(I had some people ask me about my comic crit. Hearing Wait What discuss JUDGE DREDD: AMERICA reminded me I wrote an essay about it at some point… and I’ve no idea where. I thought it may have been Panel Bleed, which had me nosing through archive.org, trying to find it. But there’s some stuff there, which I think it’s worth pulling a piece from. Here’s one…)
WHEN THE WIND BLOWS
I know one thing for certain: My parents never read the blurb.
In the potted biography of creator Raymond Briggs’, among explaining his many achievements, it describes how he has created several illustrated books “for children”. This, it states, is his first “for adults”.
When the Wind Blows was released in 1982. I was seven. It was, and I only realise this as I’m typing it right now, the first cultural item specifically designed for adults that I ever experienced. It provided my childish mind with its first real images of Armageddon.
Put aside the fantastic cover, which with its glorious mushroom cloud looming above the innocent Rich-Tea-Biscuit faced-forms of Jim and Hilda, the story’s principles. As a child I knew – and it’s something that I can’t quite shake to this day – that explosions were cool. It’s always fun to see something explode, and nothing in all creation has ever exploded with the panache of an atom bomb.
But an explosion isn’t the end of the world. The bang comes, and then the whimper. When The Wind Blows is all whimper. Tellingly, in the story, there’s no actual distant view of the atom bomb. When Tom and Hilda’s world is torn apart, with them sheltering beneath an unscrewed door, we’re presented with a double-page spread of pure white, fading to red around the edges. The next two pages, the dense panel layout slowly reinforces itself, reality returning. A voice emerges from beneath the wood: “Blimey”.
We don’t see the bomb for the same reason that there’s that much commented problem with the woods and the trees. You need perspective to realise that… and in a nuclear war, there is no place far enough away to gain perspective. You’re there, at ground zero.
Now, Eighties culture, pop or otherwise, lived under the Shadow of the bomb (tm). As such, many of its artefacts can seem ridiculous when cast beneath post-cold war eyes. The Paranoia that seeped through every image is just laughable. All that worry for nothing.
(Which forgets that is just an illusion of our linear lives. How lucky were we to get out of the cold war alive? We’ll never know. After surviving Russian roulette, it’s all too easy to shrug and claim that you were never in danger. After all, the gun didn’t fire.)
But When The Wind Blow’s power lingers when other comic works – say, Watchmen – are tarnished. It gains power from its non-specificity, its detail. Tom and Hilda are an average, ageing couple. Their views are somewhat conservative. They’re not too bright. As the three minute warning comes in, Hilda worries more about getting the washing in than the imminent nuclear destruction. They’re your grandparents, essentially.
They live in a house, in the countryside. The other characters are dismissed in the first panel when Tom gets off the bus, leaving them entirely alone. He’s returning from reading the papers about the rising national tensions. Home, he follows the safety leaflets about how to construct an inner-core out of door-frames, which will ensure they survive. Much black comedy, ensues, as they wrestle with the contradictory rules – memorably, being told to close all the doors to prevent spread of fires after already using them to construct their shelter. Hilda, especially, doesn’t really understand the seriousness of the events.
Then the bomb goes off.
And then, across the remainder of the books, the pair slowly die of radiation poisoning.
I’m sorry, this is nuclear war, not a murder mystery. Spoilers don’t apply. It was the Human Race on the Planet Earth with the Nuclear Deterrent.
Much like Briggs’ other work, it takes full advantage of the oversized European format (aka Children’s Illustration Book) to provide a dense panel. The drama between Tom and Hilda takes place in up to twenty-eight panel grids, tiny painted people living their lives and saying dumb things and quietly loving. Tom feels secure in the information and wants to have a cup of tea, even though the water’s been off since the bombs went up (or down, he can’t remember). Hilda worries about the total mess the place finds itself in and her hair falling out.
Then, as the story progresses, Briggs takes us to a full double page spread, showing in shadowy shapes the huge machines that are mobilising in distant lands. The contrast between the microscopic tiny chatter of their lives, and the gargantuan forces that crush them is hugely powerful – and never more so than the central explosion described earlier. It was the first comic sequence to genuinely lodge itself in my mind.
It wasn’t just an explosion, I realised. It was the end of the world.
Thanks to When The Wind Blows, I knew the difference.
Yeah, when people talk about reading Watchmen for the first time, or Arkham Asylum, or Sandman or whatever, as the comic that affected them most… well, for me it was When The Wind Blows. I first read it when I was about 11 or 12 years old and it destroyed me.