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She Has No Head! – Spotlight: Gabrielle Bell

Apparently March is a month in which Gabrielle Bell bewitches the minds of writers, as my post today, a Lucky Coverspotlight on Gabrielle Bell, is following up Brian’s “A Year Of Cool Comics – Day 73″ post of just yesterday.  I considered pulling my post (and asked Brian if he’d prefer it) but he said I should go ahead and jump on the bandwagon…so here you go…more Gabrielle Bell! I’ll try my best to talk about different stuff than Brian, though his post about her was insightful and smart, so it’ll be hard to avoid copying him.

Yesterday Brian said in his post:

“As I’ve said in the past, what I love most about Gabrielle Bell’s artwork is that she is an autobiographical artist whose work cuts to the core of the story rather than the surface – what i mean is, her style depicts the FEELING of a particular scene, rather than some photo-realistic view of what it it “should” look like.”

And this really cuts to the core of what works to me about Bell’s comics, because while Bell does not feel like a writer more than an artist, or vice versa, there is the feeling that her images are wholly there to service her storytelling.  She doesn’t seem interested in the crazy bells and whistles that sometimes come with comic art – especially independent comics which often includes wild experimentation with the form, instead Bell seems mostly interested in storytelling.  And there’s something I really love about that.

There is some mild nudity below the cut, so read with caution.

Bell’s work personally hits great notes for me as she writes a lot of stories that skate the autobiographical /memoir line nicely (Lucky is almost entirely semi-autobiographical) and her life (though wildly different in some ways) has many things that I can relate to – such as living in New York City and the trials of looking for a non-ridiculous apartment in this city.  Apartment hunting is a hilarious ongoing theme in Lucky, as Bell and her boyfriend and other friends are constantly looking for something workable and yet affordable in New York – no small feat I can assure you.  And she manages to tie her ongoing searches together nicely with what the apartments end up meaning to her, and how they exacerbate her current situation.  It generally ends up feeling much deeper than mere apartment hunting for apartment hunting’s sake.   Check it out:

Lucky excerpts 2Lucky excerpts 3

Bell also has several great stories both in Lucky (which won an Ignatz Award for Most Outstanding Mini Comic in 2004 before it was collected by Drawn & Quarterly) and in her latest collected work, Cecil And Jordan in New York Stories, that are about art, art school, being an artist, trying to be an artist, and even modeling for art classes.   Like New York and apartment hunting, all things I can also relate to – well, not the modeling for art students – though if Bell’s take is any indication, I wish I could relate, if only so I’d have hilarious and poignant feelings about it:

Lucky excerpts 1

Lucky excerpts 4

For years of reading Bell’s work I used to think it was because she and I had some basic things in common that I so enjoyed her stories, but on examination, I don’t think that’s it at all.  Rather I think Bell has struck a very delicate and difficult to maintain balance for most artists doing autobio work – a balance that is about being both unflinchingly honest and still having a sense of humor.  A work that talks about serious day to day things, but never takes itself so seriously that you get lost in a pointless narcissistic narrative.  It’s not easy to do and there are thousands of really bad autobio books, mini comics, and webcomics out there that haven’t found the right balance.  But without fail Bell seems to nail that sweet spot for me.

Some of Bell’s work, like the following excerpt from her story, Cecil and Jordan, from her collection, Cecil And Jordan In New York Stories, starts off with a very autobio feel, but by page three evolves into a much more fantastical tale, one that though based in fantasy (a girl becomes a chair!) is really a heartfelt story about feeling invisible and useless.

Story continues below

Cecil And Jordan Excerpt 1Cecil And Jordan Excerpt 2

I think that Bell’s artwork, mostly black and white with very simple almost utilitarian linework, is a stumbling block for a lot of people that might otherwise really enjoy her humorous take on day in the life stories and creative fantasy yarns.  But I urge anyone that is put off by the style, to give it a try anyway, the same way I would encourage anyone that watches only blockbuster Hollywood films with lots of special effects, to try out some low budget independent films or off-beat foreign films.  There’s a reason we’ve got so much variety out there, and you’d be surprised what you might respond to if you just look past what you are used to seeing, and what you expect to see and give something new a try.  Bell’s stories are regularly heartfelt and funny, with not so buried messages about the choices you make and don’t make in life and the struggle to make something of yourself.  Bell isn’t afraid to poke fun at herself or to look brutally at her relationships and decisions and that honesty is easily felt in her pages for anyone that dives in.  Brian compared Bell’s work to Lewis Trondheim and I would agree, though I would say she’s more part Lewis Trondheim, part Jeffrey Brown with her own crazy whimsy and female perspective of course.

I Feel Nothing Excerpt 1I Feel Nothing Excerpt 2I Feel Nothing Excerpt 3I Feel Nothing Excerpt 4

In addition to Bell’s more autobiographical and fantastical tales, she also has a few interesting adaptations, including one of my favorite stories, One Afternoon, from her Cecil And Jordan collection, which is loosely based on a Kate Chopin story.  It’s not a good story to post unfortunately because I’d have to post the whole thing (which I doubt Bell would appreciate) in order for it to be fully understood, but it’s a brutal tale about a woman’s brief taste of freedom, at a very high price.  It’s insightful and honest to a fault – suggesting feelings and emotions on the part of the main character that few stories would dare to admit to, or authors would even admit to conceiving of.  Bell’s early collection When I’m Old And Other Stories, which in general leans much more towards fantasy and fiction, even has a loose adaptation of Roman Polanski’s 1965 film Repulsion starring Catherine Deneuve.  Recently Bell’s original work has been adapted as well – her story Cecil and Jordan was tackled in 2008 by Michael Gondry as a short called “Interior Design” in the film Tokyo!

Though Bell has three collected works available:  When I’m Old And Other Stories (Alternative Comics), Lucky (Drawn & Quarterly), and Cecil And Jordan In New York Stories (Drawn & Quarterly); there is also a book from Drawn & Quarterly called Kuruma Tohrimasu (Petits Livres) by filmmaker Michael Gondry and Bell that was supposedly conceived as a thank you gift to the cast and crew of Tokyo!. The book is mostly an art book collection of drawings and photos from the shoot.  In addition to her collected works Bell’s short stories have been well published in respected anthologies, most notably Fantagraphics’s MOME, Best American Comics 2007 and 2009, Kramer’s Ergot, Drawn & Quarterly Showcase Book Four, The Comics Journal, and Scheherazade.

Currently Bell is at work on Vol. 2 of Lucky, which as been published by Drawn & Quarterly so far as Vol. 2 #1 and Vol 2. #2, and I hope it will be given the D&Q hardcover treatment in the future.

Bell has a semi- autobiographical “clog” (comic web log) also called Lucky, which you can find here, along with original art work for sale and all sorts of other great stuff.

Bell has been featured in MOME #1, 2 (which includes an interview with Bell), 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, and 9, which you can buy here.


Woohoo! Boobies!

Seriously, though, good piece. I haven’t delved into Bell’s work, but what I see here makes me want to. In a climate where it seems every new artistic voice is trying to bowl you over with its obvious staggering genius, there’s a virtue to choosing a simple style and doing it really, really well. And that goes for comics, prose, music, whatever you may.

On the subject of autobio comics, a friend of mine is working on one. He’s more of an artist than a writer, so he came to me for advice, and I told him, “Just remember that no one is automatically going to give a shit about your struggle with your parental issues.” (I paraphrase here.) The story has to be able to reach out and connect with the reader, or, as you said, all we get is navel-gazing. And as you said, all too many autobio works (including some that receive large amounts of critical praise) fail in this regard.

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I’ve often looked at “Lucky” on the shelf and thought “I should read that”. Now I will. Good review. I really like Bell’s color comics and that video store looks like the Kims that used to be on Ave A. Hmmm. I wonder.

Funny you should compare her work to indie films… The story about the girl turning into a chair that you posted has been made into a short film by Michel Gondry. It is part of an anthology film called “Tokyo” and it is fantastic. You should check it out, and I think I need to check out some of Bell’s work considering I thought Gondry wrote the chair story.

Maybe I should have read to the end before making my smart comment…

hahaha that chair in the bathtub. XD

I’ve read that chair story in some anthology but until now didn’t know it was Bell’s work. It’s exactly what I’m looking for in fantasy literature–a story in which fantastical elements are used to speak on real life.

The image of her body as a box from April 24th modeling story was quite striking to me, as well. I’ll have to look her up!

Hi Kelly, Thanks so much for writing this, and for convincing people to check out my stuff! I tried to send you a personal email, but I can’t find an address. But maybe this is better!

@Michael: If you like what you see here, you definitely should check her out. I’m a huge fan and find myself re-reading Lucky at least once every year. Now that I own a copy of Cecil and Jordan I suspect it will happen with that book as well.

As for auto-bio you are completely right. My boyfriend is fond of saying “just because it happened to you, doesn’t make it interesting”. There are plenty of things that are not necessarily interesting but can be made interesting in the hands of talented storytellers (Bell is one of them in my opinion)…but it takes a lot of skill (and practice) to do that.

@Adam: Her color comics are a nice change of pace and I enjoy them, but really I always return to the simple black and white as my first love. That video store does look a little like Kim’s!

@Anon: I’m glad you caught it before I had to come back and tell you. :) I have not yet seen Tokyo!, but it’s on my list to check out. There are a few good clips on youtube though (I linked to one in the post).

@Ross: That bit with the chair in the bathtub makes me chuckle every time.

@Dan Felty: Then you should definitely check out more of Bell’s work, because a lot of it skews that way. Her story The Hole, which is a few pages long and featured at the end of her book Lucky, is great and is another example of her real life + fantastical style.

The “model box” is one of my favorite single images she’s done – it’s so unique and powerful.

@Gabrielle Bell: Thank you so much for stopping by. I sent you a private email.

I feel like I have to actively seek out fiction when I’m looking for non-mainstream comics. It’s rare to find someone like Bell who does memoir in a way that is routinely interesting and relatable (James Kolchalka is the only other creator I can think of off the top of my head that I’d say that about). Most of the first-person, non-fiction stuff I’ve read, including work by accepted, award-winning people, is just so much navel-gazing. A cheat I use is to see if the person has published any short stories, because the folks who can make shit up are more likely to know which anecdotes to share and how to do so in an entertaining manner.

[…] She Has No Head! – Spotlight: Gabrielle Bell | Comics Should Be … […]

This is the second week in a row that another columnist has tried to steal your thunder. But your column is always the more detailed and interesting. Actually, since you and Brian featured different excerpts, it works out really great, because now I got to see more of Lucky than I would have if only one of you had done it.

I agree that autobiographical stuff is usually boring, but this is great. I haven’t really dealt with these sorts of situations in my own life, but I can still relate completely. I like that. (I guess the one that matches up the most with my own life is the one about the chair, although in my case it is with my family. I’ve spent much of my life as furniture.)

For some reason, I had difficulty following the last story you show.

That chair story looks great. I was thinking, as I read, it would make a whimsical little film, maybe if Gondry or something did it. Heh. And Tokyo! is in my instant queue! Success!

@s1rude: That’s a good cheat – the checking for short stories angle. I’ll be stealing that. :)

@Mary Warner: Well Brian and Greg write MANY more columns than I do, so it’s bound to happen. Also, because Greg does mini reviews of everything he buys weekly, anytime I’m just going to talk about a single issue there’s bound to be crossover. My joking with him on Girl Comics was mostly because we really seemed to agree on GC in the broadstrokes and I had to go back into my article and fine tune it so it didn’t look like I cheated off his paper :)

I appreciate the compliment (of course) but it’s easy for my columns to be more detailed since I A) only do one column a week and B) usually only tackle one book or series of books or author etc. So props to both Brian and Greg (and all the other columnists) for doing the heavy lifting while I pop in for my once a week show.

If you like the stuff you saw in my column and Brian’s I urge you to check it out. I’ve been a fan of Bell for a long time now and her work is always insightful and interesting.

@Bill Reed: You’re on the cutting edge my friend – I had to add Tokyo! to my queue after writing this article!

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