While comic books and graphic novels usually are thought of as the province of — pardon the terminology — nerds and subculture, Posy Simmonds attempts to take them into the realms of the cosmopolitan, the urbane, and the decidedly literary. While this may seem a contradiction to some, Simmonds has been marrying these ideas for some time now, both with her comic contributions to the Guardian newspaper and her first graphic novel Gemma Bovery .
Gemma Bovery was a sort of meta-narrative graphic novel commentary on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and Simmonds’ latest work Tamara Drewe is a loose adaptation of another famous literary work. The book functions as a sort of modern re-telling of Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Maddening Crowd, and like its original literary forbearer, was released in episodic format (Hardy was serialized in Cornhill Magazine, while Simmonds was released through the Guardian, for those interested). Mariner Books has packaged together the entire series and made it available for purchase in the United States this past fall.
What is Simmonds trying to do here exactly? Is Simmonds on some sort of crusade to render the canon in comic form? Is Tamara Drewe a more easily digested rendition of Hardy’s original piece, brought to the masses complete with pictures? The answer to these questions of purpose is where the book seems to fall a bit flat.
Somehow, Simmonds’ work seems aimed neither for graphic novel enthusiasts nor for the aspiring cosmopolitan types whom it both embraces and skewers. With its hyper-self-awareness of class and clout yearnings among the middle-class, Tamara Drewe comes off a bit like the graphic novel equivalent of Frasier.
Like Gemma Bovery, Tamara Drewe is incredibly text heavy for a graphic novel. While there certainly are drawings, written text, and speech bubbles, Simmonds relies heavily on long typed passages to move the action along. While this worked well in Gemma Bovery, where the typed text would add new nuance and commentary on the drawn and written parts, here it works almost to the point of making some of the drawings seem unnecessary.
What’s really unfortunate about Tamara Drewe is the potential it had to raise important questions about the lines drawn between the canon and comic art. By inhabiting a shaky place in between and acting perhaps as a mirror to both the canonical and the comic book world, this book could have complicated these ideas and opened up further discussion about the relationship between comics and canonical literature. Instead it comes off as merely a comedy of manners in graphic novel form. That isn’t to say that Tamara Drewe isn’t wildly funny or entertaining, but it still comes off like an episode of Frasier: a bit old hat and uninspired.