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Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
This month we’re taking a look at one of the most significant cartoonists to come out of the indie scene of the 1990s, Gabrielle Bell.
Bell’s stories usually deal with people struggling — either to form an identity, to overcome feelings of poor self-esteem or to overcome the small-mindedness of other people. While she’s mainly known for her autobiographical stories, her comics can frequently veer sharply from reality to pure fantasy without any warning. As a result, her work keeps the attentive reader on his or her toes in a manner unlike any other cartoonist working today. You never quite know how “true” Bell’s stories are or in what direction they will take you, which is the central element I find so exciting in her work.
The short stories collected in Cecil and Jordan in New York contain some of the best work she’s done to date, particularly the title story (which she adapted with director Michel Gondry for the anthology film Tokyo), about a woman who undergoes a startling transformation and “Felix,” about a young artist who starts tutoring the son of a famous sculptor. Whether she’s dealing with the raw autobiography of “Summer Camp,” or the pure, silly, seemingly improvised fantasy of “My Affliction,” Bell betrays a confidence in her storytelling capabilities and an eye for detail that makes her best work so captivating.
Between 2003 and 2004 Bell did a series of autobiographical mini-comics under the assumedly ironic title of Lucky. Those stories were collected in a similarly titled book published in 2006 by Drawn and Quarterly. The bulk of the book is autobiographical, with Bell chronicling her various anxieties and fears, bad jobs, confusion over how to greet French people and various stories her friends tell her. Far from being drab or dull, Bell’s minimalist, straightforward approach makes these stories seem completely relatable and moving.
Bell attempted to do the pamphlet comic thing again in 2008 with a second volume of Lucky this time published by D&Q. That only lasted two issues, and some of the material is reprinted in Cecil and Jordan, but they’re still worth tracking down anyway, especially the second issue, as it contains a lengthy daily diary that has yet to see the light of day anywhere else.
Bell’s comics can be found in just about any anthology worth buying these days (her story is one of the best things in the new Kramers Ergot) but the bulk of her recent work is located on her website, where she posts updates rather regularly. Her latest story, Inappropriate, is a pretty good example of her current skills. The small press publisher Uncivilized Books has collected a few of these autobiographical stories into minicomics: Diary, L.A. Diary, San Diego Diary and the itty bitty How To Make a Bell Stand. They’re all good and worth picking up, even if you read them online for free first.
Bell’s earliest work can be found in When I’m Old and Other Stories, published by the now seemingly defunct Alternative Comics. It’s can be rough work at times — you can sense Bell trying to find her voice as she adopts a variety of different art styles and even genres (the decidedly dark Just One Reason Part II marks one of Bell’s few attempts at horror). Still, there’s a more than a bit of solid work to be found here, and you can see the Bell playing with the themes — especially contrasting mundane reality with absurd fantasy — that would come to dominate her work.
While she’s certainly had misfires or stories that fell flat, none of Bell’s work thus far has been so egregiously bad that I’d recommend avoiding it.