The Delicate Line and Subtle Wit of Gabrielle Bell

Gabrielle Bell has taken a career course that is not unfamiliar in the arts-comics world: an early series of minis where she experimented with different styles and learned her chops; a number of memorable appearances in an assortment of anthologies; getting her works collected by one of the important alternative comics publishers; and finally either getting a regular series, a book from Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly, or a major book deal. In her case, that’s LUCKY, coming out from D&Q. What stands out about Bell’s work is her rapid improvement as an artist. She found a style that best suited her work fairly quickly and continues to refine it.

The result is a “clear-line” style that still has an energy and almost a twitchiness that is a perfect match for her writing. It’s hard to peg exactly what is she does as a writer. At first blush, she’s known for her autobiographical stories. However, a number of them have quirky, magical realist elements. Furthermore, her autobio has a restraint that is atypical of the genre. It’s not the confessional navel-gazing that one might think of, but rather her personal experiences fuel actual narratives. More than that, Bell’s dry wit is on constant display, suffusing her work with a sense of the absurd even when she’s not introducing fantastic elements. What I love best about her comics is how much room she leaves for the reader for interpretation. Her cues are subtle and allow the reader room for discovery. She doesn’t say, “Look, here’s a punchline!” or “Here’s the point of the story!” Bell is confident enough in her abilities that she doesn’t have to spell things out, and she has not yet neared her peak as a creator.

Bell’s themes revolve around isolation, repression of emotion, frustration, the difficulties of communication, and feelings of displacement. The tension between big city and small town often seen in her stories is a way of playing out this lack of belonging, this feeling that her characters know that they’re on the wrong path but don’t know what the right path is. The characters feel secure in the small town of their origin, but inevitably become dissatisfied. But the move to the city brings with it disappointment, alienation and often catastrophe, bringing down a character who was hoping the move relocating would fulfill the quest for meaning. Sometimes this fate is disaster, sometimes failure, sometimes retreat, sometimes transformation and sometimes just ennui. The fact that these themes are balanced by her sense of humor is what makes her comics compelling to read; indeed, it is often something absurd that creates the conflict. Let’s take a roughly chronological look at her body of work, starting with her early minicomics.

Five “Books”: Experimentation and Refinement

There has always been a strong literary component to Bell’s comics. That’s evident both in her adaptations of works of literature, as well as the initial conceit of her minis: each one was called a “book”. Her first mini, back in 1998, was BOOK OF INSOMNIA. The cover promises “Guys! Girls! Action! Sharks! Furniture! Disappointment!” (as someone reading the issue realizes “Hey, there’s no sharks in here!) Artistically, her figures are crude. Bell doesn’t yet have the fine control over her line that she’d later possess, and she tends to overcompensate by making her line thicker and adding background clutter. The influence of Julie Doucet (of DIRTY PLOTTE fame) is quite pronounced, especially in her first story relating an odd dream.

Things went in a different direction with “The Bicycle Story”, about a young man who constantly has his bicycle stolen. Bell’s comedic chops are in full display here as the young man’s fortunes get worse and worse. In “The Fairy-Tale About the Wicker Chair”, adapted from Herman Hesse, Bell livens up a fairly dry narrative by having various inanimate objects in a man’s room talk.

The most remarkable story is “Just One Reason”, about a suicidal girl named Kate who isn’t very good at it. At one point, she ingests some pills to off herself but only takes the recommended dosage! She’s constantly being distracted in her quest to kill herself (by comics, shoes, bright colors), until she gets a gun. Her aunt browbeats her when she sees the gun, saying that she’ll never do it and then starts yelling at her about how Kate doesn’t know real suffering. Kate asks for “just one reason” not to kill herself, and the lecture elicits: “KAPOW! retorted the gun”, and the girl shoots her aunt. Kate is the twitchiest of all Bell’s characters, the only one who truly went over the edge. It’s interesting that none of her other characters have been quite that desperate.

The BOOK OF INSOMNIA was followed, appropriately enough, by the BOOK OF SLEEP. Bell confronts her Doucet influence head on with “I Dreamt I Met Julie Doucet”. Doucet was well known for her dream comics, so it makes sense for Bell to do a dream comic that featured her. The dream ends with Bell’s death, but “I could console myself on the fact that I got to talk to Julie Doucet, and that I’d been a good waitress.” She continues in this direction with “When I’m Old”, wherein Bell imagines herself as an elderly street portrait artist trying to pick up younger men. The piece is funny because of the narration describing what she plans to be (“I’ll experiment in drug abuse and will always share”) in contrast to the actual panel.

The two standouts here are “I Got Sooo Drunk Last Night”, an autobio tale where Bell attracts some oddballs and winds up vomiting on a bar, and “Amy Was The Best Babysitter”, a story about a small-town girl who leaves for the big city. The latter story is a classic example of Bell’s wit. The narrative is once again very sober, but the dialogue is whimsical. A child asks Amy if she knows anything about long division, and she replies “Only that it rots your brain and has no relevance to real life”. Bell’s artwork is still a bit crude here, though signs of her style to come burst through in short flashes.

The BOOK OF BLACK features the further adventures of Kate, in a story adapted from the Roman Polanski film Repulsion. Kate, now out of prison, is holding onto reality by her fingernails, desperately seeking out boredom in order to avoid the abyss of insanity. The denoument, after a series of misadventures, features a subtle and wicked punchline (with Trent Reznor, of all people). This was by far her most ambitious story to date, but her art didn’t quite meet the challenge. The hallucinatory imagery that was integral to the story was well composed, but roughly executed.

Bell kept improving, and her last two minis started to feature her mature style. The standout stories from BOOK OF LIES were “I Ate Shit And Pretended To Like It”, a particularly acidic story about a waitress who briefly becomes a celebrity; and an untitled dream story where Bell dreams of being stuck with a baby from a love affair in Mexico. It’s with BOOK OF ORDINARY THINGS that Bell becomes confident enough to remove extraneous detail from her artwork and simplify everything across the board. In “Jetlag”, she goes to a simple 9-panel grid with few visual pyrotechnics to tell a story of her visit to her grandmother in England and the anxiety this brings. Bell has mentioned Jaime Hernandez as an influence and it’s clearly at work in this story. While there’s still plenty of crosshatching, she cuts way back on using excessive blacks. Her figures are simpler than in her earlier stories, but show a far greater command of anatomy and the human figure. Bell also doesn’t employ a lot of exotic “camera angles” in her panels, using a simple and clear compositional style that allows her to fit in a lot of dialogue. The story has all of Bell’s familiar themes: displacement, alienation, absurd & awkward situations, and emotional restraint on the part of her protagonist (Bell herself, in this case) despite her anxiety. Alternative Comics collected these stories as WHEN I’M OLD AND OTHER STORIES, which can be found here.

Anthology Work, 2002-2005: The Line Gets Clearer

Bell didn’t release any minis for awhile, but stayed quite active in comics by appearing in a number of anthologies. She was in two of 2002′s more interesting anthologies, ORCHID and BOGUS DEAD. Both were genre anthologies, after a fashion. The former had artists adapting Victorian-era penny dreadfuls, horror stories. Bell’s entry, “Tobermory”, was a mildly clever story about a scientist who taught a cat to speak. Showing it off at a dinner party, the results are disastrous as the cat exposes the folly of all the humans. The story is amusing, but what is really striking is the leap that Bell made as an artist. One could see her style developing in her minis, but it’s as though she shed her skin before she drew this story. There is no overrendering. The Jaime Hernandez influence shines through, with smart use of blacks, fine lines, and delicate & detailed expressions sometimes giving way to simpler and more iconic figures as the story demands it. She makes it all look easy here, and it carries over to her later work.

BOGUS DEAD was a zombie anthology, where the only story rules involved Romero-style undead eating the usual human flesh. Bell chose some very wry commentary on comparing hordes of zombies to city partygoers in a bar (“It seemed like the throngs of clamoring carousers would never be satisfied, they just kept coming at me with this sickening, hungry look in their eyes.”) She has to fight them off with art installation pieces and copies of McSweeney’s, and eventually eats a boy she meets who tries to kiss her. In 2003, she contributed to HI-HORSE OMNIBUS with a story called “Sadie”. This presaged her later autobio work in LUCKY, talking a bit about her career as a nude art model. Using a lot of grey washes, she details her misery on the job. Then she talks to a Sadie, a friend of hers, who has an even more unpleasant job. Sadie tells Bell that she ran into yet another old friend, who tells her “I moved back in with my parents. I don’t have a job. No one ever calls me anymore” and then walks away. This little anecdote with can-you-top-this troubles actually cheers up Gabrielle in the end and is a nice example of the dry comedic touch she would bring to her later autobio work. In Bell’s hands, misery becomes comedy.

Bell started showing up in some high-profile anthologies. In the ill-fated SCHEHERAZADE and the last Comics Journal Special Edition (#5), Bell uncorked two of her best stories yet. In the former, “One Afternoon” is yet another adaptation, this time based on a story by Kate Chopin. It’s about a woman who learns that her husband has died in a plane wreck. In reality, he faked going out of town in order to cheat on his wife for a weekend. His wife, after being distraught, slowly came to the realization that she was happy to be free, away from him. When he walks back into their apartment, he doesn’t realize that she thought he was dead. As he pretends that he was on a different flight, the couple resumes their normal routine. The woman realizes, in the last panel, that she’s trapped in a marriage she doesn’t want. Visually, this story is simple: 9 panel grids, spare lines, smart use of blacks. There’s a flatness to the dialogue that adds tension to the proceedings, but it’s the pauses that make the piece really work. The page where the wife lays around realizing that she’s free are a nice contrast to that last panel where a blank look of horror comes over her.

“Year of the Arowana” is the story from TCJSE. It’s another 9-panel grid per page, in the “seduction” issue of the Special Edition. In this story, a student is writing to a friend about meeting an author they both admire. Seeing him at a reading with another friend, they wind up at his apartment as he seduces that friend. Meanwhile, a creepy acquaintance of the author tries to seduce the narrator, but she simply decides to leave.

Both stories are about the difficulties of connection. The latter story features a metanarrative from the main character, longing for her friend’s presence in the uncomfortable situation she wound up in. It slowly dawned on her that the author wasn’t interested in her, and when she disappeared, she got closer and closer to the creep as a reaction to that sense of isolation. In the former story, no one is happy and no one can talk about it. The husband is cheating on her with a woman he doesn’t really want to talk to, the wife realizes that she’s trapped, the other woman is frustrated when she even tries to discuss the situation. These go back to the regular themes in Bell’s work: alienation, an inability to confront problems directly, and a continual, quiet desperation because of this impotence.

Bell returned to using more fantastic story elements in the pages of the Alternative Comics free comic book day issue from 2005 and Kramer’s Ergot #5. In the former was “The Hole”, which starts as a story about a relationship conflict. A man moves in with his girlfriend, but there’s a huge hole in her bathroom that she never quite gets around to fixing. One day, he reaches in and disappears! After trying to cover for his disappearance, she decides to follow him. In the latter anthology was “Cecil and Jordan in New York”, about a couple who move to the city. The man was a filmmaker, but she was “just his girlfriend”. She found herself miserable and felt useless, so she waited on a streetcorner and transformed herself into a chair. Someone picked her up and took her to his apartment, where she felt useful once again. She’d turn back into a human and lounge around his apartment, with occasional close calls, like when he found her as a chair in his bathtub. This story was in color for the first time, looking a bit washed out. I’m not sure it really added anything to the proceedings, and I found myself missing her more spare stylings.

The more fanciful elements of the story made sense in the context of the story and certainly fit in with her themes. (The fact that the hole started to take on an organic, almost sickly quality added to the conflict that it brought about.) More than that, they were funny. The image of the chair in the bathtub made me laugh out loud, and it transformed the story from a more typical story of despair and frustration into something altogether else. The way the woman from “The Hole” tried to explain her boyfriend’s absence was typical clever Bell wordplay. She has a knack for dialogue that has a verite’ feel that she then subverts for the purpose of her story.

MOME and LUCKY: Recapitulation For A Bigger Stage

Bell’s most recent wide exposure has been in the pages of MOME and her new book from Drawn & Quarterly, LUCKY. MOME is the new high-profile anthology from Fantagraphics that debuted in the summer of 2005. Its concept was bringing together the best young artists in comics under one roof, with regular deadlines, and seeing how things develop. With roughly the same roster of talent in each issue, the idea was to both grow an audience that looked forward to its new favorites, and to foster growth in the artists themselves. Bell was one of the artists selected (and one of just three women) and was actually one of the veterans compared to the rest of the roster. Look for a detailed examination of MOME in an upcoming column.

she published will be collected by Drawn & Quarterly and released in October of 2006. Her line is a lot looser here than in her other recent comics, reflecting the immediacy of something drawn quickly in her sketchbook. The refinement of her style keeps the pages clear and easy to follow. The art creates a kind of momentum, where one’s eye is compelled to follow quickly to the next image. The drawing is not crude like her early comics, but rather drawn with little embellishment, almost as illustration for often text-heavy pages. For quotidian observations, the pages fly by quickly; this formula of unadorned figure work combined with her usual wry & dry observations make this some of my favorite autobiographical work. In both LUCKY and MOME, Bell draws upon her earliest themes and ideas but with the benefit of experience creating images that work in full concert with her words.

In the Summer 2005 edition of MOME, Bell has both the cover and the first story of the book, “I Feel Nothing”. It’s a sequel of sorts to “Notes From Underground” from one of her minis, about a guy from the apartment above hers who communicates with her by bumping a dangling cowboy marionette against her window. It’s not explicitly autobiographical, though the figure is clearly a Bell stand-in. What makes it interesting is that the Bell character is largely opaque to the reader. There is no narration, no thought balloons, and she doesn’t say much even as the “camera” follows her around. On the other hand, the man talks and talks and talks. He invites her up to his apartment to drink whiskey early one morning, and judging by the way she combs her hair before she goes up, it’s an interaction she relished. He goes on to talk about his lack of sensation, how he wants to want her. Bell is clearly conflicted, in part because he has a girlfriend with violent tendencies. He finally begs her to stay with him that day and quit her job, going as far as to offer her all the money in his pocket ($260). On one superb page, Bell pauses, and then there’s a series of panels that move forward quickly in time: she’s in bed with him, they’re out for the day, they’re eating, his girlfriend comes back, she loses her job and can’t find a new one, she’s trembling alone in her apartment…and then on the next page we realize that none of these events happened, she was still pausing before she told him no. This is the only time we see into her head in this strip, and it’s a very effective page. Her expression in the rest of the comic, as she goes about her normal workday, is deliberately vague but certainly not cheery.

The strip in MOME’s Fall 2005 issue, “Happy Fuckin’ Birthday”, was a more typical autobiographical story. Bell throws herself a party for her 25th birthday, which consists mostly of her roommates’ friends since she doesn’t have a lot of her own. There are more wacky anecdotes than usual in this story, with punkers at her party scaring off her friends, Bell recounting her 29th birthday when she went out dancing with her friends and the weird characters she saw at the club, etc. Bell is unusually open here, talking about her insecurities and frequently drawing herself as the clumsy 10-year-old she often felt like. Despite this openness, there’s a sense of detachment in this story that’s much like “Jetlag” or “I Got Soooo Drunk”.

Winter of 2006 brought us “Mike’s Cafe” which is a metastory. It’s about Bell trying to tell a friend of hers about this new story she was doing over the phone, and constantly being interrupted. Her friend mocks aspects of the story (“Oh god. Is this another one of your ‘autobio’ comics?”) while taking customers’ orders at a deli. Bell actually cuts the conversation off because she doesn’t want him making fun of her, but then calls him back. This is a nice minor work, more about Bell’s own doubts as a storyteller than an actual story.

In the fourth (Spring/Summer 2006) edition of MOME, Bell went to the fiction well with “Robot DJ”. It’s about a woman named Ivy and her career; first as a high school DJ and afficianado of an indy band called The Reads, then later as a journalist. It concludes with her high school friends coming back together to see their favorite old band, and Ivy not realizing that the lead singer (her former idol) had been replaced by someone younger. The story is unusual for Bell because she dealt with some different subjects: lost youth, characters who have achieved some degree of self-actualization, and the possibility of interpersonal connections. While there’s still a degree of detachment in the strip, there’s an upbeat quality here absent from much of her work. It will be interesting to see if she continues to go in this direction.

The first issue of LUCKY covers the daily events over about a five week span, about a page per day, 6-8 panels per page. The subject matter is not unfamiliar for those fans of autobio comics: finding apartments, getting a job, squabbling with one’s lover, etc. What makes it compelling is Bell’s writing. Bell started working as a nude art model, a job she despised. “Imagine sitting inside of a box exactly the size and shape of your body…Whenever I am doing something unpleasant or boring, I remind myself of that feeling and I begin to enjoy myself again. (This line isn’t moving! Argh! I hate this!…Wait a minute, I’m not modelling, hey, this is kind of fun!)” Later, she notes “I started modelling originally because I didn’t want to do anything. I wanted to be paid to do nothing. But it turns out that doing nothing is one of the more difficult things to do.”

The second issue of LUCKY is actually #2.5, because Bell lost the sketchbook that had 30 pages worth of work in it. She did a long story about that event, an extended yarn about selling her comics on the street, and another narrative concerning her sitting in with a yoga class. It’s filled with amusing moments, like when two friends stop by, don’t purchase anything, and then deliberately walk around the block as as not to pass by her way again. LUCKY #3 is built along the same lines, with Bell talking about her job as an art assistant, teaching cartooning to two 12 year old French boys, and working at a jewelry factory. The segment about being an art assistant is the funniest of the three stories, as Bell fantasizes that the woman she’s assisting will go on to fame and fortune thanks to her contributions, leaving her unable to find art jobs of her own. These may be my favorite of all Bell’s comics, but the hardest to explicate. That’s because the pleasure is in the details here. Thematically, Bell continues to discuss the feelings of drift and purposelessness she experiences, but it tends to resolve itself in absurdity. That’s absurdity in its truest sense, where there is no real resolution to her questions, yet she consistently coaxes humor out of the most unpleasant and most banal of situations.

Bell is at a stage in her career where virtually everything she does is at the very least of interest. When she’s really on, she’s one of the finest short-story artists around. As she continues to mature, it will be interesting to see what she’s capable of. Having a regular gig in MOME and signing on with D&Q are two excellent signs for her career, but I’m interested in seeing if she’s going to try to pursue a long-form work. While she’s done a number of excellent stories to date, she has yet to write that one truly unforgettable, career-making work. Hopefully the opportunities she’s been given will enable her to continue to evolve and grow ever more ambitious as an artist.

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Rob Clough fights cancer by day, and writes about comix, college basketball and funky music by night. He is the comics editor of Other magazine and is happy to have published many fine cartoonists. He used to write for Savant and just finished something for idea-bot. He is married to award-winning poet Laura Clough (formerly Jent), with whom he lives in lovely Durham, NC.

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