With Father Christmas, Briggs took his cue from the “Father” and based his Santa Claus directly on Ernest. His book not only raised the profile of comic strip storytelling in Britain, but also drew attention to the daily grind of working class life. Neither a simple, jovial benefactor nor a bearded quasi-saint, Briggs’ Father Christmas toils through the cold and rain, ground down by his long hours and heavy load.
Gone is the North Pole factory. Gone is the production line of elves, and all but gone is Mrs. Christmas, aka Mary Claus, who features only in a frame on a wall. Instead, Briggs has Father Christmas operating alone, out of a regular London home, based on his parents’ house. With his meticulous eye for detail, he embeds this working man Santa in domestic detail, routine, and his own idiosyncratic vocabulary. We see his alarm clock, his non-electric kettle, and we see him on his outside loo. We see him feeding his reindeer, his cat and dog, and collecting eggs from the hens. We know he wears long-johns under his trousers, does the washing up at the sink, and that he likes to say “blooming” a lot.
Father Christmas came out in 1973. For Briggs, the evocation of his father and childhood home was, at that time, particularly poignant. He lost both of his parents to cancer in 1971, just nine months apart. Two years later, his first wife, Jean Taprell Clark, died of leukaemia. “It was a dreadful time in my life, beyond belief” Briggs has said. “I just thought, well, what’s the point. You’ve got no mum, no dad, no wife. All gone.”
Those years left Briggs with an abiding preoccupation with frailty, ageing, and mortality — themes that carpet the land of The Snowman.
After the wordiness and slime of Fungus the Bogeyman, The Snowman is characterized by its lightness of touch. There is no text. After the more lurid shades of Fungus, Briggs pared down his palette to white, grey, gentle pinks, mauves, and blues, and exchanged gouache for pencil crayons. The effect is ethereal, almost dreamlike, the pages hushed like a snow-swept landscape. Light receives special attention – from the beam of a television to the jewel-like sparkle of Brighton pier.