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  • Beneath the Surface with Fungus the Bogeyman
  • Suzanne Rahn (bio)

It has been called "the nastiest book ever published for children,"1 and it stands in a pivotal position among the picture books of the British artist-writer Raymond Briggs. Fungus the Bogeyman (1977; first American edition 1979) offers both the most fully developed fantasy and the most outrageous affront to conventional mores of all Briggs's children's books to date. It also marks the midpoint of a philosophic curve Briggs has been tracing from the cheerful confidence of Jim and the Beanstalk (1970), to the black despair of When the Wind Blows (1982). A close look at Fungus reveals the common concerns that tie these two extremes together, and that make the last book a wholly logical development from the first.

Bogies, according to K.M. Briggs's Encyclopedia of Fairies, comprise "a whole class of mischievous, frightening and even dangerous spirits whose delight it is to torment mankind."2 From this basis in folklore, Raymond Briggs has postulated a race of large, blobby, green-skinned beings who inhabit their own underground world. At night (their day), the Bogeymen emerge to carry on their "work"—frightening human beings with mysterious footsteps, scrapings on windowpanes, and an occasional graveyard appearance; they also cause boils. But we see the daily life of Fungus at home too, eating breakfast with his wife and son, bicycling off to work, and stopping off at a pub on the way back. Meanwhile, as an anonymous narrator fills in a complete picture of Bogeydom, lecturing in academic style on Bogey culture, sports, flora, fauna, and anatomy, Briggs utilizes the full subcreative power of fantasy, supposing not only magical powers (as he does in Father Christmas and The Snowman), but a race of imaginary beings and their entire world.3

Fungus is Briggs's most deeply fantastic book for children and his most startling. Indeed, both in form and in content, it could scarcely be better calculated to repel the adult reader—or intrigue the young one.

In form it is what has been called strip-format book, a hardcover book designed like a comic strip to tell a story by means of a sequence of pictures, several to a page, with dialogue inserted inside "balloons" and explanatory captions above or beneath the frame.4 Such children's books have been popular in Europe for decades—the Tin-Tin series being especially noteworthy [End Page 5]

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artistically, and Asterix the Gaul for its sophisticated humor—but in America the strip-format never achieved hardcover status, and adult disapproval of softcover comics has been widespread since at least the 1940s.5 Like several other of Briggs's picture books, Fungus defies this old prejudice. It looks at first glance like an enlarged comic book with frames, balloons, and captions, though in fact Briggs has modified the traditional format considerably. The color scheme is unusual, being dominated not by primary colors but by soft shades of grass-green, blue-green, and brown in the background, and by the brighter yellow-green of the Bogeymen. Also, a large proportion of his page space is devoted to hand-lettered "captions" of extraordinary length that compete with or [End Page 6] even overwhelm the pictures; there are actually more words per page than in many older children's books of conventional design.

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From Fungus the Bogeyman. © 1979 by Raymond Briggs. Reprinted by permission of Random House.

The real truth of the matter is that Fungus requires and stimulates above-average literacy in its young readers. Its reading level is, in general, at least sixth grade. Puns and other varieties of word-play, literary allusions, quotations, misquotations (from authors like Milton, Keats, Shelley, and Tennyson), and obscure English words like "scran" and "dwine" and "hodmandod" are scattered lavishly through its pages. Fungus himself and his family are avid readers; the reader is shown the shelves of a Bogey library which Fungus visits and is even tacitly challenged to recognize the originals of such "adapted" titles as Far from the Madding Bogey, [End Page 7] A Portrait of the...


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