Monday, February 26, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #57: Everything Is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell

In this world, there are optimists and pessimists. Optimists see glasses half-full; pessimists half-empty. Optimists look to opportunities for success; pessimists for chances to fail. Optimists believe that light lets us see the world.

Pessimists think there's light because something is burning down.

I can't prove Gabrielle Bell is a pessimist purely by the title of her last graphic memoir, Everything Is Flammable. I probably could prove it by judicious quoting from her work, though: she's on my side, the side of honesty and truth and the core realization that Life Is Shit.

Bell's comics work has been mostly concerned with documenting her own life -- she did some fictional strips earlier in her career, but has focused on diary comics for some time now. And, as seems counter-intuitively very common for diary comics-makers, she's an introvert who doesn't seem to like going out or doing things. (Again: I can totally relate.)

Everything Is Flammable collects comics made over the course of about a year, starting in the summer of 2014. Bell was living quietly with her neuroses in Beacon, New York (up the Hudson from The City), and the first few strips here show her day-to-day life and worries. But then she learned that her mother's house, out in rural northern California, had just burned down. Even though she worried that she'd be more distraction than help, she went to help anyway. The strips afterward chronicle that trip to visit her mother and a few more trips over the next few months, along with other, related aspects of her life back on the East Coast

Her mother, and Bell's relationship with her mother, is at the core of the book: they're both complicated, crotchety, damaged people, and Bell gets into some of the reasons why in these stories -- there's a lot of history there. (And she's made comics about her family before, of course -- comics diarists can go back over similar ground a number of times.)

Bell uses a boxy six-panel grid, giving lots of room for text in those big panels -- both dialogue and her own narration/rumination. Her people, as always, are very real and vulnerable-looking: a little lumpy, a little sad, a little lost. They're mostly sitting around talking -- or standing around talking -- with busy backgrounds filled with objects and architecture and stuff. Bell's world is an overwhelming one, in which her characters try to understand themselves and each other -- and not always succeeding.

Everything is flammable, but not everything will actually burn. I guess that's as optimistic as we can get, here. That feels honest to me. That feels true. Bell is good at that kind of hard honesty and truth, and we can see from her comics that getting to that almost-optimism is not easy for her. But she turns it into excellent comics: she saves meaning and life from the fire. Let's celebrate that. Let's celebrate that she can do that, and hope that she keeps doing so, and finds ways to move closer to optimism, as she goes on.

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