“Truth is Fragmentary” is the name of Gabrielle Bell’s latest comics memoir collection and it says it all. Think about it. Truth is indeed fragmentary. You can point out honest, even blunt, bits of truth all you want. People will process it however they choose. Some will deny what you said. Some will misunderstand. Some will have never even come close to getting it. Maybe a few will completely see it your way. It’s a carnival we live in. Thankfully, we have astute and witty observers like Gabrielle Bell. If you’re new to her work, or if you happen to enjoy sly humor, then this is the book for you.
Conversations overheard and observations made, in airports and various far-flung locales, can be priceless, especially for a cartoonist. There was a very good scene I witnessed just awhile ago that I dutifully documented. It involved some young travelers. A girl recalled how she got a tattoo of a gorilla. The boy asked why she would do that. The girl answered that it had to do with her being drunk. The boy did not hear her correctly. He thought the reason she got the tattoo was because gorillas are high strung. And it goes on from there. The magic comes from capturing something in the moment.
Gabrielle Bell is a master of these on the fly (or fly on the wall) renditions. She does more with one pen drawing directly onto one page than some comics do spanning a whole series. She can do that with just one panel observing a misfit who may hold the key to all of our salvation.
The trick, if there is one, is to be persistent, not worry about being consistent. What happens to cartoonists is that they go through peaks and valleys. Only a cartoonist is ever going to truly appreciate what that really means. But think of it in terms of process. Bell already has an established way of creating comics, just like an actor or musician relies upon certain methods, etc. It comes natural after many years of practice. And, just like anyone else, she will hit a wall. And then all she really needs to do is pick up that pen again. That’s what you find in this book: A very honest progression of various moments rendered.
Bell has drawn more comics than most people today will have handwritten anything in a handful of lifetimes. Well, people avoid handwriting but we won’t digress. The point is that Bell draws a lot and that’s because she loves it. A comics journalist may take that for granted. And, yes, there are such things as “comics journalists.” Anyway, most of them do take the talent thing for granted. They instinctually know what they like. The best reviewers can take their observations further. As both a journalist and a cartoonist, I will let you in on a big secret: A truly great cartoonist loves to draw. If you don’t love to draw, you won’t be great. And Bell is great. That’s as honestly as I can put it. It’s the truth, and with truth being fragmentary, I leave it to you to make of that what you will–after I explain some more.
Bell’s drawing dances upon the page. It’s fun for the eyes to follow. Couple that with truly compelling writing, and it all adds up. If anything were out of place, if it were an illustrator attempting to be a cartoonist or an amateur overreaching, for example, your eyes will pick it up in a second. You may not know what to do with that information but your eyes won’t lie to you. Well, you will know. You will lose interest. And the reason, quite truthfully, is that the art is somehow not completely working. Maybe part of it is, and it’s worth noting, but not all of it. Sometimes the writing redeems it. Sometimes the whole thing has nowhere to go.
And it’s not so much that Bell’s artwork is flawless and that everything relies upon a rapier wit. That would be missing the point too. Basically, she has a wonderful vision, a persistent vision. She’s created a world of seemingly talking heads but they have odd and delightful things to say or it’s the way they’re saying what they say.
The takeaway for you is that there is sly humor in Bell’s work that you won’t easily find elsewhere. In total, Bell’s is a very unique comics experience. Bell has mastered the art of distilling random bits of experience. She will let various friends, acquaintances, and total strangers have the floor. Sometimes they will stick their foot in their mouth. Sometimes they will come off as graceful. Often, it’s all about capturing a sense of something that seemed significant at the time. In the end, ironically or magically, that moment’s true purpose was to live on in the form of a comic by Gabrielle Bell.
“Truth is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries” is published by Uncivilized Books. Visit them right here.