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Nashville Scene Told in Pictures

Illustrator publishes biographical family tale

By Michael Sims

MARCH 6, 2000:  Raymond Briggs is an English illustrator whose ability to tell a story in pictures has resulted in two magnificent children's books, including the award-winning--and completely wordless--The Snowman. In his new book, Ethel & Ernest, Briggs proves that he can write as concisely and vividly as he illustrates. He also moves beyond the lyrical and mythical into social commentary and family memoir. Yes, this is an illustrated book by a famous children's author, but this time around he has not written a book for children.

The Ethel and Ernest of the title were the author's parents; their photos adorn the title page. The book is both the story of their troubled marriage and a cultural history of the middle 50 years of the 20th century. It begins wordlessly in 1928, with the couple's first glimpse of each other, as Ernest bicycles past the house where Ethel works as a maid. For the first few days, they merely wave to each other. Soon, however, the impulsive Ernest shows up with flowers and an invitation to "the pictures." Their story ends in 1971, with the death of Ernest, which follows closely upon the slow decline and death of Ethel.

In between, through masterful drawings and impressively natural-sounding dialogue, Briggs creates an intelligent and heartfelt memoir in the form of a comic book. Still, this isn't merely a new take on the recent obsession with family memoirs. Ethel & Ernest may star the author's parents, but he has made the brilliant decision to cast them as representative English citizens through whose eyes he can follow many of the historical developments of the 20th century.

Ethel is prudish, relentlessly class-conscious, a snob despite her own roots, politically Conservative, and frequently critical of her loving husband. Ernest is Labour to the core, spontaneous, romantic, a hardworking milkman who disdains promotion because it would make him into an office monkey and rob him of his early-morning fresh air. Theirs is not a match made in heaven, but over the years they remain devoted to each other. In time they produce the son who grows up to create this loving but bracingly unsentimental tribute to them. He arrives with so much difficulty that the doctor warns there should be no other children.

A swiftly changing world is reflected in the daily lives of these two Brits: "Brother Fred has a wireless," Ernest says to Ethel as they house-hunt in 1930. "He can hear Germany!" While they examine the garden, Ethel sees an unfamiliar sight in the sky and cries, "Ooh, look! An aeroplane!" One recurring pattern in the book is Ernest reading the paper to Ethel or both of them watching the news on the telly. "This bloke, Adolf Hitler," Ernest reports. "It says they're publishing his book over here. Mein Kampf, it's called. All the profits are going to the Red Cross." Ethel absentmindedly replies, "Oh, that's nice of him."

Briggs' portrait of England during the war is particularly interesting. The three Briggses try to talk through gas masks; Ernest builds a bomb shelter and marks the bathtub so they won't exceed their water ration; Raymond must be sent to the countryside for his own safety. When a doodlebug comes burbling over the area and explodes nearby, Raymond the future artist notes that the unmanned bomb was bright blue underneath. Eventually, bombs destroy half their cherished house. Ernest, as a volunteer fireman during the Blitz, faces sights he thought he would never have to see in his beloved homeland.

Ethel & Ernest becomes such a penetrating social document that it is almost jarring to find strictly personal elements of family life appearing now and then--Ernest's disreputable stepmother, the schizophrenia of young Raymond's wife. Now and then, little scenes seem to be included not because they are significant but because they were requisite anecdotes from the family archives.

The so-called "graphic novel" is a powerful medium. Limited only by the talent and imagination of its creator, a graphic novel can exploit the virtues of comic books while eschewing their supposedly heroic silliness. At its best, the result is reminiscent of cinematic techniques in the combination of thoughtfully chosen scenes and dialogue. In some of these efforts, the style overwhelms the subject, but now and then the two merge seamlessly and create an odd work of art, something like a frozen film. In this charming little book, Raymond Briggs has created such a work. If The Snowman was his silent movie, Ethel and Ernest is his first talkie.

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