The first Gabrielle Bell story I read was a delightful piece in Kramer’s Ergot #5 called “Cecil and Jordan in New York.”. It begins as a slice-of-life narrative, but halfway through turns Kafkaesque. Instead of metamorphosing into a loathsome and despised bug, though, Jordan turns into an ignored but useful chair. The change makes her not less, but more mundane than she was before, and the comic ends with no particular fuss — a lovely and quietly bizarre little fable.
Unfortunately, while Bell’s new collection from Drawn and Quarterly is quiet enough, it isn’t bizarre. Nor is it especially lovely. Instead, Lucky is tediously predictable — yet another autobio journal by yet another hipster/artist doing hipster-artist things in New York. Bell looks for an apartment. She goes to see performance art. She hangs out with semi-famous friends. She drifts in and out of crappy slacker jobs. She tells long, pointless anecdotes that were really funny if you were there, really. She experiences a passing Zen insight/lack of insight (“I thought, if I sit still long enough, I will gain some kind of deeper understanding…. But…all I felt was my heart beating, and an emptiness, just like any other creature.”) Her boyfriend looks for an apartment. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Not that Lucky couldn’t be worse. Bell’s drawings are solidly mediocre, and her layouts are a standard, unimaginative grid. But her figures are cute in a bland, non-threatening way, and, you can tell one character from another — which puts her quantum strides ahead of some of her MOME-ready competitors. In the later pages of *Lucky*, she starts using solid blacks, her figure-drawing takes on more natural weight, and she allows the images to carry more of the story. I’m not sure that I, overall, prefer the later panels to the earlier ones , but if you have to read through the whole honking thing at once, stylistic variation at least provides a nice change of pace. Similarly, while Bell’s humor in these pages is low-key to the point of paralysis; it is there, and generates at least a couple of smiles. For instance, Bell explains that she hates art-school modeling so much that after she’s done, anything else becomes pleasant: “This line isn’t moving! Argh! I hate this!…Wait a minute, I’m not modeling. Hey, this is kind of fun!”) Even better is the sequence at the conclusion of Lucky #3 where the narrative spins off into a fantasy daydream involving kissing lessons from Gerard Depardieu and smooching farm animals.
It’s not an accident that Bell’s best work occurs when she detaches herself from the details of her own existence. In fact, reading this book, it’s hard to believe that she ever decided to saddle herself with the autobio milieu. Generally speaking, the best memoir-writing is done by people who want to talk about themselves. You don’t necessarily have to be a brutally honest chronicler of your inner life (like, say, Augustine or Ariel Schrag.) But you do have to have some aspect of yourself that you want to reveal, whether it be your political philosophy (like Malcolm X or George Orwell), or your success (like Ben Franklin or Jenna Jameson), or your wit and humor (like Mark Twain ). Innately private people have written autobiographies, of course but they tend to suck — and if you don’t believe me, just try reading Duke Ellington’s somnolent Music is My Mistress all the way through. I double dare you.
Even if you do manage to finish Ellington’s memoir, you’ll end up knowing remarkably little about him — just as, when you finish Lucky, you’ll know very little about Bell. Though she often mentions her emotions at a particular moment, there’s little sense of how those come together to form a complete picture: while we may know how Bell feels, we never get a sense of what it feels like to be Bell. Despite glancing references to her parents, and a good bit of face time for her boyfriend, the mechanics of her most important relationships are largely opaque. So are her intellectual and aesthetic passions — when another character asks Bell what comic artists she likes, she can’t (or refuses to?) come up with a single one (when pressed, she admits an enthusiasm for Art Spiegelman.) Even the drawing style contributes to this sense of distance; Bell virtually never draws close-ups. Instead, her figures are all seen in the middle-distance, at a safe remove from the reader’s prying eyes.
I don’t have any problem with chilly, impersonal art— Wallace Stevens never wrote about the heartache of adjusting insurance, and that’s fine with me. But Bell’s insistence on writing about herself when she appears to have little interest in doing so sucks all the life out of her work, in every sense. This is made emphatically clear by the last strip in the book. Titled “The Hole,” it isn’t one of the original Lucky journal pieces, but it starts off as if it were. Bell has a hole in her bathroom; Tom, her boyfriend wants her to fix it; she dawdles. Then, suddenly, Tom disappears into the hole. Eventually, after some discussion with unsympathetic friends, Bell follows him: “With surprising ease, I slid inside, to go and be with the one I love.” As with all the best creepy parables, from Hawthorne on up, the metaphor is ostentatious, yet never precisely explicated. The hole in the wall is described as being organic and diseased, like a wound — but since it is so closely linked to Tom and Gabrielle’s relationship, it also seems to have sexual connotations. Is the hole a sign that Tom and Gabrielle are pulling apart? That they are coming together? Or both? Despite, or because of, these questions the tie between Tom and Bell is much more complicated, sympathetic, and real in this three-page fictional piece than in all hundred previous pages of straight autobiography. It’s when Bell disappears, into the hole, and into her fiction, that she is most distinctive. Hopefully in her future projects, then, we’ll see less of her, and more.
This review first ran in The Comics Journal.