“What’s the use of worrying? It never was worthwhile. So, Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag -And smile, smile, smile.”Jim Bloggs singing to his wife Hilda
The Berlin Wall fell 31 years ago—the conclusion to a long and brutal struggle. It marked the end of an conflict that twisted the world for 42 years—dominating public policy, spending, and aggression, all the while casting the shadow of nuclear proliferation across the entire globe. Now, in all honesty, I had to look up when the Cold War started, and more significantly, when the Berlin Wall fell—and while there may be many out there who do know these dates, I would venture a guess that my experience is probably more normative than any historian would be happy with; but, for my own generation, and probably well before me, the Cold War is a fixed piece of history—not personal, but a story we read in a history book. It is equivalent to reading about the symptoms of cancer from a textbook, as opposed to having that personal relationship with a loved one or friend fighting for their life. One is impersonal/dispassionate, the other incredibly emotionally charged. It almost feels experientially as if the purported words of a top world leader of the mid-twentieth century ring true: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.”
Raymond Briggs, a British author and illustrator, is most famous for his children’s books, such as The Snowman. However, despite rising to fame related to his works for children, in 1982 he published the adult graphic novel When the Wind Blows. This novel stands in a unique place for fiction -humanizing an era that is often relegated to clinical analysis and anti-Vietnam diatribes. Set during the Cold War, the novel follows Jim and Hilda Bloggs, an elderly couple living in England. They have a single son, residing in the city, but are otherwise unattached and enjoying the retired life. Life is normal, that is until the USSR launches a nuclear assault on the West, spiraling England, and the Bloggs, into an apocalyptic unknown. Now, When the Wind Blows is unquestionably a critique of the effects of nuclear escalation and government bungling, but not in an angry or overly political way. Unlike the majority of media put out during the Cold War decades which relied on anger and fear as the primary emotions to drive change (give Black Sabbath’s classic song “War Pigs” a listen sometime), Briggs relies on pure, everyday, normal, humanity to drive his point home. As Jim and Hilda navigate a post-fallout reality, the reader is shown the little ways that they care for one another, fuss over each other, and love one another, even as the world around them is crumbling. Raymond’s time as a children’s illustrator really shines on these pages, combining his simple and pure illustrations with the broken and sobering subject-matter gives the panels an emotionally haunting quality that is unique and powerful.
When the Wind Blows is not a ‘happy’ story; in fact, it is the most beautifully tragic graphic novel I have ever read. Raymond did his homework whenever writing the 40 some-odd pages the story spans, and his depictions of such things as disaster preparedness, radiation sickness, and deprivation are eerily accurate and emotionally haunting when painted in his unique art style. However, the most impactful aspects of the story are easily the main protagonists Jim and Hilda: their interactions, and gentle, loving, ‘normalness’. Tragedy and destruction were not new in 1982 when Raymond Briggs published his book, and they are no stranger today either, but what When the Wind Blows forces us to remember is that catastrophe is never just a number -every number has faces behind it. If we forget that, then we agree with Josef Stalin that “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic.”