Rob reviews the recent collection of short stories from Gabrielle Bell, CECIL AND JORDAN IN NEW YORK STORIES (Drawn & Quarterly).
With the release of LUCKY, Gabrielle Bell became best known for her wry autobiographical diary comics. Those comics have always been just one of her interests; in fact, her earliest minicomics tended to be fictional, as the collection WHEN I'M OLD shows. With the release of CECIL AND JORDAN IN NEW YORK, it's interesting to see how her dry sense of humor gets even drier when she gets away from strictly autobiographical accounts. It's also interesting to see a wider variety of visual approaches than one would expect from her wobbly but spontaneous line from her diary comics. As always, she's a master of subtlety, restraint, and repressed emotion--yet this volume sees her veering in some unusual, even fantastical, directions.
Bell is perhaps one of the more unlikely cartoonists to have their work adapted into film, yet director Michel Gondry adapted the titular story of this volume into his new film TOKYO! This was one of Bell's first attempts at working in color, and it looks a bit crisper here than in its original home in KRAMER'S ERGOT. The story of a woman who moves to New York to help out her filmmaker boyfriend takes an odd turn when she stops feeling useful and decides to turn herself into a chair. If she's going to be used, she may as well get really used. The deadpan nature of Bell's work made that transition a seamless one. While there are often loud, abrasive characters in Bell's comics, her protagonists are always calm and almost devoid of strong emotions--or at least emotional displays. That flatness of affect makes it difficult for a reader to identify with them, giving her stories a coolness. As a result, the reader is always kept a little off-balance and is forced to dig into each story's emotional subtext.
Bell does work a little more broadly and warmly in some of her stories. "My Affliction" reminds me a lot of her earlier stories. It's a wonderfully loopy story that feels almost completely improvised in the way it passes from weird episode to weird episode. There's a certain kind of dream logic going on as Gabrielle finds she can't fall to the earth, falls in love with inappropriate targets, gets a dog and parrot and winds up imprisoned in a giant's cage. What makes the story work is that the moment-to-moment transitions are muted and subtle up until a surprisingly tense climax, gently leading the reader along no matter how ridiculous the situations. "Robot DJ" is a first-person account of a reunion of friends at a concert. It's about camaraderie lost and found over the years that feels more like a Jaime Hernandez story than something I'd expect from Bell--especially the bonding over a particular band. There's a lightness to this story that results from the sense of connection and purpose we feel from these characters. Unlike most of the other characters in this book, they're settled and secure in their lives, and this story acts almost as an epilogue to the narrative we are told in a flashback. "Helpless", the last story in the book, is an interesting companion piece to "Cecil and Jordan". We see Cecil at an earlier age before she had been beaten down by life, connecting with her best friend in the form of public mischief. This story is warm and emphasizes connection with others as a way of finding a sense of belonging, as opposed to "Cecil and Jordan", which is about the breakdown of connection and finding oneself through isolation stretched into alienation.
At the other end of the spectrum are stories featuring characters who feel completely out of place and out of joint. "I Feel Nothing" features a Gabrielle stand-in visiting the apartment of the man who lives above her. He's young, shallow and rich, and the void he feels draws him to her. There's a brilliant scene where she imagines submitting to his plea and spending the day with him, extrapolating that out to a horrible end. So she stops and returns to the dull safety of her life, and it's not clear if that's the right decision or not, though it is certainly the decision void of both drama and potential reward. "Year of the Arowana" is an account in a letter of a meeting with a famous author, and the ways in which the evening became creepy and disappointing. The key to this story is that it's told as a letter by a narrator we eventually realize is not entirely reliable, as Bell provides subtle visual clues that things changed in the retelling. "One Afternoon" is about a woman who learns that her husband is dead and feels liberated by the announcement, only to learn that he's in fact not dead. The inane conversation the two have at the end of the story is chilling in the sense of quiet desperation we can feel from her and the mute self-satisfaction we feel from him. These stories experiment with some different tones for backgrounds and feel a bit more precise in the way they're drawn than more sketchy stories like "My Affliction". Bell sacrifices a bit of spontaneity here, but that may well be part of the intended effect for these emotionally cooler stories.
There are several semi-autobiographical stories here that mostly deal with Bell's childhood--and they don't paint a flattering picture. "Hit Me" and "Summer Camp" are set in the past, with the former finding outsider Bell dealing with bullies and stuck-up girls while being befriended by a class weirdo. When Bell impresses others with the use of violence, she happily moves up in the hierarchy of school and leaves her friend behind. "Summer Camp" details young Bell trying to recapture a feeling of connectedness she felt at summer camp as she runs away from home, only to discover that she made a mistake in trying to reproduce this feeling. "Gabrielle The Third" is on the surface about a family of pigeons that nested on Bell's windowsill, but it's also about Bell's relationship with her mother and how they differ from each other. Bell's modulation of emotion, shifting it into almost total flatness, actually adds to the pathos of each story without feeling like the reader is being manipulated. That flatness also forces the reader to stay their hand before judging anyone in the story, whether it's Bell herself (and she never makes herself a totally sympathetic character in her stories) or an aggressor.
The best story in the book, and of Bell's career, is "Felix". It's about an art student who tutors the teenaged son of a famous postmodernist sculptor. The tension between the student, the boy, and the artist is almost unbearable at times, with only the boy lashing out and acting, despite the fact that every character is feeling a sense of worthlessness and frustration. One of the funny ironies in the story is that the student is told that her work is "self-absorbed", yet the men telling her this are beyond self-absorbed--they're oblivious to the thoughts and feelings of others. Bell uses a soft pastel palette for her most successful use of color. It's not at all naturalistic, but rather feels like Bell is having the student draw the story. The linework and character design are more refined than in some of her other stories. It's a nice thematic summation of the whole book, touching on appearance vs reality, the feeling of being an outsider, the illusory authority of institutions and the difficulty of establishing and maintaining connections. It's also Bell's longest story, yet doesn't waste a single line. I'll be curious to see if she remains a short story writer or if she has a longer work in her. Either way, she has a body of work over the past few years that measures up to anyone in comics.