At first glance, GENTLEMAN JIM looks like a child’s board book. Its small size and playful cover don’t give much of a hint as to its dense contents and marvelously constructed themes. A quick flip inside its pages reveals the truth, however: This is a deliciously funny and witty book for grownups --- but kids might like it too.
Author and illustrator Raymond Briggs has certainly balanced his work between kids’ tales and more adult-oriented fare, from things like FATHER CHRISTMAS and THE SNOWMAN to WHEN THE WIND BLOWS, an ominous graphic novel take on nuclear war. At a scant 32 pages, GENTLEMAN JIM is a short yet delightful bit of whimsy that wouldn’t be inappropriate for children but has enough smart edginess underlying its story that mark it as a sweet story for adult dreamers.
The title character, Jim Bloggs, has a steady but unfulfilling job cleaning toilets. He wants to do more, so much more, and he dreams of it constantly, looking at want ads and trying to figure out what steps to take. But every attempt Jim makes to advance his career to new heights is met with disdain and disapproval from an authority figure.
Tellingly, those authority figures are sparsely illustrated, sometimes just angular features obscuring any real details (like a face, for example). Ever an optimist, Jim still perseveres, blissfully unaware of the sheer futility of his plight. It’s almost heartbreaking to witness, or at least it would be if Briggs didn’t take so much care to ensure the story stayed light. There’s real hope inside Jim; no wonder he remains one of Briggs’s signature characters. He still resonates.
As direct commentary on societal structures, GENTLEMAN JIM uses brevity to its benefit. The book was first published in 1980, just a year after Margaret Thatcher had become England’s first female prime minister. That its British-born author directed most of his social commentary at his native society doesn’t diminish GENTLEMAN JIM for American readers.
Jim and his wife, Hilda, are rumored to be based on Briggs’s own parents, whose lives he detailed in ETHEL & ERNEST. Jim and Hilda made their own return in 1982’s WHEN THE WIND BLOWS, which pitted the two against the perils of nuclear winter.
Always, Briggs finds a way to draw humor and hope out of sadness and despair. He’s also a master at using symbolism in his design to support his story: Notice the size of the panels in GENTLEMAN JIM, for example, and how they reflect Jim’s plight in life throughout the story. It’s a pleasure to see Drawn & Quarterly reviving one of his pivotal works in such a nice edition. Briggs has long been overlooked in the field --- even though he’s worked steadily writing and/or illustrating since the late 1950s –-- so it’s good to see him get his due.
Reviewed by John Hogan on January 22, 2008