Nimble Surrealism: Talking with Gabrielle Bell
November 12, 2012 | by Tobias Carroll
Whether delving into memorable personal stories or exemplifying a sort of nimble surrealism, Gabrielle Bell’s comics are harder to classify than one might think. Reading her work chronologically, one can find her range expanding from sharp day-to-day observations to forays into the surreal and magic realist. The title story of the collection Cecil and Jordan in New York follows a young woman who moves to the city and searches for an apartment and a purpose. It’s fairly kitchen sink in its realism, right up until the point where the protagonist matter-of-factly decides to become a chair. It’s a dose of deadpan absurdism that opens up the storytelling possibilities, and keeps the reader on their toes.
The Voyeurs is Bell’s latest book, covering several years in her life, and taking her from promoting a film in Tokyo to finding a space for yoga in her Brooklyn apartment to San Diego for Comic-Con. Its introduction comes courtesy of Aaron Cometbus, whose long-running zine suggests certain parallels to Bell’s deftly autobiographical work. We met at a bar near Bell’s apartment in Greenpoint, Brooklyn—a neighborhood that has provided the setting for much of her work.
Lucky begins as a kind of slice-of-life documentation of your life. By the end of the first volume, though, it’s become less overtly realistic and more expressionistic. When did you make that leap?
It was towards the end of writing Lucky, when I got to the point about Francophilia, when I talked about talking with Gerard Depardieu. That must have been the first time that I did that. Or maybe it was when I had this fantasy about being an art assistant, and the artist taking all my ideas. I think it must have been the Francophile story, when I was actually doing that. I think it may have come from pure boredom. My boyfriend at the time, Tony, we used to make up funny stories together, hypothetical things that we did together. Or that would happen together, if we took something to another level. It was also conversations with Tony, like that story “The Hole,” where he goes into the hole—that comes from a conversation. But I think that straight autobiographical work, it’s very problematic—you can’t really get too truthful.
I was talking with a friend of mine who’s a comics reader and also reads Cometbus, and The Voyeurs came up. I think the Aaron Cometbus introduction to The Voyeurs puts the book into a bit of a different context—he’s not necessarily a comics guy, but there is a kind of aesthetic that goes along with that.
I’ve known Aaron for a long time. I think that he really inspired me with his zines—I started doing minicomics in the vein of zines. There are things that I’ve learned from him about writing. Not as much with drawing. He’s also a comics fan.
A lot of his work is known for being autobiographical, but he’s also written work that’s fiction. There’s still that similarity to some of the fiction that you’ve written.
It’s true. I may have picked up that kind of tone from him. Also, I used to change the names in my work. In Lucky, I think all of the names are changed except for my own. It’s kind of pretentious, but I was thinking of Jack Kerouac. Now that I think of it, I was also following Aaron, because he also does that. I knew him, and I knew his friends. I would try to figure out who was which friend. Because it was basically just straight autobiography, except for the names changed. When I did The Voyeurs, I decided that it would make more sense to have everybody be who they were, so people wouldn’t have to play that game.
There are a lot of literary references in your work. In Cecil and Jordan in New York, you have a piece adapted from a Kate Chopin short story. Where did you get the idea to do that—and to make it more contemporary?
I think it was because it was so short, I knew I wouldn’t have to leave much out. When I was younger, I was doing a lot of literary adaptations. My first book has some of them in there, too. I think I originally wanted to be a writer. Sometimes, I would read a story and wish that I wrote it, and that would be my way of feeling like I wrote it. But also, “This would make a good comic.” And also, “I can’t think of a good story on my own.”
In The Voyeurs, you wrote about seeing Lorrie Moore speak at a conference. And you did an event with Jami Attenberg at WORD a few months ago—have you written fiction at all?
I think I tried to, when I was young. But it never worked out. I mean, I tried a lot of things when I was young. The only thing that really worked out was comics. Originally, when I was a teenager, I really wanted to write. At this point, I think in terms of comics. So when I think of a story, I imagine in my head how I would draw it. The part of my brain that would write fiction has completely flatlined.
In terms of your comics, are you still working on fictional work in addition to the more autobiographical pieces?
In the past year, I’ve just been working on The Voyeurs—coloring it and doing all the production and, recently, promoting it. And editing it. A lot of meetings with my publisher. It’s a lot of work. So I didn’t have a lot of time to work on my fictional work. I am working on a graphic novel. But it’s been shelved for a while. I’m finally getting back to work on it. It’s ... semi-autobiographical. I changed all the names and I took liberties with what happened. I made up things that I didn’t know. I think out of my life, I’m always trying to write fiction, and I just do autobiography because... It doesn’t come easily or naturally, actually. But it’s less difficult.
In The Voyeurs, you talk about reading Blake Bailey’s John Cheever biography. Is most of what you’re reading nonfiction or fiction?
My reading is kind of haphazard. I’ll read all of the fiction in The New Yorker. I keep rereading Alice Munro. I can’t get over Alice Munro—I’m stuck on her. Like on some sort of loop. I’ll keep rereading it. I’m just glad there’s a new book of hers coming out soon! I’m so tired of rereading her entire body of work. But then, I just discovered that this one book of hers that I had forgotten that I hadn’t finished.
The Voyeurs opens with a prologue that sets up the theme of voyeurism, but there’s also a sense of a lot of your life throughout the book. Is that done to implicate the reader in voyeurism?
I don’t know if it was quite so calculated. I do notice that, throughout the whole book, there was a lot of looking through peepholes, looking through windows, looking in at things from outside, or looking out at things from inside. Like when I’m peeping out the door, or when me and Tony are looking out the window at all the people at San Diego Comic-Con. That feeling of outsiders looking in. Whether it’s a salacious thing... I think there’s a sort of shame to it, but there’s this feeling of envy or left-out. Or objectivity, in a way—how you can look at a thing. But there’s also, when they’re looking in at the party—the John Cheever thing.
By the time we reach the period described in The Voyeurs, the fact that you keep and publish your journals has become a plot point. At what point does your work begin to become its own reference point?
There needs to be that reason—if you draw a self-portrait, are you going to draw a picture of yourself sitting there with your hands on your lap, or are you going to draw a picture of yourself with your paper and your pencil and your hand? I don’t know, because it does seem very self-referential. My friend Tony advises a lot on my work, and he’s always telling me to leave that stuff out. And maybe he’s right, but I keep getting compelled to do it. Something about it feels honest and richer. But I do feel kind of weird about it, too.
I think it feels like a presence—if you’re writing about yourself, that is a part of your body of work. It feels like an organic part of the whole.
But at the same time, there are so many things that I leave out. So why should I put that in? I don’t know why.
There are a lot of comics people mentioned in The Voyeurs, but there are also a lot of other artists as well. There’s a question of your work relating to other people’s work, whether it’s you at a fiction conference or the scenes depicting press junkets in Tokyo. Is that a question that you think about a lot?
Yeah. As a cartoonist, there’s a certain inferiority complex. There’s a whole thing about the graphic novel—there’s Maus, but it hasn’t really gotten a solid foothold in the arts. It’s got not much of a foothold. And with that comes a kind of inferiority complex, even though—if comics aren’t art, I don’t know what is. It’s a very young art. With the Tokyo junket, I was the sort of girlfriend who did comics, which were not as important as movies. And with fiction—that was the Rain Taxi festival—there’s some kind of feeling that comics are less important than fiction. Which is probably true, because fiction is much more established. And then there’s my own personal inferiority complex.
You’ve been making comics for a while now. Do you think that it’s gotten better?
I think it’s gotten better. Much better. But it’s hard to say. I’ve been doing comics for so long, and I myself have changed so much. I remember when I first started, there were so few women doing it, for one thing. And there was this attitude about it—it was much more insular. Nowadays, there are so many classes—it’s really accepted at the university. Then, it was an outsider thing. But in that outsider thing, it was kind of an elite thing—“The masses don’t understand, so we’re just going to do our own thing!” kind of thing. It’s hard to say what’s changed, given that I’ve changed so much myself. But it seems like the standards of comics have gone down a lot. The drawing standards and the writing standards. Maybe I could get in trouble for saying this, but—the standards going down has also made it an art form that can be condescended to, or isn’t taken as seriously.
That said, Building Stories is really great.