January 2007

John Zuarino


An Interview with Gabrielle Bell

Gabrielle Bell's new graphic novel Lucky collects the serialized mini-comic that garnered an Ignatz Award in 2004. Her new book, which is simply yet effectively illustrated, chronicles Bell's life in Brooklyn while she goes through a period most artists seem to have to endure when moving to the city. From apartment-hopping to gross minimum wage and leading to bizarre odd-jobs one can only find on Craigslist, Bell captures the struggling Williamsburg experience that non-trust-funders simply cannot avoid.

I met Gabrielle at Café Grumpy, a small coffee shop in Greenpoint. She speaks about her experiences as a Brooklynite, the DIY zine movement that inspired her, and some generally crappy experiences in getting by.

Describe Lucky for me. What were your intentions behind writing it?

I was working on some other project at the time and I wanted to do some kind of experimental diary that was less pressure, to take the pressure off my other work. I was doing diary comics before, but I wanted to do something that was more entertaining and less private. So I did it with that in mind. Not really to make it a book, but just to make it into mini-comics. It was sort of a writing exercise. My mini-comics before Lucky were much more planned.

Did you really write to Gerard Depardieu?

No. [laughs] It was mostly memoir, but there were things that were changed. I had a French friend at the time, and I thought it would be more funny if it had a part with Gerard Depardieu.

Did you go to school for cartooning?

No. I took some art classes, a lot of life drawing classes. I think most cartoonists are pretty self-taught, starting with personal stories, which is I think the easiest thing.

What were your influences in creating Lucky?

When I started doing comics, I would go to the comic book stores and look at all the mini-comics and the zines. They would be my influence because they made it seem easier. I was reading stuff like Dan Clowes and Julie Doucet and Peter Bagge, but the things that really started me on it were mini-comics and zines by people my own age or people as professional as me, like Fly [Peops]. Somebody gave me a zine of hers, and it was a lot of writing and comics and some drawings. It seemed very spirited and beautifully written, but at the same time unprofessional. So I thought to myself, if I work at it, maybe I could do something like this.

And Ariel Schrag. When I found her comic, she was just 14 at the time, and I was about 22 or 21. That was her comic Awkward, which was just about problems with high school and stuff, but it was so simply done. It was just a simple picture on the cover with this very self-involved story. But there was no bullshit about it. I really liked and responded to that. We're very good friends now.

I think she was doing something at Mo Pitkin's the other night.

Yeah I missed that. I did the thing at Mo Pitkin's a month earlier.

With Megan Kelso.

Yeah. She's editing a book about middle school, which I did a story for. It should be out around summer.

In one of the stories from Lucky #2, you were tabling in front of one of the bookstores on Bedford Ave. A fat comic book guy comes up and tells you why he hates women cartoonists…

…and he only likes the American cartoonists…

Do you run into a lot of people like that?

Kind of, yes. Comics have been in that camp for so long. There is just a tradition of this guy. It makes it hard, kind of discouraging. They get on their message boards and their blogs and they voice their opinions. I don't know, it's very hard not to look at that stuff. It gets very self-involved and self-referential and sort of loses perspective over the whole point of comics.

In Lucky, you were teaching art to kids in the Bronx. Do you still do that?

Yeah I did that with my friend Lyndsay, who's my friend "Marie" in this book. It was very hard because there really wasn't as much teaching as much as trying to get them to settle down and keep them occupied enough to just keep them from fighting and stuff. But they were so cute and funny. One time we did collages, and they just loved when they found something that was dirty. They'd go through the magazines and look for pictures of partially naked women just so they could say, "Ew, that's nasty! Look at that! That's nasty!"

Kind of like the two French boys in your book…

Yeah, they loved that stuff. I would teach if I was offered the job, but I don't think I want to pursue it because it was very, very hard. I have a hard time in front of crowds and kids. I might be better now, because I've been doing more public speaking, but it's still very difficult.

Tell me more about the French boys that you tutor in the book.

I met them at a café, the boys and their dad, and I was just sitting there working on Lucky. They came up to me with their high voices, they were so sweet, and were just like, "Oh, they look like French comics!" So I tried to get them into some classes, because some friends of mine were teaching comics courses. After a while I couldn't find any classes for them, so I wrote to their dad and said that maybe we could just do a private class. It was a lot easier than teaching art to 30 kids in the Bronx, but it was still very difficult. I mean, the teaching part, I couldn't even get to the teaching part.

You go through a lot of crappy odd-jobs in Lucky, which feels like the typical young-person-in-New-York experience. Are you still doing any of that?

No. Every once in a while I get so broke and I think about getting a job modeling again, so I'll call up a school. Then, when it comes down to it, I can't do it. I'm doing more illustration things now. I haven't had a weird job in quite a while, except for maybe promoting my book. It's kind of a strange job in a way because I have to keep on talking about it. I've been projecting it on a screen and talking to groups.

But yeah, for some reason weird jobs just always… I can't seem to get any formal ones, but whenever it's strange I know they're going to hire me. When I got the job with the artist, "Sheila Bartok" in Lucky, she described to me how she wanted help with actually drawing and that it was kind of a collaborative thing. It was sort of unorthodox or unprecedented, basically unusual. I could feel right away that I would get the job because… I don't know what it is about me. But if it's a regular office job where I have to put out a resume and put on a suit and some nice clothes and be like everybody else, I just can't seem to get hired. I don't know what it is. Maybe it's just my willingness to compromise or my open-mindedness.

The job where you're making jewelry, does that fall into that category as well?

That was actually a part of the artist assistant job. I started out doing this artwork, and then she also had this business of doing jewelry, and that was a little less unusual. It was more simple factory work. I asked her if I could work there, and when an opening came I got it. It was a really nice job. There were really nice people, and it was really easy, probably the best day job I ever had. I maybe should have stayed there longer.

I know how that goes. I try not to stab myself in the eyes every time a customer belittles me in the bookstore, like the guy who wanted the Bill O'Reilly book and tried to talk to me like I was a puppy.

That just goes to show you… That's like a Chelsea person, but like a Republican. I have not seen that much Bill O'Reilly, but I don't like him at all. He's a horrible man. I saw him on Fox, and I heard him on NPR, the interview with Terry Gross. I guess it was a pretty famous interview, because she tried to corner him and pin him down on some questions, and then he got really… well, he probably got the way that Chelsea guy got with you. He talked to her like she was a puppy.

I'm assuming the housing problem is no longer an issue, the apartment-hopping.

Yeah, I went through a time where I was moving a lot, and so did my boyfriend. But now I've been at the same place for a few years, which is the same place at the end of the book. It was kind of a coincidence that I kept the diary at the same time when we were looking for an apartment, but it was sort of fascinating. There's something fascinating about going into people's houses that you don't know and seeing how people live. Especially in Brooklyn.

There was this one place in Brooklyn that I went to look at. $700 for a room, and the shower was in the bedroom. So every morning your roommate would have to knock on your door and say, "I need to take a shower," and you'd have to leave the room. They didn't mention that in the ad!

After Lucky #3, you added a few extra stories to the book. The last one, "The Hole," is about an argument you and "Tom" have which eventually leads to you guys being sucked into whatever world is on the other side of the hole in the shower. What was the driving force behind the story?

"The Hole" was pretty autobiographical. There was this hole in the bathroom, and there was the ongoing argument about fixing it. The idea came from a conversation about it with the guy "Tom" is based on, and we were just like, "Well, what if we just fell in there?" It came from a story we built on in-conversation, and I made it into a comic. He was always very good for that… building stories out of conversations.

Craig Thompson wrote a blurb for your book, and he did sort of a travel journal.

I'm trying to do that now, actually. I really admire what Craig does, and that travel journal was very inspiring. I'd like to do something like that. But he's such a good artist, I mean for me I just have to go over and over and over. With him it's just like, the first try. When you're traveling and you're keeping diaries, you lose your thread if you try to do first, second and third drafts. You gotta know how to just do it once. But I'm still trying.

Have you ever thought about doing a long, serious graphic novel?

I haven't, I really want to. When I was doing all those crappy jobs and keeping Lucky as a journal, I was doing short comics. It seems like my life was so unpredictable and inconsistent that I couldn't concentrate on a longer piece. It's getting a little more steady now, but it seems like you've got to have a long period of time where you know what you're going to be doing. But I would like to.

Any last advice for future writers and illustrators just getting their feet wet?

Maybe one's first work is never really that great, and it shouldn't be that great, or else then what are you going to do? You want to be a little conservative.

One time my friends and I went to a club, and everybody looked so cool. We felt sort of stupid. Everybody was dancing so well, so we decided to dance as badly as we could just to get started, and it worked. We just acted like retards, and then we started to feel more comfortable. I wouldn't say "purposely write a bad book," but you know what I mean.