Though it may sound like an oxymoron, Gabrielle Bell has been a major underground cartoonist since her collection “When I’m Old and Other Stories” was published in 2003 by Alternative Comics. That same year she started the semi-autobiographical series “Lucky,” which won an Ignatz Award and was later published by Drawn and Quarterly.
In recent years, Bell has been producing the best work of her career. She was one of the initial contributors to Fantagraphics’ quarterly anthology “Mome,” is a regular contributor to “Kramer’s Ergot” and other anthologies, and her work has been selected for multiple volumes of the “Best American Comics” series. Many of her short stories were collected into “Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories,” published by Drawn and Quarterly in 2009. Its title story was even adapted by Bell and director Michel Gondry into one third of the 2008 anthology film “Tokyo!”
Bell is a regular blogger and web cartoonist who is up for yet another Ignatz Award this year for Outstanding Online Comic. Recently she’s had minicomics published by Uncivilized Books, including her latest effort, “San Diego Diary.” On her website, Bell spent July creating a new comic every day, and the result was fascinating, as she consciously strove for a looser style, working faster than usual and crafting what could almost be described as a daily work in progress. Now that such strict, self-imposed deadlines are behind her, she took the time to speak with Comic Book Resources about the 30-day challenge, the final issue of “Mome” and trying to create the perfect short story.
CBR News: When you started thinking about creating 30 comics in 30 days on your website, what made you want to go through with it? How do you feel now that it’s over?
Gabrielle Bell: I really enjoy doing my blog, and I feel like I’ve done really good work on it, but I get terrible writer’s block. I struggle with trying to come up with a comic, and I have these habits of worrying and thinking too much about what I’m doing. I felt like I needed to put stuff up on the blog to keep it going, but everything I wanted to do, I went, “No, that’s not good enough.” I thought if I forced myself to do a comic every day for a month, that would put me in a mindset where I wouldn’t be so hung up on every little detail. Put it out there and not worry about whether it worked or was good enough, and then move onto the next thing.
I think I achieved that goal, in a way, but I haven’t really been able to produce much since then. There was a really nice side effect, that I found that so many people were reading it and people wanted to know what was next. That was really cool. I thought maybe a few of my hardcore fans would follow [my blog] and some close friends who want to see what’s going on in my life, but I just kept meeting people who were like, “I’m really enjoying it. I’d like to do that more.” It was very gratifying, but really stressful, too. Basically it shut down everything else I was doing.
You described your problem as writer’s block. Is the writing key for you?
For me it’s pretty important. Not so much the writing, but the storytelling. I get a little caught up in trying to be literary. My main interest is stories. The drawing is important to me, too, but the drawing is in the service of the storytelling. I get these really elaborate stories built up in my head, and I get so excited. It’s very vivid in my head, but then I try to write it and it just comes out really terrible. Maybe it’s because I never studied [writing] in the traditional way. Maybe there’s a lot of things that I’m picking up along the way. I feel like it’s taken me a long time to learn to draw. It’s a very slow process, because I never really studied it. I was never a very good student. Learning to write as you go is a tricky thing.
The comics you post on your blog have always seemed more casual and loose than your work that’s printed. Is this feeling of seeming spontaneous what you’re trying for on the blog?
What I’m going for is an easiness that’s simple and easy to read. I’m also going for just good. [Laughs] Maybe it’s casualness mixed with labor.
You mentioned on your blog that you’re taking these comics down. Why?
Because I felt so embarrassed by them. I mean, it’s my personal life. I know I do this with my autobiographical stories, but when I polish it up and make it into a formal comic, it seems more removed. The idea of that stuff just seems so immediate and scrawled out there that I decided at the very beginning that I would take it down. Then I got so many compliments, I kind of wish that I had not decided to take it down. If I had known that people would enjoy reading them, I would probably have kept them up. But I think that I should stay true to my word and take them down since I told myself. That was part of the deal.
Are these daily strips something closer to what we’d find in your sketchbooks than a typical comic on your blog, where you’re still working out story elements and playing with ideas?
Yeah, but I tried to make it funnier. My personal sketchbooks are more self-involved and probably interesting on a personal level if you knew me, but in my daily strips I tried to give it some kind of arc and punchline. Not necessarily a traditional punchline, but I tried to make it worth reading. I tried to make it good, whereas for my own stuff, I’m not concerned about making it good. I’m just concerned about getting it out and working stuff out and just doing some kind of daily routine. I was trying to come up with a comic strip each day as opposed to a diary entry. I was trying to synthesize the two.
Having read a lot of your work, many of the strips felt like a first draft or detailed notes of an idea.
That’s why I decided to take it down, too, because I don’t think it’s a good idea to put out unfinished work. I had a lot of good ideas in that month, and I’d like to develop them into more finished stories, so I wanted to take them down so I could rework them, maybe. I feel like I wasted a lot of good ideas.
Do you enjoy working online?
I do, which is kind of a contradiction, I guess, because I don’t enjoy being online. [Laughs] I feel like my life is full of these contradictions. Like my need for privacy and then this need to expose myself [in my comics]. I like working online, I guess, because the Internet is very good for shy people. They can really express themselves and put stuff out there without having to show their face. But at the same time I’m not very good about following other blogs. I’m not very good about being on the Internet. I get overwhelmed by all the information. I don’t think I’m very good at filtering it.
You mentioned privacy. How conscious are you about how you portray yourself and other people in the comics?
It’s something I struggle with a lot more than I used to. I used to just think about the story and nothing else. I do regret the way I’ve portrayed people in the past, but now I try really hard to be respectful of other of people and I often try to run it by them. People get very touchy about things and overly controlling. I try to be very respectful of people’s privacy, but I try to be honest and true to my own vision as well, which is a hard line to walk.
It’s hard for me to portray myself in a bad way. Of course I’ll be self-deprecating, but I don’t think I’m as honest as I could be. [Laughs] I think I’m pretty forgiving of myself in my comics, so I try to be that way with other people, too. I wouldn’t make anybody look worse than me, for example. Mostly I feel like I’m trying to celebrate people and myself, too. I don’t think I mean any harm. I want to look for the good things in life.
Do you have many conversations with people where they tell you, “This can’t be a comic”?
Yeah. I get a lot of that. Which is a little frustrating, but understandable. [Laughs] I mean it gives me a kind of pride, because I want to be that person. I want to have that role as one who documents. I feel like that’s my job. But I respect a person’s privacy, although I might file it away in my brain for [use in] fiction later. [Laughs]
You’ve mentioned you’re working on a couple books right now. Did you want to talk about them?
One of them is a collection of my autobiographical comics; I’m just working on the editing and coloring. The other is a fictional book. That is not even half finished. It’s really hard to find time to work on it. I’ve been working on it for a few years now, and I don’t know…I think it’s a good story, but it’s hard to stay on task for.
You’ve spent your career doing short work. What prompted you to create a long-form story?
There’s a lot of pressure to do longer work as far as graphic novels. I mean, the same is true for regular novelists. It’s a hurdle that every writer or cartoonist comes to. Although I won’t know if I’m really a long form kind of writer [until I finish this book], I’m definitely more interested in doing short stories. A lot of people say that short stories are the hardest thing to do, but I think the long stories are the hardest. I want to write a long book, but I have such a hard time writing even a short story. I get so caught up in all the details. I’m kind of a perfectionist, and I think it’s hard to be a perfectionist if you’re working on a story that’s a couple hundred pages long unless you spend years and years and years doing it. Which is what I’m doing.
Your last book, “Cecil and Jordan in New York,” was a combination of color and black and white stories. Is there a point where you know if a story will be in color?
With my last book, it really had to do with where it was being published. Most of those stories were for anthologies, and most anthologies would want it to be in black and white, so I’d do it in black and white. “Kramer’s Ergot” specifically wanted it to be in color, and “Drawn and Quarterly Showcase” also wanted it to be in color. Those were good opportunities. It seems like color is more common nowadays, but some years ago, to have an opportunity to do a comic in color in print was something you’d want to take.
You’re in the last issue of “Mome,” which was just released.
There’s going to be a couple of reprints from my blog in it. Those will be in color.
You were one of the cartoonists who was in the book at the beginning. What was interesting about “Mome” initially, and why did you stop contributing?
Well, it was very stressful. I wasn’t very fast. I was really struggling, and it was hard to do. It was a good challenge. It really helped me to learn to put out comics regularly, but I think I wanted my own space to put my comics. Now I have my blog, and it certainly doesn’t bring me much money or fame [laughs], but it does feel good that it’s mine. I’m doing it as almost my own personal newsletter. “Mome” was very helpful and a good challenge. Maybe I outgrew it?
What are you interested in doing more of?
I guess I want to do what I’m doing, only more so. I’m quite happy with what I’m doing. I wouldn’t mind having a bit more visibility, but I really enjoy doing short stories, and I enjoy putting them on the Internet. I mean, I know I can’t just do that. I know I have to challenge myself with things like the 30-day challenge and trying to do a longer [story]. You get stale if you just do the same thing, but I still like doing the same thing. I still enjoy turning my life into stories. I just want to get better at it. It’d be fun to make a little more money at it. [Laughs] It’d be fun to get more visibility and have more time to do it, but I really like doing what I’m doing.
The annoyance and benefit of short stories is that it’s a form that’s somewhat subordinate to long-form work in terms of visibility and success.
Yeah. It’s very true. I can’t seem to be interested in money enough. When it comes down to it, I just want it to be as good as it can be. I just forget everything else until I realize how broke I am. [Laughs] I’m sort of in love with the short form. I feel like I have the chance to make the perfect short story, and it never comes out perfect, of course, but it seems within my grasp. I just keep trying to do that. At the expense of my entire life. [Laughs]
What other projects are on the horizon?
Well, I have my “San Diego Diary” minicomic that just came out from Uncivilized Books that collects the 20-page “comicumentary” I put out after attending San Diego Comic-Con as a special guest.
I will have other things coming out in the future, but I’m not ready to talk about them yet. And I’m going to put some more stuff up on the blog.