Monday, September 14, 2015

Autobiography Is Fiction: Gabrielle Bell

Gabrielle Bell is my favorite autobiographical artist, in part because she eschews so many of the medium's cliches. She draws diary comics that are revealing in some ways, but treats them as an exercise to write and draw (not to mention entertain herself) rather than as an opportunity to overshare or work out her anxieties on paper. Bell remains a bundle of contradictions as a person and an artist, and her new comic reveals this without her having to come right out and say it. Her most recent book, Truth Is Fragmentary (Uncivilized Books), sees Bell deep dip into fictionalizing her life in the most absurd ways. Essentially, when she gets bored, she simply starts making things up, which I find to be refreshingly hilarious. While she "spills" plenty of ink in that she reveals plenty about herself in how she interacts with the world, the book deliberately rejects any kind of conventional confessional approach and instead asks the reader if the wise-cracking Bell is to be taken seriously. All the reader can do is continue to ask questions, some of which she answers and others of which she deliberately leaves vague. At its core, this book is an autobiographical framework for frequent flights of fancy.

The structure of this collection of short stories, such as it is, centers around Bell's frequent travels thanks to her cartooning career as well as three years' worth of July diaries, where she did a comic per day for the entire month. Most of those diary comics tended to emphasize her frequently self-imposed isolation, providing a ready contrast to the strips where she's traveling overseas. This contrast highlights Bell's central, internal contradictions. On the one hand, she's a shy and anxious misanthrope who plays up her almost feral qualities. On the other hand she's engaged, witty and intellectually & emotionally curious. Going to foreign nations provokes an extreme blend of these states, with her natural awkwardness both exacerbated and excused/alleviated by being an American fish out of water--because she's always a fish out of water no matter the situation.

My favorite device of Bell's is her "unreliable narrator" voice deployed in meta fashion, pulling the reader out of the narrative and reminding them that she can manipulate the reality of her narrative on a whim, adding or subtracting real-life "characters" on a whim. It's a device that reveals the potentially fictive nature of any diary, be it an intentionally fictive left turn to smooth out the narrative or simply a result of one person's point of view always being unreliable as an absolute conveyor of the truth of a situation. In any event, Bell's tendency to do this is always good for a laugh.

Keeping that diaristic tone makes the fictional elements resonate and pop when something absurd happens in an otherwise mundane anecdote. There's a story about her friends abandoning her during the sudden zombie apocalypse that plays on her lack of useful skills. There's a running gag about bears that punctures reality with the same force as a well-landed long-form improv sketch. When she anticipates a friend visiting her with her newborn baby, Bell is surprised to receive the baby in a package mailed to her. Considering how deadpan her comics are, both in terms of narrative tone and the way they're drawn, these absurd little jokes land especially hard. That's especially true because she doesn't over-do them; her restraint as an artist is one of her best qualities.

One reason why this book in particular is so entertaining is that her need to entertain the reader is commensurate with her need to entertain herself. She repeatedly states that she hates drawing things that bore her, so she is perfectly happy to skip ahead and draw something that she likes. This is especially true in her daily July diaries, but it also applies to the meat of her foreign tours, as she frequently omits accounts of the actual events in favor of side anecdotes. That boredom is a manifestation of her restless and fierce intelligence. Bell frequently downplays her own eloquence and intelligence, especially when she's being translated, but at other times she doesn't hide the sharpness of her wit, like during her pointed critiques of literature--especially thinly-veiled autobiography. Bell's feminism is blunt and to the point, as she notes that men tend to get away with a lot more in their memoirs than women.

As to the details of the stories themselves, her trip to a comics festival in Stockholm is marked by her wanting to write about anything but the festival itself, talking about the difficulty of making the diaries themselves. This sort of meta-writing can often be tedious, but Bell is less interested in complaining than she is in making quirky, funny observations. Her trip to France includes meeting mainstream artist Tim Sale. Bell is amazed that he can make so much money selling drawings of Batman, which she briefly considers as a career move until she remembers that this would involve knowing about and drawing Batman. Her first July diary is more-or-less that last time Bell still feels comfortable writing about her quotidian adventures, but even here she subverts her own narrative by deliberately leaving out the exciting parts of her day-to-day life, like the actual party she was organizing for her book release. By contrast, her second diary opens with Bell declaring that she really has no inner life or interests, saying that she sits "quietly in a dark room until I'm needed". This is the diary that introduced the wackier fictive elements of Bell's work, like zombie apocalypses, recurring bear attacks (and ice cream sales) and other nonsense. While writing her third July diary in a rented house in a "writer's residency", she works in gags like a brain booster drink that makes her remember long-forgotten relationships and children. The final diary, at a comics festival in Colombia, makes great use of a fictional secretary writing all of these notes, ala the philosopher Montaigne.

As Bell has  matured as an artist and writer, her prose has become crisper and wittier. There's one sequence where she ponders "I am so lonely... and yet, I can't stand the company of anyone...(That is when the place fills up with ghost cats)", which is precisely what happens in the panel--a number of spectral felines crawling all over her. Regarding her social awkwardness she says, "When I walk down the street, the kooks and the wingnuts glare at me accusingly. They know I am just barely able to pass", with those passerby thinking "Traitor" as she walks by. Bell gets to the heart of why she does autobio when she starts off some strips by saying "It is humiliating to expose myself like this, but it is worse to try to hide it". Regarding meeting a cartoonist, she says "I knew this was my one chance to make a good impression, but I just wouldn't take it". This self-awareness is funny and brutal at the same time. Her line is also looser but also slightly thicker, and the drawings themselves are wilder, funnier and more expressive than some of her older work.

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