Saturday, August 09, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #221: The Voyeurs by Gabrielle Bell

It doesn't really make much sense to say "if Robert Crumb was a woman" and try to lead anywhere coherent; Crumb's style and gaze is so inherently male -- so much that of a white man in a society where that means the top of the world, but still loathing himself and that world equally -- that there's no way to get from there to a real woman's experience. But, still, Gabrielle Bell's unflinching comics about her own life do owe something to Crumb: she's not an answer to him, or a female version of him, but she works in an idiom that only exists because he did.

The Voyeurs was the fourth book of Bell's comics, after When I'm Old and Lucky and Cecil and Jordan in New York. It came out in 2012, collecting all of her explicitly autobio comics of the prior five years -- every single one of these stories has "Gabrielle Bell" at the center of it, and most of them are diary strips, drawn from her notebook and notes and tied to specific days and events.

Bell was more successful in these years than in her earlier works -- this is probably the peak of her fame and immersion in international art/culture, since she was dating director Michel Gondry for the first year or two -- but she's not comfortable with fame, in the same way that she's not comfortable with most of human society and life. (At least once, she admits that she'd be fine as a hermit, except for the fact that what she does is make comics about things that happen to her -- and she has a deep desire to keep doing that, so her urge to create and engage and directly opposed to her urge to flee and avoid.)

One long early section covers trips to Japan and France with Gondry in the summer of 2007, mixing vacation and promotion for a short film that they co-wrote and co-directed. Bell portrays the relationship falling apart, mostly because of Bell's moodiness and reflexive shrinking from any human interaction or new experiences. (Bell consistently makes herself the worst, most mixed-up and neurotic person in her stories.) The rest of the book continues that pattern of interaction, though not quite as bluntly anti-social on Bell's part: she goes out into the world to do something, hates most of that time, and vacillates between that hate and a desire to be out in the world and interact with people.

Bell's stories are carefully crafted to seem uncrafted: she often puts the day something happened at the top of a page, as if this was a quick sketch done that same day rather than a careful story assembled much later. Her art has gotten more complex from the Lucky days, with full color added to her previous spot blacks and an increasing variety of line. The Voyeurs is a dense read, for all that it's a short book of comics: Bell has a lot of words, and a lot of thoughts on every page (and many more thoughts that aren't on the page, too). And it's worth the time to savor it, particularly if you, too, are an introvert who wonders if spending time with other people is actually worth it.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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