Gabrielle Bell speaks incredibly deliberately. Slowly, pronouncing each word carefully, as if weighing its application to each sentence as she utters it. It’s jarring, but she doesn’t want to miscommunicate, be misunderstood, or lose her audience in a rush, with too complicated a word or image, or by dazzling too fantastically.
It’s the same quality that defines her comics: sweet simple tales of everyday creative urban underclass life populated with tall, deliberate people—self-published for around a decade and now released through Drawn & Quarterly.
Born in London, Bell moved stateside at two and eventually started her career at San Francisco Community College. She taught herself cartooning and started drawing and publishing the well-respected “Book of . . .” series in California before moving to New York in 2003. That year she won an Ignatz for “Most Outstanding Minicomic” for Lucky #3. These first Lucky stories were collected and released in book form by Drawn & Quarterly in 2006, and she’s since contributed to Fantagraphics’ Mome and the Drawn & Quarterly Showcase anthologies, with a driving ambition and to great acclaim. Although, as you will see, to little financial reward.
So it shouldn’t surprise you to know she’s always working. Slowly, deliberately. Because she doesn’t want to confuse you: she wants to inspire you.
Interview by Anne Elizabeth Moore
What’re you working on now?
I’m working on Lucky pamphlet comics, Lucky #2.
Going back to pamphlet comics? How do you feel about that? How does Drawn & Quarterly?
Pretty good, I guess. It’s an experiment at this point. It was definitely my decision. [They’re] not too excited about pamphlet comics, I think, but it’s something that I wanted to do. I think it’s a thing that all cartoonists want to do at some point. The regular series. I don’t know that I have the wherewithal to do a whole graphic novel. I like the idea of piecemeal. Small bites.
But you don’t mind stories being collected into a longer narrative.
No, not at all. That’s the ultimate goal. I just don’t have the attention span. I’m still in my short-story phase. It’s quite a lot of work to write a seven-page story for me now, but I’m still working on it.
Although you have been doing longer and longer stories.
Yeah, I just don’t want to rush it, force it, I guess. Maybe I should force it. I just haven’t had a major incentive to yet.
How long have you been cartooning?
Probably a little more than 10 years. I always put out my own minicomics. And that’s why I wanted to do the series. I wanted to feel like I have a place to publish my stuff as I go along. I mean, it takes such a long time to publish. The whole process is so slow.
Although less so when you publish your own work. Are you going to stop making minis as you do these pamphlet comics?
Yeah. I think so. There is a need to get things out there as soon as possible. Maybe I’m just impatient. I look at some old comics—especially with comics. Everything is so new. We’re still sort of discovering all these things that comics do. Like, I’m looking at all these old Arcade comics I just got for my birthday, and they came out in 1976. It was all this crazy stuff and it was sort of novel just because a comic—these underground comics, with all this sex and drugs, there was political stuff—it was all kind of new and exciting. I still think it’s got this new and exciting thing to it, now. Only with different subject matters. It gets deeper now.
What subject matters do you think are being broached now that weren’t at the time? Because a lot of that underground stuff was like, “Waaaah! Whatever! We can do whatever we want! Let’s write about—sex!”
It just seems more subtle now. There’s an exploration. In a way it’s simply exploring comics as a medium, so it’s more about how can I express the thing in comics, rather than what shall I express in comics. Personally, I’m just trying to get some clarity. I’m just trying to tell a story as clearly as possible. Paring it down.
This may explain why your comics are so personal. They don’t necessarily reveal a ton of journalistic facts about your life, but they’re emotionally revealing. How do you feel about sharing those kinds of things?
I’m not really very excited about sharing those things, actually. It’s kind of painful and embarrassing. But I think that it somehow seems necessary for the story. One thing I remember being particularly embarrassing—my god, all these comics. Every single one of them seems painful and embarrassing.
It seems more naked when it’s autobiographical. For example, I recall being cheap at one point, where I’m stopping at the turnstyle because I have to pay five dollars and I start thinking about all these different [things I can get for five dollars]. It’s embarrassing to even admit that I’m cheap. I want people to think that I don’t care about money. But, doing autobiographical comics, it’s kind of like doing a still life in art class, where you have to draw just exactly what you see. Only it’s more writing. So I’m just trying to write what I see in my immediate experience. And for me to leave out the fact that I’m cheap, it would be lying. Trying to make myself seem cooler. And I don’t want to do that. Because then when people will meet me they will discover how not cool I am.
But people know that self-publishing cartoonists don’t make a ton of money. And in fact, they should know that, because they should be aware of the economic realities of the people who work in this crazy art form that’s becoming so popular.
Well, on one hand that would just be complaining. Or maybe it’s because I’m just entering my 30s, and in my mid-20s it was OK to be poor and cheap. In your 30s, you’re not poor anymore, you’re cheap. [Laughs.]
Unless you don’t have money. In which case you’re poor.
No, I think even when you don’t have money, it’s considered more cheap than poor. Because you’re expected to have it together by the time you’re 30. So you’re either a starving artist, or you can’t get a real job. Basically I don’t really want people to think I’m poor or cheap.
Would it make your life any easier, though, if people thought you were rich and magnanimous?
No, I don’t want them to think that either, because then I will be expected to pay for other people’s drinks and stuff. [Laughs.] I would like to be a neutral party.
It does come back to the question of how you finance your comics. Which, when you’re making minicomics, is money you have to come up with on your own. But now that you’re 30, and have a publisher, how does money play into your life as a cartoonist?
Well, I am still really just scraping by. I make a little from comics and a little from illustration and stuff. But I sort of made this concerted effort not to be a starving artist, and not to be cheap or poor, but to simply be what I am. ¶ I don’t know. I can’t figure out money. At one point I was very,very broke, and all I could think about was money, and I thought money was everything.But now I have just a little money and I feel like the difference between no money and a little money is a big deal because now I sort of see that money isn’t everything.
Has it begun to affect the kinds of stories you can tell?
Yeah, in my next issue of Lucky, it comes up a couple times. I do speak about money a little bit, making minicomics and selling them and being very very economical. When I wrote it I was extremely broke, and I was talking about how . . . well, you know how they say, if you do what you love, eventually the money will come. It’s sort of debunking that whole idea, because actually the opposite is true. If you do something you hate, then the money will come. In my case, doing comics is what I love and doing business is what I hate. Like selling my comics, basically. That’s the unpleasant thing. And that’s where the money comes from.
So are those days over as you work with publishers?
I don’t know if it’s ever resolved. But it’s not as dire as it was when I was writing that comic.
You have discussed in other interviews being a self-taught artist, and learning the craft by reading the work of other cartoonists. But now, people are graduating from colleges with cartooning degrees.
Yeah, my generation of cartoonists—maybe they went to art school, and they graduated with a Liberal Arts degree or something, but they still had to figure out cartooning by themselves. As for cartooning schools, I think that’s great. It seems to me that cartooning is so difficult that whatever help they can get, I would say go for it. I would just love it if I had a teacher that would challenge me and show me lots of shortcuts [Laughs].
What do you do to find those shortcuts now? Do you call up one of your cartooning pals and ask, ‘hey, how do I do this?’
No. I should. I tend to be very separated. Generally I feel like I do everything the hard way and I have to do everything wrong a hundred times before I do something right. I guess it’s a sort of process of elimination. Try this, doesn’t work. Try that, doesn’t work. Eventually you fall on it. But I look in books and I ask people occasionally. But speaking of technique, I don’t think about it too much. I just think about what I’m trying to say in the clearest way I can, I think.
So, in your mind, are you struggling with writing issues?
Well, comics, you’re sort of writing with your drawing . . .
So more of a struggle with narrative issues.
Like if someone’s excited in a book, you could say, “he was very excited,” or you could say, “his eyes lit up.” Or something. But with drawing, it’s not even a writing issue, it’s a drawing collection, and it’s possible to show someone being very excited. So I’ve been thinking about that lately because I always thought of it as a writing issue but now I see that writing is actually drawing most of the time.
I want to ask you a bit about being a female cartoonist: I’ve heard you state before that you wanted to create more women characters.
Well, I have a big theory about that. When I was on my tour I realized something while traveling with [Anders Nilsen and Kevin Huizenga]. And it is the process that the guys go through. Not even just comic-book artists but men in general have told me this, like, ex-boyfriends have told me this. And that is, as a young boy, they would fall in love with comics and fetishize them to an intense degree and copy the drawings and reread and collect the comics and at some point try to draw their own comics, which would be like superhero comics like the ones that they’ve fetishized. Then at some point they would grow out of the comics and discover more mature comics like Eightball or Hate or something. And then they would try to remove themselves entirely from the superhero genre.
I’m sorry, I’m sounding kind of condescending.
No, actually, I don’t know if I agree.
And then there’s this process they go through. They will try to disown it and do these very sensitive comics that will have nothing whatsoever to do with superhero comics, and try to prove that they’re not into that, right? And they’ll do that for many, many years and then one day they’ll look back and remember the love for superhero comics and reexamine it and be secure enough in themselves to embrace it. ¶ I think women do not go through this process. They don’t fetishize comics. I think that this is kind of a touchy subject, but it does seem like women don’t go through that process. It’s more like telling stories and drawing pictures, or something. I hope that’s not too strong of a stereotype.
I feel it’s sort of liberating that I didn’t have to go through that process. I didn’t have to fall in love with superhero comics and then fall out of love with them and then go back and reexamine them.
Did you have things you had to fall in love with and then fall out of love with again?
That’s a good question. There were plenty of people that I always look up to and then become disillusioned by. But then you continue to have a respect for them. Like with superhero comics. You don’t entirely fall out of love with them, you continue to carry a sort respect for them. You might be ironic about it, or make fun of it, but you know that part of you is formed from it and there was a reason you fell in love with it at some point.
Well I ask because it describes a bit of my relationship with early girl autobio comics. Like Julie Doucet, Ellen Forney, all the black and white stuff that was coming out at the time. Any woman making comics about their own lives I was very excited about. And now I feel like, I don’t want to hear about your life.
Yeah, that’s the evolution of comics too. The novelty of things. Shocking things.
You mentioned before about your need to do things wrong a hundred times before you can do them the right way, and I’ve also heard you mention how coming across minicomics was very inspiring, and how you were enchanted by the unprofessional nature of them. In some ways you’re talking about them being accessible objects, objects that show their flaws. Is that decreasing some as more professional publishers get involved in comics?
Hmmm, I think it may be, yeah. I’m not entirely in touch with how things are now. But it seems that people are continuing to publish minicomics a great deal. Maybe because pamphlet comics aren’t being published as much, minicomics are continuing to blossom. They’re still quite a big forum for experimentation . . . although the standards for minicomics seem to be going up. They have to look more screenprinted, or nice. But I think with any art form that looks easy and accessible, it’s inspiring.
Do you want to be inspiring?
Oh, certainly. I don’t know if I ever could succeed, but I really would just like people to feel good about themselves, even if it’s just by making myself look like a fool. I mean, I would just be happy to make people feel better than me.
Is that why you’re doing that series, Be Happy You’re Not Me?
[Laughs.] If Schadenfreude is what they want, I’ll give it to them. I don’t know, it’s easy to say, “I want people to feel good about themselves. I want to inspire.” But I don’t know what my comics really do.
But your drawing style is an attempt to be clear and simplistic.
Yeah, I guess I kind of would like to have a really slick drawing style, too. I’d like it all.