Thursday, 26 December 2013

'Gemma Bovery' by Posy Simmonds

This book pulls no punches. With mature themes, complex plots and impressive cross-hatching, author Posy Simmonds depicts a world in which life and morality are as tangled and confusing as the Poincaré conjecture.

The first words tell us 'Gemma has been in the ground for three weeks now' so I am giving little away by telling you the protagonist dies, the rest of the book working its way toward this event through flashbacks and diary entries.

Gemma is the pretty, creative (she is an illustrator) second wife of Charlie Bovery, who, bored with London, buys an old house in rural Normandy. Posy Simmonds, a great observer of others, here seems to be drawing upon personal experience  - she married an older divorcee, with children from the previous marriage. She also spent time in France, finishing her schooling at the Sorbonne.

At the same time there are other attributes in Gemma that might not be biographical - the adultery and boredom for example - Posy being happily married for about 40 years. However, many of her characters are more satirical portraits, drawn with a degree of scorn. They are from the literary classes - writers and columnists from broadsheet newspapers - like those that Posy Simmonds contributed to.

The ex-wife of Charlie is a wonderful portrayal of a divorced woman, hounding and nagging her ex-husband, who, in turn is an utterly convincing character, avoiding conflict by refusing to discuss anything at all - in fact sweeping all problems under the carpet, including finances, particularly tax, which eventually catches up with him.

The crux of the story is the similarity between Gemma Bovery and Madame Bovery, Flaubert's adulterous and bored character, and the neighbour, Raymond Joubert, who is fascinated by it. I find the literary references refreshing, in a genre largely developed for children - although this should not be a surprise for an author who for many years wrote for the Guardian (in fact Gemma Bovery was originally serialized there).

There is certainly something 'Hogarthian' about Posy's work. Hogarth is often thought of being the father of sequential art, yet his subject matter and satirical treatment seem to mirror Posy's work, and this work is, in some ways, a morality tale. Posy does not flinch from showing the pain that adultery and betrayal inflict, and in her works, people who do bad things (sometimes) get their comeuppance. This book also reminds me of Georgian literature, such as Jane Austin and Oliver Goldsmith, with their pastoral landscapes, yet her work is more post-modern, with few simple answers and morals offered to the reader.

This archaic style is continued in the illustrative style - reminiscent of Edward Ardizzone, with his cross-hatching, or even Ernest Shepard and John Tenniel. Her work is in the tradition of classic book illustration rather than cartooning, giving it a sense of the past which brings something extra to the traditional world she portrays. Posy is a consummate illustrator, who effortlessly moves from loose lines, to a tighter style, and then to a classy cross-hatching, and line and wash. She has paid her dues, particularly whilst working for newspapers, with their demanding deadlines and has learnt to think on her feet, making up the story as she goes along, adapting and changing the storyline and details on the hoof. Her style is certainly not classic comic book, but a combination of written prose, illustration, and sequential captions - slightly daunting for readers of strictly ordered comic books like those of Herge, but something you very quickly get used to.

The faces of her characters are particularly expressive, and she often works in front of a mirror, making faces until she find the appropriate one, and drawing it. She is also a real stickler for detail, agonizing over small details, such as the breed of cows in the field, in another of her books, 'Tamara Drewe'.

The one aspect of the book I found unconvincing was the ending, when a new neighbour arrives, called Jane Eyre. This seemed a weak joke to finish on - almost like the punchline of a comic sketch - and it felt unnecessary, given the quality of what preceded it.

A big screen version should be hitting cinemas in 2014, with Gemma Arterton (who starred in Stephen Frear's version of Tamara Drewe) playing her namesake, Gemma Bovery. It looks like it will be an Anglo-French affair, which should make it an interesting adaptation.

Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See

Friday, 13 December 2013

'Sloth' by Gilbert Hernandez.

Miguel Serra lives in a small American town, where nothing ever happens. Other teenagers end up committing suicide, or in jail, but Miguel, one day falls into a coma, and then, after a year, wakes up again.

Miguel is a changed person now. He can't run without pain, he is better in bed as he is slower and takes more time, and he stops playing fast music with his band, preferring a 'slow, sensual, rhythmic flow'. His band is called Sloth, but people now use this term to mock him.

Miguel's girlfriend, Lita, is in the band, with another member, Romeo. The three friends decide to go to the local Lemon Groves, to investigate an urban legend of the 'Goatman' - a creature that, if it catches you, will try to swap places with you. That's about as much as I want to give away about the plot. There is plenty of action, but as usual, with the Hernandez Brothers, the story is in the complex characters, their relationships, dialogue and thoughts. Gilbert Hernandez grew up wanting to illustrate superheroes, but his work transcends this genre. The dialogue is believable, and genuinely funny. The characters are inconsistent and fallible, in the way real people are, and actions always have real consequences, unlike the superhero genre.

I also love the idea behind the book - that someone could will themself into a coma, through boredom, and then will themself out of the coma again, when they feel ready to face the world. Despite the realism of his work, it is interesting that a completely impossible event is at the heart of this story. As the doctors tell Miguel, this has never been known before in medical history (a nice way to shoehorn a superpower into such a realistic book!). The event provides a springboard for interesting possibilities  - how would it change you, would you be aware that you were in a coma, what kind of person would do this, how would people react to you? There is also, in the storytelling, a blurring of the lines between dreams and reality, and the reader is not always sure what they are seeing.

The Hernandez Brothers' series 'Love and Rockets' mostly takes place in a small, Mexican village, without consumerism or even telephones. This, and the small town in 'Sloth' seem to create a blank canvas for anything to happen on - crime, bandits, bogeymen and madness.

The Hernandez Brothers are all skillful draftsmen, and seem to be able to depict convincing characters at ease. The figures are beautifully drawn, the settings well researched - yet the drawing is often invisible as you are swept away by the story, which is the way it should be with good cartooning. It is not a space for an artists to 'exhibit' their work - the artwork takes a backseat, like the cameraman in movies, whilst the story is on the front seat, driving the book along.

I have often seen books by the Hernandez Brothers in book shops and libraries, but did not pick them up as they all seemed to be about large breasted women and violence, which is not my usual choice of comic book. However, after reading Alan Moore's comments about them and the worlds they create, in his book 'Writing for Comics', I thought it was worth a try. In my opinion they are up there with Alan Moore in the originality of writing, the complexity of ideas and scope of the books, the strength of the characters and the quality of the dialogue.

Sloth was published in 2006 by DC Comics.

Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See

Sunday, 8 December 2013

'Nocturnal conspiracies (Nineteen dreams, from December 1979 to September 1994)' by David B

I plan to post reviews on all the cartoon books I read, as I read quite a few, and this blog is not really getting used for much else.

David B has been recording his dreams for 35 years, and this book illustrates 19 of these dream-narratives. The subconscious is an important part of David B's life, and dreams have also made their way into his most famous book, 'Epileptic'.

This book is neither a story nor a conventional narrative, but a collection of dreams that he has recorded - some as a teenager and some later in life - and put into cartoon form. The artwork is influenced by the Surrealists - you can see Giorgio de Chirico, Max Ernst, as well as Bosch. Giacometti's cat also makes an appearance. All the dreams are set at night - lit by moonlight - with strong shadows and dark colours.

The act of making a book like this is in itself daring, throwing himself open to all manner of dream diviners, psycho-analysts and Freudian interpretations. There is a refreshing honesty and innocence in putting something into the public arena that is intimately auto-biographical, but (I hope at any rate) not pre-meditated or manipulated in any way. Our dreams are our own private property, and in them we see our worst, or hidden, selves, that do not surface once we awaken. David B has pulled images and narratives from this murky world, that most of us do not even remember when we wake, into the light.

There are recurring motifs - armoured trains, soldiers, the Resistance, shooting, gangsters, terrorists, sex, water, death, strange animals and the gaps between railway sleepers, and on a lighter note, (there are not many) books - I love the idea that he goes to a shop and finds books by Roland Topor (a French surrealist illustrator and author) that he does not know about - it would be a dream of mine to discover new books by Hergé, or maybe an undiscovered Bob Dylan album, recorded in-between Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

It is not only impressive that David B managed to record all these dreams, but that he had so many vivid and strange ones -  the sign of a very creative mind, that keeps working when asleep, or maybe a sign of complexes, guilt and feelings of inadequacy. Welcome to the human race!

The last cartoon is like a parable - a cowboy goes into a police station inside a hanger, full of cubicles - he tells each one "I would like to help you to do justice" - each time he is rebuffed: "too dated!", "too vulgar!", "too brutal!" - yet he does not get discouraged, he asks his question eternally.

David B, b 1959, has been working in comics for almost 30 years, and is an important artist of the French underground scene. He is not dissimilar to Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis), or Seth (It's a good life if you don't weaken) in that he is limited in technical skill, yet makes the most of his limitations, to tell complex, original and engaging stories. The book was first published in France in 2005, and translated into English in 2008. It is printed in spot colours (blue, brown and black) on uncoated paper. You can find it on Amazon here.

Written by Mike Stonelake, illustrator, cartoonist and designer. See