by Stephen Sheeran
Raymond Briggs’ Time for Lights Out (2019) is not for the faint-hearted. It is unusual—an autobiographical graphic novel, in which he presents a meditation on impending death. Some of you, like me, may inwardly scoff at the whole concept of “graphic novel” (glorified comic book?), but in Briggs’ works, I am happy to report, there is no lack of depth or artistry.
Those of you with children or grandchildren may already be familiar with his portfolio. He was trained as an artist/illustrator and achieved early recognition for his Mother Goose illustrations (1966). He then branched out into both writing and illustrating children’s books, with Father Christmas (1973) and The Snowman (1977); then, later, came more adult-focused graphic novels. Throughout, his trademark style has combined vibrant-yet-understated illustrations with quirky and sometimes terribly dark themes. For example, When the Wind Blows relates the slow demise of an elderly English couple from the radiation fallout generated by a nuclear attack.
In Time for Lights Out Briggs presents what is essentially a scrapbook of his life. Returning to subjects from his earlier works, he takes a long look back at his parents’ generation (both born in the late 1800s), his birth and coming of age in WWII England, and his subsequent career as writer/illustrator. He also weaves in specific details about his first wife and his parents, who all tragically died in the space of two years in the early 1970s, at the start of his career.
Contents include whimsical poems, snatches of conversations, lists of instructions and symptoms, cartoon storyboards, free-standing drawings, notes to himself, graveyard epitaphs, and snippets of famous quotations on the subject of death. The illustrations vary from finely finished drawings to half-executed sketches (some, in fact, oddly reminiscent of the artwork of Kay Kinsman, one-time resident of Lennoxville). But gone are the rich colour combinations and experimental media of his earlier works. All is rendered in black and white—mainly black—including a few photos of loved ones, historical events, old illustrations from newspapers. Significantly, as the work progresses the artwork becomes less distinct and the focus darker. A recurring image is a lone, dark, distant figure lost in a vast landscape.
One would expect all these bleak biographical ingredients to result in a thoroughly dark and depressing work. In fact, many critics have characterised Time for Lights Out as a depressing or melancholic or “plangent” denouement to Briggs’ oeuvre.
On the surface this seems fair. It is true that Briggs provides a catalogue of the physical indignities of aging—everything from bunions to incontinence to decreased vigour to redistribution of body hair to heart palpitations to deafness. In one poem, for example, he writes: “It’s not that I am going deaf/No. Not at all./I am not in denial./Young people today just don’t speak clearly./ It’s pointless them denying it,/You can’t hear what they say./ Q.E.D.”
It is also true that he highlights the psycho-social depredations of old age—the increased loneliness as one’s peers bite the dust, the indignity of having youngsters a fraction of our age condescend and over-explain, and the ongoing shock of the new: a sense of dislocation and being out of touch with modern technology (cf. entire spread devoted to %@#*&#$ remote controls!). He walks through the empty silent fields and sees high-speed trains whiz by, while “silver pencils” fly through the heavens five miles overhead…and a friend has to telephone Pakistan from England to organise a car rental in Oklahoma.
Yes, the critics may be right. Death colours the entire work. Briggs reflects moodily at one point that he has just purchased what is likely his last ever package of art paper. He muses that people of his age automatically turn to the obituary pages in the newspaper to see “who’s in, who’s out”. Dark half-opened doors, hills that wind out of sight figure frequently in the scenic and thematic background of the work.
However, to dismiss the work simply as melancholic is to miss the entire point. In his earlier works, we saw a Father Christmas who complained bitterly about “bloomin’ rain!” “bloomin’ COLD!” “bloomin’ CHIMNEYS!!” but doggedly went about his business and finally tucked himself into bed after a hard day’s work. In The Snowman we saw the Snowman come to life and spend some happy mischievous hours with the young boy, exploring all the marvels of the mundane world—beds, fireplaces, refrigerators—before taking the boy aloft in a wonderful journey of imaginative discovery…and then, finally, melting into nothing.
Time for Lights Out is of a piece with these earlier works. In its lines and illustrations Briggs takes us up close to the undying mystery of human imagination, curiosity, and engagement in the physical and social world. The dire predicament of the human approaching death is redeemed by the aesthetic, the unconquerable desire to make sense of things.
Briggs is most emphatically not religious; however, his is a relentless impulse towards transcendence: “I don’t believe in ‘the spirit of the place”./Nor do I believe in ‘auras’./Nevertheless,/Up on the hill, near the church,/There is one./ Dammit.”