Most British readers will have first encountered Posy Simmonds‘ work through her cartoons in newspapers and magazines. Starting her career in the Sun (‘when it was a left-wing paper, briefly’) she went on to satirise the mores of Guardian reading folk as they navigated Thatcher’s Britain, in the brilliantly inventive strips featuring Mrs Weber and her circle.
In the late 90s she began to serialise a modern adaptation of Madame Bovery for the Guardian, following in 2005 with the even more ambitious story, Tamara Drewe, another reworking, this time of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (which was itself serialised in the Cornhill Magazine in 1874).
Fleet Street runs through Simmond’s veins – speaking to the Guardian in 2010 she remembered the early days of working in newspaper land, “I was always a freelance but I’d visit now and again and in those days cartoonists would have to do their stuff in the mornings and so would be free in the afternoons to meet up and get a bit bladdered. At Christmas the whole street smelled of whisky.”
Her love of magazines began in Posy’s teens. A recent exhibition featured a magazine cover she drew as a teenager with the most Posy-like title, ‘Herself’. She was inspired around this time by bound editions of Punch magazine. “The smell of those old magazines which had drawings of Hitler is still for me the smell of war. And it was always completely normal that drawings could have words attached.”
Simmonds uses magazines and catalogues as an important reference tool in the creation of her characters, trying them out in different outfits researched from her collection until she hits on just the right look.
She spoke to BBC Radio 4 recently about her latest book Cassandra Darke, explaining how the character had evolved through a series of looks, ‘When I first drew her she didn’t have a hat and was rather more elegant. She had a tailored coat and rather nice boots. Then I put a beret on her and it made her eyes more beady.’ Cassandra’s final look is an incongruous but perfectly fitting trapper’s hat, ‘I thought it was like a helmet and that was her armour.’
Unsurprisingly newspapers and magazines feature prominently in Posy’s work.
The Webers of course are rarely seen without a copy of the Guardian.
Romance magazines form the basis for Posy Simmond’s first graphic novel True Love.
And porn mags are objects of class and gender identification – whether it’s a working class neighbour trying to assert his masculinity through a copy of Fumble, or Sociology Professor George Weber using them as examples of ‘authentic polysemic image discourse,’ as he waits for his family to buy lollies.
The later graphic novels make printed media a central part of the narrative. In Gemma Bovery the life of its tragic lead twists and turns on cuttings from magazines. She is inspired to embrace French country living by interiors magazines. And having moved abroad, a magazine featuring her ex and his wife leads to obsession and her ultimate demise.
Tamara Drewe writes a racy column about moving to the countryside in a tabloid, something one of her lovers, a snobbish thriller author, gleefully points out at one of his wife’s writing retreats.
The heart of Tamara Drewe belongs to two girls from the village, who swallow whole the images presented to them in their magazines. When Tamara and her rock star boyfriend arrive for real, their boring village lives are transformed by impossible Heat magazine glamour and drama.
The production of Posy’s most recent book, Cassandra Darke was delayed, partly because of a devastating damp problem that turned most of her vintage magazine collection to mulch. There is a distinct absence of magazine or newspaper reading from its cast of characters.
Although we begin with an article torn out of a local newspaper, its characters largely get their information from their phones. Which makes for some dramatic situations, but doesn’t quite have the romance of print media, something which sadly seems to be disappearing from all of our everyday lives.
Cassandra Darke, Tamara Drewe, Gemma Bovery and Mrs Weber’s Omnibus are published by Jonathan Cape.