Chicks can’t draw comics
There is an interesting phrase the British have to describe their exceptionally talented. These special few, the most talented amongst one of the most talented countries in the world, are described as “national treasure”. This term is accurately applied to Posy Simmonds. She is indeed a national treasure that should be housed at the Tower of London with the crown jewels, with a Beefeater and a raven waiting on her hand and foot. But as she is a living human being, whose privacy, artistic autonomy, and human rights should be respected, we will have to make do with the retrospective at the House of Illustration.
Not enough people know about Posy Simmond’s work because of perfect storm of factors. The first is that the British, due to a predisposition to puritanism and a historical moral panic about comics triggering juvenile delinquency, tend to be bashful about acknowledging comics as an art form. We know about Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman more because they were recognised as talent in America. The second factor is because Simmonds is a woman, and comics is jealousy protected as a profession for man-children.
Across the Channel is the land of Chanel, France. Here a very different attitude to comics prevails. France does not suffer from British hangups about comics, just the way they don’t pretend lukewarm brackish ditchwater with milk in it is a beverage (“Builder’s anyone?” No, I’d prefer some hemlock, if it wouldn’t be an awful bother). Only Japan rivals French culture in the unique appreciation of the medium (excellent beverages, too), and this is why the most prestigious awards and festival celebration of the form takes place in Angoulême, comparable to the Oscars for film, Venice Biennale for art, and Frankfurt for books. In 2016, a strange spectacle unfolded: not one woman was nominated for the Grand Prix prize. As the Guardian notes: “in Angoulême’s 43-year history, just one woman — the French artist Florence Cestac — has won.” However, even in the land of proud man-children, as Paul Gravett notes,: “in 2009, the French edition of Tamara Drewe (Denoël) won an Essential Prize at the Angoulême International Comics Festival and won the Prix des Critiques de la Bande Dessinée, while Posy was the honoured guest of the 2011 Strip Turnout Festival.” So, national treasure indeed.
Simmonds style of character design owes much kinship to Franco-Belgian comics. There is this subtle sophistication about the accuracy of the anatomical abstraction, reminiscent of Herge (another example where this style is prominent is Ben Gijesemans’s Hubert). Simmonds describes how she was trained in art school to view a model, then run up a few flight of stairs to sketch. This training resulted in a prodigious ability to memorise details and sketch as a result.
While her initial works were black and white, her subtlety is again in evidence in how she uses colour. In her earlier works, it was just a primary colour pastel shade block-in here or there for emphasis. With digital, colour is much easier and cheaper, so this has allowed her to expand the technique to the full length of the work.
What the retrospective really makes obvious is the graphic design format that Simmonds evolves on a page-by-page basis to accommodate her text. In the amount of prose she utilises in story-telling, she is as much a writer as she is an illustrator. This is not intended to be a statement of the obvious, that comics is a blend of words and images, and therefore a sub-type of the discipline of graphic design. Instead, what I mean is that one of the most instructive things about the retrospective is the insight it provides into how the Simmonds uses a collage-type blocking process to layout large chunks of texts in various typefaces around her drawings and sketches, before the final lettering is done. Unfortunately, photography is prohibited at the exhibition, but I spotted at least one early mock page where Simmonds had used Comic Sans to block out an area of sans serif body text! How Simmonds uses text all over her page is another feature of her work that makes it distinctive. What is also beautiful and unique in her work is the use of serifed fonts as caption and overlay text, something I haven’t noticed too many other artists to do.
In comparison to her drawing style, Simmond’s wit in selecting and mocking targets is pretty savage. With a career beginning with illustrating women’s issue magazines, Simmond’s specialism is a sexual comedy. The only problem is that the humour is rooted so deeply in the British everyday that the context can be lost to those not familiar with the mores and social norms being addressed. On other occasions, she is more than clear. Flipping through her latest work, Cassandra Drake, a madcap adventure that includes an eccentric plump old woman in a fleece coat, handbag, and a hand-gun, these stylistic elements combine together with a fluency acquired over decades of work, making the novel a treat (which I have saved up to be savoured at leisure).
In the light of the above evidence, the British term “national treasure” doesn’t really cover it. The Jamaican “universe boss” seems bit more apt.