Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Gazing Inward and Outward: The Voyeurs

While I greatly enjoyed Gabrielle Bell's fiction pieces in Mome and elsewhere, there's no question that her autobio work is uniquely discomfiting and hilarious. Carefully editing a couple of years' worth of autobio strips from her website and other places, The Voyeurs is a rich, dense and baldly honest account of Bell's attempts to connect with others. In his introduction, Aaron Cometbus (who first met Bell when she was eleven years old) notes her extremely antisocial upbringing, hinting at Bell as an almost feral human being in some regards. For her part, Bell revealing that she loved hiding behind bushes as a child and waiting for cars to come by is a touchstone for someone whose socialization was never quite complete. That is certainly to the benefit of her readers, because her keen intellect and powers of observation slice through polite and assumed interactions, as she asks questions that others might not. It's not surprising that most of her friends are cartoonists, artists and outsiders, but even in the company of those outside the societal mainstream, Bell reminds an outsider. Mainstream society is the club that she would never join if they'd have her for a member, to put it in Groucho Marxist terms.

Bell and publisher Tom Kaczynski (this is the first book from his Uncivlized Books publishing concern) organized the book chronologically, which is as good as any method to read the strips. The first chapter mostly concerns Bell's lack of presentness, disinterest in everything around her, and simultaneous hatred of and dependence upon the internet. These are short, punchy strips, setting up the structure of the rest of the book by focusing on the mundane and everyday but giving it a certain vivdness with her use of color. Speaking of which, the use of color and the paper chosen for the book are both top-notch, giving Bell's thin line an extra richness and depth while fueling the more fantasy-focused portions of the book. Chapter two leaps from Bell's mundane existence to detailing her relationship with director Michel Gondry. Whisked away to supervise and effectively co-direct his adaptation of her story "Cecil And Jordan In New York", Bell keeps the reader as off-center as she must have felt throughout the experience by not showing how she met him or the beginning of their relationship. "Michel and Me" starts off with the couple on the set, Bell struggling to come to terms with the absurd fantasy her life has become. Throw in the fact that the film was being filmed in the totally alien environment of Tokyo, and you have a perfect storm of stimuli that eventually drive Bell to hide out in her hotel room and argue with Gondry every day. The two money quotes in this section come from Gondry. The first, by way of translating his aunt: "Suzette says you're like a wild cat and I'll never be able to tame you", reflects Gondry's very real fear that this relationship is a tenuous one at best, even as he puts on a full court press to introduce Bell to his family and spend time with her in quieter locales. The second quote is from Gondry himself, after Bell gave him a drawing "I don't think I could tolerate you if you weren't so talented." In a narrative sense, Bell couldn't have a better foil than the garrulous Gondry, whose model of relationship relies on constant confrontation. Bell ends this section with a separate strip going back to her childhood, imagining herself running away to the woods but reemerging to great acclaim, eating a hamburger. It's a fitting cap to this chapter because it paints herself as having feral tendencies but tempering that with the desire to not just be accepted, but celebrated.

The third and fourth chapters are all about push and pull. As Bell gets into yoga, she starts to understand that the intensity of the physical activity (especially "hot" yoga) is the only thing that acts as a corrective against her mounting neuroses and her inability to stay present--that is, to simply be without being overwhelmed by random thoughts. It also acts as a corrective to her frequent irritability around others coupled with her fear of being alone. The fourth chapter chronicles a year of coastal travel during her long-distance relationship with cartoonist Ron Rege, Jr. A running theme of the book is Gabrielle doing things with an eye toward writing about it for her journal. Going on fish-out-of-water excursions to Los Angeles makes that exceedingly easy to do, and there's plenty of hilarious anecdotes about going to the beach, awkward hugs with Californians, and uneasy parties. The chapter closes with Bell creating her own yoga tent as a way of combating her depression and paranoia, making the connection between mind and body very sharp.

The standout chapter is the fifth, which is the "story" of Bell adapting Valerie Solanos' infamous S.C.U.M Manifesto for a comics anthology. When Bell starts to confabulate autobio stories with outrageous details, she's at her best. That's the case with this ludicrous account of word getting around to the press that she was doing this adaptation, adding all sorts of pressure. So much so, that she had to contact her mother in a hilariously convoluted fashion to get the scoop on Solanos and her past dealings with her. All of those shenanigans wind up with Bell speaking before a crowd and admitting that she chose Solanos in part because she could hide behind the author's outrageousness without having to cop to believing everything she said. Bell then confesses to the reader that it was all obviously made up, but brilliantly wraps up the the strip in a way that ties into some of Solanos' utopian ideals while tenderly paying tribute to her own mother. For a story that starts off as a lark, it's a remarkably moving and even revealing moment. Cometbus notes that despite Bell's willingness to talk about anything, this doesn't always mean that she's actually revealing herself to the reader. This chapter is one of the rare times when Bell reveals the clarity and depth of her self-knowledge and her upbringing and how it shaped her for the better.

The sixth chapter is her epic account of attending the San Diego Comicon as an invited guest. Having a comic turned into a movie will earn one that opportunity. I've read a ton of comicon-related comics, but this was by far the funniest. The tension between Bell's natural aversion to such an experience and her desire to return as a conquering hero leads her to go to crazy parties and lavish dinners in an effort to spend her considerable per diem. As always, it's the tiny details that make this comic so funny, like having to choose a genre for her room at the Hard Rock Cafe, or the uncomfortable party in her hotel room where Gondry and his new girlfriend come by, or the wrestling match Bell gets in with Ariel Schrag.
The last chapter and epilogue are a mix of inventory strips, gags, and reflections. For the first time, Bell starts musing about her age and identity along with how she fits in wither others. In the epilogue, her friend calls her out on her lack of presentness, noting that Bell is never "here", but rather always watching, learning, observing and filing things away for later. Bell is always working because Bell is always thinking, and the epilogue suggests that her inability to disengage in thinking is what leads to periods of solipsism and depression; the former to get away from people and the latter because of her need for interaction. This is a level of self-awareness that's startling to encounter as a reader and makes Bell something more than simply a great memoirist: she's become, in her own-self-deprecating and awkward manner, one of comics' great thinkers. And she gets precisely the kind of presentation that makes her art look best thanks to Kaczynski's loving treatment of her work in hardback form. This may well be my favorite comic of 2012.

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