Monday, June 28, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 145 (6/28) -- Gentleman Jim by Raymond Briggs

Seth muses in his introduction to Gentleman Jim as to why Briggs never has gotten the recognition Seth knows he deserves as a pioneer of the graphic novel, and comes down on the fact that Briggs's work has nearly always been published for younger readers. That's certainly part of it, but Briggs's usual tone of light whimsy -- no bad thing, I hasten to add, especially when it enlivens a book that otherwise could be deadly, like When the Wind Blows -- has at least as much to do with it. It's not exactly that Briggs's book are read by kids, in other words, as the fact that they so often look like they should be for kids, even when they weren't intended that way.

Gentleman Jim, for example, was originally published for adults -- and has been reprinted recently by Drawn & Quarterly, also for adults -- but Briggs's characters are as loosely formed (in their mental conceptions of themselves and their doughy, soft physical appearance) as his famous snowman, and the things that happen to them have a fabulist feel, almost like a cautionary tale or some other moralistic story told to children.

Jim, the "hero" of this story, is a middle-aged dreamer, a direct descendant of Walter Mitty, who cleans a London public toilet but wants to do something more adventurous. In the typical Mitty way, Jim doesn't particularly care what more adventurous thing he does, as long as he can do the things he likes to read about in books. But where Mitty is used by James Thurber to satirize that dreamy impulse -- and set it in contrast with Mitty's hard-headed wife -- Briggs has matched Jim with an equally dreamy wife, Hilda. Gentleman Jim sees Jim working his way through several unrealistic fantasies -- gorgeously painted by Briggs along the way; his art is lovely and the primary appeal of Gentleman Jim -- which sink him deeper and deeper into trouble in the real world. But Jim's innocence is impregnable; he ends the book as sweet and untouched as he began it, no matter what has happened or will happen to him.

Gentleman Jim is the story of a man who's unhappy in the most mild, lightweight way possible, and who is also completely unshakable in his sweetness, so the reader can't expect him to change or learn much of anything. It's lovely to look at, particularly Brigg's humorously detailed looks at Jim's fantasies, but readers who like characters that interact with the real world will find themselves disappointed.
Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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