Over the past 20 years, Brooklyn-based author-cartoonist Gabrielle Bell has established herself as one of comics’ most consistently intelligent and engaging creators. A Bell story is instantly recognizable by its pliant and inviting artwork, relatably modern storytelling, and bursts of magic realism. First-timers could do worse than to start with her recent hilarious retelling of Little Red Riding Hood for The Paris Review, then leap into her captivating autobiographical memoir, Everything Is Flammable.
Bell chatted with us about her process, her cartoonist pals, and how she’d like to see the conversation about women in comics change.
What Should We Do?!: Your work tends to be dense with text and visual information. How do you go about structuring your pages to keep them from getting too busy?
Gabrielle Bell: Just the opposite: I try to make them as busy as possible! I want to give the eye a lot to take in. I think that as long as the art is nice to look at, then you’re perhaps more willing to take the time to figure out what you’re seeing.
WSWD: Is the process of laying out your pages an intellectual exercise, or has practice made it come naturally?
Bell: The latter; structuring my panels is more of an intuitive thing. When I was younger, I studied comics and read books about the process of creating them, but I am midcareer now and more concerned about the story itself. I don’t really spend much time studying comic theory anymore.
WSWD: As someone who first started reading your work when it was exclusively black and white, I’m impressed as to how it pops to life in color.
Bell: I find that color organizes the image so the eye can deliver it to the brain more quickly and efficiently. I don’t have a lot of line variation in my drawings, so the color really helps to let the eye know that, say, the building ends there and the sky starts there.
Sexism in general has become more subtle. You’ll have ‘autobiographic comics’ panels at conventions that will be all women, and that will be it for female creators.
WSWD: Over the course of your career, how have you seen the landscape change for women creators in comics?
Bell: It has altered significantly. Sexism in general has become more subtle. There are a lot more women artists and writers in the field, but that’s not always reflected by representation. You’ll have “autobiographic comics” panels at conventions that will be all women, and that will be it for female creators. By not calling it “women in comics,” there’s a presumption of progress, but it’s still an industry that’s prone to ghettoization no matter what you call it.
WSWD: Are you detecting a greater willingness for women to be embraced as important figures in the field? As an example, there’s been a turn of late to view Aline Kominsky-Crumb as a canonical creator.
Bell: I think it’s great that women artists are being embraced, but “willingness”? I find the use of that word kind of ridiculous. With Kominsky-Crumb, you’re talking about a great comics artist who has dedicated her life to the work and has changed the field in fundamental ways. Why wouldn’t she be canonized or embraced? To be frank, I am just tired of having the conversation in those terms.
You’re talking about a great comics artist who has dedicated her life to the work and has changed the field in fundamental ways. Why wouldn’t she be canonized or embraced? To be frank, I am just tired of having the conversation in those terms.
WSWD: Who’s making comics right now that you think deserves more attention?
Bell: I’m pretty amazed by Tara Booth. Her work is just beautiful, colorful, completely not pedantic. It’s full of fresh and original feelings.
WSWD: How would you describe the Brooklyn small-press comics scene? You seem pretty well integrated into that world.
Bell: I think it is a strong community. I live downstairs from Jon Lewis and Karen Sneider, so we hang out a lot. I’m friends with Lauren Weinstein, Ariel Schrag, Julia Wertz; they’re all New York comics creators. Whenever there’s a traveling cartoonist in the city, I like to meet them. Cartooning is a very particular craft that draws a very particular kind of personality. We quickly and easily bond over poverty, obscurity, and our fussy, neurotic temperaments, which compel us to draw the same things over and over again.
WSWD: Comics is an art form that can require many years’ worth of work to make something that can be consumed in 15 minutes. Do you ever find the trade-off of time invested against the limited return to be frustrating?
Bell: I think that’s a false equivalency. If a comic I write takes 15 minutes to read and it’s a story of some meaning, perhaps that many more people will read it. So each person who reads it expands its reach and its impact beyond that individual 15 minutes.
We quickly and easily bond over poverty, obscurity, and our fussy, neurotic temperaments, which compel us to draw the same things over and over again.
WSWD: So you take some pride or solace in being able to reach a larger audience with a short, clearly formed idea.
Bell: Well, I’m not in the business of trying to make pride or solace. I make comics. That’s my job, and it takes the time it takes.
WSWD: What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
Bell: I’ve just published a short comic for The New Yorker online that appears to have struck a nerve, if social media shares are to be believed, and another on the website Spiralbound. I’ll be reissuing my book Cecil and Jordan in New York this fall, and I’ll have a new diary mini comic coming out as well that’s mostly musing about dogs and caring for dogs. There’ll be a couple of cats, too.
Images courtesy of Gabrielle Bell