Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds, 126 pages of comics, Jonathan Cape, 2007, £16.99
Unlike Woody Allen, Posy Simmonds has had no problem moving away from the early, funny stuff to more complex, serious works. Of course, it helps that she hasn’t left the humour behind. If her portrayal of defunct Britpop band Swipe in Tamara Drewe is much less broad than that of Hugh Janus and the Dropouts in Mrs Weber’s Diary, there is still plenty of sly social observation here, as well as an appreciation of the farce of everyday life. Key revelations are overheard from the toilet. One of the two tragedies with which the book ends flirts with the absurd (and involves a herd of cows). And although Simmonds told the Comics Journal recently that she regretted ending her previous book, Gemma Bovery, with a joke about Jane Eyre, she still brings Tamara Drewe to a close with a punchline.
Like Gemma Bovery, Tamara Drewe is based on a well-known work of nineteenth-century literature, in this case Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, with Tamara herself as a counterpart of that novel’s heroine, Bathsheba Everdene. The plot revolves around the disastrous effects of her relationships with two unsuitable men, while ignoring the virtues of a salt-of-the-earth local (Andy Cobb, here standing in for Hardy’s Gabriel Oak). But Simmonds shifts the emphasis away from Tamara, by presenting events from the viewpoints of three other characters – Beth Hardiman, the wife of one of the men Tamara becomes involved with, Casey Shaw, a local teenager, and Glen Larson, an academic who wants to be a novelist, who resembles Joubert in Gemma Bovery in both physical appearance and narrative role – the apparent outsider whose tangential involvement may be crucial to the plot (he also shares a name with the American TV producer responsible for The Six Million Dollar Man and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, but I assume that is a coincidence).
All three of these characters contribute extensive prose monologues, whereas Tamara’s inner thoughts are revealed only partially through excerpts from a vacuous column she writes for a newspaper (none of which we see whole). A wide range of other devices is used to convey information alongside the conventional comic strip sections: magazine articles, e-mails, texts, mobile phone photos ... All are seamlessly integrated, helped by the compatibility of clear bodytype and Simmonds’ meticulous hand-lettering and her calm, measured compositions and fluid lines. Even effects such as blurring out text have been achieved without the jarringly different style that would be produced by recourse to easy Photoshop filters. Simmonds is able to deploy complicated layouts using these diverse elements on the broader-than-usual pages without creating confusion about what to read next. (Gemma Bovery was on narrower-than-usual pages, each being the product of the column widths in The Guardian newspaper in which the stories were originally serialised.)
Throughout, Simmonds displays her familiar virtues: sharp observation, impeccable draughtsmanship, a rare ability to convey character though the details of expression and dress, speech pattern and body language. The plot is meticulously constructed and paced. I have mentioned before, though, that while I admire Simmonds’s craft, I am often left cold by her subject matter.
And Tamara Drewe is, like Gemma Bovery, a tale of the privileged urban English engaging in adultery in what they hope to be a rural idyll. But Tamara Drewe broadens the social perspective by drawing in a group of local teenagers with nothing to do all day but hang around in bus shelters and throw eggs at passing cars. It can be hard to sympathise with the self-destructive self-absorption of the more familiar middle-class characters here, but the way that boredom and romantic fantasy play out for their younger, poorer, less experienced counterparts is much more affecting.
The later, humane stuff. And still funny.