Gabrielle Bell’s new book The Voyeurs will be released this month in the form of a handsomely designed hardcover with full color interior art. It is the first book format publication by Uncivilized Books, a small press imprint run by artist Tom Kaczynski. Bell’s incisive, often whimsical short stories have won her a substantial following as one of the sharpest talents working in alternative comics. She is an autodidact who was raised in a communal enclave in California, an isolated upbringing that apparently prepared her for the obsessive life of a cartoonist.
The stories in The Voyeurs detail incidents that take place over years, from her daily life in Brooklyn and her trips to the San Diego Comic-Con to her travels to France and Japan with film director Michel Gondry. Bell’s comics are usually based on her experience and her interactions with her friends, but she also exploits the unlimited potentials of her art form as she frequently diverts into fantastical absurdities that could only manifest on a comics page.
Her ear for conversational nuance and her ironic, understated wit has been favorably compared to the great writers of The New Yorker. Bell claims influence from a range of living alt/lit comics figures such as Robert Crumb, Julie Doucet, Fly and Chester Brown. Her carefully structured panels also recall for this reader the concise, distanced view of Roy Crane and the nearly abstract completeness of Jack Kirby’s later panel compositions, though she is unfamiliar with the efforts of those elder comics greats.
This interview was conducted in a small coffee shop in Bell’s neighborhood in Brooklyn. True to form, Bell made a comic strip about our meeting, which is online at her website.
James: Were you formally trained in art?
Gabrielle Bell: No, I had some classes and took a lot of figure drawing.
James: Figure drawing…in an academic setting?
GB: Well, not really. I took a couple of figure drawing classes, but mostly I would just sit in at figure drawing sessions and practice. I was never a good student.
James: But you were trained in observation…?
GB: Not really, well, I read Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (by Betty Edwards, Penguin, 1979–JR) that really changed my approach.
James: So you had access to books.
GB: (laughs)There were some books but I’ve never been an academic person.
James: So, your writing is coming more from reading and your drawing comes from looking at art?
GB: Yeah, um, mostly my art is from practice, because I just draw a lot.
James: But most of what you’re drawing is coming from observation, you make notes and draw from them?
GB: I think because I’m not formally trained and I haven’t really studied, I’m very, very slow. It takes me so long to learn how to do what I do, every story I feel like I’m learning how to do it again. It is very labor intensive. But I think it’s good because I have my own style from that, I wouldn’t have been as original if I had studied.
James: You don’t vary your “internal camera” as much as a lot of cartoonists do; for instance I rarely see a close-up.
GB: Yeah, once in a while. That’s because I can’t really draw closeups very well. I try, but they always look weird to me. But it’s kind of a handicap.
James: But you can get some quite accurate likenesses. I mean, you drew Barack Obama in The Voyeurs and it looks like Obama. Or, you drew (Picturebox publisher and Comic Journal editor) Dan Nadel and it’s clearly him.
James: I wanted to ask you about your black-spotting, which is really strange. Sometimes, you do the markings almost randomly; like, less indications of lighting and more that they make black shapes on the page, like the shadings of artists like Gary Panter and Julie Doucet. Or sometimes I see you use black behind word balloons to pop them out?
Gabrielle: Yeah, I think I’m probably influenced by Julie Doucet and a little bit by Robert Crumb, but really, I use black to try to balance out the panel.
James: Well, in your work it adds weight and defines space. It’s almost like directional strokes that sculpt space.
GB: Yes, and it looks mysterious I think. But it’s a choice, for example, crosshatching seems so labor intensive.
James: Your black usage reminds me of Jack Kirby’s (shows pages by Kirby). His blackspotting can indicate lighting, but in his later work it often becomes a sort of abstract patterning on the page to lead the eye around.
GB: Yes, I do that too. I try to think about a light source, but sometimes it’s just like, well, I like this black here—so I’m kind of liberal with it.
James: Are you influenced at all by theatrical staging techniques? In an interview with you in MOME #2 , Gary Groth mentioned that there is a “proscenium arch to your panel composition.”
GB: Yes, when I think of what my comics would be comparable to, I think it would be less movies and more like a play. When I was about 19 or 20, my uncle was an actor and he had a Screen Actor’s Guild card. He would take me to all these off-Broadway plays, very small theatre things. And I was so enamored with it, it was so amazing, these small plays. It would just be like a table and a television and all this drama happening.
James: There’s a bit of distance, your “camera” doesn’t go around the scenes and the viewer doesn’t enter into them.
GB: Yeah, it’s more like I use the characters and things in the panels as props to tell the stories or to try to get something into the narrative to tell it in a compelling way.
James: Could you see yourself writing for the theatre?
GB: I wanted to, when I was younger.
James: Will Eisner had theatre training and more recently, Ben Katchor has sometimes gone in that direction.
GB: Mmmm, I’ve been writing comics and drawing comics for so long that I feel like I’m kind of stuck in that, not in a bad way. I just think in terms of comics; I feel like I’m trying to make the perfect comic.
James: Well, you did work in film with Michel Gondry on his film Tokyo. I see where he says in your book that you co-directed the segment that was adapted from your Cecil and Jordan in New York. Do you think you’ll do more film work?
GB: That was really, really hard. It was really exciting, but it was also not really my thing. I mean I love films, I love watching movies, they are a huge influence on me. I think that with theatre, there’s so many limits—there’s actors, the people onstage and it’s all there and you have so many limits to work with that you’re just working on the storytelling, but when you’re making a movie you can practically just write anything and make it happen. Of course there are limits with a film, budget, etc. You might as well do it as a comic.
James: What if you did something that wasn’t an adaptation, but if you wrote something that was intended in the first place to be a film?
GB: Oh (laughs), I think I’m done with that medium.
James: I think that comics are an art form of themselves, that a great comic doesn’t need to be transformed into a film or a Broadway play and might be lessened by the translation. And what works in print might not work for another form. For instance, if a comic was done to be on a digital tablet, it should take advantage of the properties of that form.
GB: Yes.Well, the stuff I do for the web is ultimately meant to be a book, but the web definitely influences it, changes it.
James: The way I work, each page is a design unit, the panels work together as a larger composition, but each page is still part of the larger story that takes place over multiple pages. In your case, you seem to rarely consider a page design at all—your panels are usually the same size and don’t generally interact together compositionally. For the web, your pages function on their own to a degree; each page has some sort of completeness, but they might be reconfigured for book publication.
GB: Yes, each panel is like a story in itself. For me I try to perfect each panel. For the thing I am doing now for the web, where I’m doing six panels a day, sometimes it is very difficult to get everything into six panels or sometimes I end up with five panels.
James: So whereas for me, a page holds together as a graphic unit, for you, a page holds together in a narrative sense, as a textual unit?
GB: Yes, I’m not so graphically oriented, in a way, that comes last.
James: Now, there’s something else about your work—how you subvert the reader’s expectations. Aaron Cometbus notes this in his introduction to The Voyeurs, where he says of you, “She’s an unreliable, uncooperative witness to her own life.” You employ a sort of misdirection.
GB: Yes, I do try to go for the unreliable narrator, because reality is so objective. I try to set myself apart from my own story.
James: For instance, when you do the story of Valerie Solanis, you totally do your own version of it, and you actually do the same thing to your mother who is telling it to you; you totally make up a whole story about what your mother says to you, and then you go, well, this is what she actually said.
GB: Yeah, that’s another thing, reality versus fantasy, versus reality again (laughs).
James: Along those lines, in the story where you and Tony go to Roosevelt Island and make up all these bogus stories about its history, you show a flashback panel of “Franklin Roosevelt” and his “insane little brother,” but you actually drew the hale and hardy Teddy Roosevelt in a wheelchair.
James: It is interesting that you used Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Au Rebours—the hero Des Essientes removes himself from society and revels in his eccentricities of taste. In his house he decorates a room like a ship’s cabin, he covers a tortoise with gold and jewels; it leads to how you set up a tent for yoga in your room. It feels very significant. It seems to resonate with the isolation you grew up with and then, that which is part and parcel with the life of a cartoonist.
GB: Actually, Tom Kaczynski told me about that book, but yes, it’s coming from wanting to isolate myself. It feels delightful to create your own world within your apartment.
James: Why are you putting out your book as one of the first releases by an untried new publisher, Uncivilized Books, as opposed to doing another one with Drawn and Quarterly or a larger house like, say, Random House or another more upscale publisher?
GB: I thought it might get lost. I had been doing my minicomics like San Diego Diary and July Diary with Tom and getting so much nice reception. Also, Tom and I worked together so well. It seems like everything I say, he will understand and do stuff to build on—like somehow our rapport is stronger, we are so much on the same page.
James: Do you feel like he will be able to provide the support that the books need?
GB: I have no idea. I mean, I will also have to do more of the publicity myself and that’s something I am willing to take on.
James: Is the trade-off that he is more dedicated to the book? As opposed to having a lot of projects distracting him, as so often happens with bigger publishers who do tons of books, he’s focusing in on your book.
GB: Yes, and he’s listening to me. I mean, I know I’m taking a risk, but I’ve been working with him for more than a year on this book and I have not regretted it once. Part of it may be that because he’s so inexperienced, he’s not cynical.
James: I see that besides you, he’s also doing his own books of Cartoon Dialectics and he’s doing Jon Lewis’ True Swamp books [originally published in 1994 by Slave Labor Graphics, it’s the story of Lenny the Frog and a cast of surprisingly thoughtful swampland creatures]. He’s in the process of putting together a stable of artists.
GB: Yes, Tom’s own book is talking about technology and ennui. He’s interested in the thinking behind the work, in comics by “thinkers”—and developing an aesthetic of small publishing, an aesthetic of thoughtful narrative comics.
First published on Publishers Weekly