Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Carrying The Bicycle: Gabrielle Bell's Everything Is Flammable

This was originally published at Roar in 2017.

Graphic memoirist Gabrielle Bell’s comics have always been built on her deadpan and uniquely discomfiting sense of humor, subtlety, restraint, simplicity of line and design, and keeping a certain distance between herself and her readers. Because her images operate in such beautiful harmony with her dialogue, she has a way of crafting an absorbing series of narratives out of the minutiae of daily life. In reading about her childhood spent in an isolated area in California, one gets the sense that she’s someone whose socialization was never quite complete, which turned out to be both to her benefit as well as to her readers. That’s because her keen intellect and powers of observation slice through polite and assumed interactions and lead her to ask questions and act in ways that others might not.
On the one hand, Bell often presents herself as a shy and anxious misanthrope who plays up her quasi-feral tendencies. On the other hand, she’s also engaged, witty, and intellectually and emotionally curious. Because she essentially opens all of her books in media res and rarely provides any kind of background or context, she’s able to keep the reader off-balance even as she draws them into her narrative. Though Bell shows a willingness to talk about anything, that doesn’t always mean that she’s actually revealing herself to the reader. She’s able to keep her distance while relating embarrassing anecdotes that she feels compelled to relate, or as she said in her previous book, Truth Is Fragmentary, “It is humiliating to expose myself like this, but it is worse to try to hide it.”
Her latest book, Everything Is Flammable, builds on her past work by maintaining that same reserved style told in short vignettes, but she builds them into a powerful, overarching narrative that winds up being far more revealing than anything she’s ever written. As always, she divides the page into six identical square panels, two by three, in an effort to create an easy rhythm for the reader and to get them to focus less on the composition of each page and more on the content. Her thin line is given definition and depth by the mostly muted use of color, and her drawings have a weight that’s also supported by her own unique style of smudgy spotting blacks. She goes out of her way to vary the way each panel is arranged on a panel-to-panel basis as a way to avoid reader fatigue, since there’s very little in the way of action in her stories. That technique helps keep each page lively, even when it’s just people sitting around talking.
The book begins with the usual sort of Bell strips: stories about her fretting about her vegetable garden, being frustrated with her computer, and dealing with the kind of weirdos who seems to zero in on her. There’s a funny strip where she imagines having to carry “some invisible, unwieldy object, like say, a bicycle, with both hands over my head, while continuing to try to function normally”. It’s an image that resonates and reappears throughout the book, as Bell often likes that sort of poignant but comedic callback.
Bell then gets a call that sets the rest of the book in motion: an old neighbor tells her that her mother’s house has burned down and that she’s lost everything. That prompts her to begin one of many trips from New York to rural Northern California, with each one delving deeper into her feelings about her mother. Along the way are a number of digressions that make Bell’s work so funny, but this is a book where her tendency to sometimes slip into magical realism is entirely avoided. There’s a sense that Bell wanted to stay grounded and entirely present in this narrative, though she can’t seem to help but slip in a few of those funny digressions. A fan in Germany bought a lot of her original art, and she had the fantasy that she could bring her mom to that fan’s house and simply live with him.
It’s revealed in the book that Bell’s mother Maggie was abused by her partner Jeff. After he left, she essentially dropped out of society, happy to live on her small property with her dogs and away from others. Sometimes she would let people (like her younger next-door neighbor Gus) help her out, and other times she’d yell at them to leave. She wanted to simplify her life as much as possible, and to that end, she wanted to buy a small, prefab house to replace the one that burned down. Much of the book explores this process, as Bell also comes to terms with the fact that her mom (with good reason) was skeptical regarding Bell’s helpfulness as to this process as well as her ability to thrive in isolation. Honest to a fault, Bell cops to wanting to feel like a hero to her mother as well as hoping to generate material to do comics about.
She depicts her mother with great warmth and complexity. Maggie is a highly intelligent and sensitive person who just decided not to put up with the world’s bullshit anymore one day and who lived on her own terms ever since. It’s hard to describe her relationship with Bell; it is certainly loving and caring, but not maternal in the stereotypical sense. They are more than friends, but the bond that Bell depicts (especially on her own part) is a tremendous sense of empathy for someone who looks at the world in very much the same way she does, and who helped Bell become awake and aware. There’s also a scene with Bell’s 90 year old grandmother where Bell goes off on her for not teaching her mother the skills she needed to cope with the world or even show an interest in her now, and her grandmother tearfully replies that she didn’t know how.
What was remarkable about that scene is that the dialogue between Bell and her grandmother played out in the present tense, but Bell also added some past tense captioning that commented on what she was saying–often adding an amusingly self-deprecating comment. It speaks to her mother’s regrets and feeling that she was a terrible mother, leaving unspoken the role of her father and grandfather. The end result of the berating was both of them in tears, with Bell apologetic, and a talk the next morning that revealed that telling these truths made them closer. The Bell women may have been part of dysfunctional families, but they never had any illusions as to whom they really were.
As Bell and her mother negotiate and navigate the process of purchasing and then having a house assembled and brought to her property, there’s a separate but unspoken sub-narrative of how they both negotiate and navigate having to deal with men. Maggie’s neighbor Gus has a history of violence and time spent in prison, but he also seems genuine and caring in his own broken way. Bell is fascinated by him and “interviews” him (to his bewilderment), partly to suss out his true motivations and partly out of genuine curiosity. Bell depicts him with a certain solidness and clearly empathizes with him as a fellow outcast, even imagining shacking up with him as part of an effort to stay close to her mother as well as fulfilling a fantasy of dropping out. Bell knows that would never work for any number of reasons (hilariously picturing a “future” scene of her with children, chasing them away from their home), with her need to sometimes be in the city being one of them.
In perhaps the most subtle storytelling presentation in the entire book is the character of the salesman who sold them the house. Superficially gracious but also a somewhat unctuous character, he steadily takes opportunities to make inappropriate comments and physical overtones toward Bell. It starts with calling her “sweetie”, an unwanted hug at the close of sale and an unwanted gift of salmon, and continues on with entreaties to go fishing and concludes with a kiss on the cheek, another unwanted embrace and a speech about being glad she came into his life while his fiance’ wasn’t watching. Bell didn’t directly comment on any of this other than simply illustrating it, nor did she have to.
Bell also spends a lot of time discussing the pets (many of them pretty wild) she and her mother had had on the property, barely tamed to the point where neighbors wouldn’t allow their big dogs on their property. Bell didn’t feel an emotional connection to her pets as a child (she notes having to fake it when a cat died), but it’s clear that as she constructed her own identity as a person, a love of animals developed even as she grew to love and connect with others.
The book ends with a bookend sequence of sorts, as the apartment she was illegally subletting to a friend burned down in a fire in New York. Contrasting the empathy of her mom’s friends in California to the apathy and outright hostility in New York was something she didn’t even have to play up. There was an interesting scene where she came upon a woman who was shaking next to the subway when she and a friend were in a hurry, and Bell stopped to help her and eventually call 911. She eventually gets offered an apartment in a building for the displaced, which she immediately is charmed by but her friend is horrified by. It speaks to the way that Bell isn’t really so much of a misanthrope as she is someone who needs a certain amount of solitude. Indeed, her perception of herself as “someone barely passing” to street people makes it all the more easy for her to break the unspoken rules of living in New York and reach out to others and help those in need.
There’s a coda that features a number of silent pages of Bell back at her mom’s place, taking a walk in the woods and taking in the scenery. She encounters a dog and makes friends with but warns him off when she gets near home, because Gus’ dogs are viciously protective of territory, not even recognizing Bell. It’s a mirror image of her reaching out to help that woman amidst the barking dogs of New York and a reflection of the ways in which her growth as a person was affirmed over the course of the book. The last image in the book is a silent one of Bell soaking in a bathtub that Gus had just installed in her mother’s house, quietly portraying her restoring her strength in a place that she did so much to make happen. If Bell’s other books revealed a person whose persona seemed fractured, then this one reveals a woman who has begun to reconcile the twin needs for solitude and connection. It’s no coincidence that such a book would be her first long-form narrative, even if it was made up of vignettes.

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