Swift Review

The Stacks

Calling this a ‘sketchbook’ project for Marc Bell wouldn’t be quite explanatory enough. I suppose referring to it as a collection of odds and ends would be better, although I must emphasize that there are no comics in here (at least no sequential storytelling) save for a not-quite two page spread. Culled from three sources, a 2000 minicomic titled “The Stacks”, a 2004 NY art show also called “The Stacks”, and a publication titled “The Canadian Clean-Up Crew”, which is also the name of an art collective that Bell occasionally works with (they also produced the minicomic “Society” which I’ve been unable to locate), the book provides a peek into Bell’s world of preparation and non-comics art.

He’s a list-maker, I see. The ‘stacks’ in the book’s title seem to refer to stacks of material sitting around Bell’s work area, sheets of colorful doodles and little projects. The art on these works are understandably looser and less rounded than the polished underground-style work that you can find in Bell’s comics work. Some of the sheets of paper reproduced here look like shopping lists, elaborated upon visually until a typical patchwork Bell character or machine has appeared. Two facing pages represent letters Bell received from The Canadian Council for the Arts, a rejection and acceptance letter in regards to a grant, respectively. The letters are almost unreadable, as colorful brick snakes are sprouting out all over. I recall spotting a brick snake in some of Bell’s other comics, and established Bell readers will no doubt pick up on little recurring phrases that have been used in several Bell works with different meanings. Who can forget the magical adventure of the Giant Masher? Well I didn’t know that ‘The Giant Masher’ was also a two-man art show put on in Ontario by Bell and Peter Thompson in 2000. I also learned exactly what a ‘Worn Tuff Elbow’ is: dry skin. But it might mean a totally different thing in a different context given a different work (like, say, a Fantagraphics comic); so it goes with Bell.

There’s also photographs of sculptures, carvings, and collages. Some of the drawings we see are actually blueprints, with instructions scribbled in on the side to create the drawn item with wood or concrete. Bell even throws in his own outline sheet for the book itself, listing all of the prospective page contents as levels in tall and segmented walking houses with big noses. It's a lot of fun to see how Bell lays everything out: the book itself, his sculptures, his rough work. Sure, there isn't too much on Bell's comics; no rough panel layouts or in-progress material is to be found. I'm not sure how much use this book will be to the new fan; I suspect that without having become acclimated to Bell's work through his comics, where his sense of humor and his rambling storytelling ability are in their most direct form, this book might seem daunting or confusing. There's certainly no clues as to what exactly the book is from just picking it up off of the shelf; the design, by Bell and Tom Devlin of the late Highwater Books (which published Bell's magnum opus "Shrimpy and Paul and Friends"), is long on fragmented visual catch but awfully short on utility. But to the seasoned Bell reader, no introduction or explanatory text is needed; you see that distinct art style and you start flipping through, and maybe you pay the ten bucks to get a slightly different view of this excellent talent.