeare with an impressive legerdemain and un-Teutonic lightness of touch. The somewhat laborious film adaptation of his best book, Der Bewegte Mann (The Most Desired Man), flopped outside Germany, and not surprisingly; it didn't begin to hint at the swiftness and wit of the original.
By contrast, in this country, we are suspicious even of the illustrated book. To us, pictures in a book seem almost a mark of a lack of seriousness, and we find it difficult to concede that within the conventions of the Japanese comic strip and the startling permutations of Italian cartoon pornography, there is an inventiveness and a seriousness which exceeds more ponderous genres.
I must admit to sharing a little in this prejudice, and though I feel quite passionate about the best of the genre, including Herge and Koenig, I would be very self-conscious about reading such work on a train.
Yet opinions may be changing. With the advent of The Simpsons and South Park, television cartoons are no longer seen as simply for children. Perhaps the comic book will attain a new respectability, and what has always shown surreptitious excellence will be more generally acknowledged.
When it happens, Raymond Briggs is the man to lead the assault on the bastions of good …