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Gemma Bovery
By Posy Simmonds
Published by Pantheon Books

Ten minutes before I purchased Gemma Bovery, I had never even heard of Posy Simmonds, the talented artist/writer behind this story, nor had I read any advance previews about it. Afterall, the story is not published by a "traditional" comic book publisher and did not contain any familiar characters or creators. In fact, Gemma Bovery challenges the stereotype of what a comic book is. It's not a superhero book, nor is it autobiographical, fantasy, science fiction, horror or adventure. It transcends genre, and therein lies one of its greatest strengths.

Simmonds' storytelling is excellent. She brilliantly balances a series of narrative voices, creating an effective sense of rising drama. The narrators' voices, including Gemma's husband's confessions, her former lover's newspaper articles, her obsessive neighbor's journal observations and even Gemma's diary in her own words, allow the reader to discover Gemma's character through the eyes of those who were most affected by her. Simmonds' page layouts are also very unusual, yet extremely effective. The text passages blend perfectly into unstructured, panel-less drawings that capture the emotions of the events much better than words could hope to. In fact, the unusual layout alone is reason enough for a student of the form (like myself) to buy this book.

Simmonds' characters strike a familiar chord. They're adults who, despite their best intentions, end up hurting each other. They're adults with dreams that they're not quite sure how to achieve, and are too preoccupied to try. Gemma, the restless main character, leads a life eerily familiar to the tragic French heroine, Madam Bovary, a tragic life of love and betrayal, all the while searching for what we all want: happiness.

Artistically, Simmonds' book is the literary equivalent of that candy bar in the checkout queue at the supermarket. You see it and immediately crave it. The cover, as all true comics fans know, is the best way to judge a book, and Gemma Bovery's cover is exquisite. The dark wraparound dust jacket shows Gemma, eyes wide with intensity, the stark red of her lipstick piercing the darkness, staring over her shoulder, as if trying to escape some unseen attacker, venturing off into the darkness alone. It's both unsettling and captivating. However, like that candy bar, the best part is not the brightly coloured wrapper, but what's inside. The interior artwork is drawn in a beautiful charcoal pencil style. Simmonds effectively uses a clean, gray wash technique blending darkness and light masterfully. Her scenery and settings are also well researched and meticulously detailed.

There were a few techniques that I found a little annoying, like the way Simmonds' French narrator kept referring to himself as "I, Joubert," as if the reader were too short-minded to remember. Or the way she mixed French sayings and words in with the English, making non-bilingual readers feel a bit ignorant. Or the way some of her character drawings looked as if they were lifted from one of her numerous children's books, with exaggerated features that, in a few panels, look strangely out of place in the decidedly grown-up world of adultery and betrayal.

However, overall, this comic book is excellent. It combines the best elements of narrative storytelling with the detailed, passionate artwork that is far too rare in the comic book marketplace. It is aesthetically beautiful, well-researched and entertaining, and demonstrates the strong crossover potential that graphic storytelling has. This is a book that should be read by anyone who enjoys a good story, despite, or rather because of, the pictures. Grade: 4.5/5

-- Marc Sobel



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