Comics: Where do I start? Ethel & Ernest

My wife is many amazing things. First of all, she’s English, so that’s pretty whacky. She’s also a PhD student who speaks three and a half different languages, rocks her own teacup candle-making side gig, is an excellent chef, and remains, without intended humble-brag or undue hyperbole, the sweetest person I’ve ever met. But she’s not a comic book fan, which is valid grounds for divorce in some countries. To her credit, however, she has been extremely patient, verging on downright supportive of my comic book addiction, but she’s also maintained a firm policy of not getting directly involved. And yet, here I sit, on the eve of our one-year wedding anniversary, 10 years after meeting, and I’m once again amazed by her. See, for the first time ever, I have read, and will now review, a comic book that she recommended to me. How did we get to this strange parallel universe, you ask? It all started with a snowman.

Before we get there, though, let’s first define why we’re here. We’re here to talk about pictures and words; more specifically, pictures and words working together to tell a story, and how you can convince friends and concerned loved ones that the comic book, which uses said pictures and words as its chosen media of expression, is a viable narrative delivery system, by pointing out some exemplars of the art form. In layman’s terms: we’re here to give you and yours recommendations on where to start.

Regular readers understand that comics have long incorporated tales outside the realm of superhero stories and crime capers, masked misadventures and zombie apocalypses. Again, this is just a storytelling medium after all, and in fact, one that is particularly rich with diversity. As such, and this is true with any other venue of entertainment, you’ve either got to find something specific that will appeal to your chosen potential reader, or introduce a story that will most likely interest everyone. Thanks to the little lady, I was lucky enough to find both at once.

Ethel & Ernest

That’s why I’ve chosen the visually stunning, painfully sweeping and timelessly classic graphic novel Ethel & Ernest, by legendary English writer and cartoonist, Raymond Briggs, as the perfect place to begin anyone’s first or continuing foray into comics.

Now then, about that snowman...

Long before 1978, Raymond Briggs had already established himself as an award-winning, internationally-renowned children’s book illustrator. However, it was in this year that he created and illustrated (in crayon) the otherwise wordless storybook, The Snowman, which, in 1982, was adapted into an annual Christmas televised event in the UK; one which would act as a formative touchstone during the young life of my wife.

Years later, after a particularly tangential Google search, which probably began with a quest for South Indian curry recipes, my wife stumbled upon a later work by the very same Briggs: a graphic novel, of all things, about the life and times of his parents, the titular Ethel and Ernest. As mundane a premise as that may sound, this book more than deserved all of my wife’s excitement and ended up being one of the most heart-warming, crushingly emotional graphic novels I have ever read. To begin to understand why, you need look no other direction than Up.

Now, I could tell you that Ethel & Ernest is a story about two people at once in love and adrift in history, that it’s a “time-travel” story in its very truest sense, where you feel each moment as powerfully as you do each year, but I think a clearer way of explaining it is this: Ethel & Ernest is, for all intents and purposes, the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s UP. But don’t take that lightly, because it is further distilled, smoothed out and given deeper, even more resounding gravitas, but delivered with a levity that buoys the spirit of the story, from start to finish.

It begins in 1928, when a working class, would-be milkman named Ernest woos a young housemaid named Ethel. After the two quickly fall in love and get married, the book then splits into chapters by decade, from 1930 to 1970, with an epilogue of sorts, which shows the events from 1970-1971. Along the way, we follow the two as they live these brief, colorful moments that span across a kaleidoscopic life, fraught though it is with economic hardship (the depression), technological advancement (washing machines, indoor plumbing), world war and finally, the tiresome march to old age.

Throughout it all, Ethel and Ernest shine through with this inescapably charming and often downright hilarious banter, with her complaining about his acting “common” and him rallying against the system. Her stiff-upper-lippedness and devotion to a higher class snuggles up beautifully to his more throaty, yet good-natured discontent. And yet, both of them come together to do their best to sustain themselves and their son, the author, during some very difficult parts of the 20th Century.

Make no mistake, though, as much as this offers a fantastic historical perspective, Ethel & Earnest is, at its heart, one man’s love letter to his parents, written without even the slightest hint of overly-saccharine sentimentality. Briggs is just as quick to elbow his reader in the ribs while sniggering at his parents’ constant fumble with progress, as he is to marvel at their ability to overcome and prosper under the weight of adversity. And oh, what a beautiful struggle Briggs paints here.

The art in Ethel & Ernest is sublime: a treatise on innocence, perseverance and humor in crayon. In a way, it’s like a proto-Kindt, and much like the pacing and wit of his writing, his subjects are never at rest, even in the most banal of activities. Thickly sketched with furious yet thorough scratches of color, each page comes alive in the echo of the animation in The Snowman. Just like that production, this is undoubtedly a stylistic nod to Briggs’ childhood memory, like it’s been ripped from the diary a young man who was so excited about telling this story, that he couldn’t wait to get it down on paper.

That’s exactly what this story evokes in both its art and writing, particularly in the early-going: a childlike sense of wonder and discovery, but as Ethel and Ernest approach old age and inevitability, so too does the color of the story begin to fade and fallow. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a story age and wither before, but Briggs exploits the strength of the medium to do so exceptionally well here, with a final page flourish that explodes in this - as odd as it sounds - subdued blast of color. In this last scene, Briggs exemplifies the power of every page before it: a combined image of mourning and hope. It’s stunning, and while Ethel & Ernest takes no time to get through thanks to its jaunty style, it will stick with you for some time after its reading.

My wife was on the verge of tears as she told me about it, going over scenes she’d read and that had stuck with her. That’s when I knew that not only did I have to read this book, but that it may very well be an ideal one to recommend as a comic primer. As I mentioned earlier, it takes a familiar approach and style within the sequential art medium: that of a “children’s book,” but adds an adult and indeed parental context. Of course, it will especially appeal to couples, and would be a great way to introduce your partner to light yet deft comic booking. It’s definitely helped open doors for my own wife, who has since bought another graphic novel and is markedly more interested in reading more.

Sweet and hilarious, stoic without being morose, Ethel & Ernest is one part fantastic historical graphic biography and two parts fiercely endearing love story. It’s no wonder it won the British Book Award for Best Illustrated Book shortly after its publication back in 1999. Whether you are an old hat at comics or a first timer, this is an ideal place to discover new strength in storytelling.

Writer & author: Raymond Briggs