Comics Unmasked, Posy Simmonds and Steve Bell

Comics Unmasked poster

Comics Unmasked poster “Have you read Posy?” asked the elderly woman who slipped into the seat beside me. “How did you first hear of her?”

I thought back: “Well, the Webers were part of my childhood – my parents took the Guardian”, I said – but I could have added how, later in life, once I’d discovered a passion for illustration and cartooning, she became a hero of mine.

Or how, during the early years of parenting, when it’s hard to fit in any art appreciation, I was still able to admire Simmonds’ deft characterisations, when I read to my daughter from Lulu and the Flying Babies, or Baker Cat.

What I particularly noticed in those years was how she captured the blank, podgy face of a toddler so well, or a baby’s form, all wrapped up in winter layers- representations so pertinent to my own life that I could see how truthful they were.

I might also have mentioned that ‘Posy’ had been high on my list of names, should a second child ever have made an appearance – but by that time the lights had dimmed and the event – a chat between Posy and her contemporary, risqué political cartoonist Steve Bell – was beginning.

 

I travelled up to London on one of the hottest days of the year, leaving the slightly more bearable coastal temperatures to step into the hot soup that was passing for air in the capital. Thankfully, my destination was the British Library, meaning only a five minute walk between air-conditioned station and air-conditioned interior.

I’d booked to see the Comics Unmasked exhibition – an in-depth history of British publications – followed by this talk. The exhibition took, as publicised, a good time to view. With comics, you’re not just glancing at each exhibit, but reading it, a few minutes for each one – and there were hundreds on display.

It was an interesting selection, featuring those comics which loomed large in my own life, from Spellbound and the Beano to Deadline and Crisis, and giving due deference to the UK’s acknowledged masters Alan Moore and Grant Morrison – and introducing many publications that were completely new to me.

Exhibits included political comics through the years: sexually permissive editions from the Seventies, and a strong strand of women’s liberation from the Suffragettes onwards (I would contend that the Suffragette material wasn’t ‘comics’ as such, but it was still interesting to see).

There were two high points for me: seeing plenty of original artwork (just for mundane comparisons with my own work, like whether artists worked at double size, and whether they stuck down the lettering after the artwork was complete), and – a bit of a surprise, this – a fifteenth century bible, done in woodcut cartoon form.

Sometimes you see an ancient artwork that still speaks to you as clearly as it presumably spoke to its intended audience all those centuries ago: the hand-painted colour choices and the thick lines, were just like one of the pulp comics from the Seventies, although they showed angels hovering above dragons, rather than tanks or Action Man.

I had time to bake a little more in the still-oppressive heat before heading into the auditorium for Bell and Simmonds’ talk. It was a genial chat, and they generously spoke for over 90 minutes, accompanied by a dual slideshow of their work, from juvenalia to the present day. posyandsteve bed of watercressAs with the exhibition, the parts I found most fascinating were when Posy (in particular) described her working methods.

She showed many character sketches: “I always work in sketchbooks first”, and spoke of going on location to research not just scenery, but vocabulary too: “I try to get their lingo right, which usually means riding on buses… drawing a graphic novel, you do location, props, make-up… it’s like doing a film”.

And, she said, you can’t just draw a location once: you’ll need it in different weathers – what does it look like in the rain? – and at night.

Simmonds says she works on an A2 pad, and showed us a page divided into three. She writes the dialogue and narrative in one column, then tries to condense it down as much as possible, sometimes going through this process three or four times, because space is so precious: her favourite panels are the ones where she can tell the story without the need for speech balloons.

For stories like Tamara Drewe, she sketches out the floorplan of the houses and a map of the village, so everyone’s always entering from the right direction, etc. posy workings Bell was clearly as much a fan of Simmonds as any of us: “You were the only reason I bought the Guardian” was one of his opening lines, as he revealed, to disbelieving laughter, that his family had always read the Daily Mail.

Steve has drawn all his life – zombies, trains and war as a child, then ‘every station in South Buckinghamshire’ as a teenager.

He puts his early employment as a cartoonist down to ‘dogged persistence, taking my wares around”, and the way he tells it, that certainly seems to be the case, as he went back to see editors several times with his work. The back of Post Simmonds by Myfanwy Tristram (Here’s my sketch of Posy: as you can see, I picked a really lousy spot for actually seeing her face)

After the talk, I bought Tamara Drewe and got it signed – then travelled all the way home to Brighton on a hot train, revelling in it.

I think that Posy Simmonds has just about attained the highest peak of the graphic novel form. When you look at her work, it’s incredible what she’s done: she plots as well as a novelist, but then has to unfold this story, with all its subtleties, through drawings so accurate that you can tell what characters are thinking through the cast of their eyes, or the slant of a mouth.

Often, cartoonists rely on great artwork carrying a weak story, or vice versa – and it’s nice to know the form  can actually still work under these conditions (there were plenty of examples of both in the exhibition, many reassuringly badly drawn, yet still compelling).

But my goodness, when one woman does both, well – you wonder why she hasn’t been elevated to some sort of national treasure status. Maybe because it’s “just cartoons”.

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