A friend of mine recently moved into a new house that is about as far away from where I live as you can get and still say that it’s nearby. He lives in a new county entirely, actually, which is the county beyond the county that we in the city call “the county.” So basically kind of far away. I recently drove out there to visit and check out the new place, and I found myself suddenly aware of the sky. There seemed to be more of it. It was as though the horizon line had been lowered, somehow, and the sky was increasingly everywhere. Whereas city life tends to block it out or at least finds a way to put an ad in it, the sky in this distant suburb was unbounded and all over. And all I wanted to do was get away from it.
I’m unambiguously aware that, as a person, I am indoorsy (which, unlike “outdoorsy,” is not actually a word according to the dictionary). This might be one of the reasons that I am so drawn to the work of Gabrielle Bell, whose autobiographical comics have been widely acclaimed for over a decade. She has been praised for the simplicity of her line work, her unorthodox use of shading, her judicious attention to detail, and her capacity to transform otherwise ordinary conversations into existential treatises without actually seeming to have done so at all. Bell is also clearly aware that her life and the lives of everyone around her are in a constant state of becoming-comics; she depicts herself incessantly sketching; writes comics about the difficulty of writing comics; and spends time with people doing things that everyone knows will all end up being drawn. It’s a little like if Bertolt Brecht had been a staff writer for Friends.
Her comics are also brilliantly contained, which is why I find a certain comfort in reading them on days when the sky gets too big. I’ve written elsewhere about the tendency toward small spaces in Bell’s earlier work, and her latest collection, The Voyeurs (Uncivilized Books, $24.95), continues to explore our relation to space — both in life and in art. Although many of the episodes in the book were originally published on her website, Lucky, the pages of The Voyeurs are mostly composed with a steady layout of six of the same-sized panels per page, and Bell frames the action with an almost unwavering full shot. For someone whom the Art Editor of the New Yorker, Francoise Mouly, has called a “master of exquisite detail,” it’s amazing how infrequently anything gets singled out or prioritized by a close-up. It’s actually almost never. Rather, Bell seems to want us to see the stuff of her life as… well, as we would actually see it. Sometimes her panels are densely detailed and overfull, but only when that’s the way the world looks. And other times, there’s just not a lot of stuff to look at.
By her own admission, but also obviously enough in the comics themselves, Bell can be quiet, shy, and reserved, and she often retreats into her notebook, sketching and writing even when there’s something else going on around her. But of course, her comics reveal this retreat, and the act of creating comics is as important to her comics as the events that inspire the comics. Part of the irony of her work, then, is that the act of withdrawing into a more private world is in some ways predicated on the future publication of her work. As readers, we are invited to see her world not only as she sees it – which is to say, as it is sketched onto a page – but also to see her sketching this world. In this way, her comics are at once process and product. There’s almost a fractal sense of repetition, by which we as readers are seeing what was once the notebook’s page, which is what Bell is in the process of creating in the story itself, but because she has to draw herself drawing, we are actually seeing her see herself. It’s like the opposite of jockeying for a better view of something in a crowd; Bell’s comics are like two people constantly stepping back and sliding around to get behind each other, further and further away from the action.
But it’s worth noting that the book is not called The Voyeur, and that even if it were, that person might not be Bell. By pluralizing the title, she implicates us all in her need to always be observing. The cover of the book is telling in this respect. Whereas the first story, “The Voyeurs,” involves a group of her friends watching a couple have apparently pretty awkward sex through a bedroom window across the street, the cover of The Voyeurs finds us looking in on Bell herself, sitting in darkened room on her computer. She is not drawing in her otherwise ubiquitous sketchbook, but using a computer to check in on the outside world. Elsewhere in the book, she admits that her relationship with e-mail — which she checks constantly — is one that is ever in anticipation of admirers and job offers, love and money. By viewing her through the window, then, the cover of the book confronts us with the fact that it is we who have become voyeurs, looking in on what the author herself has suggested is an almost erotic act.
There is an honesty in Bell’s work that acknowledges just how much comics are her life. In one memorable scene, she doesn’t correct filmmaker Michel Gondry when he accuses her of skinny-dipping just so she can include it in her comics. What sets Bell apart from other autobiographical cartoonists is not only how important the medium is to her life (which we see in her lengthy documentation of a trip to San Diego Comic-Con), but how important the mediation is to her work. One of the book’s recurring themes is that of self-doubt — whether or not she has wasted her life; whether being sad can be the reason for being sad — and at one point she draws herself smoking cigarettes in a squalid apartment, only to write that this scene never really happened, but merely functions as an image of her despair. This is one of many fantasies and falsehoods that are included in The Voyeurs, which, in their obviousness, are as honest in their depiction as the things that “actually” happened.
Above all, Bell’s autobiographical stories are brilliant in their resistance to resolution and closure. With the exception of the one-page “How I Make My Comics,” her strips rarely end with anything even remotely resembling a punchline. There is no trace of anti-humor here, but rather the tacit acknowledgement that of course the story, like any story, didn’t actually “end.” Autobiography is inimical to the idea of an end. Bell’s life goes on, and very frequently we get the sense that the last panel of any given strip is an arbitrary placeholder; we wait for the next thing to happen to her while our lives go on as well. For all of the world-traveling and fantasy-inflected episodes that occur in The Voyeurs, most of the stories are based on the premise that this is simply what happens to her, which is not all that dissimilar from stuff that happens to any of us. Gabrielle Bell’s work quite beautifully borders on boring. Like me, she spends a lot of time in her apartment, often alone. Like almost everyone, she sits around with people and spends more time listening than talking. She sits on the couch. She gets a haircut. She checks her e-mail. Fortunately, she also makes comics.