Gabrielle Bell, Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories (Drawn and Quarterly, 2009). $19.95, hardcover.
By David B. Olsen
When I was a freshman in college, I shared a dorm room with a soft-spoken, long-suffering young man whose attitude toward me could be described most generously as tolerant. Within the first two hours, our small room smelled like a poorly ventilated tavern. Within the first two weeks, I had festooned our walls with a motif that was equal parts independent record store, child’s Halloween party, and hobo scrapbook. I was an obsessive student with an ironic aesthetic and an endless catalogue of angry music, but I may not have been the best person with whom to spend a year of collegial confinement. I see that now. The square space of our room may have kept us physically close, but this proximity was little consolation for the fact that we could not have been farther apart as people.
I am often reminded of these months when I read Gabrielle Bell’s comics, and not just because so many of the most memorable scenes from her autobiographical series Lucky are spent searching for small apartments. I am drawn instead to the way in which her quiet characters seem to find themselves too near to one another. Bell’s panels are a survey in different kinds of distance. It hardly sounds like praise, but she is surprisingly adept at making and putting things into boxes. Each of the eleven stories in her most recent collection, Cecil and Jordan in New York, is like a shoebox diorama: fragile without being overly intricate, contained without seeming claustrophobic. Her characters seem comfortable and natural within the panels, so that the expressiveness of their body language can almost go unnoticed; their poses are what our poses would probably be in that situation. (She also draws better pants than anyone working in comics today, which I am completely serious about.) Her illustration is more uniformly flat than that of her first collection, When I’m Old and Other Stories, which was wonderfully wordy, detailed, and dense. With less ink and lines, however, Bell’s new compositions breathe more easily, and the stories become more about the bearings that people establish between each other. Just because her characters seem at ease within the composition doesn’t mean that they can’t also be endearingly awkward within the narrative.
In the short story “I Feel Nothing,” for example – which, like two other stories here, was originally published in Mome – an unnamed young woman is awoken to a neighbor’s offer of whiskey in the morning before work. In his apartment, the two of them share a bottle and little else. He is talkative and trendy; she is quiet and real. This narrative is anchored by his couch, on which Bell makes the two of them shift and slide without ever seeming entirely comfortable with each other. After plying her with liquor and Faulkner, he eventually offers to pay her all the money he has in his pocket just to lay with him all day: “with our clothes on, no kissing, just holding.” She chooses instead to be alone, and the story ends silently in her video store; she seems neither happy nor sad here, but simply at home. In the background, the squares and rectangles of the store’s many windows, doors, shelves, and boxes recall the very shape of comics. We see that she is where she belongs.
Actually, the background of nearly every story here is a maze of right angles. Windows and wainscoting, tile flooring, bookshelves and lockers, blinds, bricks, and bars. We can see, here, how our world lends itself to comics, or at least looks like comics. Bell’s environs and edifices become inseparable from the medium itself, and so her own life seems somehow already in comics as well. This is perhaps why so much of her best work is so autobiographical. In “Gabrielle the Third,” for example, a woman named Gabrielle finds that two pigeons are serious about starting a family on her windowsill. Her best efforts to thwart them through playful tormenting are unsuccessful, so she resigns to let them remain. Much of the story takes place in this window, and our vantage is mostly from the outside – the panel frames the window, which frames Gabrielle. This is not some tedious postmodern trick; instead, we are simply reminded that the form of comics is already writing itself in our lives. Looking out of my own window right now, I can imagine someone looking in and seeing me as a story. (I’m not sure watching me type would make for an interesting narrative, but I guess Bell could have said the same thing about watching her watch birds.)
One reason why Gabrielle Bell’s work is so good is because of this familiarity: not just that our lives are also netted with frames, but the sense that no experience is too ordinary to become a story. The young Gabrielle runs away from home for an afternoon in one story, and gets in a playground fistfight in another. Her older (and usually more fictional) characters are sometimes happy and sometimes not. They are sometimes quiet, disappointed, and frustrated, but also equally alive and funny. One might expect that it would seem weird when Cecil transforms herself into a chair in the title story, but I bought it completely; there is something so incredibly enviable about not having to worry about where to go anymore. To find your own small space and stay in it. Even in their more fantastical or bizarre moments, these comics could be your comics. She’s just already done the work for you.