Pulp Fictions: Raymond Briggs' 'Gentleman Jim' and J. Otto Seibold & Siobhan Vivian's 'Vunce Upon A Time'
Drawn and Quarterly
Vunce Upon A Time
J. Otto Seibold & Siobhan Vivian
Jim's life is literally in the shitter. After five years as a toilet cleaner, the title character of British writer-artist Raymond Briggs's newly reissued 1980 graphic novel is ready for a career change. The slim Gentleman Jim chronicles the humble and earnest man's quixotic notions of becoming a soldier, artist, executive, and highwayman, ideas that quickly sputter out as Jim learns about the necessity of degrees (or "levels," in Britspeak) and the price of boots, a gun, a plane ticket to Texas, etc.
Jim lives his daily life in tiny panels that occasionally explode into gilded fantasies. He comes closest to a new career after deciding to become a highwayman. His toy gun and foil sword get him arrested, however. "Do they work you hard, love?" asks his kind yet oblivious wife, Hilda, when she visits him in prison. "Oh no," Jim replies. "It's cushy. They've put me on the toilets. They say I'm an expert." Sigh.
This cautionary story about the dangers of attempting to transcend one's class marked one of Briggs's earliest attempts to transcend his usual audience: children. In his introduction to Gentleman Jim, the artist Seth argues that Briggs's children's books – which include the highly successful Father Christmas and When the Wind Blows, an anti-nukes classic – hindered Briggs from gaining more respect as a cartoonist and pre-Eisnerian graphic novelist.
Gentleman Jim reminds me of another working-class hero: Mr. Lunch, the canine cartoon creation of J. Otto Seibold – perhaps the first person to draw children's books on a computer – and co-author Vivian Walsh. Mr. Lunch is a talented bird chaser. In fact, as the authors point out in Mr. Lunch Takes a Plane Ride and two other books devoted to his exploits, he is a professional. Like Mr. Lunch, Seibold's other creations, which include Space Monkey and Penelope the bug, are charming and naïve innocents who are catapulted beyond the limitations of their ordinary lives.
In his new Vunce Upon a Time, Seibold and teen-fiction writer Siobhan Vivian team up to relate a tender if simplistic tale about Dagmar, a vegetarian vampire who needs to come up with a suitably frightening costume in order to replenish his candy stash on Halloween. Visually, the book is a stunning translation of Seibold's idiosyncratic image bank into the black, red, and orange holiday palette – although it's Dagmar's sickly green garlic costume that really frightens his parents. Like Briggs in his prison cell, Dagmar ends the book sleeping contentedly in his coffin and dreaming "about what could be": a picnic with a pigtailed human girl.
Moral: Optimism is probably a dish best served to the young, at least this year.
Another upper and a downer: The Sunday Times's Opinion section contained both Aaron Sorkin's relatively optimistic imaginary conversation between Barack Obama and "West Wing" president Josiah Bartlett. Then there was Jonathan Lethem's fearful take - more here - on The Dark Knight:
"In its narrative gaps, its false depths leading nowhere in particular, its bogus grief over stakeless destruction and faked death, 'The Dark Knight' echoes a civil discourse strained to helplessness by panic, overreaction and cultivated grievance. I began to feel this Batman wears his mask because he fears he’s a fake — and the story of his inauthenticity, the possibility of his unmasking, counts for more than any hope he offers of deliverance from evil. The Joker, on the other hand, exhibits his real face, his only face, and his origins are irrelevant, his presence as much a given as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or Fear Itself."