Biggles originated in a series of short stories that Johns (himself a former airman) wrote for Popular Flying magazine, and the original intention was to provide the fighter pilots of the future with an entertaining way to remember the "tricks of the trade" learned the hard way during World War I.
The stories became very popular with children, particularly young boys, and Johns began to write more to this audience. The story was advanced to the inter-war period, with Biggles and his friends acting as freelance adventurers, sometimes working for the British Secret Service, either directly or via the Air Ministry.
When World War II rolled around, Biggles naturally joined up and flew with the Royal Air Force throughout, having many adventures along the way.
The books continued after the war, with Biggles now a member of the Special Air Police, and Johns continued writing until his death in 1968, though the later books are not as highly regarded.
Although originally written as a realistic Great War airman — hard-drinking, running on pure nervous energy, often murderously vindictive towards the enemy, and only a matter of time until his number was up — Biggles then went into Contractual Purity. He became a strict teetotaler, and one of the early stories was retconned to replace whisky with lemonade, leading to the bizarre idea of squadrons of young pilots risking their lives to win a crate of lemonade. Similarly, while Biggles had a brief affair in one of the early stories, his young fans were outraged that an Australian radio adaptation had Biggles "go soft" by having a romantic escapade.
Biggles has in many ways dated very badly. Very much a product of its time, Biggles embodies the British values of Decency, Fair Play and Courage, and the casual sexism and racism of British society in the 1930s, though Biggles himself is shown to have been born and raised in India and speak fluent Hindi. The books are now generally considered fair for their day.
The colourful "ripping yarns" style of the prose is often parodied in British media, and Biggles is in many ways the archetypal Boy's Own story. Particularly satirised is Johns' habit of substituting colourful verbs in place of "said" in dialogue tags, and in particular his use of the verb "ejaculated" in place of "exclaimed".
Biggles holds a place in British popular culture comparable with Flash Gordon in the US, and it's probably not too much of a stretch to suggest that, if Biggles had been an American series, there would have been numerous screen adaptations by now. As it is, only a short-lived 1960s TV series and the So Bad, It's Good 1986 Biggles: Adventures in Time movie (in which Biggles is joined by a time-travelling American salesman) have been made.
Biggles was referenced multiple times on Monty Python's Flying Circus (thus paying homage both to Biggles' importance as British pop hero and to underline/mock the show's supposed "aviatorial" nature); he was also featured as "cardinal" in the infamous Spanish Inquisition sketches.
Biggles is spoofed by blogger Reed dé Buch in Biggles Over Baghdad, an ongoing series of short stories, setting Biggles in contemporary Iraq and Iran - definitively not part of the Biggles canon.
Tropes used in Biggles include:
- Accident, Not Murder: In one of the later short stories, the veteran pilot, now a policeman, is asked for his opinion on the death of a girl who had previously had an argument with her pilot boyfriend. She was hit on the head with a blunt instrument and died instantly. The boyfriend is being sought. Biggles reviews the case. The girl was found dead in her garden with no signs of intrusion or struggle. No weapon has been recovered. However, in the photographs is an unopened box of chocolates. Biggles asks about this. It has been disregarded by the police as of no significance, incidental. He asks if this was kept, and discovers one corner of the box is badly crushed out of shape. Then it becomes clear. The pilot boyfriend sought to make up the row with a romantic gesture, dropping a box of chocolates to her in her garden from several hundred feet up. He just aimed too well. Biggles notes it would be like hitting her with a brick, and points to people being killed in the wars by shrapnel, parts of damaged aircraft, or even spent bullet cases dropping from the air. The case now becomes not murder, but death by misadventure.
- The Alcoholic: Supposedly the reason he's never seen to drink in books written after the series started pursuing a younger demographic; he swore off strong drink after it nearly got him killed in action.
- Alpha Strike: The WW1 equivalent is a "Zone Call", which Biggles uses on a wood concealing German troops.
- Ambiguously Gay: Biggles being at least a non-practicing gay can be inferred from the books given a modern dirty mind. It is a verifiable detail that only one woman even came close to seducing Biggles away from the manly embrace of his chums. A blonde Femme Fatale Spy called Ilse plays the Femme Fatale role, twice: on both occasions acting as agent for the dastardly villain, Count Erich von Stalhein of the German Intelligence Services.
- Anachronic Order: His origin story, Biggles Learns to Fly, was not the first book to be published.
- Biggles Goes to School and The Boy Biggles explore his childhood. The latter was one of the last stories written.
- Celibate Hero; Biggles, despite his one flirtation with a Femme Fatale Spy, and all the retrospective Ho Yay stuff you can read into the books.
- Character Development: And not just for the Contractual Purity reasons mentioned above. Biggles becomes appreciably smarter and less hot-headed with age.
- The Darkness Before Death: In "The Decoy", the dying pilot Batson's last words are "It's getting - devilish - dark - Biggles - devilish - dark -"
- Distaff Counterpart: Flight Officer Joan "Worrals" Worralson of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force appeared in a number of stories between 1941 and 1950. She was created largely to encourage girls to become pilots.
- Frothy Mugs of Water: The Biggles stories were originally written for adults. When they were republished for children, references to whisky were changed to lemonade — so pilots would willingly risk their lives on dangerous missions when offered the reward of a crate of lemonade.
- Kid Hero: Biggles is a borderline example, being eight months shy of his claimed seventeen years when he arrives as New Meat at the Air Training School in Biggles Learns To Fly. Most of the franchise is set some time after he reaches adulthood, however.
- Somewhat justified in that there are numerous cases of fourteen year olds winding up in the various armies. Sixteen is terribly young for the RFC, but not impossible.
- A couple of stories are set during his childhood.
- Military Alphabet: Uses the old World War I era British one (Ack for A and so on).
- Old Soldier: Biggles ages naturally during the course of the books. His last excursion as an over-age and deniable James Bond is a mission into the Russian Gulag in 1965, when he would have been as old as the century, to liberate old antagonist Erich von Stalhein from Soviet incarceration.
- Only a Flesh Wound: Frequently invoked. In one egregious example, Ginger is shot through the thigh but still manages to outrun his pursuers for over a mile. his faithful chums locate him by follwing the Trail of Blood.
- Said Bookism: All characters created by Johns are prone to colourful ejaculations.
- Sky Pirate: Played somewhat realistically; the typical scenario was either a war-surplus fighter or mechanical sabotage being used to force down an aircraft carrying valuables that was then met by accomplices on the ground, or a fairly conventional Armed Blag that used an aircraft instead of a getaway car.
- Universal Driver's License: Played straight for the most part, though probably justified by Biggles having literally decades of experience in civil and military aviation alike, at least by the time World War 2 rolls around. It was a minor plot point in one volume that he wasn't Instrument Flight Rules-qualified, however.
- Vapor Trail: A Sky Pirate encounters Biggles' deHavilland Mosquito fighter variant (four 20mm cannon plus or minus four .303 machine guns) in place of the unarmed bomber-turned-civilian-transport he'd planned to attack. When Biggles nails his opponent's fuel tank, the fellow panics and attempts to return fire through his own vapour trail. Because he's using tracer rounds, which basically trail a stream of fire behind them for up to six hundred yards... well, you can guess the rest.