by Raymond Briggs
Hamish Hamilton, London, 1977
Review by Bill Kirton
In the UK, one of the Christmas fixtures is a TV showing of the cartoon, The Snowman. In case you don’t know it, it’s based on the book of the same name written and illustrated by Raymond Briggs. Among his many other cartoon books (or graphic novels) are Father Christmas (who hates snow, by the way); Father Christmas Goes on Holiday; When the Wind Blows, which is a bleak but funny account of what happens to a late middle-aged, working class couple before, during and after the dropping of a nuclear bomb; The Tin-Pot Foreign General and the Old Iron Woman – a savage indictment of the Falklands War; Gentleman Jim, a toilet attendant with ideas above his station; and Ethel and Ernest, a sad, poignant ‘biography’ of Briggs’ mother and father. They’re all variously charming, chilling, funny and desolate.
You should read all of them. But the one you MUST read is Fungus the Bogeyman. It’s a hilarious, wonderful example of existentialism in action. (Don’t let the word frighten you. In a booklet called Bluff your way through Literature – invaluable for students – existentialism is defined as ‘anything that’s French, dirty or incomprehensible’.)
A bogeyman is to the British what a Boogieman is to the Americans. (An aside: why should a boogieman seem scary? When Michael Jackson sang Blame it on the boogie, it was the dance with its enthusiasm, energy, life and all that he was referring to. On the other hand, a ‘bogey’ is the thing you pick from your nose which, in my book, makes the bogeyman a much nastier entity.)
Fungus lives in Bogeydom – a damp, fetid, rank kingdom underground. Briggs is careful to give us a highly detailed picture of his habitat, family, anatomy, customs, hobbies, eating habits, clothes and, as well as creating very funny visual gags and inversions of our own values, he indulges in brilliant linguistic inventions and distortions. A breakfast cereal is Flaked Corns and two of the lotions on the shelf in the barathrum (a pit, chasm, abyss of muck according to Briggs’ helpful glossary) are the aftershave Old Mice and a bottle of Eau de Colon. In the house he wears wet, slimy sabots, a form of slipper cut from rotting wood (a process known as sabotage). His cat is called Pus, his dog Mucus, his friend Fester, the barmaid Salivia and the innkeeper in bogeydom is called an aubergine. These and many, many more inventions fill every page as Briggs details the day to day (or rather, night to night) thoughts and actions of Fungus, his drear (sic) wife, Mildew, and his son, Mould.
At dusk, Fungus gets out of his damp bed to go to work on the surface, where his jobs include slowly turning the door knobs of bedrooms, touching the back of sleeping people’s necks to create boils, making bumps in the night, causing stairs to creak, babies to wake and perpetrating all sorts of other refined torments that fill the night with terrors.
BUT (and this is where the existentialism comes in) …
As he cycles up towards the darkening world, past a man with a sandwich board bearing the words ‘Nothing is permanent but woe’, we share his thoughts, which mingle questions about the purpose of existence with a strange poetry – ‘The brimming dykes are not so full / As my heart’s swell’, ‘I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips’, ‘this seat of desolation void of light’.
He asks the meaning of life, wonders why he’s doing all this, why he’s a bogeyman. He confesses ‘I am, yet what I am, who knows? / I am the self-consumer of my woes’, and, as he prepares for bed yet again, with Mildew, he asks ‘What’s it all for?’ and ‘Does it do any ultimate good? Or even ultimate bad?’
It’s a direct, very funny exposition of the whole question of the absurd. The drawings are wonderful, the colours perfect for the subject and the word-play delightful and full of surprises and sudden depths. Briggs is renowned for his apparent pessimism, but this is a book which leaves you both reflective and smiling. I’ve been going back to it again and again for years.