MOME Interview 2: Gabrielle Bell
Written by Gary Groth   
Sunday, 17 July 2005

This interview is reprinted in its entirety from MOME Vol. 2.

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
Pencil self-portrait
Gabrielle Bell was born in London, England in 1976, but was raised in Mendocino County, California, with three siblings.

Many cartoonists, especially of the alternative stripe, relate a stereotyped childhood of alienation and anomie; Gabrielle had a leg up on most of them: She was raised in an isolated, bohemian mountain enclave. Her parents grew and sold pot for a living, as did many of her friends' parents. It probably didn't help that the community was split between pot entrepreneurs and rednecks who worked at the local wood mill. The hippies and the rednecks did not become close. Since growing and selling pot was (and is) a criminal activity, her childhood was somewhat isolated and the social environment secretive. "We were told to say that our father was a carpenter and built houses, which was absurd because he didn't know anything about that. Where could you go with that? Oh, he just built this house…make up a story or something?"

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
Portrait of woman, from sketchbook

In a manner of speaking, that's exactly what she did. She was reading Gilbert Shelton's Freak Brothers and Fat Freddy's Cat at age 5 or 6, eventually read Tintin and Peanuts, and loved Mad. She read a lot, drew pictures and generally turned "inward," as she puts it, which naturally led to her making her own comics in high school. She started publishing her own mini-comics in the '90s, printing them at Kinko's, and shopping them around at small conventions and selling them at Gary Arlington's famous San Francisco Comic Book Company store.

She attended the San Diego comics convention in 2002 and stayed in the room of Alternative Comics publisher Jeff Mason. Curiously, Alternative Comics published her fi rst collection of stories, When I Grow Old, the next year. This is not as unusual as it sounds. In fact, it happens all the time. Cartoonist stays in publisher's room at convention, publisher puts out a book of the cartoonist's work the next year. To be fair, Gabrielle pointed out that she slept on the floor and Jeff slept on the bed — and other bodies apparently littered any unused surfaces of bed and floor — which is also not atypical. Even though this is an ancient comics publisher ploy, Jeff came through and put out a handsome collection of Gabrielle's short stories the next year for which we should be grateful. Gabrielle has also published three full-size autobiographical comics called Lucky, and has appeared all over the place — in such anthologies as Orchid, Bogus Dead, The Comics Journal Special Editon, and Scheherazade among others.

Mome Vol. 2 - Fall 2005
Mome Vol. 2 - Fall 2005
Price: $14.95

This interview was conducted on the run — literally; Gabrielle was running along the East River and dodging tractor-trailer trucks during part of it — in mid July.

gary groth: Do you remember a time or a period when you made a decision... "This is what I want to do?"

gabrielle bell: Yes. I was traveling at the time. I was in Texas and I was just wandering through a comic book store. There were some instructions on how to become a comic artist. It was very simple — very, very easy. But actually, it was before that I decided to be a cartoonist, maybe a couple of weeks before. It was pretty organic.

gg: You specifically remember this?

gb: Yes, because I had this idea for a comic. I did the comic. It probably wasn't very good, but it was such an intense feeling to create this thing... this sequential art, that I just kept at it since then. Oh, it was so bad, though. It was this compulsive desire to draw these comics that was so strong, but at the time, they were terrible comics. It was years before I did anything that I was proud of.

gg: Now, were you reading comics throughout high school?

gb: No, not too much. I was reading more novels. I didn't start reading alternative comics or underground comics seriously until I was also about 17-18.

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
From sketchbook

gg: How did you discover them?

gb: My friend had a big collection of Eightball and Hate and Dirty Plotte.

gg: The usual gang of suspects.

gb: Yes.

gg: Would this have been mid- '90s?

gb: Well, I was 17 when I found those, so I guess it would be early '90s.

gg: Did that start you on a path of seeking out comics that you liked? How obsessive were you about...?

gb: I'm not so obsessive about comics, actually. I don't really read that many comics as much as I would like to. I've always been more interested in novels and movies. I've often been really impatient with most comics.

gg: How interesting.

gb: I don't know. I guess I see more of the potential of comics than the actual... Well, I think what it is is having grown up reading so many books that the comics make me... The stories, in most cases, even if they're good, they're still not as good as most books, most novels are. So it's frustrating to read a comic when I could be reading some great literature.

gg: When you refer to novels, which authors do you most admire and like? What kinds of novels or novelists are you talking about?

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
Cover detail from When I'm Old and Other Stories

gb: Now or when I was a young person?

gg: Both.

gb: At the time, this is again cliché, I liked to read stuff like Hermann Hesse and [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky. And Oscar Wilde. Those are such wonderful storytellers. There aren't that many cartoonists who could captivate me like that.

gg: And currently?

gb: Currently I'm trying to read more contemporary things. Currently I don't read at all except for listening to books on tape while I'm working on my comics.

gg: And why is that?

gb: I can't concentrate any more but I listen to books on tape constantly.

gg: Your reading skills, have they declined over the years?

gb: They go up and down, I guess.

gg: Do you smoke a lot of pot, or…?

gb: No.

gg: I'm just giving you shit.

gb: No. I don't smoke pot.

gg: What contemporary authors do you like? Or have you liked recently?

gb: Well, I just finished Jonathan Safran Foer's new book, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Very, very good. And I just read Life of Pi by Yann Martel, which is also a very, very good book.

gg: I just gave that to my kid.

gb: Oh, it's so good. It's so sweet. The fi rst part of it is really kind of boring, but the middle and the end really makes up for it. It's such a really sweet book, especially for a kid.

gg: [Seagull noises can be heard.] Well, it's interesting that you should say that. Are there seagulls floating around?

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
From sketchbook

gb: [Apologetic] Yes.

gg: We're going to have to make an MP3 out of this and maybe we'll include it in the next MOME. It's interesting that you said that there are so few comics that come up to the level of the kinds of novels you like, because we were saying that in the early '80s and then alternative comics got a foothold. I think there's a general consensus that now comics are starting to achieve that level of artistry.

gb: Yeah. That's true.

gg: It's also interesting that you're a cartoonist and yet you're still more seduced by novels than you are by "graphic novels."

gb: Yeah. That's kind of confusing because I draw so much. I can't not draw. I read a lot, in the best way I can. But I don't spend a lot of time looking at pictures or looking at graphic novels. But I don't spend a great deal of time writing. I try to.

gg: You mean writing prose?

gb: Writing even for comics. I mean, when you're drawing comics, when you're making comics, it seems like 90 percent of the work is drawing. Which isn't so good, because it makes you very strong as an artist and not so strong as a storyteller.

gg: That's the danger. Right.

gb: But I've heard other... Like for example Ben Katchor. I've heard him say that he'll spend a week writing the story and an afternoon or something drawing it.

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
From sketchbook

gg: I think that must be unusual.

gb: Yeah. I go for a nice balance myself.

gg: You say you draw all of the time. I assume you don't mean you draw comics all of the time?

gb: I kind of am. Yeah. It's not as satisfying any more just to draw. It's much more satisfying to draw in a comics form.

gg: Is that because you're so oriented toward narrative?

gb: Yes. I think so. And also because I have a lot of comics to draw now. I don't really have time to just draw.

gg: Does that mean you've suddenly sprouted with lots of stories that you didn't have previously?

gb: No. I just have...

gg: So many commitments?

gb: Commitments. Yeah.

gg: Are you making your living drawing comics?

gb: Not really.

gg: So how do you make your living?

gb: Well, right now I'm living on savings. I saved up a lot of money last year and I'm just living off of it right now, just living very frugally. But I'm making a little money from comics as well. I don't think I would be able to live off of it without supplementing it with savings. But I don't know what's going to happen in the future.

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
Ew, Gross, drawn in 2003

gg: How do you construct a story? Do you write the entire story out first?

gb: Yeah. I do.

gg: So you know pretty much what's going to happen before you start drawing it?

gb: Yeah. Except for my really autobiographical stuff and my diary stuff.

gg: That would be the material in Lucky?

gb: Yes.

gg: How do you construct that differently?

gb: Well, with Lucky there're three issues. In the fi rst issue there's lots of diary, where I try to take each day and turn it into a story. And the second issue I take a few days and try to develop the diary more into a story more purposefully. I would take one day or something and it would become a sevenpage story. But it was still very diary-like. And the third one was really more... It was actually very planned out and thought out from the beginning to the end.

gg: I haven't seen the third one. I've only seen the first two.

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
From sketchbook
gb: The third one's the best, for sure.

gg: Did Jeff [Mason] publish that?

gb: No. It's all minicomics. But he's going to put out a book which should come out in April.

gg: Lucky #1 was 8 1/2 by 11 inches... So it wasn't a mini.

gb: Well, I guess I just call them minicomics out of habit. I call them minicomics because there wasn't a very big print run.

gg: Oh, OK. Mini print runs.

gb: Xeroxed.

gg: I noticed that the stories in your fi rst collection When I'm Old ranges from what I assume is earlier work where the drawing is far more detailed with more cross-hatching to what I assume is later work where you're using the more minimalist approach you use today. Could you describe the process where you refi ned your approach to drawing comics into what it is today.

gb: Well, I think I wanted to draw really perfectly, like certain heroes of mine in comics. But I never really could.

gg: Who would these heroes be?

gb: For example, Jaime Hernandez, which I shouldn't even say, because I'm nothing close to the way he draws, but I would study his work. I think he's like the ultimate for perfect lines. But I really wanted to be able to draw perfectly, but it's so hard to do and it takes so long. You spend so much time just trying to get that perfect line and it still ends up looking clumsy. So it's not so much the economy or cutting out the details. I'm spending so much time trying to get that perfect line, which never happens. I think it's probably a problem that a lot of cartoonists get into, trying so hard to make it perfect.

gg: I'm sure Jaime says the same thing.

gb: Yeah, but I put out a lot less stuff because of it. I wish I could just stop caring so much and just draw more.

gg: It looked to me like with the title story, "When I'm Old," you might have been under the spell of Julie Doucet. Do you like her work?

gb: She was a huge hero of mine. I was so moved by her work. It was so beautiful, so original, and so different from all of the other comics.

gg: And so revealing.

gb: Yeah. I like that, too.

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
From sketchbook

gg: To go back to how you put a story together... You write the entire story out first. You actually write all of the dialogue and captions?

gb: Yeah, but it changes as I draw it. I get ideas or I'll take things out.

gg: So you leave room for spontaneity and...

gb: I don't leave room for it. I try to actually leave no room for spontaneity. I mean, if I had my druthers there'd be no spontaneity. I'd have it all planned out and I wouldn't have to worry. Spontaneity is the hardest thing.

gg: Yeah, well it takes a lot of careful planning. Don't you find though that it gives you some latitude to play with the characters?

gb: I mean, it's kind of like comics are so unspontaneous when you're working on them. It seems like... I mean, the best comics are very spontaneous and look very easy, like they just poured out of somebody's pen. They're so labor intensive they never feel spontaneous when you're working on them. You feel like you're building a house brick by brick or something.

gg: The trick is to make it look spontaneous when you can't be spontaneous.

gb: That's the trick. Yeah. It's all tricks. Sometimes I get great ideas midway through the comics and something spontaneous comes up. But then it doesn't even feel spontaneous. It just feels more hard and harsh.

gg: Visually your approach is very theatrical. There's almost always this proscenium arch to your panel composition.

gb: Uh-huh.

gg: You don't vary camera shots much.

gb: I was told in my earlier work that I varied them more.

gg: That's true.

gb: I guess that comes from... Maybe it comes from my — not lack of interest — but my less than enthusiastic interest in comics and more interest in literature.

gg: But you're also interested in film?

gb: Yeah, that's true. But I don't want to write a comic that looks like a film. My favorite filmmakers are very theatrical and very... The best films are often plays or done by playwrights. So I guess I'm more interested in the drama.

gg: What are the films or filmmakers who are also playwrights that you like?

gb: Well, David Mamet comes to mind. I just recently saw... What I was thinking of was this movie called You Can Count on Me. Have you seen this movie?

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
Tree, from sketchbook

gg: Yeah. Great film.

gb: It was done by a playwright. And I was also thinking of the film Dogville.

gg: Of course. Lars Von Trier.

gb: Yes. Which is pretty much like a play.

gg: Yes. Very stagey.

gb: But it was so intense. It was like almost all done in the mind.

gg: Where you have to enhance upon the sets in your mind because there are so little of them.

gb: But what was interesting was the psychology of the characters and the drama of it.

gg: And you also like [Roman] Polanski, don't you?

gb: Polanski? Yeah. Just because I did that comics movie adaptation? Yeah. I loved Repulsion.

gg: But oddly, the films don't really affect your comics much. You're more affected by prose?

gb: No, the films do affect my comics. I found that I'm influenced by certain filmmakers, not as far as camera shots but more as storytelling.

gg: One of the themes or at least facets of your stories that I noticed repeated throughout is the sense of ennui.

gb: Ennui? Yes.

gg: You know our friend ennui, right?

gb: Uh-huh. Can you define that word?

gg: People just sort of drifting, passively, consumed by disinterest. How much of your expression is conscious and deliberate do you think, and how much of it is just something that you're not conscious of? I'm assuming you're aware that your characters are somewhat alienated and...

gb: It could be because my characters are... Well, they're not really interested in anything because that's my problem. I pretty much spent my entire life trying to be a cartoonist, so I don't really know anything except being a cartoonist and doing comics about doing comics or trying to be a cartoonist — self-referential. So I have these characters that are left hanging. They're not even cartoonists. They're just kind of drifting around at some point. Do you understand what I'm saying?

gg: I do. Do you think that's a strength or a weakness or...

gb: I think it's a weakness, but yeah... I mean, it'd be nice if I were into more things but I do think it has to do also with my upbringing and my isolation in a way, too.

gg: You once said that one of the qualities you most appreciate is empathy.

gb: I don't remember saying that. I admire empathy. I do think it's important in story because the reader has to empathize with the character.

gg: And presumably the artist has to empathize with his own characters.

gb: Yeah. I guess it's sort of loving your characters in a way.

gg: I thought one of the best stories you did was in Scheherazade, "One Afternoon."

gb: Yeah. That's my favorite story.

gg: You said it was based on a story by Kate Chopin. Who is that?

gb: She wrote The Awakening, if you know The Awakening. I don't know much about her. I think she... I don't want to say anything about her because I really have no biographical knowledge about her. It was a very, very short story. It was maybe half a page long. It was a story about a woman whose... she has a very weak heart and she's told that her husband has been killed in a train wreck. And of course she's very despondent. But then she realizes that she's free from her husband and she can live her own life now. I think her husband was very wealthy, so she's liberated financially and she's sort of liberated emotionally. But then she finds out that it was a mistake. Her husband didn't die. And she was so sad by it that she died herself.

gg: So, loosely taken from that.

gb: Yeah. And then I threw in this adultery and this alienation to sort of... Anyway, she doesn't die at the end. She has to just go on living in an unhappy marriage.

gg: Which is a kind of death.

gb: Yeah. I was pretty excited about that story. I just wish that I hadn't stolen it from anyone.

gg: But it looks like you actually enhanced it quite a bit.

gb: Yeah. I think it was probably one of my first really serious stories.

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell

gg: Well, you certainly upped the isolation quotient by having two isolated people instead of merely one. Is your story in Kramer's Ergot the first color work you did?

gb: Yes.

gg: What medium was that?

gb: It was gouache. I did that as a short, one-page color comic for a Shout Magazine. But it got buried.

gg: How was it working in color from black and white?

gb: It was hard. It took me four or five months to do that comic. I was working full time at the time, saving up. I would come home and I would just do one panel and that was it. After I finished the whole comic it would take me just one panel a day of coloring. And I was constantly tweaking it. And then the color got really screwed up when I scanned it and it printed very badly.

gg: Oh, it did?

gb: Yeah. The originals are so much better. I mean, I spent so much time trying to get this perfect yellow for the walls. I had this yellow in mind. I would make the yellow and then I'd run out of the yellow and then I'd have to spend time making the yellow again. And then when it came out in the book it was all washed [out]. It was just like this ugly banana yellow that I didn't really want. It didn't work.

gg: Another thing that's very important in your stories is the fantasy element, where your stories often start off realistically and then veer into a kind of magic realism, which can be somewhat jarring.

gb: Is it jarring? Really? When she turns into a chair, that's pretty jarring.

gg: They're jarring because your work is otherwise so naturalistic and mundane. Suddenly someone will turn into a chair.

gb: Well, that's one of the strengths of comics.

gg: How important do you think fantasy is?

gb: It's incidental for me. I'm more interested in real life, I think, and real stories. As far as fantasy goes, I mean they're flights of fancy in a way. I know that, for example, the chair story was not really my story. My friend who was staying with me, who is the star of that story, had this idea that she wanted to turn into a chair and be taken home by somebody. So I stole her story. She gave it to me.

gg: I wonder if you didn't enhance that, too, because it's a really powerful metaphor for someone who considers herself invisible or receding into the background.

gb: Yeah. It was a really... I mean, I was definitely going for the metaphor of — well — feeling like a chair!

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
Window, from sketchbook

gg: At one point the girl is asked, "Are you a filmmaker, too?" And she says, "No. I'm just his girlfriend."

gb: Yeah. I'm kind of laying it on thick there. But the thing is that I have this other story where there's a hole in the bathroom wall and this couple are always fighting about it because the girl — well, it's me — never gets around to getting the hole fixed. And the boyfriend is always nagging at her to get it fixed. And then they get closer and closer to the hole and the man gets sucked into the hole and gets swallowed up by the hole in the bathroom. And then eventually the girl gets swallowed into the hole as well. But that was actually my boyfriend's idea. It was this flight of fancy that came from this conversation we had. Because we were arguing about the hole. And he said, "What if it just swallowed us up?"

gg: Has this appeared yet?

gb: It's in the Alternative Comics Presents Free Comic Book Day 2005 anthology. I did it quite a long time ago but I feel like that and those chairs are the major examples of my fantasy comics. And I find that it usually comes from other people. They come from conversations with other people. I myself... I'm much more into the psychology and the cause and effect of normal every day things. I would just like to have a good solid story... things that really could happen.

gg: You never had any ambition to just draw your average, entertaining, mass-market comic book, it sounds like...

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell

Illustration by Gabrielle Bell
From Lucky number 3
gb: But I do.

gg: You do?

gb: Ultimately, I...

gg: Do you want to draw a Catwoman or something?

gb: What I want is to draw a story that people are interested in and they want to know what's going to happen next. Which I think is sort of the same thing. So I guess I don't want to draw mainstream comics, if that's what you mean. But I think mainstream comics and alternative comics... Their goal is to tell a story. If it's about fighting crime or if it's about inner demons it's kind of... That's just the subject matter in a way.

gg: True, they can have that in common, but it's how the story is being told that differentiates the two, between literary work and mass-market crap, between a Philip Roth and a Tom Clancy, say. And you always seemed to have the ambition for the one rather than the other. Is that true?

gb: True, but I think I would... I mean, it's true but... The most important thing is to tell a compelling and engaging story. And if it's really obscure and like some kind of art film or very difficult art film, I mean... I'm just sort of in the middle in a way. Ultimately I think the point of doing comics and of telling stories is to — I don't want to say entertain — but it is kind of entertainment. It's to tell a story, which Tom Clancy is doing as well as [Marcel] Proust. They're all telling a story, it's just how much meaning or... But ultimately I'm into the plot and character change and character development, that kind of thing.

gg: You're more traditional as distinct from the experimental?

gb: It's all experimental for me because I didn't study it formally. So everything I do is an experiment. But the main goal is not just to be experimental but to learn how to tell a good story. I mean, I want to write things that people will like and enjoy reading.

gg: No artist would admit to wanting to do something that people don't want to read.

gb: Yeah, but some artists are more interested in, I guess, experimenting with the form or something.

gg: Which you are not?

gb: Well, I guess I'm not. I'm more into the story itself rather than the panels or the way that the story is told.

gg: In a way, most underground comics were very traditional: [Robert] Crumb or [Gilbert] Shelton or Spain or... [Art] Spiegelman wasn't. But most of the underground cartoonists were actually conservative storytellers. The story was the main goal. Most of them didn't really play with the form as radically as a lot of artists in the last 10 years or so have.

gb: Then why are they playing with the form now? I mean, not that it's wrong, but why? I guess it's because these comics are growing more and there's more room for experimentation.

gg: I think there's always that natural evolution. I mean, you saw it in the novel. I guess you saw it as far back as Laurence Stern. But then you had [James] Joyce and [Alain] Robbe-Grillet, and so many novelists wanting to push the definition of what a novel could be. And you're always going to have that sort of R and D...

gb: What do you mean R and D?

gg: Research and development...

gb: Oh, OK.

gg: ...aspect of an artform where certain artists are moving in that direction and playing with just how far you can push the boundaries of a particular art.

gb: Yeah. In the '80s there was a lot of that experimentation in RAW, it seems to me. I really enjoyed RAW. I think I liked reading RAW a lot. But I think I'm more interested in the storytelling itself.

More books featuring Gabrielle Bell (click covers for complete product details)

Mome Vol. 1 - Summer 2005
Mome Vol. 1 - Summer 2005
Price: $14.95
Mome Vol. 2 - Fall 2005
Mome Vol. 2 - Fall 2005
Price: $14.95
Mome Vol. 3 - Winter 2006 [Sold Out]
Mome Vol. 3 - Winter 2006 [Sold Out]
Price: $14.95
Mome Vol. 4 - Spring/Summer 2006
Mome Vol. 4 - Spring/Summer 2006
Price: $14.95

All books featuring Gabrielle Bell