Gabrielle Bell and her uncomfortable, cathartic process of making auto-biographical comics

Gabrielle Bell makes comics mainly about her life, and she doesn’t pick the most flattering or positive anecdotes. 

“Sometimes I’ve done some comics where I’m like, ‘this is going to totally make everyone appalled at me and just disgusted,’” Bell said. “And then it turned out people loved it and felt seen and recognized, and it brought people and myself together, and that’s encouraged me to explore it even more.” 

Bell has found success in illustrating comics about embarrassing or unpleasant moments of her life, combining honesty with anthropomorphic animals and other silly bits of fantasy to keep things light. 

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The Brooklyn-based cartoonist has been making comics for years and years, mining her personal life in addition to sometimes crafting fictional stories – her latest book, Inappropriate, a short-story collection, released earlier this year. She runs a Patreon and continues to publish short-form comics. In May, The New Yorker published a cartoon from her about getting a cat. 

In 2017, her book Everything Is Flammable released to wide acclaim. The Best American Comics 2018 collection included a particularly harrowing excerpt from this book about the disturbing deaths of childhood pets of hers. 

Inappropriate appropriately displays Bell’s range, with some disturbing comics, some cringe-inducing comics and some goofy, fantastical comics. The first story uses one page to tell a dark, hilarious story about an anthropomorphic dog walking a nude human man on a leash. Another story, “Nocturnal Guests,” follows Bell’s awful run-ins with bed bugs, featuring a life-size bed bug that lies beside her in bed with his head propped up on one of his arms. “Good morning, Sunshine,” he says to her. 

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“Sometimes trying to convey human emotions is jarring and disturbing, and to reduce it to a certain cartoony makes it much more universal and palatablem,” Bell said. “So I guess I try to take big emotions and make them fun.” 

Run-ins with anxiety and insecurity means Bell sometimes has a hard time being so personal with her work, but it can also feel good. 

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“I have these fears that if I expose my inner workings that it’s going to frighten people away,” Bell said. “There’s definitely this catharsis in actually exposing that stuff and then finding that it resonates with people. There’s this sort of compulsion to get it out of me. That need to confess or come to terms with those things.” 

One of Bell’s all-time favorite comics of hers is the very funny fictional story “Little Red and Big Bad,” a bizarre parody of “Little Red Riding Hood” included in Inappropriate. In it, Little Red and Big Bad are in love from the start. Little Red suggests they murder and rob her rich grandmother for money to help them run away together. She originally wrote the story when she was in her 20s, and decided to draw it some 20 years later after finding the old script. 

“It was a story that I wrote then that I would never have written now. It had this boldness that I don’t have now, but then it had this naivete that I don’t have now,” Bell said. “So I was able to take that story and develop the boldness and add the sophistication that I have gained in the intervening years to that sort of raw, youthfulness of the story.” 

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She now runs a Patreon page where she regularly releases comics exclusively for subscribers. For much of her career, she released her comics for free online before having them published as physical books, so using Patreon presents a different way of doing things.

“It’s a nice chunk of money that’s available every month,” Bell said. “It doesn’t compensate for all the work that I do for it, but I figure, eventually the book will be published. It’s a good life-line.”  

Bell is thankful that she found comics, having been moved and inspired by independent works like Love and Rockets. It hit her one day, like an epiphany, that she should make comics. She always loved writing and drawing, after all. 

“I was very lucky. If I didn’t experience that, I’d probably still be floundering. I mean, I still flounder,” Bell said, laughing. “But I mean, it was definitely a life rope. It was a thing to hold onto throughout my whole life. It was just one thing that I had that I could always cling to, so it was quite the lifesaver.”

*** 

all images courtesy of gabrielle bell. you can buy her book inappropriate here or contribute to her patreon page here

and hey! You can contribute to my patreon page here! please consider supporting my independent comics journalism. it would mean a lot to me. 

 

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