A Quiet Conflagration: An Interview with Gabrielle Bell

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. 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. In reality, everybody changes a lot, but it’s hard to organically show that. ¤
ALEX DUEBEN: Your mother’s house caught fire in 2014. Not only did the fire give me some good fodder, but making comics probably also alleviated some of my anxiety. Then when I was back in New York, I drew them as comics. [Laughs.] Again, I don’t want to be like I was abused and neglected. [Laughs.] A book about bears is simmering on the back burner. [Laughs.] We spent a lot of time in silence, just driving to different towns and buying stuff. Or maybe I’m just used to rawness. I probably managed to chronicle every single thing we said. You put your feelings of helplessness into your comics, because they’re the one thing you have complete control over? Maybe because I practice meditation and when I practice meditation I always try to bring myself back to the moment. It was hard. My mom read that and she said, I don’t remember leaving you there alone. You can’t really own anything or take much value in owning things, because they can get thrown away or burned up. And then the future is also very vague and fuzzy. Yes, because of the way you’re helping her out. The one thing you don’t do is call the police, because they are the bad guys. There’s something very spontaneous about what he does, and also very controlled. ¤
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. This past July I did the same thing. The thing is, it was so mundane that the only thing that makes it shocking was putting it in a comic. Other people become incredibly controlling and try to control every aspect in their life and the people around them. Red was this really gross, smelly, old cat, and he didn’t mind being hugged and squeezed by this little girl that I was. Some of the comics you made during that period are realistic, some are exaggerated, and others are completely made up. 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. One page could take two days or it could take two weeks. It feels like you and your mother had some really intense conversations. Sure there’s lots of problems now, but I’m just surrounded by other women reinforcing my idea that females exist as people themselves. 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? Bell’s new book, her first book-length comic, is the memoir Everything is Flammable. 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. But the present moment is very intense and very acute. Not knowing how to do something sometimes gets you through it. I managed to do some good short stories. Or was it always there? My parents were much younger than I am now, and they had a lot more to cope with than I do. When you rushed out to be with your mother, what was the process of starting to make the book? Have you known this for a while? Somebody who might read this article could be, that’s not how it was, it was a beautiful community. I need to keep a little bit of a distance. I think I’ve seen all of his documentaries. It would be more than just domestic violence. You were just a kid and traveling around,” and she said, “Well, you couldn’t get an abortion.” That was shocking to me. Yeah. 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. I mean I take choice for granted. 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. But they got out of control sometimes. The personal and the political coming together. That scene was there to establish the background. She had to go to town to get groceries. I’m definitely not a journalist, but it was more in that vein. I’m older now and I’ve learned a few things, I think. I’m aware now of how much I don’t know. I mean this is my first full-length book. Once I’m forced out of that role, I can play other roles. 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. When you do personal comics or writing, you establish a kind of character and then that character becomes fixed. I was approaching it in those terms. I think a lot of people have to deal with this feeling of a lack of control. 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. I guess I’m not very good at compartmentalizing. Every July you used to make and post one comic a day. 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. I mean, if I was going to have kids I would try to give the kid as good a life as I could. It’s been really fun to just have fun with it and play around. I’m so cautious now because I failed a lot. We had to live in fear of getting busted and losing everything and going to jail. It’s been a long time since I’ve allowed myself to be bad at it. Yeah and sometimes I just make something up to make it funny. My concern is always for the now. 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. [Laughs.] I think that’s part of being older and more responsible, but I’m also stuck in the role of the child-artist. I mean we’re lucky if we have it. I actually can’t quite remember. 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. That was like, oh. Maybe not, but there were a lot of raw moments. I’m just hoping something organic can happen again, because I don’t think that sort of thing can really be forced. 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. Even though there wasn’t actually that much violence, the threat of it always being there would totally take over people’s lives. 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. 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. It’s very unwieldy. 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. 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 don’t want to try to apologize or explain, either. I didn’t really want to write a memoir of my childhood, I just wanted to give context. Things also just don’t seem that important in the past. The book includes a few stories of childhood, but for the most part Bell is interested in negotiating the present moment. There were a handful of moments like that in the book. 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.] If you looked at it in real time, it’s not really very much. [Laughs.] I don’t have that hubris you have when you’re young and think that you can do anything. I’m kind of exaggerating. As you said that, I was reminded of the scene where your dog died and you learned how your stepdad wanted you to act. In a way, it was already there. I’ve tried to do full-length books before and I end up burning out. Just the occasional short comic and some freelance work. When you live among outlaws, you can’t go to the law for help. [Laughs.] You know, with family you keep the same conversations going on forever. It’s hard to quantify since I took a lot of breaks. Comics are just so time consuming. Look, I’m the luckiest person. I’m always crying about something. That didn’t occur to me. In that way, life can be violent and dangerous. I don’t know if this is entirely accurate. She was like, “I’m sorry that happened,” and she felt really bad reading that. 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. You’ve made fun of me for saying this in the past, but I do love your bears. It wasn’t her fault that it happened. But so does knowing that you don’t know how to do something. We would spend whole evenings just sitting there. [Laughs.] Life is full of pain. [Laughs.] I’m not really working on anything else at the moment. There was always the threat of violence. I feel like whenever I say diary comics I get a certain kind of glazed-over look. When I was young I was like, I can write a graphic novel easily! Most of the cats out there were pretty skittish, and wouldn’t come up to a little kid. Yeah. I think it was like that when I was growing up. 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. That happened very organically. 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. One generation back — my mom’s generation — had far fewer. Which it was, also. It’s such a fucked-up world. Having grown up the way I did, there’s this feeling of no control. 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. More maternal, in a way? 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. Basically they’re comics based on my own life, and diary is just easier to say. 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 really affected my comics. Whatever it takes to get the joke. [Laughs.] It just gets messy. Also my memory is very bad. It started with a diary comic but then it became more self-conscious, if you know what I mean. Pretty much since I’ve been an adult. GABRIELLE BELL: It started then. I am incredibly lucky. Everything can just go at any moment. That was hard. That’s not really that long, but to me it was pretty draining. 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. And it just seemed too personal. Just one generation behind me women had it so much harder. I mean there were no shocking revelations or anything. I think I was trying to do it for a long time. Both of us are just really quiet people. I am really moved by Ross McElwee. I have one chapter where a lot of brutality happens — to me in particular — and it was a very striking memory. It was more that there was this constant threat of violence that was always there. Were you conscious of this? [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. One has to be very careful about what one embarks on, because it can be for a long time. [Laughs.]
And then in July 2014, your mom’s house burned down while you were doing this. Like when you and your mom are talking about your stepfather and abuse. Especially making enough money to do it. But like I said, that was very raw. When did you say this is a book, and not just a few comics? In that context I was like, I’m putting an end to that. Everyone else was like, that gross cat, but I was like, this is the love of my life. I wish I had written more about the situation with my mom and what she went through. I don’t want to get too earnest! When did you start Everything is Flammable? It’s not just hippies who are attracted to that life, but anybody who needs to hide from the law. She’s just a little bit older than my mom. I would try to talk and then just give up because trying to talk was like trying to resist gravity. I thought Noah’s book was incredible, but he talks about how if you really measured it, the violence was incredibly rare. There was a lot of, are you sure you’re okay with me doing comics about this? MAY 13, 2017

IN ONE SHORT COMIC in her new book, cartoonist Gabrielle Bell sums up part of her philosophy of life — and comics. It’s like that song, love the one you’re with. I think maybe I made them more raw than they were. 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 make diary comics in a day, but for a book like this, how long does it usually take to make a page? I basically kept a lot of notes and wrote the story in my head as it was all happening. I don’t actually think we did. 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’ve been doing Patreon, actually. 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. I read Trevor Noah’s book and he talks about the same kind of violence with his mom and stepdad. The book kind of wrote itself at some point. I think I have really localized my sense of lack of control to my comics. I think it’s just the word “diary.” They’re comic strips based on my own life, but they’re not really diaristic. Or I don’t think it should be forced. Maybe from growing up around pot smokers. Also, I know people had it and have it far, far worse than me. 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. I always knew that I wasn’t planned, but I guess it was realizing it. We all knew as long as we played the right role, things were fine. When do you think trying to capture the moment became something you were conscious of doing? Yeah, that was strange. 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. Basically it’s my diary comics. And then her being, well, I guess so. 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. Yeah, I’ve been doing some short comics. After that conversation, you have a panel of how it hit you in therapy months later. There was this conversation where we talked about when she had me and I was like, “Why did you have me? [Laughs.] But things are very vague and fuzzy in the past, and trying to recreate it feels insincere. A short, funny book. 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. I think so. I guess the moment called for it and I can be responsible if I’m challenged to be. It was a very hard thing to broach, but it was part of the story and I had to. I have so many role models to choose from. I think the book took about two years, and then there was a whole other year of just edits and production and coloring. Some of us just give up and decide we don’t have any control over anything. “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. More of his work can be found at alex-dueben.com and @alexdueben.