Custodians of the Quotidian: Part One
by Andy Mason
This article – the first of two on the subject of women cartoonists – is a review of Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, Posy Simmonds’s recent anthology of strips from The Guardian (Jonathan Cape, 2012).
South Africa’s most enigmatic graphic novelist – the reclusive Joe Daly – recently gave vent (in an online conversation) to his impatience with the current trend towards realism in comics. Feeling swamped by the plethora of award-winning graphic novels based on autobiographical memoir, he asks, “When comics are a medium perfectly suited to exploring the weird and wonderful world of the imagination, why do critics and readers seem to want to constrain them to the real world?” These days, if you want to win awards, he says, you need to be seen to be grappling with the dreary issues of everyday life, rather than taking off into the realms of fantasy.
Strange, isn’t it, how these things go in cycles. When I was a kid (admittedly a long time ago), comics were repositories of fantasy and myth, of ancient legends recycled in modern guise. Today that role has been usurped by the movies, and there isn’t a thing that could be done in comics back then that can’t be done today in glorious 3D. Comics, meanwhile, have, quite literally, come home to roost. As Joe Daly complains, the most celebrated graphic novels of recent times have generally been based on the autobiographical and the quotidian. Quite a few of these books have been by women, revealing intimate details about their childhoods and moaning about what jerks their dads were. Is this, Joe asks, what comics were originally designed to do?
Musing on these intriguing questions, I reach into the pile of books on my bedside table and pull out a veritable doorstopper, the recently published Mrs Weber’s Omnibus (Jonathan Cape, 2012), a 500-page anthology of Posy Simmonds’s comic strips from The Guardian. Within minutes I’ve got a cup of tea in my hand, a rug over my knees, a pair of slippers on my feet and my specs propped on the end of my nose as I meander down a labyrinth of dense, squiggly lines into the entrails of middle class English life. This book quite legitimately could have been entitled “An Intimate History of Britain, 1977 – 1987”.
My wife and I bought the book a few months ago at a comic art symposium in London where Posy was one of several women cartoonists talking about their craft. She rushed in, breathless, towards the end of the evening and immediately had the audience mesmerised with wryly delivered anecdotes about her career, which began as a junior graphic artist at The Guardian in the late 1970s. Afterwards, we retired to a crowded pub across the road, where I had the opportunity to buy her a glass of wine and bask for half an hour or so in the reflected glory of one of my idols (briefly interrupted by the smoky exit of the pub’s resident musician, whose guitar case had been leaning across a candle on the windowsill and caught fire). I was on my knees, there being no more chairs at the table, but I shrugged off the agony and the indignity as I drank in her stories about her childhood and early cartooning days.
Back home, I set about ploughing through Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, from the early strips where Posy was still polishing her skills to her brilliant mid-80s mature period, when no topic relating to middle-class British life escaped the laser-like scrutiny of her gaze. Like many other English-speaking South Africans, I am fascinated by the literature and culture of the place that, if my great-great-grandparents hadn’t been so damn adventurous, would have been my home. That having been said, Britain is a great place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Especially not now. And the transition from the England where I’d love to have lived to the England of today is brilliantly conveyed, in immense and loving detail, in the strips Posy produced for The Guardian between ‘77 and ‘87.
But you can see in the last segment of the book, which features material produced between ’88 and ’93, how her restless imagination and her ever-flourishing graphic skills were priming themselves for more ambitious projects. In 1989, she produced a calendar series in watercolour – a first glimpse of the wonderful watercolour treatments that were to come in Tamara Drew, while her strips became increasingly dense, her characters more complex and the plot suggestions more plentiful. In retrospect, it’s easy to see her as a newspaper cartoonist aspiring to the graphic novel form, and this dream was realised with the publication of Gemma Bovery, serialised in The Guardian before being published in book form in 1999.
Above: Page from Gemma Bovary
Gemma Bovery is an ambitious work that ruptures the membrane between novel and comic book in an unprecedented way. In many ways it harks back to the prototype – Will Eisner’s A Contract With God – but in others it is sui generis, the author undertaking, with mixed success, a range of formal experiments that had not been attempted before. In places the type gets very small in order to fit it all in, in others, typesetting and hand-lettered text sits uncomfortably together on the page. But these are small gripes, because the overall effect is totally convincing and absorbing – truly, if there ever was one, this is a graphic novel, in every sense of the word.
Above: Cover of Tamara Drewe (2007)
It took eight years for its successor, Tamara Drewe, to appear in book form, but now the formal and technical advances were clear to see. Beautifully rendered in watercolour, using a range of limited palettes to signify different plot elements, with the typeset text and hand lettering seamlessly interwoven, it is a flawless exponent of the form it invents. The storytelling is not as involuted as that of Gemma Bovery, but the plot is a cracker and the characterisation finely rendered. In effect, the whole thing has a cinematic quality – but not the widescreen cinema of the superhero adaptations, more the intimate style of British or European art films. Which is, of course, what it ended up becoming.
If you google Posy Simmonds, Tamara Drewe is the first thing you’re going to get. You’d be forgiven for thinking that, pre-Tamara, Posy Simmonds didn’t exist. But that’s Google for you. Ironically but not unexpectedly, the film, while enjoyable, is not outstanding or particularly memorable, whereas the book definitely is.
What’s to follow? Posy was tightlipped on this question as I knelt with aching knees at her table in the crowded pub. But rumour suggests a TV show, hopefully with an accompanying graphic novel. I can’t wait.
Above: Posy signing our book
For some great interviews with Posy undertaken on the eve of the launch of Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, go to