Thursday, September 13, 2012

Sequart Reprints: Lucky

This article was originally published at in 2006.

Lucky started as a strip on (as Bell's Home Journal), then a series of minicomics. They were an exercise in doing quickly drawn diary comics, a counterpoint to Gabrielle Bell's more polished "serious work", as she notes in her introduction. (Notably, Bell is so immersed in communicating in the language of comics that even the intro is done as a comic.) Yet the strong narrative quality shown in the stories and her dry wit make these strips unlike typical journal comics. I've written extensively about Bell in this column before, and Lucky showcases everything I love about her work: deadpan humor, restraint, simplicity, distance and an absorbing series of narratives.

Bell's line is a lot looser here than her work in places like Mome or the Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, reflecting the immediacy of something drawn quickly in her sketchbook. Her refined style keeps the pages clear and easy to follow, creating a sort of momentum where one's eye is compelled to quickly fly from image to image. Bell doesn't use black space that much, relying solely on her line to tell the story. It's remarkable how absorbing a read this is, considering that Bell is relating quotidian observations. Comparing this to her earlier work, she's clearly internalized the lessons of how to craft images that operate in full harmony with her dialogue.

The first chapter of Lucky covers the daily events over about a five week span. That plays out as about a page per day, with 6-8 panels per page. The subject matter is not unfamiliar for fans of autobio comics: finding apartments, getting a job, squabbling with one's lover, etc. What makes it compelling (other than the pleasure of looking at Bell's line) is her writing. Bell starts working as a nude art model, a job she despises. "Imagine sitting inside of a box exactly the size and shape of your body...Whenever I am doing something unpleasant or boring, I remind myself of that feeling and I begin to enjoy myself again. (This line isn't moving! Argh! I hate this!...Wait a minute, I'm not modelling, hey this is kind of fun!)" Later, she notes "I started modelling originally because I didn't want to do anything. I wanted to be paid to do nothing. But it turns out that doing nothing is one of the more difficult things to do." Beyond just going on about her own life, Bell relates an interesting story about the house she lived in, how it came to be, and what it's like to be a struggling artist in Brooklyn.

The second chapter begins with Bell relating to us that she lost a sketchbook that had the original contents of that section, but that she simply did them all over. Instead of shorter daily entries, Bell flows together several longer stories and abandons the journal structure altogether. She writes about losing her sketchbook, sitting in on a yoga class, having a picnic with her boyfriend and selling comics on the street. The latter story is my favorite, as Bell endures a series of socially awkward moments. There's the macho nerd comics fan who harasses her about women in comics; the two friends who stop by, don't purchase anything and then deliberately walk around the block so as not to pass by her way again; and a misunderstanding with her boyfriend about the whole thing. My favorite thing about this story is the undercurrent of seething rage and frustration that Bell never expresses directly, even as she endures idiots.

The last chapter is one that Bell describes as the most introspective of these comics. Indeed, though there are three distinct set pieces, it's Bell's flights of fancy that make these stories the funniest in the book. Bell teaches cartooning to two teenaged French boys, works as an art assistant, and in a jewelry factory. The segment where she's an art assistant finds Bell fantasizing that the woman she's assisting will go on to fame and fortune thanks to her contributions (like drawing a control panel or a gloved hand), leaving her unable to find art jobs of her own thanks to everyone thinking she's copying her boss! In the jewelry factory, Bell starts thinking about how much she loves France, but how little she knows about it. She starts fretting about the mechanics of how to kiss someone hello and decides to write to her "pen-pal" Gerard Depardieu. She signs off the letter with a vulgar French phrase that those teen boys assured her meant "Best friends forever" and asks him how to kiss.

There are a few extra stories tacked on here, including "The Hole" from a free comic book day anthology from Alternative. This is a great example of Bell combining autobiographical concerns with magical realist techniques, something she's doing more of these days. If there's a single artist that Bell's work in Lucky reminds me of, it may be Lewis Trondheim's autobiographical comics. There's whimsy and subtlety in those comics, and Bell's work if anything is even more distant. There is certainly emotion on display here, but the stripped-down style and eschewing of overt storytelling conventions that oversell feeling don't oversell it. The reader isn't hit over the head with Bell's feelings of alienation and ennui, especially since such feelings are filtered through layers of dry humor and odd anecdotes. Bell's comics aren't necessarily groundbreaking, but they're a sterling refinement of the form. It's hard to imagine autobiographical comics more appealing than these.

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