« Lori Shine | Contents | Matt Hart »

Matt Dube on Gabrielle Bell

Review of Lucky, by Gabrielle Bell. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2006. $19.95 Hardcover. 112 pages

Two thousand seven looks like a transitional year for Gabrielle Bell: it’s been announced that she will no longer be a regular contributor to the comics quarterly MOME from Fantagraphics, but she was featured in a recent issue of the Drawn and Quarterly Showcase, the first comics of hers in color that I think I’ve seen. There’s this book, a handsome hardcover book that collects three issues of Lucky, the mini-comic she published in two thousand three and four, and she has plans to revive that series, or at least its title, as a new venue for her comics.

I really like Bell’s comics, and I’d put her near the front of an important movement in the field, the development of a more literary sensibility. I mean this as distinct from a more purely visual sense of comics, like those tied more to the world of visual arts, an approach championed by magazines like Kramer’s Ergot or some of the other anthologies and journals. Bell’s work, like cartoons by Megan Kelso, Allison Bechdel (especially in her luminous Fun Home), Lilli Carre, and others, seems at least as interested in the texture and quality of words and narratives as it does in developing a new purely visual language. It’s hard to know just what to make of this, or what role it has or will have in the increasing legitimacy of comics, since most of this interest comes from the literary world. But whatever it is, Bell has it—her cartooning isn’t crude, but it isn’t especially distinguished, either: her figures are recognizable from panel to panel, her design is serviceable and you’d never mistake one character for another. But as Lucky shows, she isn’t going to win any awards for design, either.

The longest narrative in Lucky is an episodic diary which makes up the first issue of the three mini-comics this book collects. In it, Bell records her struggles to become a better artist, one page of six panels each day (mostly). The results, to me at least, are like most journals or diaries; most people don’t have the kind of life you want to study all that closely, and Bell is no exception. Any interest you might have larger narrative movements of her life, though, will depend on your familiarity with, and interest in, twenty-something boho existence, as Bell struggles with oddball roommates and a sort-of non-committal boyfriend (they move into and out of each other’s apartments a couple times over the course of the stories; it’s clear Bell has some affection for him, though not especially clear why. The boyfriend Tom’s feelings are sometimes harder to figure). I found some of this material a little less-than-fresh, having lived through similar stories when I was that age. Bell comes across as a gal who isn’t super-confident and who isn’t always able to stand up for herself. She is rounded, vulnerable and exposed, and that can be electrifying, but sometimes my frustration with the characters indecision, her inertia and fear, her equanimity colored my feelings about her creator. The comic stories in the later issues of Lucky show some growth: Bell experiments, for example, with allowing her fantasies to run away with her, so that we aren’t as tied to the actual. She develops an authorial stand-in (or at least tells stories of a friend?) named Sadie, who is crazier, more direct than Bell feels comfortable being. There’s better work nearer the end of this book, but as kunstelroman, Lucky stops before we see Bell’s “mature” work.

To find the payoff for the hard work of artistic development Bell went through in these years and stories, you need to look at her work in other places, and for other companies. The work she’s done for MOME, and in anthologies (there’s a really nice Sadie story in the Hi-Horse Omnibus anthology, and an ambitious adaptation of a story by Saki in Orchid), shows her talent to much greater effect because the shaping of material is more present than it is here. A story like “Gabrielle the Third” (from MOME’s Winter 2007 issue) for example, manages to tweak panels for lyric effect, so that when the stories last panel runs along the width of the page, it sustains the moment like a held note, as Bell’s character takes a photograph to, well, sustain the moment. A story like “Mike’s Café” (from the MOME winter 2006 issue) counterpoints a phone dialogue with what else the speakers are doing while talking, with incisive, ironic results. This, in fact, might be Bell’s greatest strength as a writer, her ability to develop structural ironies where text plays against, undercuts and complicates, the images to which is it applied. I can’t think of anyone who does this kind of thing as well or as regularly as Bell does. It’s one of those styles of writing that requires at least equal confidence in writing and drawing to conceive of using your comics to tell stories in this way, and I don’t think, aside from the few writers mentioned above, there are many who have developed those skills.

As a document of the path that led her to reach this level of skill, Lucky is certainly a worthwhile book. But it seems strange that this is the collection of Bell’s work that is available in a hardcover edition, when many of her shorter but more ambitious (and I would argue, more successful) works are spread out in separate issues of anthologies where they are hidden among the work of other writes and artists. I really like Lucky, but I think it is in the next collection of her work that most people will discover the work that leads me to call Gabrielle Bell one of the best comic writers of this current generation. I hope that there’s enough promise here to compel readers to look for more in the new series she’s proposed using this old name.

« Lori Shine | Contents | Matt Hart »