Cecil and Jordan in New York
By Gabrielle Bell
Drawn & Quarterly
They didn’t change the name of the title story or stick a group of actors on the cover or add the words “Soon to be a Major Motion Picture,” but timing reveals more than any of those things could—Cecil and Jordan in New York was released in an attempt to capitalize on Tokyo, a collection of film shorts recently released in theaters, a third of which was co-written by Michel Gondry and Gabrielle Bell. The lead off comic, which lends its name to this collection of short strips cherry picked from Bell’s work over the past few years, forms the basis of her segment in the film.
Let there be no mistake, however, while the release of Cecil and Jordan in New York is something of a thinly-veiled attempt to provide supplementary material to curious film-goers, it is, above all, an celebration of Bell’s work as a sequential artist. The decision on the part of the publisher to package the book as a fairly straightforward collection of comics, rather than a movie tie-in, is an attempt to create something that will outlast Tokyo’s likely relatively brief stint in limited theaters, a life that hinges on the quality of the strips contained inside. Fortunately as a cross section of some of Bell’s best work in recent years, there’s more than enough contained herein to sustain that life.
The strip “Cecil and Jordan in New York” is a rather strong note on which to open the book. In a sense the short story is a graphic representation of what is so powerful about Bell’s best work. It’s an embrace and subsequent transcendence of one of underground cartooning’s most dominant themes: alienated youth. That Bell manages all of this in four short pages is, of course, a testament to her mastery of storytelling pith. This time out, Bell enlists the aid of a magical realist conceit, but rather than overwhelming the piece, her momentary flirtation with the fantastic compliments wonderfully her protagonist’s sense of useless upon moving to the big city.
“My Affliction,” arguably the weakest story in the collection, demonstrates what happens when the fantastic is embraced too fully, drawing Bell away from the her core strengths as a storyteller. The story weaves a dreamlike narrative, complete with a flying Gabrielle and a fidgety “behemoth.” The story sheds some interesting light on the manifestations of Bell’s own neuroses, but it’s a far cry from the tight storytelling the artist embraces in her best work.
“Gabrielle the Third” and “Helpless,” the two stories that close out the collection, are every bit as strong as the first, but both manage to transcend their boundaries without the aid of Bell’s keen knack for understated magical realism. The first parlays a sense of isolation into a connection with animals, an innocent lot whose natural tendencies parallel the manner of alienation Gabrielle’s character feels in urban surroundings. “Helpless” is an equally sweet tale whose themes of playful adolescent rebellion echo strongly the duo from Dan Clowes’s Ghost World. Like “Cecil and Jordan in New York,” the two stories also serve as strong reminders of that one element often overlooked in Bell’s writing—her understated sense of the comedic.
Born, perhaps, out of financial motives, Cecil and Jordan in New York is ultimately a collection of some of Bell’s strongest work and a friendly reminder of why she has become on of the most celebrated storytellers to come out of the mini-comics scene in recent years.