Contrary to the impression one might get from the increasingly prominent coverage of the “graphic novel” in the mainstream press, words and pictures have a long history of coexistence. Sometimes the words overtake the pictures (illustrated novel), sometimes the pictures overtake the words (many children’s books), and often there is integration (comic strips, comic books). In the early days, comic strips had words under the pictures explaining what was going on (the editors did not trust that readers could follow Little Nemo’s adventures without words), but now the use of narration and word-balloons within the panels has become the predominant method: the words are another part of the picture. Occasionally, adventurers will break this tradition by inserting pages of text within a comic (Dave Sim did it in the latter half of his Cerebus, Terry Moore followed Sim’s lead in his Stranger Than Paradise), but these pages divorce themselves from the comics and we are temporarily sent into illustrated book territory until the panels resume. I’ve read a lot of comics and I’ve never seen text and picture, paragraphs of prose and panels with word balloons, integrated in such a way as Posy Simmonds has in Gemma Bovery (though if I’ve missed something I’d love to hear about it).
Upon opening this oversized hardcover, the different nature of Simmonds’s work is immediately obvious. Almost every single one of the 100 pages incorporates paragraphs of prose narration alongside single illustrations and sequences of images in panels (traditional comics with word balloons), creating something in between prose fiction and comics, a new hybrid of words and pictures. One could imagine an uncomfortable disconnect between the prose and the panels but Simmonds successfully merges the two into a seamless whole. The prose narrates the story, easily describing what pictures could not, feeling, background information, and transitions, while the panels show us scenes and conversations and paint pictures where many paragraphs would be needed (such as to describe the decor in a room). The reader quickly acclimates to the movement between the two and the layouts of Simmonds’s pages.
In choosing to name her book Gemma Bovery, Simmons courts ambition. One cannot help but think of Flaubert’s great novel, and one is tempted to first imagine Simmonds’s book as a parody of some sort. It is not. Nor is it a straight modern-day adaption or a completely independent work. Like its hybrid form, the book is somewhere in between all these: parody, modern adaption, independent story.
Simmonds’s Gemma Bovery (née Tate) is a young British woman (Simmonds is a British cartoonist) who marries divorcé Charles Bovery. She convinces him to move to Normandy with her and, as one might suspect from the title, adultery, debt, and death follow. We read this story through the eyes of Monsieur Joubert, a baker who is also the Boverys’ neighbor. Joubert starts us off in the present, after Gemma’s death (for which he feels a mysterious responsibility). He quickly gets ahold of Gemma’s diaries and then through those diaries goes back to tell the story of Gemma’s life. The story unfolds through Joubert’s memory and commentary, Gemma’s diaries, and the intersection of the two. Suspense and mystery develop through Joubert’s knowledge of the outcome of the events but spotty knowledge on Gemma’s thoughts and private moments (which he discovers as he reads), while humor is often the product of Joubert’s French background coming into contact with Gemma’s British background (some of which may also be confusing to Americans, such as “bubble and squeak”). Simmonds uses different typefaces for Joubert’s narration (typed text) and quotes from Gemma’s diary (handwritten), as well as using a different typed text for letters. All the dialogue is done in panels with word balloons.
Simmonds very skillfully mixes the narration in text with scenes in panels. She also puts illustrations (non-sequential images) to use in accompanying the narration, allowing her to switch between methods as necessary to tell her story. The narration can quickly explicate a scene or tell us how Joubert or Gemma feels about something (without tedious thought balloons) while the panels allow us to see the characters’ interaction in speech and posture.
Her art is beautifully drawn in pencil and ink with a lot of grey washes and very little black. I wouldn’t normally think such a lack of black would be so effective (and it rarely is) but the art never looks unfinished or lacks presence on the page. The grays cover a great range and allow Simmonds to bring objects forward in detail or allow them to fade into the background (drawing in only light washes gives this sense). The characters, cartoony in style but quite expressive in body langauge, are often the focus of the drawings, but Simmonds also draws wonderful realistic backgrounds. (For samples see the publisher’s page about the book.)
And just because she can draw a wonderful picture, don’t think the prose is not also of high quality. Simmonds’s narrators speak with their own clear voices.
If one is familiar with Flaubert’s novel it is hard not to begin making comparisons between Bovary and Bovery. In many ways Simmonds has updated elements of the Bovary story. Gemma doesn’t read romantic novels, she reads glossy magazines. While Madame Bovary tries to appear of a higher class, Mrs. Bovery decorates her Normandy home with faux-peasant chic to be more rustic. Joubert the intellectual baker is a modern day Homais the pharmacist, both of whom become objects of humor. While Flaubert’s satire poked fun at the French country and middle class, Simmonds pokes at contemporary British society, particularly yuppie vacationers on the Norman coast.
On the other hand, Simmonds has created her own version of the adulterous wife story, playing a bit of a postmodernist game with Flaubert. Naturally all the French people in the story make the connection from Bovary to Bovery, and Joubert becomes obsessed with the idea that Gemma’s story will follow Emma’s. Early on he writes that he is trying to make sense of everything. He wants the story he sees unfolding to follow the path of the novel, yet, as he realizes, life doesn’t always make sense in the end.
Gemma Bovery was originally serialized in the British newspaper The Guardian in one-page weekly installments (much like old American newspaper strips). As such, it has a gentle episodic rhythm to it. Each page stands as a single unit subordinated to the whole story. You may not even notice the serialized aspect of the story, but if you pay attention you will notice how each page has a certain sense of independence.
In the media coverage of graphic novels, the spotlight has shown on Chris Ware, Art Spiegelman, Dan Clowes, and Charles Burns. Gemma Bovery has not received as much notice as it deserves (though even Michiko Kakutani gave it a glowing review). This is a “graphic novel” not just for comics readers but also those who love literature or just a good story told with wit, humor, and a lot of pretty pictures.
[You can read Simmonds's current serial "Tamara Drewe" (doing a similar loose adaptation/interpretation with Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd) online.]
Read More on this Subject:
No related posts.
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Derik Badman