Another one of those deluxe-looking Canadian books.


This is one of a recent suite of new books from Drawn & Quarterly that I’m pretty sure have been floating around since SPX, though it just came out through Diamond a little while ago. It’s $19.95, 112 pages.

Gabrielle Bell is a familiar name among readers of comics anthologies, having contributed extensively to Fantagraphics’ MOME, as well Kramers Ergot 5 and Drawn & Quarterly Showcase: Book 4, just to select from a few the more prominent titles of the last few years, but this collection is actually culled from her minicomics of the same title, some of which also appeared on Serializer.net under the title Bell’s Home Journal. That latter title is useful to keep in mind - while some of Bell’s work is inclined toward the fantastic, these comics are fundamentally autobiography, some of them as unadorned as one can imagine. But Bell’s work is not static, and Lucky the D&Q collection is best taken as a portrait of an artist approaching her work from different angles, conceptualizing autobiography in one way and then changing her approach before too long.

The first section of stories presented are straight-up, narrative-heavy, incident-focused, no-frills autobiographical comics, covering roughly a month and a half of time in Bell’s life as she lives and searches for work in Brooklyn. Dates are provided at the top of each new segment. The upper quarter or third of nearly every panel is stuffed with words. Tight six or eight panel grids, all the time. You can see some examples here (though it’s maybe not safe for work). The events depicted are specific, albeit very low-key. Bell helps her boyfriend look for an apartment while living in tiny, greasy spaces with a plethora of roommates, all she can afford through her procession of small jobs. She particularly loathes nude modeling for art students, though she finds herself continually coming back to it; this forms something of a frame for stories that otherwise don’t stretch for any narrative direction beyond the virtue of a good anecdote you might hear from a friend over coffee. Fortunately, Bell does know how to relay an anecdote, and her distinctly cute, simple art style manages to offset the text-clogged nature of her panels quite nicely with its crisp grasp of space and perspective. As a result, it’s never unpleasant work to read, but it tends to drift out of your head as soon as its done.

And yet, when it’s done, and it’s time for another chapter, Bell refuses to return entirely to the style. Some of it appears to be happenstance -- as is explained in the story itself, Bell literally lost the sketchbook she was drawing her newer material in while at the airport -- but Bell herself deems the latter stories in this book “more considered, less immediate,” indicating that she was taking her storytelling “more seriously.” Interestingly, this doesn’t mark so much of a major departure in Bell’s in-panel visual approach -- there’s more solid blacks and a greater variety of angles -- as an alteration of how her stories are structured and conveyed from page to page. There’s now only four panels per page, and individual anecdotes cover the space of several days. After a while, the narration peters out, leaving sequences to alternate between dialogue and silence. One might argue that the reins of fiction are seized; there’s comedic beats, an occasionally wandering narrative ‘eye,’ even a little bit of symbolic imagery. Which isn’t to say that all of it isn’t still fundamentally quiet autobiographical comics, featuring Bell trying a yoga class or attempting to sell comics on the sidewalk, but the difference in narrative approach is patent. There’s more resonance to Bell’s work, and definitely greater space for her to build an environment for her stories.

Perhaps I’ve simply been conditioned by the mechanics of fiction to respond (like a dog salivating) to certain visual cues in comics. Earmarks of permanency, letting us know that heavy-narration autobiography is less weighty than stories with the ‘silent’ bits interspersed and the occasional close-up of someone’s face. But I think the decompression of her narrative style aids Bell’s sense of humor, and her evident gifts for character dialogue. One can hopefully be forgiven for presuming that she feels the same way, since this is the approach she’s also used in a number of her MOME contributions, and it’s not exactly a mile away from her wholly ‘fictional’ work in books like D&Q Showcase. Indeed, if anything, Bell demonstrates that the line between conveying true events and fictional stories is a thin one, especially when one seeks to enliven the true events via pace and beat.

If Bell begins the book toward Harvey Pekar, she’s drawing closer and closer to Eddie Campbell by the book’s third and final major segment. By this time, there’s very little sense of ‘when’ Bell’s stories are taking place, though we can safely presume it’s the present. She takes on a variety of odd jobs, many of which are interrupted by flights of imaginative fancy. While working at a jewelry factory, the background dissolves into fuzz and noise that reflects Bell’s interior state, before she whisks herself away on a nervous, imaginary trip to France where horses and cats kiss one another on the cheeks in greeting. Elsewhere, Bell becomes an art tutor to a pair of precocious French kids who’ve read a few too many vintage underground comics; it’s a nice little story, essentially untethered from the burdens of autobiography save for the fact that we recognize Bell as the lead character, and it’s in a book where things are presumed ‘true.’ And even after that, Bell breaks off into examining completely different characters, introducing overt fantasy elements, apparently getting into her childhood, and more.

As you can no doubt tell, I found this book to get better as it went along, more pleasing as Bell adorned her narrative approach while stripping down her actual page constructions. Some might feel the exact opposite. Some might simply not like any stripe of low-key tales of urban youth looking for jobs and interacting with others, and they probably shouldn’t buy this book. Others can look into this with the confidence (or uncertainty) that comes from knowing an artist won’t entirely sit still with her minicomics or true-life adventures. It's all for the better in this case.