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Gabrielle Bell:


Born in London, brought up by pot-farming parents in the isolated mountains of California’s Mendocino County, Gabrielle Bell escaped into reading, drawing, and making her own comics. Growing up into "kind of a loner" suits her methods of observing and recording her life and that of her friends, searching for apartments, jobs, fulfilment, love in Brooklyn. Lucky, her modest photocopied graphic diaries, are living up to their name now that three have been compiled into a hardback collection from Drawn & Quarterly and are being hailed as some of today’s most sharp yet subtle vignettes of twenty-something urban ennui in any medium. She is working on a new collection of her fictional and fantastical short stories, which she contributes to anthologies like Kramers Ergot, Scheherazade, Drawn & Quarterly Showcase, Sturgeon White Moss and Mome.

Paul Gravett:
From Maus to Persepolis and Fun Home, diary, autobiography and memoir have become vital approaches in graphic novels. What properties do comics have that make autobiography and memoir in comics particularly effective, and perhaps also at times problematic?

Gabrielle Bell:
Perhaps the immediacy of it. You really feel invited into someones life when you’re reading their personal comics. It may have to do with memory too. There is something very satisfying about taking a memory and paring it down to the simplest elements, the most important or the funniest things that were said,  to recreate it with simple black and white lines, with just enough visual information to let you know where we are. It is satisfying to read also. It may also have to do with the fact that both graphic novels and literary memoirs are enjoying a lot of popularity right now, so graphic memoirs seem the obvious conclusion.

How do you record material, dialogue, settings, people, for your Lucky diary strips? Are sketchbooks essential for you? Do you draw them on the same day they happen, or later? with the benefit of hindsight? with the chance to edit and shape them?

I would carry around a little notebook and write everything down, and write and draw a page every day. But not necessarily one page for each day. Some days would take several pages, and others I wouldn’t write about at all. So it would even out. I’d do this for a month or so… I’d tell myself, “For this entire month, I am going to pay as much attention as I can to everything around me, and do a page every day.” And I’d stick to it, more or less. Although sometimes I’d only have time to do half a page or so, or no page. I’d plan things a little, look for themes, and I would try to be more adventurous in my life so I could find things to write about. It’s not something I could do all the time, but I enjoyed it a lot when I was doing it.

Did you read Eddie Campbell’s Fate of the Artist? He deals in part with the problems of recording daily life in comics and its effect on him, almost as if he is exploiting his family to provide material, and as if he is somewhat removed, distant from real events, observing and recording them. Is this something you understand?

I haven’t read it, but now I want to! Yes, I understand that well. When I was working on Lucky I didn’t think about it too much. Now I think about it a lot. I’ve gotten a lot of reactions. Some people love to be part of a story, others hate it. I’ve started to develop a conscience about it. When you’re going around developing storylines in your head, and everything everyone says seems to fit in perfectly to your dialogue you are reshaping and composing, it is easy to put off worrying about whether someone would like to be portrayed in such a way. Now I want to bring out the best in everyone, to honor people in my comics. At least my autobiographical comics. As far as being somewhat removed, distant, observing and recording… I think perhaps that is the job of the artist. But I could be wrong. I am distant and removed so often, not because I am always busy exploiting people for my comics, but because that is my personality. I’m kind of a loner.

What personal emotional benefits or insights do you find from creating your comics?

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot and I can’t really say. For some reason I think about my story where I go to sell comics on the street and that opinionated comics guy corners me… As an experience, it was one of a long series of unpleasant and humiliating episodes that fill my life! I just happened to be paying attention at the time and did a comic about it, and now it is pared down to these very simple lines, and I am very happy to have done it. Somehow those few simple lines on paper have become more important than that whole complicated day. But I don’t think I had any emotional benefits or insights from it, although I could be wrong. I think I gained some sort of insight from acting foolish and suffering and being forgiven. I think doing the comic was more an urge to share the insight that I’d gotten from my experience. I think.

Kramers Ergot Vol 5

With hardback book collections coming out, what attracts you to keep on self-publishing your own mini-comics? and on the web?

I’m not publishing anything on the web, but I did recently publish a mini-comic. I wanted something immediate to sell and trade and give away at conventions. I wanted to have control over the output, over the whole thing. We cartoonists tend to be control-freaks.

I wondered what influence if any you detect in yourself and your work from your English background and perhaps family links still? Or do you feel totally American?

I wish I could claim more of an English identity than I have, but I grew up in California. My mother is from Detroit and left my English father when I was two. But I love to be in England, and I loved my English Grandmother… and I love Thomas Hardy and W. Somerset Maugham. I do feel a connection to it, but as far as my comics go, any such influence is unconscious. However, my Grandmother did teach me drink tea. I’ve got that.

What interests you about exploring fictional and fantastical storytelling in your comics? What themes do you find yourself returning to in these?

I like fiction the best. There is something wonderful about making things up and trying to make them believable. I love to read it. My next collection of stories is going to be of all my fictional short stories. As far as fantastical, I think the visual medium of comics lends itself well to that. I’ve been doing that a lot lately… I used to want to reject fantasy, to say I was more interested in real people, situations that could really happen. Once you go into fantasy, It can be easy to lose interest. You think, “This couldn’t possibly happen to me, so why should I relate to this character?” But I guess I just love to fantasize because I keep going back to it. There is something funny about illustrating impossible scenarios that we all imagine but don’t think about much. As far as themes, I’ve noticed lately that I’ve been doing a lot of scenes where my character is falling; I’ve had them falling downstairs, out of windows, off buildings, and out of a giant’s hand. I don’t think that means much, except that maybe I have a fear of heights. As far as storytelling themes, I think I seem to be writing about conflicts in relationships and friendships a lot.

Do you record your dreams, are they an important source for your comics?

I don’t usually, but recently, in the past couple weeks I’ve started recording my dreams regularly. Usually I write in my diary every morning but lately my life has been SO boring and repetitive that I couldn’t stand to write about it any more… so I’ve been writing down my dreams instead! I do use them sometimes in my more fantastical comics, and sometimes I’ll do a comic based on a dream but not publish it. But I did do one for Sylvia Farago’s Sturgeon White Moss last spring!

Would you envisage creating a longer graphic novel and if so what might it be about?

I would love to, but I feel I barely have enough confidence to write a short story right now. I feel like I’ve made big accomplishment if I do a twenty page story. Or it may be that I am not interested in anything strongly enough to keep me engaged for a hundred or more pages. I wish I was. The only thing I know I’d like it to be about is a woman, or several women. We can never have enough strong woman characters in literature!

Gabrielle Bell - Self-Portrait

Posted: February 18, 2007

Paul Gravett interviewed Gabrielle Bell by email on Friday 19 January, 2007. An extract of the interview will run in the May 2007 issue of Dazed & Confused, the modern guide to music, fashion, film, art and ideas.


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