Is there anybody going to listen to my story
All about the girl...
John Lennon & Paul McCartney - Girl
Be warned that if you are going to listen to my story, you may learn things about Milligan and Fegredo's Girl that are best learned from the comic itself. So if you haven't read it yet, stop and do so now, or advance at your own risk.
Simone lives in Ballsdon, a depressed industrial town somewhere (or everywhere) in England, with its factory, its rubbish tip and its crematorium. She calls it Bollockstown, a name she justifies by a pseudo-historical derivation, and she isn't far wrong. By way of entertainment, Bollockstown offers its young people discos at the Hippodrome, or riding up and down in the lifts of its tower blocks. Simone is isolated at school, where she is bullied to the point of slashing her wrists, until she is withdrawn from the school and given home tuition; but she is also isolated at home, out of sympathy with her wife-battering father and Valium-sedated mother - not to mention her pregnant sister who (according to Simone) is always tryn tget er twear a bitter warpaint. Maker look more femnin.
Sounds pretty grim, doesn't it? And it's pretty grim visually as well, dominated by dark colours: grey concrete, black shadows, purple night, drab clothes, rainy skies and only a liberal amount of blood and fire to brighten things up. With the exception of Simone herself, people are almost cartoon figures, their faces vacant and depressed, with no intelligence and no inner life, and as if to emphasise this, we hardly ever see their eyes. Their speech is the same, drab and colourless or - and this applies particularly to Simone's family - worn down until the words are only half there, and the reader struggles to decipher what is being said, reading the cryptic speeches half aloud, emerging triumphant with a phonetic rendition of what is being said. The picture is truthful, but not realistic: it is Simone's bleak assessment of her surroundings and her class My ignorant, ugly, dead-end, racist, sexist, wallowing-in-its-own-uneducated-filth class. And this is what she says when she decides to be a communist or a liberal at least (!) and to stop being ashamed of her class.
For Simone herself is not a cartoon character, but a rounded, believable person. Her eyes are open, and she is the opposite of inarticulate. She is telling the story we are reading, maintaining a control of the narrative which goes beyond the mere choice of words. Chapter II of her story My life as a corpse is a bravura demonstration of Simone's unreliability as a narrator: it is a black comedy in which she commits suicide, and then observes her own wake, at which her bereaved family neglect her to watch the draw of the national lottery. But she has her revenge, for her corpse explodes, destroying the winning lottery ticket. The whole episode is grotesque, very funny but quite surreal, and it is no surprise when Simone admits You may notice that I let my mind wander sometimes. Some people say I live in a dream world. I say to them, so do you. The only difference is, my dream worlds are more real. We all want to escape. That's the thing. Everyone around here is dreaming of escape, even if they don't know it. So you can't claim that you haven't been warned: the challenge for the reader is not so much to discover what happens next, but to establish which of the things we see have "really" happened. Did Simone really meet her blonde alter ego on the rubbish tip? Who really killed John Paul? And for that matter, how did Simone's father come to fall out of the window? Who is Polly?
That last one isn't difficult at all: unless you have read so much fantasy that you are absolutely determined to believe in the objective reality of the mysterious stranger, the guardian angel no-one else can see, you can't really miss the clues: You're me as a blonde says Simone on their first encounter, and this is the literal truth. Polly is the glamorous, confident person Simone would like to be, and knows she has it in herself to be. Simone admires her, seeing her as an escape route from bullying and sexual insecurity, but she has nothing to offer that does not come from Simone herself. So her remedy for bullying is to pull a knife on the aggressor - and her enjoyment of the sensation when she draws blood suggests that she could easily change sides, and become the bully rather than the victim, but it doesn't actually dismantle the pattern of bullying. Her remedy for Simone's fearful fascination with sex is to know thine enemy which Simone eventually does with a business studies student she picks up at a dance. The experience is both quick and embarrassing, which isn't really the best sex has to offer. Finally, Polly appears in the form of a fly and persuades Simone to confess to killing John Paul. This is the last time Simone accepts Polly's advice, and the form of the conversation suggests that she has already accepted that Polly has no separate existence, even before their cathartic last meeting.
In Girl, Peter Milligan and Duncan Fegredo offer a brilliant and convincing summary of the situation of their intelligent working-class teenage heroine; but having got her into this mess, how good are they at getting her out of it? Not very, I think, but the fault is not in the created work but in reality: people in Simone's situation are extremely unlikely to find a way out. Girl doesn't lecture, it is an elusive and subtle text, so what follows is pure interpretation, but I have already indicated that Polly's intervention in Simone's life is, as you would expect from the manifestation of Simone's own disturbance, pretty disastrous, culminating in her attempt to get herself charged with murder. The rain which washes out her attempt to blow up the factory also washes away this period of her life, and the story (like John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman) closes on not one but two endings. The more realistic allows Simone a degree of reconciliation with her life, back at school, getting on well enough with the girls (and quite a few of the boys), offering reasonable (which means, limited) aspirations to the careers advisor, and responding neutrally to sexual aggression: It's not that I want it. It's not that I don't care. It's somewhere in between. This isn't just her attitude to sex, it's pretty much her attitude to life itself. It isn't that she wants more from life, it isn't that she doesn't care: but what careers advisor is going to obtain that better life for her? No, the only hope is the lottery, ridiculed and hated throughout three issues as the opium of the people - and on the last page, Simone and her mother have won the lottery and are on their way to a better life. So the story has an upbeat ending, after all, and if you want to believe that it cancels out all that has gone before, you can - but if that's the sort of thing you want to believe, you're probably not the sort of person who would enjoy this comic anyway. If, on the other hand, this last cynical twist makes you laugh yet again, you won't need me to tell you that Girl is the most fun a really downbeat comic can be. And if that's the sort of degenerate you are, you will probably also enjoy visiting The League of the Green Lizard and Kangaroo Curry.