An elderly art dealer confronts dark thoughts and danger in this sombre Christmas Carol for our times
The clue is in the name: Posy Simmonds’ first graphic novel in 11 years is a far darker affair than the expatbaiting satire of Gemma Bovery , a modern riff on Flaubert’s tale of adultery and dissatisfaction, or the literary in-jokes of Tamara Drewe , which follows Thomas Hardy’s storyline of a beautiful incomer stirring up rural emotions in Far from the Madding Crowd. Like Jane Austen, another social comedian, Simmonds’ cosy reputation belies her biting wit; this is a Christmas book with little interest in merriment.
This time her point of departure is the character of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, for a story that pivots around two festive seasons. Cassandra Darke is an antiheroine to relish: a selfish, solitary art dealer living in a multimillion pound Chelsea townhouse, dedicated only to her own comforts, and entirely unbothered by other people’s opinions – even when her dodgy business practices catch up with her, leading to a scandalous trial (“My name was now officially MUD and always would be, and I didn’t much care”). Large and advanced in age – or “old and fat”, as she bluntly puts it – she is usually drawn in a puffer coat, scarf and trapper’s hat, hard stare only slightly softened by spectacles, giving her a doughty presence reminiscent of the indomitable Grandma in the Giles cartoons. Where Gemma and Tamara were young and uncertain, trying out different performances of femininity, Cassandra is resolutely achieved, as both character by Posy Simmonds, Cape, £16.99 and cartoon. In one panel we see her on the tube womanspreading into her fellow passengers’ elbow space, oblivious to their sidelong glares.
Like Scrooge, Cassandra is contemptuous of charity (“a fraction of the money raised goes to help poor whoevers ... ”), and impatient with the young – here, her stepsister’s daughter Nicki, a protest artist who moves into Cassandra’s basement in return for photocopying and dog walking duties. While Cassandra’s idea of worthwhile art is mid-century British sculpture, Nicki prefers to challenge the patriarchy through burlesque performance. And then on a friend’s hen night, she encounters a dangerous man – and fobs him off with Cassandra’s phone number in place of her own.
This gives rise to some nice intergenerational comedy: people send each other dick pics and death threats every day, Cassandra is told, when she shows a friend the resulting stream of obscene threatening messages. It also develops into a grim murder plot reminiscent of the true crime TV shows she favours, which sits uncomfortably alongside the art world comedy and understated satire of an ageing establishment.
But then the intricacies of middle-class discomfort, and the myriad challenges to its complacency, have been Simmonds’ stock in trade for four decades now, ever since her cartoons of family life began running in the Guardian in the late 1970s. The large artsy clan in Mrs Weber’s Diary read the Guardian as well as appearing in it, and worried about everything from structuralism and the death of the 60s dream down to whose turn it was to clean out the guinea pigs. The days of big hair and big glasses are long gone, but over the years Simmonds’ work has built into a unique social history, as funny as it is telling. Where once every crowd scene was a smoking scene, in Cassandra Darke it’s a phone scene, each transfixed individual perfectly caught by Simmonds’ pencil. Beards and bobble hats are in; cars are chunkier than ever; toothy gallery assistants can only afford Walthamstow these days. (Brexit
Womanspreading Cassandra Darke invades her fellow passengers’ space on the Tube