Interview: Gabrielle Bell Pt. 1

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In the decade or so since she first began distributing her work through the standard channels of black and white photocopied minis, Gabrielle Bell has fairly quickly become one of the more beloved autobiographical cartoonists in alternative comics, thanks in large part to her long-running, recently revived title, Lucky, which captures the life of a 20-something artist with frankness and unexpected humor.

In 2003, Bell moved from the Bay Area to Brooklyn. She’s appeared in a number of popular of anthologies like Fantagraphics’ Mome, and in 2006, Drawn & Quarterly began publishing Lucky, beginning with a hardbound collection of the title’s first volume. Bell has also begun to dip her feet into filmmaking waters, working with with acclaimed filmmaker Michel Gondry. The first fruits of their labor, Interior Designs is an adaptation of a piece that Bell created for the Kramer’s Ergot anthology.

We sat down with Bell upon the release of the latest issue of Lucky to talk about craft, autobiography, and what winds up on the cutting room floor.

Looking at the new Lucky [Vol. 2 # 2] versus some earlier issues, it seems like the text has become a bit more sparse, even as the becomes more detailed. Do you feel like you’ve shifted your focus at all?

Oh sure, yeah. The text has gotten shorter, you think?

Certainly in parts.

I don’t feel like I’ve necessarily changed my focus. I just feel like I’m trying to refine my craft. Lucky is—actually, with most of my comics—I don’t have too much loyalty to consistency. I’m more interested in holding my point-of-view. Maybe that’s why I tend not to commit to longer works. Comics are so unwieldy, and I still have a lot to learn from doing short works.

When you say “honing your craft,” are you speaking mostly about the art itself?

Well, the writing too—the two together. Art as storytelling, for example.

At what point did the two come together for you?

Um, I don’t know—probably 12 or 14 years ago. I mean, they’re the two things that I like to do the most, so it made sense to try comics.

Had you not stumbled into the world of alternative comics, do you think you might have attempted to combine the two by some other means?

Possibly. It’s hard to say. It’s hard to try to look at the past and predict things like that. I don’t think it would have been possible not to have discovered the world of alternative comics, at some point or another. It was much too in my line of view. There’s no way I could have missed it.

In terms of consistency—which you said before wasn’t of utmost importance to you—what sorts of themes hold Lucky together as a cohesive piece? What keeps you going on that specific title?

[Pauses] I think the sorts of issues that I deal with translate very well to comics. There are going to be stories to tell, as long as I live. And I know that it’s not for everyone, but there’s always going to be an audience, too.

Is there anything specific to your own experiences that makes for an interesting read, or is it more dependent on your abilities as a storyteller?

I have to say, I think it’s more dependent on my abilities as a storyteller. But I try to look for things that people can relate to, rather than things that are interesting for their own sake.

Were you doing a lot of autobiographical work, prior to Lucky?

Some, yeah. They weren’t really being published, though, but I did do a lot of autobiographical short stories. Lucky came more from a diary. It was shaped into a story.

Were you hesitant to work on something so personal? Is that why a lot of it went unreleased for a while?

Yeah, that is a tricky thing, respecting people’s privacy. You have to be very careful with stuff like that. Now I think was just trying to refine my storytelling and find my voice.

So it was more about the privacy of others than your being afraid to put yourself out there?

A lot of it had to do with the fact that I wasn’t sure if the work was good enough. I think that before you release anything, you have to practice at it, for a while, and in order to fully open yourself up and be true to a story, I think you kind of have to do it privately for a while. If you sit down and think that everything is going to be published, it’s going to inhibit your creativity, a little bit.

Was there a point for you when it was clear that your work was publishable, or did you ultimately just want to get it out there?

Well, I think it’s more of the latter. I just wanted to start getting stuff out there. But I definitely do comics with intention of publishing them and others with the intention of not publishing. Sometimes I do comics that are sort of in-between and I think that maybe I could publish it, and then when I finish, I realize that it’s not publishable. And then there’s a lot of stuff that just ends up on the cutting room floor.

Are there any consistent things that come up which make works unpublishable?

Generally it’s just because it’s not interesting enough, or it just embarrasses me, in one way or another. Usually when I do Lucky, there will be several more pages that I don’t release, because they’re just kind of boring. The comic could really be twice as many pages. I kind of have to weed through stuff I’ve written down and comics I’ve done. It’s not necessarily that the most interesting things that happen get published—there are a lot of personal and sentimental things that I write.

The personal and sentimental do or don’t make the cut?

I think that they do. It really just comes down to instinct. The themes are often my shyness or alienation—disconnenction from others. I think that everyone has those feelings, but sometimes I feel like I’m being redundant or hammering the point too much, so I’ll leave stuff out for that reason.

[Continued in Part Two.]

–Brian Heater

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