As Britain celebrates Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee over this extra-long June weekend holiday, it’s a good occasion to celebrate our very own ‘Queen of Comics’, Posy Simmonds. Awarded an MBE, she was recently invited to a Royal reception for the Jubilee, one of only two cartoonists attending (the other being Gerald Scarfe). Over the past few months I have been collaborating with her to curate her first ever career-spanning exhibition. Retrospective Posy Simmonds: Essentially English opens on June 12th at the beautiful Art Nouveau, Victor Horta-designed Belgian Comic Strip Centre in Brussels and continues until November 25th 2012. I’ll be adding photos from the exhibition shortly, but below are the texts I have written for the explanatory graphic panels.
Allow us to introduce you to Posy Simmonds. If you have not met her before, Posy is simply one the world’s most sophisticated contemporary authors expanding the scope and subtlety of the graphic novel. Based in London, Posy has become renowned since the early Seventies, not only as a brilliant strip cartoonist for the national press, but also as a much-loved author and illustrator of children’s books. Despite her success in her homeland, for many years few people outside of Britain knew much about Posy Simmonds, unless they stumbled across her weekly satirical comics in The Guardian newspaper featuring the liberal Weber family, or discovered her charming stories for children such as Fred, perhaps through its adaptation in 1996 into the Oscar-nominated animated short film Famous Fred.
All that has changed thanks to her two romantic murder-mystery graphic novels, Gemma Bovery (1999) and Tamara Drewe (2007). Initially inspired by the 19th century novels Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert and Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, Posy cleverly updates their tragic leading beauties by subtly reinterpreting their destinies and giving them some unexpected modern twists. Both of her graphic novels have been translated into numerous languages to great success and acclaim. Gemma Bovery was selected as one of the twenty landmark books in an exhibition to mark the first two decades of the Belgian Comic Strip Center. In 2009, the French edition of Tamara Drewe (Denoël) won an Essential Prize at the Angoulême International Comics Festival and won the Prix des Critiques de la Bande Dessinée, while Posy was the honoured guest of the 2011 Strip Turnhout Festival. Many more people worldwide have discovered Tamara Drewe through Stephen Frears’ highly popular film adaptation in 2010.
Riddled with literary allusions, class clashes and repressed desires, the comics of Posy Simmonds are essentially English, but they have a universal appeal. Appearances can be deceiving - don’t be fooled by Posy’s demure manner and her upper-class accent. Her powers of observation are laser-sharp, her mimicry of accents and types stingingly precise. As you will see, Posy Simmonds is one of today’s most astute chroniclers and critics of contemporary British society.
The Belgian Comic Strip Centre in Brussels is delighted to host her first major exhibition to span her entire career. As well as showing her exquisite original artwork from almost all of her published books, this retrospective presents the unseen preparatory stages and sketchbooks, as well as revealing ‘deleted scenes’, intriguing finished sequences which she dropped from both Gemma Bovery (above) and Tamara Drewe. Posy has also loaned her earliest home-made, one-off comics from her childhood, and illustrations from her assorted collaborations with other writers. This timely survey of over forty years confirms that Posy Simmonds is no longer a best-kept secret, but truly a national treasure who is delighting a growing international readership.
Opening Film Clip
For many people, watching the hit movie version of Tamara Drewe directed in 2010 by award-winning British director Stephen Frears gave them their first taste of the world of Posy Simmonds. Superbly cast and scripted, the film captures much of the sly wit and celebrity fixation in Posy’s graphic novel, although Frears deviates from her story to give a much lighter, audience-friendly ending, avoiding much of the book’s darker developments. Still, the movie makes a fine introduction to Posy’s words and pictures, and to Posy herself, the fascinating author behind them.
“I always liked drawing. My father gave me ream of large drawing paper which lasted all my childhood.” Posy Simmonds was born Rosemary Elizabeth Simmonds in 1945 and grew up on her father’s dairy farm near the village of Cookham in rural Berkshire in south-east England, an hour or less from London. Comfortably off though never spoilt, Posy was raised as the middle child of five, three brothers and one sister. Her parents let her read voraciously whatever she could find at home.
From the impressionable age of three, she began exploring the family’s bound volumes of Punch magazine dating back to the 1890s, admiring the cartoons by George du Maurier, ‘Fougasse’, ‘Pont’, ‘Anton’ and Ronald Searle among others. “I copied their formats for my own drawings, the way the words combined with the pictures as balloons, captions or, in the case of the Victorian cartoonists, as dialogue underneath the image. From reading Punch I thought all drawings should have words, and vice versa.” She would also illustrate serials, comedies and plays she listened to on the radio. At the age of eleven, Posy was sent away to be privately educated at a traditional girls’ boarding school. Throughout her childhood, she devoured British weekly comics and later also imported American comic books, and all manner of books and publications that poured into the home.
Absorbing these formative influences, young Posy was soon creating hand-made versions of her own. Luckily the unique surviving examples from the ages of about 8 to 14, shown here in their original paper and digital forms, were saved by her mother. While Bullet Vengeance and Red Dagger demonstrate the impact of lurid crime comic books, How To Make Love and Gurls reveal her precocious yet wholly innocent interest in the mysteries of romance.
In the larger Herself (above), made when she was 13 and 14, she parodies the features and advertising in women’s magazines. It’s clear from these carefully crafted productions that, even as a pre-teen girl, Posy was already developing the skills in illustration, storytelling, graphic design and portrayal of manners, fashions and class which would serve her all her life.
Studying at the Sorbonne in Paris at the age of 17 and the Central School of Art and Design in London broadened her knowledge and experience still further. While at art college, she drew a series of single-panel cartoons featuring a bear, which were published as a book. From this came her first regular paid job in 1969, drawing more Bear cartoons for Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper The Sun (above). Since 1968, she had already been providing occasional illustrations for The Times and other periodicals. Her career in the British press was off!
Every Week on the Women’s Page
Posy acquired a new client in 1972, the left-leaning daily newspaper The Guardian. Initially she provided spot illustrations of all kinds, until in 1977 she was asked to replace cartoonist John Kent, creator of the satirical strip Varoomshka, as he was leaving for America. In this era in Britain of women’s liberation, feminism and calls for greater equality between the sexes, The Guardian was the first newspaper to dedicate a page to women’s views and issues. It was here in May 1977 that Posy’s first regular comics were published, beginning a close association that continues to this day.
Her first attempts, The Silent Three of St Botolph’s, were spoofs of The Silent Three, the secret society of boarding-school heroines from the girls’ weekly comic School Friend which she read as a child. “I imagined them grown up into Guardian women, who would now sort out problems of inequality in the same way.” After two months, Posy focussed on the present-day lives of these three women: Trish Wright, married with a young baby to Stanhope, an adulterous advertising executive; Jo Heep, married to whisky salesman Edmund with two teenagers; and ex-nurse Wendy Weber, married with kids to sociology lecturer George. Posy cleverly turned the typical middle-class, ‘woolly liberal’ readers of The Guardian itself into her instantly recognisable characters.
Although Posy would age or alter her cast only gradually, if at all, she constantly innovated in terms of subjects, styles and references. The space alotted was unusually large and wide for a newspaper strip. “It was a brilliant, flexible shape. It had a kind of rhythm that, even when I used just three rows of panels. I could do all kinds of things: I could go across it, I could divide it in two, I could have one big picture. It was like a film or a play.” This assignment allowed her to develop longer stories, complete and different each week. First compiled in 1979 as Mrs Weber’s Diary, many of Posy’s Guardian strips were reprinted in a further four collections. Concluding their weekly run in 1987 and continuing sporadically after that, the whole series stands as a witty and insightful chronicle of turbulent changes in family life and society in Britain.
Through A Child’s Eyes
Although Posy Simmonds has not had children of her own, she has experienced motherhood by helping to raise her partner Richard Hollis’s children, as well as having numerous nieces and nephews in the family. She first diversified into writing and drawing children’s books in 1987 with Fred, which proved a best-seller and launched this parallel career. Fred was the tale of the death of an ordinary domestic tomcat who would do nothing more than eat and sleep all day, but, unknown to his young owners, at night he became a feline Elvis, a rock superstar adored by thousands of fans (above).
As for the spark for Fred‘s story, Posy explains, “A great friend had died very young of skin cancer. I went to the funeral and afterwards I remember drawing cats as undertakers in a sketchbook.” In 1996, Posy was involved in with British animator Joanna Quinn in adapting Fred into a cartoon film, helping to develop the additional character, Kenneth, Fred’s guinea-pig manager and the story’s main narrator. Retitled Famous Fred, the 26-minute movie proved enormous fun and was nominated for an Oscar award.
Traditionally, the format of children’s books has been limited to a maximum of 32 pages, usually of full-page or double-page illustrations with separate typeset text. Posy is among the pioneers in Britain of harnessing the techniques of comics to this medium. It was in her books for children that she was able to develop a deft control of colouring in a variety of media and try creating longer stories. Sadly, all of the artwork from Lulu and The Flying Babies (1988) mysteriously vanished in transit to a Parisian publishers, but Posy still owns the originals from her subsequent titles, The Chocolate Wedding (1990), Lavender (2003), and Baker Cat (2004), as well as her playful alphabet book F-Freezing ABC (1996).
Posy’s animal fables often incorporate entertaining observations of society, such as the boisterous, pizza-loving urban foxes in their track suits and trainers in Lavender. With their multiple levels of reading, Posy proves that the best children’s books can be enjoyed by any age and are for the child in all of us. In Posy’s view, “I think they’ve got to have something true in them, however much is wrapped up in fantasy.”
True Love & Literary Lives
While involving characters from her Weber Family strips in The Guardian and in a similar landscape format, True Love in 1981 was conceived from the outset as a separate, 48-page album, a graphic novel in all but name (above). Plain and single office-girl Janice Brady is an avid consumer of slushy romance comics, who misinterprets her lecherous boss’s casual attentions and dreams of a whirlwind affair with him. Posy Simmonds skilfully satirises the promise of idealised love promoted in the British romance comics genre. She adopts their highlights in a second colour, in this case a bright lipstick pink, and at appropriate moments she switches her drawing to their generic fashion-model style, typical of their Spanish illustrators. In these and other playful references, including a rural reverie involving angry sheep, True Love can be seen as a prototype of Posy’s recent graphic novels; Janice even resembles the young Tamara Drewe before her nose-job.
Clearly, the milieu and protagonists of Tamara Drewe are also anticipated in Literary Life (above). For this series of 93 mainly weekly strips produced in The Guardian’s Book Review section between November 2002 and December 2004, Posy draws on her love of literature, as well as her experiences of being a reporter and a guest at festivals and as someone well acquainted with the pretensions of authors, editors, publishers, booksellers, readers, in fact the whole peculiar world of books. “I am on the edge of it, so I know about the terrible vanities. Writers are always looking at how long their queues are.”
Freed from the demands of a lengthy serial, Posy could vary her attention and approach from week to week. Although Literary Lives consists of individual episodes, she would return to certain characters and themes such as the egotistical novelist Owen Lloyd. Her suite of single images entitled Convivial Atmospheres capture all the awkwardnesses of publishing events, while Ask Doctor Derek revives the romance comics stylings used in True Love, and The Literary 3 recalls The Silent Three mysteries from her childhood and her own boarding-school memories. In the recurring Rick Raker instalments, Posy pastiches a tough-guy Chandler-esque narrator. Throughout, and also in her monthly calendar illustrations for The Spectator, Posy delights in dissecting the the foibles and flaws of British society.
Flaubert Revisited: Gemma Bovery
Gemma Bovery is Posy’s self-reflective rewriting and updating of Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel. “I first read Madame Bovary when I was 13 or 14. I’ve read it twice since then. I decided to use it after I saw a woman on holiday in Italy. She was young, very pretty, and was giving this guy such a hard time by yawning. She looked desperate, surrounded by Prada shopping bags, and she reminded me of Madame Bovary.” Posy’s sketchbooks reveal how this initial spark developed into her modernised heroine, Gemma Bovery. Her name is slightly altered from Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, a clue perhaps that her fate may not necessarily be the same as her tragic forebear’s.
Gemma is the discontented second wife of Charlie Bovery and stepmother to his kids. Weary of her London existence, she persuades Charlie to retreat to rural Normandy. When her fantasy French idyll fails to live up to her expectations, she is drawn, like her literary namesake, towards ennui, debt and adultery. And this leads to her death, as we learn from the book’s opening sentence: “Gemma Bovery has been in the ground three weeks.” Posy gradually reveals how Gemma came to die, partly in flashback and with hindsight via commentary by besotted, guilt-ridden baker and bibliophile Raymond Joubert, and partly through Gemma’s hand-written diaries, letters, clippings, and other graphic devices.
Posy’s panache lies in her innovative subdividing of the unusually narrow, vertical pages, shifting seamlessly between the extremes of purely visual comics or pictureless, novelistic text, making the whole dense and multi-voiced, and yet always clear and elegant. This daily unravelling mystery in over 100 episodes gripped Guardian readers and boosted the newspaper’s circulation. Along the way, Posy abandoned several completed episodes, including one in which she intended Gemma to die from an overdose (below). “But she wouldn’t die. I couldn’t get it right, because she wouldn’t kill herself; she would re-invent herself and start again. So I had to kill her off.”
Gemma Bovery marked a breakthrough in Posy’s oeuvre, as cartoonist Nicholas Garland commented: “The humiliating agony of sexual jealousy; the banal lies that are essential to infidelity; the smugness of the affluent; the emptiness that lies at the centre of snobbery. Now Posy has dipped her pen in acid.” Compiled into a graphic novel in 1999 in Britain, Gemma Bovery became the book that finally enabled more people around the world to discover and savour Posy’s special genius.
Illustrations & Collaborations
While Posy Simmonds values the control and creative freedom of crafting her own solo projects, she has also enjoyed collaborating with other writers, past and present. Notably, for The Guardian‘s Christmas special in 2008, she illustrated a new Dickensian poem, Mrs Scrooge (above), by Carol Ann Duffy, who was appointed Britain’s Poet Laureate in 2009. Posy added further images for the expanded book version published in 2009. Posy also made drawings to accompany Nick Hornby’s short story J. Johnson in the anthology The Book of Other People, edited in 2008 by Zadie Smith.
Additionally, Posy is an award-winning illustrator of popular literary classics. For example, in 1988, she provided illustrations for The Young Visiters or Mr Salteena’s Plan, a charming novella about upper-class society in late 19th century England, written by Daisy Ashford (1881-1972) when she was only nine years old. For The Folio Society Posy has illustrated The Folio Book of Humorous Verse in 2002, and produced an outstanding edition of Cautionary Tales (below), darkly humorous poems written in 1907 by Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953). She also adapted one of these Belloc tales, Matilda: Who Told Lies And Was Burned To Death, in 1991 into a strip-format children’s book in colour.
Posy also takes on a variety of other occasional commissions, which range from devising a new mystery for Sherlock Holmes to investigate in Le Figaro Litéraire in France or a reportage feature about her visit to Paris Fashion Week for The Guardian, to two ‘Before’ and ‘After’ illustrations in honour of the British writer Roald Dahl, which contrast a family from the past reading together with a present-day family glued to the television screen.
The Price of Fame: Tamara Drewe
In many ways, Posy’s background and career, indeed her whole life, seem to have perfectly prepared her for the demands of writing and drawing graphic novels. Tamara Drewe was also serialised in The Guardian, starting in 2005, on a weekly basis in their Saturday Review section, often in double episodes. It sees her applying her flair with colour, polished first on her children’s books, to adult comics at last. This time, her literary allusions are to Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far From The Madding Crowd but transposed to contemporary, celebrity-obsessed Britain. Posy acknowledges that certain types reappear in her books, “as if I had a sort of repertory company of physical types to play different roles.”
When ambitious urbanite and newspaper columnist Tamara returns to the family home she has inherited in the sleepy English countryside, her stunning looks, helped by a nose-job, turn the heads of three rival males - her former boyfriend, her new rock-star lover, and a philandering crime writer at a local writers’ retreat - and soon the whole village is abuzz with secrets and desires. Posy is especially convincing in her accurate and sympathetic portrayal of Casey and Jody, the two listless, working-class teenage girls, desperate to escape their dull “event-proofed” village. Tamara Drewe confronts some unsettling concerns about the divide between city and countryside and the challenges facing a generation of youngsters.
Posy has come to occupy a special role in Britain as a respected woman comics creator, winning the Cartoonist of the Year Award twice and receiving the honour in 2002 of an MBE (Member of the British Empire) for ‘her services to the newspaper industry’. In 2005 both Posy and Raymond Briggs, author of The Snowman, When The Wind Blows and Ethel & Ernest, were the first writers in both pictures and words to be admitted into the ranks of the Royal Society of Literature. In fact, Briggs was only half joking when he speculated, “Does it mean that we will live to see an ancient Dame Posy Simmonds go tottering by?” Who knows, this may yet come to pass.
In the meantime, this autumn brings Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, a 488-page compendium of her previous books (above). And for some time, Posy has been secretly embroiled in researching, sketching and ‘pre-production’ for her next full-length graphic novel, definitely a treat to look forward to. Rest assured, Posy Simmonds and her repertory company have not stopped surprising and delighting us yet.
Posted: June 3, 2012