Books

The Partly True Diary of a Cartoonist

by Dominic Umile on April 28, 2014

(all images courtesy Uncivilized Books)

Cover of ‘Truth Is Fragmentary’ (all images courtesy Uncivilized Books)

California-born, Brooklyn, New York–based comics writer and artist Gabrielle Bell diarizes as often as she contemplates the very idea of memoirs in Truth Is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries, her new, mostly black-and-white collection of autobiographical comics. “When a diary is public, it becomes a different thing,” she writes in the introduction. “You no longer do it for yourself anymore, you do it for us, the reader.” Published by Uncivilized Books and named for a line penned by Tennessee Williams, Bell’s book launches with a lively pondering of whether or not a diary can be deemed as such when “editing, rewriting, and twisting the truth here and there” is part of the publishing process. In the pages that follow, Bell’s raw assemblage of international travel episodes, perpetual introspection, and examination of her own comics (within her own comics) is both absorbing and funny.

Page from Gabrielle Bell's 'Truth Is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries' (click to enlarge)

Page from Gabrielle Bell’s ‘Truth Is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries’ (click to enlarge)

The diarist intimately chronicles her travels and dissects her role as an autobiographical comics creator, agonizing over whether to make mini-comics about her life at all. Bell grapples with the sort of self-doubt and social anxiety that confine most people to their bedrooms, but she’s on the move, hopping planes bound for conventions and international comics festivals. Cramped flights in the book either allow for healthy reflection or produce elaborate crash horrors that play out in her mind. There are also fruitful airport scenes, where feelings of “all eyes watching me” give way to unpolished sketches of passers-by and rich guesswork about fellow travelers.

She packs loads of text into narrative captions and word balloons to get every last detail on the page; the dialogue barely fits into the crowded panels. Spending time within the artist’s micro world is an experience defined as much by realism as by abrupt bouts of whimsy. Drawn reproductions of vacation photos depict rides atop a big house cat, and a trip upstate features a grizzly bear in an ice cream truck. More straightforward journaling has Bell questioning the validity of her work and even her contribution to party conversation. “Every single interaction is painful,” she writes. “I never get used to it.”

Page from Gabrielle Bell’s ‘Truth Is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries’ (click to enlarge)

Page from Gabrielle Bell’s ‘Truth Is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries’ (click to enlarge)

When Bell does find solace, it’s in relaxed taverns with friends or against evocative urban backdrops. Truth‘s scene-setting imagery — strings of North Brooklyn storefronts, hanging plants squaring off box-sized city apartment bedrooms — is spare and lovely. A rooftop get-together along the East River is home to a reflective conversation about adulthood, and it reminded me of my first New Year’s Eve in Brooklyn, almost eight years ago. We spent it on the frigid top of a building off Berry Street in South Williamsburg. Bundled in scarves and thick winter coats, we took in a widescreen view of the Lower East Side and drank beer with painter friends who would soon leave the neighborhood for dependable work and a bigger home. In Truth, a tall, lean Bell and her soon-to-be-evicted friend Jenni mull gentrification’s reach. Even as they look out over the cartoonist’s grand ridge of blocky building silhouettes and moonlit sky, they’re center to the sequence, nearly ducking to fit within the bold lines that frame the story.

When the book’s figures are contemplating big life decisions, they’re the subjects of medium shots, dispatching advice for Bell under fuzzy black shadow patches that gather above their heads before fraying midway, at the rim of where the dialogue materializes. In Montpellier in 2010, Bell talks with revered comics artist Tim Sale (Batman: The Long Halloween, Spider-Man: Blue) and exhausts herself, but it doesn’t prevent her from being “visited by the most terrible insomnia.” A panel that’s half copy and half blackness, save for Bell’s face, positions our nerve-wracked narrator under a blanket, ropey bangs lapping at the bridge of her nose.

Page from Gabrielle Bell’s ‘Truth Is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries’

Page from Gabrielle Bell’s ‘Truth Is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries’

Timidity and travel pitfalls were often the subjects of Bell’s The Voyeurs (2012), too, a full-color compendium of strips championed by critics for its wealth of frank discussions and internal monologue. Back then, Bell filled six-panel pages with textured profiles of the people who wander in and out of her life, and unpacked a difficulty with physical interaction, at one point tracing it to the way her stepdad would hug her: ” … always too long, too affectionate.” Truth Is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries benefits from similar self-exploration, whether it’s one hundred percent true or not.

Gabrielle Bell’s Truth Is Fragmentary: Travelogues & Diaries is available for preorder from Uncivilized Books, Amazon, and other online booksellers.

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