Friday, 6 November 2009

Graphic Growing Up

I grew up with books. They were like little bound and papered siblings. Officially my childhood home was made with bricks, but it may as well have been built with 1960 retro Penguin paperbacks (with terribly convoluted undecipherable titles and communist russia style graphic design covers). I thought all families had their tea alongside shelves of Lenin's biography, all washed down with a sip of Pinter.

But one particular book series I grew up with, both confused and delighted me more than any other. My parents had few graphic novels, but being stalwart Guardian readers, they did have the wonderful work of Posy Simmonds, the Guardian cartoonist, illustrator and writer extraordinaire.

Posy's books captivated me. One on level, they were cartoons, even a child could read and enjoy the drawings. On another, they were highly satirical accounts of the political/social climate in the 1980s. It wasn't until I re-read them as an adult that I really appreciated how ingenious the jokes and observations were. But what fascinated me particularly was that the Wendy Weber books seemed to portray my very own family.

Wendy Weber, the protagonist, the mother of the middle-class family, resembled my mother exactly. The hair, the glasses, the clothes. As if that wasn't enough, Wendy's political leanings and behaviour seemed to echo my mother exactly. Even Wendy's reaction to dog mess fouling the pavement mirrored my own mother's obsessional crusade against dog droppings on the street. Wendy was married to a Polytechnic lecturer, George; my own father was a Polytechnic lecturer. George's intellectual ramblings seemed to portray my Dad's own waffling (I never understood what it was my dad taught. And admittedly, I am not sure I do now). Wendy's mother looked exactly (and behaved) like my mother's own mother. Benji, the youngest Weber child, resembled me in my tom-boy phase - the same hair and rosy cheeks. And fascination with finding the word "bottom" hilarious.

And yet it continued. The Weber's network of friends and family seemed to resemble relatives or other people my family knew. Jocaster, the rather laid-back eldest daughter of the Webers' friends the Wrights, resembled my own eldest sister (although she will possibly not speak to me again if she reads this).

The similarities were so great, even though I knew the book was a cartoon and fiction, I was partly convinced Posy knew our family. The only element missing was the Welshness. So much of what she wrote seemed to be what I was growing up around. A lot of this is due to Posy Simmonds' fantastic way of capturing the essence of real people, of the way people really talk, as apposed to cliches or melodramatics we often see in TV or film.

Posy is the consummate observer of the world, an Alan Bennett of graphic novelists - traveling on buses and sat in cafes observing people around her, picking up characteristics and conversations. Read her latest graphic novels and you can see how much her finger is on the pulse; the teenage characters talk like real contemporary teenagers, just like her 1980s characters spoke so much like the people around me at the time.

We were lucky enough to meet Posy a couple of years ago, at the Winter Hay on Wye festival. She gave a fascinating insight into how she works - observing people, armed with a notepad and pencil. My mother was so excited to meet her, she practically spoke for 10 minutes without breathing, too eager to reveal to Posy how much the Weber book series had captured so many elements of our family's existence. Quite what Posy must have thought of our sheer enthusiasm is anyone's guess, but she chuckled heartily. Posy drew me a George and Wendy doodle, which is still one of my most treasured possessions, for I learnt to draw by drawing my own versions of Posy's cartoons.

Given Posy's penchant for using real people for character templates, I half expect to see my mother appear in one of her new cartoons. But then I guess, in a way, she already has.

Online gallery of selected Posy Simmonds work
Some of my cartoons.


Jose said...

Great post as ever. I grew up learning to read from comics and comic books, the first steps in a never ending journey. Love the drawings - keep it up, one day it WILL pay off!

TrefforestGump said...

Thanks Jose! I totally know where you're coming from. I think I'm only now realising how much an impact comic books and graphic novels had on me as a kid! I probably read Asterix books as much as Roald Dahl, and I mean constantly. Great stuff.

Sarah the sister said...

As Sarah's aforementioned sister all I can say is Cheek!
But I am just like Jocasta, its true. And Sian is spot on with this - it was so like real life. I loved the fact that Wendy has aged George's moustache - its the details that make Posy such a genious!