All Our Paternal Definitions

*If only every post could start off with a fine tune.

*Ah, all the answers are back! Tom Spurgeon has a very special interview with Johnny Ryan up, one that’s comprised entirely of Ryan answering questions taken from Gary Groth’s infamous 1980 The Comics Journal interview with Harlan Ellison. Also included is a preview of Ryan’s upcoming The Comic Book Holocaust, a Buenaventura Press collection of single-page comics parodies that used to guarantee a multi-page ripper of a thread on the Comics Journal board whenever a new one would be published.

*Holiday Dept: Well, today was Father’s Day, as my mother made sure to inform me via telephone call at the crack of dawn (noon). She needn’t have bothered with the reminder, though, as merchants all across the land have made sure to set up at least one promotional stand hyping up the fatherliness of the occasion. Purchase Dad these great Charles Bronson dvds! Why not get Dad some delicious barbecue sauce? Nothing says ‘having sired a child’ like books on military history! The absolute best was when I was perusing the ‘DAD DAD DAD’ display at Borders, and came across a sleek new edition of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.

Well, my father has been meaning to finish up his conquest of the State of Chu…

Ethel & Ernest

But if we're going to talk about fathers, parents really, before the mass of consumer and popular culture, it ought to be useful to examine Raymond Briggs' 1998 graphic novel, a deceptively outlined, pointillist chronicle of the mutual life of the author's parents. Pantheon put out the current US edition in 2001, an attractive $15 softcover, and it should be easy enough to obtain. I had been told that it's quite the moving book, but my initial reading was swiftly commandeered by an acute awareness of structure, a sensation that had the curious effect of plunging me deeper into the book, rather than acting as the distancing force one might expect.

Put simply, Ethel & Ernest is almost entirely about the simple interactions of average (Nick Hornby suggests archetypical in his back cover blurb) people, remaining oddly cozy as time blasts forward, unrelenting yet difficult to feel in its passing, life recalled as a series of short events, items and properties and technologies and vivid focusing events popping to the fore as the parade of everyday existence marches forward. Almost nothing in this book is held onto for more than a pair of pages, the story split into four decade-spanning chapters, with a pair of bookending sequences added. The tome as a whole is only 104 pages long, so you can imagine how cluttered the book might become, how disjointed it potentially might feel.

But Briggs (a longtime children's storybook veteran, perhaps best known in comics for his 1982 nuclear devastation piece When the Wind Blows) understands the limits of his format, and opts to knowingly skim the surface of history - after all, how many of us truly experience more than the daintiest dab of a century's rush? The limits of the page count (and perhaps the limits of the art form) are thus folded into a successful portrait of average people perceiving things averagely. Ernest meets Ethel by chance as the latter is at work as a maid to rich ladies. Soon, she quits her job and the two are married, and they move into a fine new home with four windows in the bedroom and a separate bath and everything. They live through the '30s, and a son is born. The '40s arrive, along with the War - prior to that, they'd known Hitler only through what could be gleaned from the news. They're not political people anyway, though Ernest's brother is a Communist, and he's certainly a bit more Labour-oriented than the Churchill-admiring Ethel. But war mostly hits them when young Raymond must be spirited off to the country in the face of air raids, or when they don't have quite enough food rationed. Life goes on, though - the decades go by faster and faster.

And I mean that literally, as Briggs makes each chapter/decade shorter than the one prior, gently collapsing the ongoings of a peaceful life into briefer and briefer sets of vignettes, all of them heavy on conversations. Ethel and Ernest talk a lot in this book, their dialogues sometimes set below a page's panels for maximum space. Voice is extremely important to Briggs, as he navigates old slang and carefully apportioned inflections of pride and naiveté to arrive at what feels like lived-in chats, which go on and on, sometimes wrapping around to reprises in later years. Look at the new radio! I've heard of a washing tub that does the washing for you! People on the moon! Will you look at that? Sometimes, moments of raw emotion rumble across such personal geography - a narrowly-avoided air disaster, Ernest weeping in Ethel's arms over a nasty blaze down at the Docks, or the façade of their lovely home smashed up in the War. We see that exterior many times over the course of the book, a symbol of the consistency of life. Of the march.

It can seem superficial, like Briggs is maddeningly in refusal to look deeper into anything, lest the sweep of his book be upset. But the real power of this story derives from that very sweep, and that very 'superficiality' - life as an ever-quickening mass of swift experiences, adding up to something that we can hardly hope to grasp for ourselves. The tinny ring of idle conversation is really the stuff of so much of what we can hope to recall of ourselves, perversely more authentic then a 'proper' narrative might be. It's an approach built for shortform comics (those bursts of events and those talks hanging in the air), and Briggs' often lavish color visuals pulse with the all warmth and expression that can be injected into this timeline, his character art particularly lovely, dot eyes and lines of surprise sometimes giving way to pure iconography, a police detective's mug only a mustache below his nose. And the lettering is prone to leaping outward, balloons trembling with emotion and sentences becoming jagged with anger.

Finally, as the coda is reached, and life ends (as it must), Briggs escorts his visuals into symbolic, mystic territory, as his structures pay off in the final pages. Life slows back down, as it does in times of crisis. One parent passes away first, as it goes, and suddenly the dialogues are gone. Tiny, lonely word balloons impotently pierce large, vivid panels. And then, more death, and the symbols of the past suddenly appear in the present, an archaic form of dress inexplicably appearing on a collapsing form, the author suddenly depected as a child again, and never seen straight-on to his face for the remainder of the story, and an animal bursting out through a closed winter door into a fine garden, all to commemorate the soul's escape from the linearity of mortal time (and I'm a sucker for that image if there ever was one: Tarkovsky's dreamy The Mirror, Ridely Scott's rainy ashen future of Blade Runner - hell, it even worked in Caligula).

All there is at the end is the façade, and a tree. Things left half-noticed as our parents grow up on us.

But that is Briggs' map of conjoined lives. Fine talks, fine silly talks, and all the beauty of municipality and society as out backdrop. Is that the only way Briggs can recall his father and mother? Will we recall ours in any other way? Will we institute arcs upon them, or will we stand in the breeze of totality?

Ah, it's all valid, I expect.

It's what we bring to it, you know?

Happy long-gone Father's Day. The calendar kept on while I was typing this.