Down and Out in Surrey and Chelsea

Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds

Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds

And there I was, late in life, nursing plans for death and had barely lived, it seemed.

Cassandra

This week the Comedy Women in Print award for 2020 announced its longlist of nominees with a graphic novel category appearing for the first time. The list could easily double as a shopping list and I may be skipping over to Page 45 to order a few of these shortly. As well as the excellent Stand in Your Power by Rachael Smith I spied a book that has been quietly and patiently waiting on the shelf for me to read it – Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmons.

Posy Simmonds is a master of the genre who has the plaudits and the sales to show for it. But at the same time I think she has an odd relationship with comics, or maybe it would be fairer to say that comics have an odd relationship with her. One doesn’t hear her name very often in British ‘comics’ discussions despite having some of the most succesful graphic novels of this century to come from this scepter’d isle.

Posy has been a regular feature in the Guardian, where many of her greatest strips like Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drew ran on a weekly basis like a modern Dickens and gave newspaper sales a badly needed boost. Much more likely to be a guest on the likes of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour than on a panel at MCM (lucky her), in the publishing world she is regarded as an illustrator and cartoonist.

But comics? Apparently not. This schism is not helped by the pull quote on the back of this volume which says “she makes us realize a great cartoonist can be a great artist too” – wow, a century of comics creation finally vindicated –  Hergé, Tove Jansson, Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman will be pleased to hear it. 

Yet at the same time Posy Simmonds is fêted by the likes of the Comics Journal and has won one of the greatest accolades in European comics, the critics prize at Angoulême. Maybe it is time to bridge the gap.

Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drew had a big impact on me. I was one of those who would pick up the Guardian just to find out what would happen next. Both went on to be adapted into successful films. I’m not sure why Cassandra Darke lurked for so long on my shelf but a sunny, social-distanced afternoon found me working my way through it.

The book has a great combination of tightly plotted storytelling, witty and believable dialogue, strong characters and unmistakable art. 

Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds

Probably one of the main criticisms levelled at Posy Simmonds work is that it is too middle-class, a bit twee. She certainly spends a lot of time looking at the class dynamics of English society (and, yes, it is London and the home counties which dominate this and other tales.) However the bourgeois dwellers of the smart squares of Chelsea are the target of often ruthless skewering. 

I notice cardboard in the street now, thanks to Nicki, but I ignore the beggars﹘my small change won’t do anything to help their drink and drug problems.

Cassandra

In Tamara Drew  the bored working class village teenagers with their furious energy and diabolical desire to escape the boredom of the countryside act as foils to the spoiled rich kids who like to escape to their rural boltholes﹘ the kids of course are desperate to escape from the village to the bright lights of London. 

Similar counterpoints can be found in Cassandra Darke which shows all of the class diversity of London. The wealthy, highly educated and arty Cassandra and Nicki are contrasted with a cast of characters from outside of their elite world. Seemingly honest proletarian Billy, the beggars who populate the streets of London, the thugs of Deano’s gang.

This cast of characters is just one of the features that gives Cassandra Darke a distinctly Dickensian feel. The vicious, misogynist Deano carves his way through the London underworld like a Stone-Island clad Bill Sikes. But it is A Christmas Carol rather than Oliver Twist which is the key reference.

Some of the most stunning images within the book show London at Christmas time. The shopping crowds bustling through the streets, faces lit by the bright windows of the shops, snow falling gently from above. This sets the scene for the decidedly cynical and grumpy Cassandra to embark on an unlikely path of redemption.

Like Scrooge, Cassandra has reasons why she has chosen to shut herself off from so many others and to treat them so cynically. Throughout the book she is never an entirely unsympathetic character – most of us can probably chuckle along with Cassandra as she cuts down another charitable soul with a remark or just a glance. But fate has a reckoning in store for her. 

The dark underside of London proves to be something that Cassandra cannot ignore. Beggars, sex-workers, criminals. The fate of a murdered young woman and the peril that Nicki finds herself faced with at the hands of a damaged woman-hating lowlife are among the experiences which challenge Cassandra’s decades-long funk.

Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds

The book is cleverly plotted and this drives the narrative forward at key points. In this respect Cassandra Darke is again closer to Dickens than some Oscar Wilde comedy of manners. To say much more would be to risk serious spoilers, and I wouldn’t want to ruin this book for anyone.

Posy Simmonds‘ art certainly deserves to put her amongst the most important artists in comics globally. It would be very much at home in the finest BD albums from Belgium or France – and there is more than a touch of Hergé in the panels in this book. The style has a cartoony aspect which has elements of newspaper cartoonists like Giles or David Lowe. This can be seen in the faces in particular which are full of character and individual personality. 

But the art is also finished beautifully with a wealth of detail. The way that clothes are worn and the way they hang on the body, the way that litter lies in the streets, the little touches in the kitchen with mail tucked behind a picture and a cat playing with a toy mouse.

The book is punctuated with sumptuous full page illustrations which are full of atmosphere. Wintry streets have a grey-blue palette whilst the interiors of pubs and shops are brightly lit in a pale orange used throughout the book.

If by any chance you are a comics fan who has never read any of the works of Posy Simmonds then I’d urge you to correct that mistake. Cassandra Darke is a pleasure to read, visually impressive and with a compelling narrative. It navigates class politics in Britain in a way that too few comics do and uses that navigation to highlight flawed but very human and recognisable characters.


Cassandra Darke is available from bookshops, I’d recommend Page 45.

More information about the Comedy Women in Print awards can be found on their website.

One thought on “Down and Out in Surrey and Chelsea

  1. Thanks so much for mentioning Comedy Women In Print in your terrific review and for the linkage to our website. (I’m running social media for the prize this year.) I really enjoyed reading this review and your insights.

    Like

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