Monday, July 14, 2008

Ethel and Ernest - a review

Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs

Let's get one thing straight. Ethel and Ernest is a comic book. Like Barefoot Gen is a comic book about the aftermath of Hiroshima, using pictures to heighten the impact of words. Like Maus is a comic book about a concentration camp survivor that uses funny animals as a metaphor to emphasize the moral distinction between the Jews and the Nazis. Like Batman is a comic book about a guy who dresses up like a bat and kicks the high holy crap out of muggers and clowns.

Like Barefoot Gen and Maus, Ethel and Ernest showcases no spandex, contains not a single batarang or ray gun. Not that this is necessarily a recommendation. I happen to have a giddy adoration of spandex, batarangs, and ray guns.

Ethel and Ernest
is a comic book. It's also a luminescent illustrated biography of Raymond Briggs's parents, from their first chance encounter in the twenties until their death in the seventies. In Ethel and Ernest, Raymond Briggs fuses his family photo album, anecdotes passed between generations, and the narrative of a turbulent century.

Comic book literati call this genre the Graphic Novel, as if that legitimizes to American audiences the practice of illustrating chunks of text and dialog. Sort of as if Dr. Seuss had written The Old Man and the Sea.

Graphic novels are more akin to epic poems that use pictures to fine tune and add dimension to the stories they support. Like the Book of Kells. Or the Gutenberg Bible. Comic books are logovisual. Words and pictures function in unison to create a single idea. While our head interprets the words, our heart interprets the pictures.

Mr. Briggs' simple, texturally rich illustrations and vivid, lush backgrounds have the uncanny ability to isolate a moment of time, while still letting it move within the frame, making each comic panel achingly temporal. There is a liquid, holographic quality to such preserved moments. They transcend the rigidity of photographs and abrogate the pushy rush of text to press on to the next description.

Ethel and Ernest is a triumph of hybridization, bringing past moments alive, complete with their attendant humor and tragedy. Using history as a backdrop, Ethel and Ernest defines its subjects by how they react to the world, intertwining history and humanity until they are indistinguishable.

"This bloke, Adolf Hitler." Ernest begins a conversation. "It says they're publishing his book over here. Mein Kamph, it's called. All the profits are going to the Red Cross."

"Oh, that's nice of him." Ethel replies.

After they struggle to bear their single child, with the certain knowledge that there won't be more, Et and Ern must struggle again with the knowledge that they must send Ray away from a London under siege in order to protect him.

"One and a half million children are to be evacuated," their boxy old radio states.

"They're not taking ours away!" Exclaims Ethel.

"'Course they are!" Ernest rebuts.

"Oh, no they're not! Over my dead body!"

"It will be over his dead body then! Is that what you want!"

That argument makes the jagged speech balloons of their shouts, and the reds and yellows that make up the pallet of their complexions, into flames that foreshadow the bombing of London by the Nazi's.

Ethel and Ernest
is filled with logovisual hieroglyphs that float the dialog past, each picture a word that describes the accumulation of a life. The garden that they fill with flowers and bomb shelters and pear trees. The Valentine's Day cards Ernest makes Ethel. The shards of their bombed out home. The crouched imp of a telephone that appears sometime in the fifties.

The last pages are hollow with loneliness. Of course. Where else do lives end, but death? In the stark white of hospitals. In the dingy shadows cast by middle of the night phone calls. Through a combination of text and color and line, Ethel and Ernest manages to place you in the great depression, in a London being mercilessly shelled by the Nazi's. Finally, it will bring you into the heart of a son who has lost his parents, which is a place as real as any orphanage.

This review was originally published several years ago on the Electric Well website. There are minor edits for punctuation and spelling.

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