IN ONE SHORT COMIC in her new book, cartoonist Gabrielle Bell sums up part of her philosophy of life — and comics. “Sometimes it feels like I’m carrying some invisible, unwieldy object, like, say, a bicycle, with both hands over my head, while continuing to try to function normally,” Bell thinks as she depicts herself walking down the street with friends. She goes on to wonder, “Do we all have our invisible impediments?” As a cartoonist, Bell is fascinated with capturing the moment, but also with how comics can find drama in that moment, find ways to tell stories through body language, allusion, and observation.
For the past 20 years, Bell has been doing just that in books like Cecil and Jordan in New York, The Voyeurs, and Truth is Fragmentary. Bell’s new book, her first book-length comic, is the memoir Everything is Flammable. Bell tells the story of a few months when her mother’s house burns down and Bell makes several trips to help her deal with the loss. The book includes a few stories of childhood, but for the most part Bell is interested in negotiating the present moment. She describes the silences between her and her mother, the changes that befell the community that she left when she grew up, and the differences between that community and New York. She also manages to deftly consider her mother and her grandmother, taking each of them to task and yet never holding anyone to a standard she doesn’t also apply to herself.
ALEX DUEBEN: Your mother’s house caught fire in 2014. When did you start Everything is Flammable?
GABRIELLE BELL: It started then. It started with a diary comic but then it became more self-conscious, if you know what I mean. At first, I was just doing a diary comic chronicling events that were happening, and then pretty quickly I was like, “I’m going to turn this into a book.” Is “diary comics” the best way to describe it? I feel like whenever I say diary comics I get a certain kind of glazed-over look. I think it’s just the word “diary.” They’re comic strips based on my own life, but they’re not really diaristic. I don’t want to try to apologize or explain, either. Basically they’re comics based on my own life, and diary is just easier to say.
Every July you used to make and post one comic a day. Some of the comics you made during that period are realistic, some are exaggerated, and others are completely made up.
Yeah and sometimes I just make something up to make it funny. Whatever it takes to get the joke. [Laughs.]
And then in July 2014, your mom’s house burned down while you were doing this.
Not only did the fire give me some good fodder, but making comics probably also alleviated some of my anxiety. This past July I did the same thing. Around mid-July I had this opportunity to move back to Brooklyn, and I really wanted to, but it was so stressful trying to figure out all the logistics of it. Especially making enough money to do it. I was just so frightened and freaked out about uprooting myself and moving back to the city, but I couldn’t really talk about it in my comics because I didn’t know if it was really going to happen. And it just seemed too personal. It really affected my comics. Some were stick figures, all jagged and nervous because I couldn’t talk about what was bothering me and it was hard to talk about anything else. I guess I’m not very good at compartmentalizing.
It’s interesting to hear you say that because in the book you show yourself as this artist living in New York and growing cucumbers, but your interactions with your mom show a different side of you.
More maternal, in a way?
Yes, because of the way you’re helping her out. Were you conscious of this?
Yeah. When you do personal comics or writing, you establish a kind of character and then that character becomes fixed. In reality, everybody changes a lot, but it’s hard to organically show that. I’m older now and I’ve learned a few things, I think. I guess the moment called for it and I can be responsible if I’m challenged to be. [Laughs.] I think that’s part of being older and more responsible, but I’m also stuck in the role of the child-artist. Once I’m forced out of that role, I can play other roles. I don’t want to get too earnest! [Laughs.] It just gets messy. I need to keep a little bit of a distance.
When you rushed out to be with your mother, what was the process of starting to make the book?
I basically kept a lot of notes and wrote the story in my head as it was all happening. Then when I was back in New York, I drew them as comics. In a way, it was already there. I’m definitely not a journalist, but it was more in that vein. I like to think of it more as documentary, actually, where instead of having a camera I’m writing and drawing and taking photos all the time and then I go back to New York and “edit” it. The book kind of wrote itself at some point.
When did you say this is a book, and not just a few comics?
I actually can’t quite remember. I mean this is my first full-length book. I’ve tried to do full-length books before and I end up burning out. Like I said, I could spend 10 years on a page so I didn’t really want to turn this into a book, because I didn’t want to fail at that. [Laughs.] I think it was just going to be a small collection of stories, and then when I gathered enough stories, I thought, this could be a book. I’m so cautious now because I failed a lot. [Laughs.] I don’t have that hubris you have when you’re young and think that you can do anything. When I was young I was like, I can write a graphic novel easily! I managed to do some good short stories. Not knowing how to do something sometimes gets you through it. But so does knowing that you don’t know how to do something. I’m aware now of how much I don’t know.
It feels like you and your mother had some really intense conversations.
I don’t actually think we did. [Laughs.] We spent a lot of time in silence, just driving to different towns and buying stuff. Both of us are just really quiet people. We would spend whole evenings just sitting there. I would try to talk and then just give up because trying to talk was like trying to resist gravity. I probably managed to chronicle every single thing we said. [Laughs.] If you looked at it in real time, it’s not really very much.
I’m kind of exaggerating. [Laughs.] You know, with family you keep the same conversations going on forever. There was a lot of, are you sure you’re okay with me doing comics about this? And then her being, well, I guess so. I mean there were no shocking revelations or anything.
Maybe not, but there were a lot of raw moments.
I think so. I think maybe I made them more raw than they were. Or maybe I’m just used to rawness. There was this conversation where we talked about when she had me and I was like, “Why did you have me? You were just a kid and traveling around,” and she said, “Well, you couldn’t get an abortion.” That was shocking to me. That was like, oh. I mean I take choice for granted. I always knew that I wasn’t planned, but I guess it was realizing it.
After that conversation, you have a panel of how it hit you in therapy months later.
Yeah, that was strange. The thing is, it was so mundane that the only thing that makes it shocking was putting it in a comic. I’m always crying about something. [Laughs.] Life is full of pain.
There were a handful of moments like that in the book. Like when you and your mom are talking about your stepfather and abuse.
That was hard. I’ve always avoided talking about abuse in my comics because I didn’t want to portray myself as some kind of whiner or victim. Also, I know people had it and have it far, far worse than me. I am incredibly lucky. It was a very hard thing to broach, but it was part of the story and I had to. I have one chapter where a lot of brutality happens — to me in particular — and it was a very striking memory. I think I needed to put that in, not to dwell in it or show what a hard life I’ve had, but to establish where I’m coming from … It was hard to write about. I wish I had written more about the situation with my mom and what she went through. But like I said, that was very raw. It was hard.
I don’t talk a lot about the pot-growing community out there. It’s all legal now, but when I grew up it was very much illegal, and we all lived like outlaws. We had to live in fear of getting busted and losing everything and going to jail. When you live among outlaws, you can’t go to the law for help. It’s not just hippies who are attracted to that life, but anybody who needs to hide from the law. In that way, life can be violent and dangerous. When I was growing up, we could never call the police on our stepdad when he was being violent because then the police would come and we’d lose the property and lose our livelihood. It would be more than just domestic violence. The one thing you don’t do is call the police, because they are the bad guys. There was always the threat of violence. I don’t know if this is entirely accurate. Somebody who might read this article could be, that’s not how it was, it was a beautiful community. Which it was, also.
I talked with Riad Sattouf recently about his book The Arab of the Future, and he was discussing the violence of the town where he grew up and he realized that this is something common in rural life.
I read Trevor Noah’s book and he talks about the same kind of violence with his mom and stepdad. I thought Noah’s book was incredible, but he talks about how if you really measured it, the violence was incredibly rare. It was more that there was this constant threat of violence that was always there. Even though there wasn’t actually that much violence, the threat of it always being there would totally take over people’s lives. I think it was like that when I was growing up. It wasn’t constantly violent, so I didn’t ever want to identify as someone who grew up in such a situation or as an abused child, because it was 95 to 99 percent threat and fear.
As you said that, I was reminded of the scene where your dog died and you learned how your stepdad wanted you to act.
We all knew as long as we played the right role, things were fine. But they got out of control sometimes. That scene was there to establish the background. My concern is always for the now. When I draw my comics, I tend to try to push the future and the past away and just try to examine what’s going on at this very moment. I didn’t really want to write a memoir of my childhood, I just wanted to give context.
You mentioned that you think of what you did in the book as documentary — something in which you’re not inventing things, but in which there is a subjective point of view.
I was approaching it in those terms. I am really moved by Ross McElwee. I think I’ve seen all of his documentaries. To me, they’re the most amazing things because they’re always about something else, but then they’re also exploring his own issues in the context of bigger things, and using other things to examine his own issues. The personal and the political coming together. There’s something very spontaneous about what he does, and also very controlled.
When do you think trying to capture the moment became something you were conscious of doing? Or was it always there?
I think I was trying to do it for a long time. Maybe because I practice meditation and when I practice meditation I always try to bring myself back to the moment. Having grown up the way I did, there’s this feeling of no control. Everything can just go at any moment. You can’t really own anything or take much value in owning things, because they can get thrown away or burned up. I don’t want to talk about things in terms of abuse, because everybody has to cope with growing up, one way or the other. I think a lot of people have to deal with this feeling of a lack of control. Some of us just give up and decide we don’t have any control over anything. Other people become incredibly controlling and try to control every aspect in their life and the people around them. I think I have really localized my sense of lack of control to my comics. I don’t have very much money, and I don’t have a lot of influence, so I put that feeling of helplessness in the comics.
You put your feelings of helplessness into your comics, because they’re the one thing you have complete control over?
Yeah. Also my memory is very bad. Maybe from growing up around pot smokers. [Laughs.] But things are very vague and fuzzy in the past, and trying to recreate it feels insincere. Things also just don’t seem that important in the past. And then the future is also very vague and fuzzy. But the present moment is very intense and very acute.
You have a line in the book talking about a cat you had as a child: “I loved Red, as I loved any thing that would let me love it.” That sentiment definitely speaks to that idea of living in the moment.
Most of the cats out there were pretty skittish, and wouldn’t come up to a little kid. Red was this really gross, smelly, old cat, and he didn’t mind being hugged and squeezed by this little girl that I was. Everyone else was like, that gross cat, but I was like, this is the love of my life. It’s like that song, love the one you’re with. [Laughs.] Again, I don’t want to be like I was abused and neglected. I don’t feel that sense of, I deserved to grow up with parents who sent me to a special school and encouraged me and praised me and sent me to ballet class or whatever. My parents were much younger than I am now, and they had a lot more to cope with than I do. There’s an American sense that you have this right to this certain kind of safety and happiness, and it’s — I don’t think that we do. I mean we’re lucky if we have it. It’s such a fucked-up world.
I’m just saying that I was happy to have that cat in my life, and it was quite a shock when I had to watch it get killed. My mom read that and she said, I don’t remember leaving you there alone. She was like, “I’m sorry that happened,” and she felt really bad reading that. That didn’t occur to me. She had to go to town to get groceries. It wasn’t her fault that it happened.
Near the end of the book, you have a conversation with your grandmother in which you tell her that you’re not going to have children. Have you known this for a while?
Pretty much since I’ve been an adult. I mean, if I was going to have kids I would try to give the kid as good a life as I could. In the context of that story I had just heard my mom talk about all the mistakes she made, and then I go and talk to my grandmother and she talks about all the mistakes she made and all her regrets as a mother. In that context I was like, I’m putting an end to that.
Look, I’m the luckiest person. Just one generation behind me women had it so much harder. Sure there’s lots of problems now, but I’m just surrounded by other women reinforcing my idea that females exist as people themselves. I remember hearing this interview with Gloria Steinem in which she was saying that when she was young there was no feminist role model for her. She’s just a little bit older than my mom. I have so many role models to choose from. One generation back — my mom’s generation — had far fewer.
You mentioned that the book has been finished for a little while, and more recently you’ve had some short comics in Vice and elsewhere.
Yeah, I’ve been doing some short comics. I’ve been doing Patreon, actually. Basically it’s my diary comics. It’s actually a lot of fun because I can get a bit more personal and experimental than I would if I was doing comics for larger publications, or even just my own blog. It’s been really fun to just have fun with it and play around. It’s been a long time since I’ve allowed myself to be bad at it. [Laughs.] I’m not really working on anything else at the moment. Just the occasional short comic and some freelance work.
You’ve made fun of me for saying this in the past, but I do love your bears.
[Laughs.] A book about bears is simmering on the back burner. A short, funny book. Comics are just so time consuming. It’s very unwieldy. One has to be very careful about what one embarks on, because it can be for a long time.
You make diary comics in a day, but for a book like this, how long does it usually take to make a page?
One page could take two days or it could take two weeks. It’s hard to quantify since I took a lot of breaks. I think the book took about two years, and then there was a whole other year of just edits and production and coloring. That’s not really that long, but to me it was pretty draining. That happened very organically. I’m just hoping something organic can happen again, because I don’t think that sort of thing can really be forced. Or I don’t think it should be forced.
Alex Dueben has written for The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, The Comics Journal, The Paris Review, The Poetry Foundation, The Rumpus, and many other publications. More of his work can be found at alex-dueben.com and @alexdueben.