Ethel & Ernest by Raymond Briggs: B

From the front flap:
Poignant, funny, and utterly original, Ethel & Ernest is Raymond Briggs’s loving depiction of his parents’ lives from their chance first encounter in the 1920s until their deaths in the 1970s.

Ethel and Ernest were solid members of the English working class, part of the generation that lived through the most tumultuous years of the twentieth century. Briggs’s portrayal of how his parents succeeded, or failed, in coming to terms with the events of their rapidly shifting world is irresistibly engaging, full of sympathy and affection, yet clear-eyed and unsentimental.

I’m pretty sure Ethel & Ernest is the first nonfiction comic I’ve read, but it’s definitely a nice medium for telling a story like this one, which depicts the evolving relationship between Ethel and Ernest, the parents of creator Raymond Briggs, as they meet, marry, encounter newfangled gadgets, digest political prognostications, have a son, grow old, and pass away.

Briggs never outright tells us much about his parents, but rather shows it through their interactions. His mother is older than his father, for one thing, votes for a different party and considers herself to be middle class and proper. Ernest votes Labour and is inclined to think of himself as working class, and is occasionally chastised by his wife for the uncouth things he says. Still, they clearly get on well, and Briggs paints their eccentricities lovingly.

My main complaint about Ethel & Ernest is that it seems to move too quickly. It focuses on acknowledging historically significant moments and inventions, with a few personal milestones thrown in, and doesn’t really focus much on their day-to-day life or feature scenes that last any longer than a couple of pages. It works as a quick retrospective of their life, but not as deep and moving a one as it could have been.

I liked what was there, but I wanted more. Perhaps that’s the American in me, and even this is far more than a Brit from that era would’ve dreamed of sharing, but it seems I could’ve loved these characters if given the chance, but instead I only sort of mildly enjoyed them.

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  1. This might be an interesting comment on the values of western vs. eastern comic art. Amazon says this book is only 104 pages long, which frankly, is ridiculously short for any sort of memoir, graphical or not.

    But how many western graphic novels are really of any great length? Even the ones that seem to have managed a lot of pages tend to feel jerky and stumbling to me. Whereas a shounen manga series is perfectly happy to devote 2 entire tankoubons to people posturing during a sword fight/tennis match/basketball game.

    I’m not sure what the excuse is. Clearly it’s possible to produce large quantities of artwork to a basic standard in a short period of time. And frankly I think some of the western comics might benefit from a little less overdrawing…

    • That is interesting — hampered by the Western concept of a GN. And the art here is fairly meticulous, I’d say, and I’m sure it did take a very long time to create.

  2. Even though I haven’t seen it, I’m sure it did. One thing that always comes through to me when looking at a western GN is the sheer amount of time and effort it must have taken to draw it.

    But is that good? In most other situations it’s bad. Excellent figure skating should make it look easy. The best cooking shows make it look easy. Writing should feel as if it flowed out like water from a tap. And so forth.

    If their effort is showing (cover your eyes!) then maybe something is wrong somewhere?

    • I’d stop short of saying it’s wrong to expend a lot of effort on one’s art, but it does indicate a difference in focus. Some comics readers, regardless of whether their preference be for Western GNs or manga, are always going to be primarily into the art, and others are always going to be primarily into the story. The best creators can balance these two factors—I do admire detailed art in general, but it helps me love a story more when I already love the story to begin with—but if the art’s there and the story’s lacking, then yeah, it’s not going to resonant with me no matter how skilled the visuals.

  3. I don’t think it’s wrong to expend the effort, but I do think something may be wrong when the first thing I think when I look at the page is ‘wow, that must have taken a lot of work’. What I should be thinking is about the story.

    But the point I was working on above was that I find the overemphasis on detailed art really does detract from the story. The author seems to assume that the visuals will carry a substantial portion of the narrative, sometimes to the point of leaving out essential information from the dialogue which, if you happen to miss it in the busy background, makes the plot nigh on incomprehensible.

    (Ex: The scripts for the Angel comic supplied in the back of the first GN are great. So detailed and they make sense. The finished article? Not as much.)

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