Gabrielle Bell was born in London, but her parents separated when she was so little that she doesn’t have a single memory of the city. The only thing that Bell (44 years old) remembers, an icon always on the fringes of the autobiographical comic explosion that took place in the United States in the late 90s and early 2000s, is a house in the middle of nowhere, in Mendocino, California .
And her mother trying not to lose her mind while trying to stay afloat. “All I was doing back then was reading and drawing,” recalls Bell. He’s at his apartment in Brooklyn. There is a very crowded comic book library behind him. He doesn’t look up, he doesn’t look at the camera.
He fiddles with something, he doesn’t stop doing things while he talks. “I have a severe ADD [attention deficit disorder], I can hardly do anything but draw comics,” he confesses shortly after the conversation begins.
He has just published his most ambitious work to date, Everything is flammable (The Dome), praised at the same time by Joyce Carol Oates and Tao Lin herself, who delves into their symbiotic and at the same time distant relationship with his mother, starting from , for the first time, something more similar to what is considered a graphic novel than the handful of situations – almost excerpts from the diary of a not so daring Julie Doucet – that used to shape her highly personal comics.
There are Cecil and Jordan in New York , Voyeurs , and of course, Fortunate, that brought together ridiculous, painful or simply everyday moments (often of a disarming sadness that, in reality, were nothing more than lifeboats). “I don’t know how to live without drawing. I mean, I need to get high somewhere, and I get high when I draw, “he admits.
“Nothing seems bearable if I don’t draw,” he insists. For example, let’s think of Everything is flammable. Bell receives a call. She is his mother’s neighbor. His mother’s house has burned to the ground because of an oversight with a candle that fell on him and first burned his pants.
He lives in the middle of the field. He has lost everything. A neighbor gave her some boots because she ran barefoot. Another, a tent. He is living in the tent, happy, because he has three rooms. “I thought I had to go help him out and I knew the only way I could handle it without nagging him was by turning it into a comic as it passed.
I know it is the most immature and narcissistic that exists but I do not know how to do it any other way. I need to feel that I am the protagonist of a story in progress to act properly, “he says.
Bell has not read Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments , but like Gornick in his memoirhe has been aware, while writing about her, that her mother does not fit into any kind of mold that fiction has ever spoken of. “In movies,” Bell writes, “motherhood is often portrayed on a spectrum from the cold, indifferent and selfish, to the witch, despot and repressive, to the martyr, long-suffering and self-sacrificing.”
“Mine is out of the question,” he adds. His, one might say, is limited to living and letting live, or surviving and avoiding bothering anyone with his problems. A bit like Bell herself. In fact, her mother seems like a slightly older version of herself in the story. Did he need to close some kind of wound? “Yes, but I don’t think I have closed it. Nothing ever closes completely, ”he says.
I am not exactly how I draw myself. I am a character. When I started, when I was 20, I was an intense, super shy, serious, uncomfortable aunt, and I painted myself as a nice girl, connected to the world, with friends.
The cartoonist left home at 17. “And I didn’t mind leaving my mother in the middle of a horrible depression. My stepfather had just abandoned her. I was very lonely. She needed help but I didn’t know how to help her and I was dying to start living on my own. So I left. I’ve always felt guilty, “he says, looking askance at the computer camera.
“When his house burned down and I decided that I would come back and give him a hand, it was like going back to those 17 years. And I felt the same. I mean, I wasn’t going to be able to help her. Luckily, I now take antidepressants and have the comics.
I can help her and then tell me that I have helped her and that, I suppose, makes me in some way more capable than then ”, she says. “We can’t really help anyone, we can’t save anyone, just make their life a little easier,” he adds.
A funny thing happened as I wrote and drew those endless round trips – loaded with all sorts of little things that could be of use to you, literally crossing the country with them, crossing, for example, the country with a dish drainer – to California from New York , and it is “life and art came together for the first time in a way that made them almost indistinguishable,” he says.
She was extremely comfortable explaining that story. “When I started drawing, at age 20, I became obsessed with the idea that a good graphic novel couldn’t be about my life, because what was interesting about my life? So I spent months drawing the same pointless page, “he recalls.
“I told everyone that I was a cartoonist and everyone wanted to see what I did, so I made a first cartoon about something that had happened to me, and they loved it,
And so he had continued a bit, he confesses, until Everything is flammable . “I drew, people seemed to like it, but it always seemed too easy to me, or not much. I always thought that what was really serious and good was fiction.
Then a girl did a thesis about my work and that of Julie Doucet and blamed sexism in art for her contempt for the autobiographical, and it empowered me so much that I told myself that what I had done up to then mattered and I began to take myself seriously.
And it was at that moment when I wrote Everything is flammable , and I think it shows, ”he explains. It also helped him to read Karl Olve Knausgard. “Reading you has made me find my work exciting. In the end, it’s not what you talk about, it’s how you do it, ”he says. “It fascinates me, more than his day to day, how he describes a sunset, or how things feel,” he says.
And is there no risk in becoming a character? “Do not. I am not exactly me. I am a character. When I started, at 20, I was an intense, super shy, serious, uncomfortable aunt, and I painted myself as a nice girl, connected to the world, with friends. Someone with whom you can empathize.
He was lying, but at the same time he was telling the truth. He was who he had always wanted to be or who he really was, without all that fear and horror, “he answers. And deep down, he was someone from the past.
“I’m changing all the time, so the Gabrielle that I talk about in a comic, deep down, doesn’t have much to do with me anymore when that comic is published,” he adds. The comics are not for her, in any case, “an armor” but her way of connecting with the world: “They do not defend me from the world but are a vehicle to move through it.”
Another thing is how others take part of that other world that he invents to be in the world. “Not good at all,” he says. His friend Tony, a recurring character in his work, hates him. “He says it’s not him. Actually, what happens is that he does not like being a secondary character. We all want to be the hero of our story. And not lose control of our image.
And when I write about it, it loses it. Even if I paint him as someone wonderful, he still doesn’t like it, ”he says. And has the same happened with your mother? “Yes. He didn’t like it at all. Or so I think. I don’t know ”, he answers.
And now that you take your work seriously, have you thought about revisiting moments from the past to fill the void in your history? “Do not. I live in the present and nothing interests me more. I want to live intensely in the present, I prefer to forget the past ”.