'Gemma Bovary' by Posy Simmonds (1999)

Posy Simmonds’ blend of prose and graphic storytelling intrigues me. Her combination of the two forms facillitated multiple storytelling voices—Joubert, Gemma (through her diary), objects (newspaper articles, letters), and an omniscient narrator—which I found similar to Art Spiegelman’s Maus. While there are not quite as many layers of narrative in this text as there are in Maus, Simmonds and Spiegelman both seem to be attempting what many graphic artists do not: they are not merely trying to tell a story with pictures and words, but to tell a story in a way that words alone could not accomplish. Indeed, in other ways Simmonds really pushes the graphic form to echo the subtleties of which language is capable. For example, toward the beginning of the novel when Gemma has very little voice in her own life and indeed the story, Simmonds pushes Gemma into the background, or draws her with Gemma’s back to the reader (or hides her face in some other manner), or draws her only sketchily, without full detail. Take even the cover image for a good example of Simmonds’ skill.

Well, I’ll back up a bit. The title reveals Simmonds’ source material as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and implies that her work will follow a similar format of the novels of that time—character studies that the author intends for the reader to consider autobiographical or at least biographical. And back to the cover image, which is of Gemma but rather than her image filling the entire space her upper body is framed. The frame and the scroll that bear the title of the text are reminiscient of the era in which Madame Bovary was written, which suggest that Gemma’s life is recounted through the frame of Emma Bovary’s life. Or just a frame in general. Her eyes are averted, not looking at the reader, giving her a sense of mystery—Gemma, while the subject of the text, will not be addressing the reader directly. She is also depicted in a very sexually provocative way: red lips, heavy eye shadow, her lingerie visible. But she is also wearing a coat. Is she trying to hide her sexuality or reveal it? Or maybe a little of both?

Simmonds’ drawing style seems appropriate for the story she is telling—her illustrations have realism and yet fancy as well. While the reader is aware from the first sentence that Gemma will come to an unfortunate end, Simmonds never allows her tone to become too bleak for long. Joubert and many of the ancillary characters provide comic relief to Gemma’s rather unfortunate tale. And with Joubert narrating, the story is like a fairy tale in a way—his somewhat romanticized view of Gemma’s life.

It seems both utterly appropriate and completely irksome that Gemma’s tale is conveyed by a man. Irksome because her voice has been muffled concerning her sexuality. Appropriate because her voice has been muffled concerning her sexuality. It somehow seems fitting that a woman’s adultery be articulated by a man, as is the case with Madame Bovary. With Simmonds offering her version of Boverian events, I would expect her to make the woman’s voice more rather than less prominent.