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By Posy Simmonds
Mariner Books / Houghton Mifflin
As the graphic novel gets older and older as an artistic format, it of course continues to become more and more diverse and interesting as well, and with there being with each passing year more and more types of full-length image-based narrative tales out there for all of us to enjoy; take for example British writer/illustrator Posy Simmonds, who has been creating a whole series of long-form serial tales for the UK Guardian newspaper since the early 1980s, tales that like the late Victorian Age tend to gently poke fun of the suburban middle-class, told not in a traditional comic-book style but rather as an intriguing blend of images and text, often alternating paragraph by paragraph from comics to the written word all the way down a page. It's the exact kind of thing for those interested in the graphic-novel format, but who don't have a penchant for the the types of subjects that usually make up the medium (superheroes, post-apocalyptic worlds, etc etc), and it's no surprise that she's one of the best known graphic artists on the planet right now among her fellow middle-aged urban intellectuals.
Her latest project for the Guardian, in fact, is a rather direct interpretation of an actual late-Victorian book, Far From the Madding Crowd by our old pal Thomas Hardy; her contemporary version is entitled Tamara Drewe, originally published serially in 2005 and '06, then with a British hardback version in '07 and paperback in '08, then finally with the American version in '09, which is why you're just now starting to see it reviewed in the US. And indeed, Simmonds starts out right on the first page with a highly smart and fascinating adaptation decision: she decides to keep the small-town sheep-farm setting of Hardy's original, but instead of the characters being actual feuding sheep farmers like in his book, in Drewe they are all upper-middle-class Londoners who have moved into refurbished sheep farms in order to "get away from it all," kind of like in America the rash of New Yorkers who all now live in WiFi-equipped rustic barns upstate.
This was incredibly wise of Simmonds to do, because it allows her to retain all the humorous and pointless village infighting that makes Hardy's book so adored, even while updating the circumstances to make things both more believable and relatable to her middle-class London readers; for example, in her version the story sort of spiritually revolves around a writers' retreat called Stonefield, made out of one of these rehabbed sheep farms just mentioned, which gives Simmonds the opportunity to introduce all kinds of funny, snotty intellectual types into this rural environment. Like the original, the plot itself revolves around the machinations of a young, self-destructive ingenue (the Tamara Drewe of the book's title), who in this case is a hipster columnist for a Guardian-type liberal London newspaper, who splits her time between her city flat and her aunt's old rural cottage; over the course of the 150-page manuscript, then, she ends up in complicated relationships with a former famous rock guitarist now down on his luck, the Scott-Turow-type wealthy (and married) crime novelist who actually owns Stonefield, the hunky and noble local farmhand who actually tends to all these sheep that are still around for the picturesque pleasure of the city refugees, and more.
Simmonds uses this beguiling antihero and her various entanglements to then spin the tale of the entire town around it -- the bored teens who are the catalyst behind most of the story's drama, the various writers who are in and out of the retreat, the put-upon wife of the crime novelist who is the one actually holding the retreat together, etc. By the end it adds up to a highly complex, highly entertaining look at one small British community, the kind of project you can only get away with by being given two years to let the story organically grow, and I have to say that it's almost like magic that Simmonds ends up with such a thoroughly Victorian-feeling novel by the end of it all, despite you hardly ever thinking of Victorianism when actually reading any particular page. It was a true delight, and comes recommended not just to existing comics fans, but also as that fabled "One Graphic Novel You Should Read This Year, If You're The Type Who Only Reads One Graphic Novel A Year."
Out of 10: 9.3