February 21, 2010

“We shut in twenty minutes time.”

I wanted to say that I knew that as I could read the sign, but I was too polite.  I think the woman on the desk realised that, because she added:  “What I wanted to say is that if you only have twenty minutes left, you really should see the wallpaper.”

I’d gone into Rusholme for a curry with my family, and so, as we often do, we’d dropped into the Whitworth Art Gallery.

The Whitworth is my favourite Art Gallery.  I used to go there as a student, usually after walking through the little park beside it.  You can look out from the gallery windows at the winter trees in the twilight.  The room that you can best do this from had been decorated with green ivy wallpaper as part of the exhibition.  It looked spectacular.  The artist’s notes, if I remember correctly,  said that it was supposed to inspire feelings of menace and claustrophobia but I thought it looked rather pretty.

I thought that was it, and to my mind that room alone would have been worth the admission charge, had there been one, but the exhibition proper lay through another door.

All sorts of wallpaper, designed by contemporary artists.  The fascination for me was in the repetition, something I don’t think that was properly explored, but that’s the trouble with most artists- they never explore the possibilities inherent in the maths properly.

Even so, the wallpaper was excellent.  Which is more than could be said for the curry.


Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds

February 6, 2010

Possibly my favourite comic book ever.

One thing I’ve always loved about comics is the way that the background can be as important as the foreground. Reading a book is linear thing, your eyes are dragged along a sequence of words, you watch a film at a rate of 24 frames per second, but with comics you can take as long as you like over each panel.  A good comic book writer can develop several stories in the background in a way that isn’t possible in prose fiction; they can also set the background to characters and events quite literally in the background.

Posy Simmonds does this to great effect in Tamara Drewe.  Tamara transforms herself with plastic surgery, a new wardrobe and a confidence that makes her the focus of attention in the remote village where she grew up, eventually  leading her to be regarded as a man-eater, home wrecker and even a slut.

Tamara Drewe originally appeared as a serial in the Guardian, and the restrictions of  a one page strip per week brought a wonderful economy to the writing.

But even more than the story, I love the artwork.  If anything it reminds me of Herge with its super realistic backgrounds and simplified foregrounds: some of the characters barely have two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth, just like Tin Tin.  It doesn’t matter – Simmonds has a fine eye for character, and the poses they strike, the clothes they wear are just so right and familiar.

But it’s the backgrounds that I adore, be it the contents of a bathroom, the vegetables on a chopping board or just the right mobile phones for two teenage girls.  (One is spoilt by her guilty father and so everything he gives her is just a little better quality than her friend.)  This is the power of comics, showing and not telling.  The machinery is just right, the line of cars parked outside a pub, the little bus that takes the teenage girls into town, even the device for killing ducks (and if you want to know what that is, read the book.)

A few reviewers suggested that Tamara Drewe should be entered for the Booker Prize.  Whilst I applaud the sentiment, I have to disagree.  You might as well suggest that Ivan Fischer’s recording of Mahler’s 4th should win.  It’s good, yes, but its a different art form.

Tamara Drewe shows just what comics can be.