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" he 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 a new branch of Scotland Yard called "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 later stories were all about the man's world of flying aeroplanes in which women and especially romantic endeavors have no place. Thus 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, speak fluent Hindi and routinely go on adventures with and risk his life for Indian boys his own age. 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, though franchising of the books in other languages, he is still equally well known in the Dutch and French spoeaking countries. Especially after the books spawned several series of Franco-Belgian comics. His fame was also somewhat revived in the 1990s Czechia with a reprint of the books and also a short comic in the ABC magazine.
Although 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, there was only a short-lived 1960s TV series in Britain, an Australian radio-play and several attempts at comic strips in Belgium, France and Sweden. Finally there is a So Bad, It's Good 1986 Biggles: Adventures in Time movie (in which Biggles is joined by a time-travelling American salesman).
Biggles has been deconstructed and subverted many times. He 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. His iconic chummy, square-jawed all-English character was also skewered in the character of foul-mouthed, alcoholic, working-class Brummie Major Wooley in Derek Robinson's trilogy of WW1 fighter pilot novels, a rather more cynical (and accurate) portrait of the personalities of the real "knights of the sky". Biggles has also been 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 becomes not murder, but death by misadventure.
- Ace Pilot: Biggles is an archetypical example. Not only is he a WWI ace in the military sense (having reached the threshold of shooting down five enemiesnote ), but even in more peaceful contexts his impressive piloting skills play an important part in the stories.
- The Alcoholic: Supposedly the reason Biggles is 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.
- 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.
- Butt-Monkey: Lord Bertram 'Bertie' Lissie. Especially the post-war adventures for the 'Air Police' Bertie always is the most likely to get shot, attacked, beaten or suffer some other unpleasantness on the hands of the adversaries. Yet, he does not seem to mind especially and always signs up for the next adventure.
- 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 Action Title: Almost all of the book titles start with the name 'Biggles'. Most titles then add an action ("Biggles flies east", "Biggles sweeps the desert", "Biggles smells a rat") although several titles follow the Character Name and the Noun Phrase formula: "Biggles and..." ("Biggles and the black raider", Biggles and the pirate treasure"), "Biggles in..." ("Biggles in France", "...in Spain", "...in Mexico"... in the Blue", or "Biggles of...". Notably the third book published, a collection of short stories originally called "The Camel Squadron" was later reprinted as "Biggles of the Camel Squadron"
- Character Development:
- Biggles went from a hard-drinking WWI pilot to a more or less asexual teetotaller fairly early in the book series.
- Biggles becomes appreciably smarter and less hot-headed with age..
- In the later albums Algie becomes the most worn-out, aged and war-weary character, often staying behind to guard the camp as his comrades go out exploring.
- Averted with Ginger Hebblewaithe. Although after WWII he marries a co-pilot's sister and becomes a father, his home life is only mentioned sparingly. Up to the last books, his spirit remains just as youthful and eager as in his first appearance as an 18-year old apprentice pilot.
- Chromosome Casting: Justified in the early novels as all characters are military pilots and mechanics... ergo male. However in the interwar civilian adventures and especially later in the postwar adventures of the 'Air Police' female characters are barely present. As befits a line of stories primarily written for a 1930's boy's magazine, flying and crimefighting are exclusively male enterprises.
- 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.
- Government Agency of Fiction: After WWII, Biggles is invited by his superior Commodore Raymond to join the 'Special Air Police', a special brand of Scotland Yard focusing on crimes involving aircraft. Of course there has never been such an agency in real life, as in the books, the Air Police only seems to consist out of Biggles and his team and Raymond as commanding officer and the only cases that ever come their way are almost perfectly suited to become adventure stories.
- Hidden Badass: Lord Bertram Lissie ("Bertie"). When first introduced, he joins the 666th squadron as Biggles' second officer. Although he does his best to come over as a fobbish British lordling, he already wears a Distinguished Flying Cross on his uniform. Over the course of the war adventures, Bertie goes out of his way to appear as the Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass by displaying a series of funny, fobish antics, such as his obsession with always wearing a monocle. However in the air, he takes charge and rescues Biggles from being shot down more than once. Later (in "Biggles takes charge", Ginger remarks offhandedly that during the war Bertie managed to down 32 enemy aircraft)
- Improbable Age: Biggles finishes the war a highly experienced and badly traumatised 19-year-old veteran, and is promoted from Acting Captain to Major the day before the war ends. Noted in-universe when Biggles tries giving some tips to a newly arrived American Captain."That baby fancies himself a bit," observed the American to Wilkinson. "When he's heard a gun or two go off he won't be so anxious to hand out advice. Who is he?"
"His name's Bigglesworth," said Wilkinson civilly. "Officially he's only shot down twelve Huns and five balloons, but to my certain knowledge he's got several more."
- Improbable Piloting Skills: Displayed by all four Aces.
- Kid Hero: Most of the stories is set with Biggles as an experienced veteran, but some of the stories feature him as very young.
- 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. Sixteen is terribly young for the RFC but not impossible, and in real life many teenagers joined the armed forces during WWI.
- A couple of stories are set during his childhood.
- Locked Room Mystery: In Biggles in the Orient, set during WW2, supply planes continually go missing en route from Calcutta to China. Biggles and the lads investigate every possible angle, looking for hidden anti-aircraft emplacements along the way and examining the canteen and staff in the aerodrome to see if the pilots' food is being poisoned, but it's a mystery how planes flown by perfectly healthy pilots are falling out of the sky. Eventually Biggles traces it to the chewing gum and chocolate being supplied in the cockpits: it's been drugged, making the pilots fall asleep.
- 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 well past retirement age for a pilot, 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 following the Trail of Blood.
- Polar Bears and Penguins: "Biggles And The Pirates Of The South Pole" mentions polar bears on the South Pole. When in 1991 Francis Bergese drew the comic book version of the adventure, he explicitly drew Biggles plane flying over an iceberg with icebears on it, explaining in a foreword that he HAD to draw the creatures from the North Pole because the book explicitly mentions them.
- Red Shirt: In the First World War stories, most of the other pilots. Some get a few appearances before they die. Also discussed when Biggles' cousin Algy first joins the squadron, and one of Biggles' fellow veterans suggests he prepare for the boy's arrival."Well, go and get the letter done, telling her how bravely he died, and forget about it."
- Ripped from the Headlines: Biggles Goes to War, from 1938, has Biggles and his chums helping out the benign and peaceloving Maltovia, which is threatened by its evil and belligerent neighbour Lovitznia. Look at the publication date: this was the year of the Anschluss in Austria and the Nazi threat to annexe the Sudetenland.
- 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.
- Sliding Scale of Adaptation Modification: in the several comic books, tv series and radio plays based on the stories.
- Lighter and Softer in the Swedish comic by Björn Karlström and the Australian audioplay. Both also introduce a female team member to the story.
- Near Identical in the 1990's Franco-Belgian comic, especially the first albums written and drawn by Francis Bergese. Famously the second album, an almost literal adaptatation of the book "Biggles And The Pirates Of The South Pole" has Bergese draw ice bears in Antarctica because the book explicitly mentions them.
- Darker and Edgier in the last issues of said comics after Bergese left and was replaced by Michel Oleffe(writing) and Eric Loutte (drawings). Oleffe's stories were simply 'based on' the Biggles characters and both characters and storylines are much more violent.
- The Swarm: The dangerous conclusion of one adventure is further complicated by the arrival of a large swarm of locusts. The aircraft Biggles and his friends are travelling in is a Vickers Wellington, whose structure is fabric over a geodesic metal mesh. As they make their escape, Bertie tells Biggles he was imagining the possibility (which knowledgeable young readers would also have been considering) that the swarm would eat the fabric off the wings and leave them unable to take off (or cause them to crash once aloft).
- 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 later 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.
- Wham Line: The short story The Last Show, usually placed at the end of collections of First World War stories, ends with Biggles getting shot down and captured. Things look grim, until a German officer quietly gives him the news: "An armistice was signed half an hour ago."