Lucky Lady: Gabrielle Bell on The Voyeurs

By , Columnist

As the title of her award-winning series, Lucky, suggests, Gabrielle Bell has lived what some might call a charmed life...and with good reason.

Her work as both a cartoonist and diarist has been widely praised by critics, fans and her fellow professionals alike. One of her tales was adapted for a film by director Michel Gondry. And her announced intention to adapt the radical feminist tract, The SCUM Manifesto, went viral, bringing even more attention her way. Given all of that, even the most cynical of souls would have to admit that Bell has arrived in a big way.

And now there’s The Voyeurs. Released a few months back by the fledgling imprint Uncivilized Books, the book cherry picks the best sequences from Lucky to chart four very eventful years in Bell’s life. It’s an expansive true-to-life tale that easily moves from her apartment in Brooklyn to follow her on PR junkets to Tokyo, her appearance at Comic-Con International—San Diego as a special guest, her travels in the south of France with her then boyfriend and back. Along the way we learn a lot about Bell’s life and, by extension, the human condition. It’s a fascinating—even revelatory—journey, one that’s well worth experiencing for yourself.

Gabrielle recently took a few moments to talk about The Voyeurs and her work generally, why she does both fictional and factual comics, and how experience and fancy interact in her work.

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Why do your work in comics? You’re obviously both well- and widely-read, and could easily do your work as pure prose; so what are some of the factors that influenced your decision to do comics? What does this medium allow you to do that just words don’t?

I always loved to both write and draw. When I was young I really wanted to write books, and I hoped to be a novelist and an illustrator. When I got older and discovered indie comics, it was obvious this was for me. I don't think I could do pure prose at this point. All the description that a writer would do, I'm used to just drawing as a background. I'm also not so well-read. I've just read and re-read Alice Munro all my life.

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And why do you concentrate on doing autobiographical work? Is this a case of you taking the advice to “write what you know” to heart, or is there more to it than that, perhaps an attempt to capture the essence of the human condition through focusing on your own life and times?

I guess it comes easiest. I do write fiction, but not as much. My book Cecil and Jordan has more fiction in it than non[fiction], but it's true I'm known more as an "autobio" cartoonist. For many years, I would struggle with fictional comics, producing a short story every six months or so, and in the meantime crank out tons of autobiographical and diary comics. So I've sort of managed to get some mastery of that, though it's not what I intended. I'm still trying to write fiction, and it's still the same struggle, but I like the style I've developed with my own character too.

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This might be an odd question, but are you ever surprised by something you did or said after putting it on the page?

Yes, but not so often. I'm often surprised when something works out. Like I'll have a vague idea in my head that seems completely pointless, but I'll try it anyway and it'll turn out to make a great comic. More often than not it will remain pointless. Other times I will have elaborate, richly detailed comics worked out in my head, and when I try to write and draw it it'll just go nowhere. I shouldn't be surprised by these things but I am.

Well, how do you choose what to document in your life? Is it all guided by intuition, by your “gut reaction” to an incident or experience, or is there perhaps more thought behind your choice of what you share with your readers?

I guess it does come down to intuition or gut reaction, because there's not much that's calculated about it. Sometimes it's just a personal feeling of interest, but more often it's random. I'll just sit at my desk and write something down and hope something works.

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Are there some things that you on first impulse think you want to share, but on second thought—or even after you’ve got it all down on paper—you realize you don’t want to put out there for anyone to read?

So far, not really. I wish I was more brave, actually. There's so much that I'm embarrassed and ashamed about, and am scared to put into a story. I'm afraid people will be like, "Now you've gone too far." Every time I write about something that makes me cringe, like when I wrote about when I had bedbugs, or listed a bunch of inappropriate things I've done, it's been very cathartic, it's made me a bit lighter. By that logic I should just spend my life cataloging every disturbing thing I've ever done, then just float away.

How truthful are you? Have you ever been tempted to change something, be it something major or a small detail, to make a piece funnier, more poignant…or to depict someone or something as worse than they were?

I am not very truthful. I take pleasure in perfecting the story with lies. Often I will make up the whole thing, then look back at it and realize it's actually the truth, that I've just simplified it. Or maybe my memory adjusts itself to believe it's true. This is a problem, actually. Once I draw an autobiographical comic, it begins to replace my memory.

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How about your own actions or behavior? Have you ever fudged things a little to make yourself look better in the cold light of publication?

Yes, better and worse too.

What do you get from creating art in general? Is this something that you’re driven to do, something that is literally part of what makes you who you are, or is it a little less dramatic than that?

Yes, it is a part of what makes me who I am, and it is also a sort of refuge from the pressures of reality. But at the same time, since my livelihood depends on it, it's also a terrible pressure in itself.

How about the memoir-based work? What do you get from that?

I don't know. When I sit down to do it, it's more like I'm thinking about what can I give with that. Because of course I want to have something to offer my readers, I want the reader to get something. But of course I get a lot out of it too, that catharsis.

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What do you hope that your readers get from your work? Do you want them to gain some insight into what makes us all tick from their encounters with your comics, or is that too far a reach, and it’s basically about entertaining them?

I'd like to give them comfort and hope, a feeling that more is possible than they realize, a feeling of expansion, also entertainment.

Anything to add before I let you get back to it?

Just that I've just come back from a very long tour promoting my new book, The Voyeurs.

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A veteran journalist who has covered the comics medium since 1998, Bill Baker is also the author of Icons: The DC Comics and WildStorm Art of Jim Lee and seven previous books featuring his extended interviews with Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and other notable creators. You can learn more about Bill’s work…

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