Smash Pages Q&A: Gabrielle Bell

The creator of ‘Everything is Flammable’ and ‘The Voyeurs’ discusses her latest short story collection, ‘Inappropriate.’

Gabrielle Bell is one of our great cartoonists. In books like The Voyeurs, Truth is Fragmentary, Cecil and Jordan in New York, and in the hundreds of comics she’s made for print and online, she’s developed a style and approach to storytelling that is deceptively simple.

I don’t mean her linework, which is beautiful and deliberate, but the way she approaches story. One can read a few of the realistic stories she tells, and think that one understands her work, but then she crafts a story in that same style with that same tone and approach, which goes off in strange fantastic directions. Some of them are colorful, fantastic tales. Others loop back and force the characters and the readers to reconsider the opening scenes differently. It’s this way that she seems to effortlessly move from dirty realism to magical realism, always grounded in lived in details and psychology, which allow the reader to feel grounded even as the story spins off in any direction.

Bell’s new book Inappropriate is the first since the release of her acclaimed graphic memoir Everything is Flammable. In these short comics, some of which have seen print in The New Yorker, Spiralbound and elsewhere, Bell effortlessly shifts from the autobiographical to the fantastic, the personal to the strange. Recently she also got attention for her comic Utopia, which was posted during the pandemic. It’s always a joy to pick her brain and Gabrielle took some time out to chat about the book, how she works and thoughts during the pandemic.

I love the cover for Inappropriate. The cover and the first comic really give a good sense of the book.

Thanks. I was hoping that would draw people in. I get these brief bursts of strange flights of fancy once in a while and they become like that comic. Or like the Utopia comic.

So many of your comics start with you” or at least, a character named Gabrielle who is a cartoonist who lives in Brooklyn, and by the end one is unsure how much if any of it was true.

Yes. Sometimes it’s quite literal. The last few comics I did for The New Yorker website are very straightforward autobiographical stories and I’m like, why do you want this? [laughs] I like that kind of work, but I’ve gotten myself into a place where I feel I have to put on a song and dance because I think that’s starting to be expected of my work.

Im sure people ask, did that really happen? Because you give us no clue and play everything straight.

I really want to tell everybody what happened and what didn’t happen. [laughs] People actually don’t really want to know, they just think they want to know. When I start telling people what really happened, they get bored. [laughs]

And then you say, yes, this is why I turned it into fiction?

Basically. Reality can be pretty boring. Or even worse than boring – it can be downright wretched.

Youve published these stories in different places over the past few years. Did you think it was time to assemble a book? Or what was the process?

I think I said, it’s time to put out a book. I wanted to make sure that I had enough work that was solid enough. I think I may have left out some good stuff because I didn’t want to put any filler in it. I waited until I had enough stuff and went to Tom. He said, I need everything by November and I got everything to him by the end of January. I said, I’m so sorry! It’ll never happen again! But it will happen again next book. Each book I make all the same mistakes.

These comics have been published in The New Yorker, Spiralbound, kus and elsewhere. You seem to have found editors and publications who like and get your sensibility.

I think so. Mostly I’ll draw a comic and send it to The New Yorker – and they’ll say nah. Lately I’ve been putting them on my instagram. I’ve been working on a book on patreon on and off over the years. The paywall is nice cause I make some pay but also it’s personal and I feel more comfortable drawing comics for a small group of diehard fans.

When you say the patreon comics are more personal, something like Everything is Flammable?

Yeah, it’s about dating and relationships and when I was on tinder for a year. That stuff is hard for me to put out, but bits of it have gone out on The New Yorker and instagram. It’s an ongoing thing and each chapter is related to each other, in the structure of Everything is Flammable, where it’s all part of a bigger story but in shorter stories.

Has that been a bigger focus on your work more recently?

I’ve been working on it for a couple of years now but I’ve neglected it lately. I did something for The New Yorker. I did something for MoMa Magazine. And there was another project, so it’s been a while since I worked on it. And once you stop working on something for a while, it’s hard to get back into it. I’m at the point where I need to get back into the book, but it’s daunting. I’ve been painting and working on little things here and there. Trying to get up the nerve to get back to the book. 

Right now some people are able to be productive, but everyone seems to have had to change things up somehow.

I felt like I needed to do something about the times we’re in because it’s a very historic time. I would like to look back and have some kind of artistic artifact of this time. But it’s really boring, too. I tried keeping a journal and it was, like, “I scrubbed the floor today.” [laughs] Keeping a journal can be problematic because it can get so quotidian. Even more so with this. I kept a diary for a month or a few weeks and then I was like, okay, this is not working. It takes too much time and energy to do.

You mentioned you were painting, what do you paint?

Painting on pages from interior design books and catalogues. Stuff that’s on instagram. I’m working on this photo of a living room and I painted a woman on the floor who has died and three cats are eating her face. I’m having a really hard time getting the blood on the face. I don’t want to get too anatomical and figure out how to draw a nose with the skin torn off. I don’t want it to be too technical but I don’t want to just have a big red patch, either. Also the contour between her forehead and the ear isn’t quite right, so I’m doing all these little adjustments right now. [laughs]

I said before how much I liked your recent comic Utopia. Or is it Utopia/Dystopia?

It doesn’t really have a title.

Where did the idea for it come from?

I don’t know actually. I think about this a lot: where do my comics come from? That comic came from a really open hearted space. I had this genuine feeling of wanting good things in the world and feeling like it could be possible. Then I put it on instagram and it got such a huge reaction. I got so many more followers and all these comments and people just loved it. That went to my head. [laughs] The feeling that I got from it was the opposite of this expansive feeling that had gone into the comic. I thought, I should do more comics like that, but that place and that feeling was gone because all I could think about was, I’m so much more famous now, how can I monetize this! [laughs] So that feeling of ambition totally took over that feeling of genuine love for the world.

That’s what happens with a lot of my comics. It’s like a lightning strike but after I can’t really remember where it all came from and how it came together. I just have to wait for something to happen. I don’t understand how people just draw comics – even though I do! I draw so many bad comics in the hope of occasionally making a good comic.

I remember that I wrote in my notebook conceptualizing how the government is failing us, institutions are failing us, there aren’t enough ventilators. Someone is 3-D printing these valves and getting in trouble for it. My friend is working at a place where his co-worker got Covid-19 and died. I was afraid he would die and I couldn’t even be there with him. I thought about how everyone being separated could cause this awareness of how interdependent we are. I was writing all this down in my notebook just listing these things. I didn’t think it was even comprehensible. It just sat there in my notebook for a few weeks and it seemed so stupid because nobody is making utopian comics. Everyone is making these very dystopian comics. I saw Gabe [Fowler] was doing these utopian comics on his Instagram and I thought, maybe it could work. Suddenly it felt so urgent, like this comic is going to save the world, and I must put it online immediately. So that’s the process. Non-ego and ego. 

And as soon as you made comic about a post-capitalist society, you started thinking about how to monetize the fact that people like the idea of a post-capitalist society. 

Exactly! [laughs] Even though what I really want is for my art to contribute to the good of the world somehow. I’m just such a useless person in general. I can’t really do anything except draw comics so I have to hope that the comics I do have some kind of positive effect. Of course I want to be famous and have some money, but it’s hard for me to get too ambitious about that. Unless I get a big surge of followers. [laughs]

You want to make art that will change the world, but you also have rent.

Yeah. But maybe it is important to make art that doesn’t make money.

I loved the image in that comic about all the rooftops taken over by gardens.

I think about stuff like that. You could fill that space with gardens. I miss gardening from when I lived in the country. I’m sure there’s very boring and bureaucratic reasons why we can’t have gardens on every single rooftop, but it would be marvelous to have gardens everywhere. And also not to have cars. I feel like if anything should be illegal, cars should be illegal. My vision of the city is gardens everywhere and vehicles for only transporting goods and emergencies. Maybe buses.

You said before that you’d been blocked lately.

That’s something I always say, though. Every once in a while I’ll make an inspired comic, but between then I’m pretty blocked. 

I was going to ask, do you usually feel that way when you finish a book?

No. This one is all short stories. Maybe a little bit? If I had finished a big graphic novel, I would be a little stuck, but I’m always doing short stories so it doesn’t seem that different. Although editing was difficult. 

What made it difficult this time around?

I didn’t really feel like doing it. [laughs] I think in the past I was more driven. My ambition has flagged, I guess. When I put out The Voyeurs I thought, this book is going to propel me into the wider world of literature. I don’t know. All my books have done pretty well. Each one has done just a little better than the one before. I do think this is my best book, but I also felt, here’s another book. It’s a shame that it came out on the day we all went into lockdown. [laughs] 

I am concerned that because of the quarantine this book is probably selling very badly and not doing well. It’s a rough time and it’s going to get worse. I mean, comics are so precarious anyway. If we had to throw everything out, comics are maybe one of the first things that would have to go. But everyone is reading comics on the internet now, so who knows? Maybe something will remain. I’m resilient. That’s one thing cartoonists have. We’re fragile yet resilient at the same time.

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