Saturday, September 02, 2006

In Praise of Posy

Robert Hughes makes a very convincing case - unarguable, in this writer's view - for Robert Crumb as the modern Pieter Breughel the Elder. I would like to belatedly add a commiseration-for-the-silver-medal advocation of another candidate for this crown - Posy Simmonds.
Simmonds is currently writing Tamara Drewe, a graphic novel, for The Guardian. After the clever but not-always-engaging serial Gemma Bovary (another Guardian project, from 1999) Simmonds is back on absolutely top form, exploring the mores of Britain's middle classes, their literary and academic pretentions, but also with a social darkside. Smart and sassy but subdued feminism, like an accusing look - plus a concern for social justice, often rendered in strips of sometimes blistering irony, are her trademarks.
She is a consummate draughtswoman with just enough of the naif about her line to ward off accusations of technical display for its own sake; her technique is solid, authoritative, but not overassertive. What makes Simmonds a genius - yes, genius - is her feel for speech patterns. It's almost impossible to reproduce her use of bold, italics and underlining online. Here is an attempt; in one Guardian strip, Turning An Honest Penny, from 1985, Kevin Penwallet, ex-anthropology lecturer turned organic grocer, turns to the tourist trade in his Cornish village to stay alive. Oh God! Oh God! ME! ME of all people...!! Perpetuating the MYTH!! This MYTH which excludes TRUTH... excludes any REALITY at the HARSHNESS of Nature and Country life! Oh God! Oh God! That Penwallet fantasises about selling plates picturing dogs shitting on sandcastles, customs officers taking heroin off trawlers, queues of redundant china-clay workers at the "Olde Village Post Office... characters all!" is comedy gold, but it is Simmonds' flamboyantly brilliant text, nuanced to a tee, which really lingers.
She is also the creator of sensational characters. The British archetype of the liberal 'Guardian Family' was probably shaped by her early work, under the ongoing rubric The Silent Three of St Botolphs, featuring George and Wendy Weber, sociology don and part-time nurse respectively. All are infuriating, all lovable, and the Weber conceit blasts later clumsy imitations, like the Viz strip The Modern Parents, out of the water.
It's not just smugly preening Islingtonian self-referentiality that informs Simmonds' work; Edmund Heep, the bibulous friend of the Webers, is perhaps one of the finest British comedy creations of the 20th century, a whisky salesman, a bumbling teddy bear of a barfly in an impossibly bad suit who uses phrases like 'same again squire? Speak now, or forever hold your codpiece'. In 'Union Jakes' (1986) when the Webers are earnestly chatting to American tourists about the British obsession with 'toilet yumor' and 'class', Heep ambles in and proceeds to reel off a lounge bar lexicography of lavatorial euphemisms. "I don't call it anything... I just go off to shake a tail feather... or to pop a cork! Her Her Her Heh Hehh...or to and change the barrel! Her her Haaa!... pump the bilges... go and kill a hedge... go where the big knobs hang out'. Etc. Reducing the Webers, despite themselves - and us, despite ourselves - to fits of laughter.
Even Claire Brètecher would kill for this sort of stuff. And that's really saying something - and, crucially, that despite Brètecher's surgical social acuity, Simmonds' line and technique give her the edge. She is a national treasure; a BD queen. If we have to have an honours system, at least dignify it by a damehood for Posy.

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