GEMMA BOVARY by POSY SIMMONDS. Shamefully, I have had this book for months, and only gave it the cursory speed read until very recently when I finally gave this book the attention that it deserved. It took several nights to get through the book, as it is very dense and has layers and layers of stuff to read. The relationship between the text and the artwork on each page is very pleasingly handled. The result being that it is somewhat of a hybrid of a novel, a comic and a picture book.
The story loosely is modeled on the classic novel Madame Bovary, but in this case it is set in contemporary France and England. It is not merely an updating of the classic story, rather, the story is told from the point of view of a neighbour who watches the trials and tribulations of the couple that has moved in next door, and begins comparing their life to the old story, becoming increasingly certain that everything will end in tragedy. Somehow that synopsis doesn’t convey any of the gentle humour which I assure you this book is full of. What it is also full of is page after page of gorgeous art work, well realized and believable characters, witty dialogue and beautifuly layered storytelling.
EPILEPTIC by DAVID B (English version). This has been on my list of things to read for a long time. Yet I put off buying it as the thickness (and of course the cost) was a bit daunting. But in the end, the sheer size of it is one of the pleasures of reading this book. How often have you bought a graphic novel and read it all 20 minutes? That is unlikely to be the case with this weighty tome, which took me quite a while to read, simply because of how much is crammed in between the covers.
This book is based on the author’s experience of growing up with an older brother (by just a few years) who became epileptic in childhood, and follows the effects of the illness on his family. I’ve had the unpleasant experience of seeing a loved one convulse with epilepsy, so perhaps that is another reason I stayed away from this book for a while. Autobiography is common in independant comics, and while I admire the honesty of it, it often gets too self pitying for me. I very much respect that David B. doesn’t sentimentalise this subject, nor shy away from the darker emotions, such as his adolescent resentment at his life being taken over by an illness that wasn’t even his. It doesn’t feel like storyboards to a tear-jerking movie of the week; it uses narrative tools only found in the medium of comics to communicate the complex emotional currents that flow in and around the family. These Graphic devices are very powerful when used by someone who knows how to wield them.
I hope that this book and other translations of European graphic albums can get into bigger bookstores in the English speaking world, and perhaps share the soaring sales experienced by Manga reprints at the moment. It’s funny that just a few years ago, US comics industry wisdom said that the manga boom was impossible (because they are in B/W, or because the target audience is for girls, or a host of other reasons), but it IS happening and largely away from speciality comics stores, as the bigger bookstore chains get in on the act. (James Sime writes amusingly about this phenomenon in this column).
So, as a fan of European graphic novels, many of which aren’t even available in English, I’m hoping that despite any current nay-saying, that there can be a boom for those wonderful European books too in future… Otherwise I’m just going to have to learn to read French (and Spanish and Italian) better, and I simply ain’t smart enough for that… DOH!