[GRINDHOUSE COMICS COLUMN] ‘EVERYTHING IS FLAMMABLE’ BY GABRIELLE BELL

 

 

 

Honestly, I don’t know how Gabrielle Bell does it. And I mean that on two levels.

 

On the first, purely technical level, her stringent adherence to six-panel grids on each page and “mid-range camera” perspective means that she draws full figures in almost every panel. When you think about that what that means in terms of sheer labor and dedication to craft, it’s just straight-up nuts. Admirable, absolutely, but nuts. Not many cartoonists could handle the workload, much less maintain it at her remarkably prolific pace.

 

It’s on the second, thematic level, though, that she deserves even more special recognition — that’s because as a memoirist, her ability to take an honest, unflinching look at both her own life and the lives of people around her is unequaled in the contemporary “alternative” comix “scene.” She doesn’t go out of her way to make anyone look bad, that much has been evident throughout the course of her nearly-two-decade career, but she doesn’t sugar-coat anything, either. I believe it was legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite who used to say “and that’s the day that was” at the close of every broadcast, and Bell seems to have absorbed that philosophy, even though her more unconventional upbringing in the wilds of northern California most likely precluded her from watching the news most (if not all) evenings, just at a guess.

 

 

And it’s that upbringing — and its lingering ramifications — that form the spine of her latest, and most accomplished to date, graphic novel, Everything Is Flammable, recently released under the auspices of the consistently-fascinating Uncivilized Books, an outfit I’m proud to say hangs its metaphorical shingle in my hometown of Minneapolis. Bell has been slowly circling her way toward a genuine masterpiece for many years now with notable works such as The Voyeurs and Truth Is Fragmentary, and now that moment has unquestionably arrived — a heady mix of painful memories, frayed nerves, keen observations, and compelling characters navigating equally compelling situations, this is “next-level” autobiographical storytelling that will grip you as surely and firmly during its quiet interludes as it does during its emotional avalanches. If you’re ready to buckle in, Bell’s book isn’t going to let you go.

 

 

Consisting of a conjoined admixture of re-worked (and newly-colored) entries from Bell’s eagerly-anticipated annual summertime cartoon diaries and material previously unseen anywhere in either “rough” or “polished” form, Everything Is Flammable limns  the tense trajectory of its author/subject’s life from 2014 to 2015, a year in which her aging mother was literally forced to start over from scratch after a devastating fire left her both homeless and penniless, a proud and independent “off-the-grid” woman suddenly forced to rely on the kindness and generosity of friends, neighbors, acquaintances — even her partially-estranged family. If this sounds to you like fertile ground for long-suppressed tensions to bubble to the surface, give yourself a gold star for your precognitive abilities — but by all means, whatever you do, read the book anyway.

 

 

Here’s the thing, though: The ever-present pathos never threatens to overwhelm readers, and while much of that is down to Bell’s deft and tonally near-perfect scripting skills, just as much of it is due to her disarmingly engaging art style. Deceptively simple yet highly evocative, the amount of sheer visual information that she’s able to pack into each illustration is a veritable clinic in efficient shorthand communication from brain to hand to readers’ eyes. Important details make their way to the foreground in a naturalistic and unforced manner, while anything-but-superfluous background objects, persons, places, and animals (always be on the lookout for plenty of animals in Bell’s work) are fit into place with ease, never competing with each other for your attention, but always getting it in due course and smooth-flowing sequence. Emerging cartoonists at the art school level and beyond seem to be paying close attention to Bell, as well they should — and if she turns out to be one of the primary influences on the next generation of illustrators coming along, the future should be pretty damn bright, indeed.

 

Still, one thing this book never lets you forget is that Bell is a multi-faceted talent: Her sharp ear for authentic dialogue, immediately engaging first-person narration, smart story pacing, and sympathetic-without-being-cloying narrative tone ensure that the daily struggles, garden-variety headaches (and I mean that more literally than it probably sounds), often-debilitating neuroses, and familial complexities that are consistently swirling around and/or passing through her life and her mind remain humanistic and relatable rather than subjects examined in a petri dish from some omniscient power, whether seen or unseen. You’ll care about the people in this story and what happens to them rather than viewing them as objects of prurient or morbid fascination, and that’s not always the easiest thing for a biographical work (auto- or otherwise) to achieve.

 

 

I’m not sure if, at the end of the day, Bell leaves her characters/subjects in a situation that could be called “optimistic” or not, but if it does (and arguments could be made for or against such a reading), it’s not delivered in a manner that could be considered even remotely ironic, earnest, or anything other than absolutely sincere. I’ll be thinking about — and returning to — this book for a long time to come, of that I have no doubt, and while there are no esoteric mysteries to unpack or hidden meanings to be deciphered interspersed throughout its pages, there is a cathartic expunging of very personal pain and confusion that plays out over the course of events here that results in something dangerously close to feeling like a tenuous sense of peace has been achieved — hell, earned — by all parties involved by the time all is said and done. That’s a good thing, to be sure, even if it all turns out to be fleeting — but Everything Is Flammable is much more than a good thing, and the spell it weaves is as far-removed from fleeting as one can imagine. Even if your copy of this book were to tragically go up in flames, the effect it has on you won’t be going anywhere. This is a comic that burns in the best possible way.

 

 

 

 

 

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