Gabrielle Bell is a California-raised cartoonist living in Brooklyn. The Voyeurs, her latest collection of autobiographical comics and the first book-length release from Uncivilized Books, has been called “funny and endearing, even beautiful,” and “a rare glimpse of the fiercely mysterious human heart.” The stories throughout The Voyeurs document everything from the ebb and flow of relationships to the clamor of San Diego Comic-Con to Bell’s struggle to attend a party held in her honor, all with wit, an ear for the languid conversations of longtime friends, and occasional flourishes of the absurd. Bell spoke with me via email, and her replies were much like the vignettes in The Voyeurs: concise, self-deprecating, and dryly funny.
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Online talk surrounding your work is perhaps at an all-time high, with mentions on some widely ready non-comics outlets, as well as sites like The Comics Journal. And funnily enough, I came across those articles immediately after reading chapter one of The Voyeurs, with its section about how hard it can be to stay away from the Internet. How conscious are you of the online chatter?
Have you had to make an effort lately to ignore mentions of yourself online?
No, I mean there’s not THAT much stuff about me on there. And I already know I won’t resist looking at it, so I’m not going to try.
What kind of changes did you have to make while adapting your online material for a print collection?
I did a lot of editing of the narrating and dialogue, reworded sentences, took out many extraneous words and sentences. Sometimes I took out whole panels, sometimes added whole ones in. I think working in film taught me not to be afraid to freely edit.
When did you begin using the six-panel grid as your go-to way to structure a page?
I suppose it started with my autobiographical comics, in my first Lucky minicomics. That’s when the storytelling really began to take precedent over the art.
Do you find that you can rely on this format for a certain kind of timing, or to tell a certain kind of story?
I don’t really think about it that much. It does give me a flexibility, though, to add in and remove panels, which is important to me.
You move between fiction and nonfiction in your comics, sometimes obviously and sometimes more subtly. When I read your entry in Kramer’s Ergot 8, for instance, I assumed it was purely fictional, and later read a review assuming the opposite. What do you find prompts your steps toward fiction, as with the SCUM Manifesto piece?
I try use fiction to streamline the story, to reach for a clearer truth. I love to use my own character and put her in fictional situations. It all feels like fiction to me, or just different versions of reality. Of course the Kramers Ergot (a story about a murder) was purely fictional, and of course there were elements of it based on my life, just like any story. At first it bothered me that people would think it was autobiographical–as if they thought I couldn’t make something up–but then I figured it goes with the territory, and is testament to my ability.
Sheltering yourself from the world, the challenges of being alone OR being with people–these themes appear in The Voyeurs again and again. How to live (fully, or at least comfortably) also seems to be a theme in some of the books you read throughout The Voyeurs. So I’m wondering what works you’ve found most compelling in their ideas about how best to live, or how to reconcile yourself with the world?
I’m not sure. I think living “comfortably” may be an illusion. The more comfortable we make ourselves, the more sensitive we are to discomfort, which will inevitably catch up to us. Living fully may also be an illusion. A feeling of emptiness in my life can lead to a fullness in my comics, and that seems worth it to me.
In book’s final section, [Gabrielle's friend] Tony says that you’re “only partially present” when visiting him at his apartment. That closing exchange is fascinating for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that you’re sometimes doing yoga throughout the book, a tradition that encourages people to be precisely that, present. Has yoga affected the way you work–even just making it easier to sit at a desk for longer–or for that matter affected the way you relate to other people?
I think the idea of being “present,” like being “comfortable” or “living fully” are more ways to feel inadequate, to try to attain a perfection that doesn’t exist. It’s true we try to be more present in yoga and meditation, but it’s also true that it’s impossible. My mind wanders all the time, but that’s where I come up with stories. Yoga does help me a lot though, to stay healthy. By all rights I should have terrible tendinitis and back problems by now, especially by the way I sit.
Because of the autobiographical nature of the stories, part of the work people end up doing with your comics is developing an idea of who you are. Which, with enough readers, becomes a public persona of sorts. When a review opens by comparing you to Emily Dickinson, you know you’ve reached a point where the public has an idea of you beyond what you’ve presented to it. (Unless, of course, comparisons to Dickinson were what you were going for all along.)
I am not much of a poet and I don’t read many poems. I am flattered by the comparison, but really, I’m no Emily Dickinson! I don’t worry too much about how I’m perceived as a person, but I’d probably be more concerned if people were saying awful things about me. I did start doing comics partly to try to get people to like or understand me. There’s more to it than that, of course, but it’s been a way to reach out and speak in ways I’m too shy to do in reality. So, at the moment, not a concern.
At this point in your career, do friends and colleagues tend to take for granted that their interactions with you might end up in a comic?
Yes, but for every, say, hundred thousand interactions I have, I’ll do maybe one comic. I wish I could put my entire life through some sort of comic-making machine, but it’s a long, dreary, dreadful process.