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I have often complained about indie comics all being about struggling artists writing about their own lives and loves while living in New York City. The amount of navel-gazing quickly gets tiresome.
Gabrielle Bell is different.
Yes, her comics are, for the most part, about her life as a struggling artist in New York City, but there’s a smartness and perspective to them that’s refreshing. Bell has a sense of humor about her life and isn’t afraid to make herself look bad.
Lucky (Drawn & Quarterly, 2006) is the first collection of her comic dairies. She tells entertaining stories about her boyfriend searching for an apartment (he tries out several), her series of odd jobs, and just the general ups and downs of everyday life. Her voice here is playful but honest and I felt I really got to know her.
Bell’s art gets more refined at Lucky continues. It starts out a little loose and sketchy and word heavy in the initial stories but then becomes much more defined and cleaner as she becomes more accustomed to telling her stories visually. She fills her scenes with a lot of people, and her skill at simple expressions at body language makes me feel like I was witnessing all of this first-hand.
Cecil and Jordan
in New York
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Cecil and Jordan in New York (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009) is less biographical and a little more ambitious. Collecting her stories from various anthologies, this collection shows Bell’s range. Yes, there are some stories about twentysomethings in the city, she does a good job at using her life as a jumping-off point to tell other stories. “Felix” obviously draws on her experiences teaching art to kids, but becomes a poignant tale of growing up and trying to make connections. “My Affliction” is a dreamlike tale that keeps shifting as it goes along.
While a few of the pieces here are basic, black and white line drawings, she utilizes color and duotone in others, and these give each of the stories here a unique feel. “Helpless,” in black, white and lilac, shows the meandering tale of the afternoon of two teenage girls, and the color palette lets it change from day to night subtly and beautifully.
I’m impressed with Bell’s range, both as a storyteller and artist in both these books. She has a thoughtful but powerful voice and I look forward to what’s coming next from her.
(Gabrielle Bell will be appearing at the University of Richmond for Graphic Details: Discussing Contemporary Comics at 7 p.m. Sunday, along with Kim Deitch, Hope Larson and Anders Nilsen. The panel will be moderated by AdHouse Books founder Chris Pitzer. Unless something very strange happens, I will be there.)