Talking With Gabrielle Bell About Cecil and Jordan

Talking With Gabrielle Bell

Cecil and Jordan in New York - cover

True-to-life comics work best when the author has experiences to draw from, and Gabrielle Bell has had lots to work with. Fortunately for readers of anthologies such as Kramer’s Ergot and Mome, as well as fans of her own solo work, Bell’s chosen to share her experiences via comics.

With two Ignatz Awards (Most Outstanding Minicomic, 2003; Most Outstanding Short Story, 2007) on her shelf and several well-received collections – 2003’s When I’m Old and 2006’s Lucky – she’s firmly established as one of the must-watch creators in the industry.

Her next collection, Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories by Gabrielle Bell from Drawn and Quarterly, collects eleven tales of young adults looking for their place in the world, romantically, professionally and personally. Troopering through a cold, she took time to answer questions about the new book.

Newsarama: Gabrielle, all of the stories in Cecil and Jordan in New York been published before in various anthologies, correct?

Gabrielle Bell: Yes. It’s really my best work. While I was working on Lucky, I was doing short pieces for anthologies and Lucky was sort of a side thing. The anthology pieces were what I really put everything into.

NRAMA: There’s a nice mix of fiction and autobiographical stories in here.

GB: Semi-autobiographical.

NRAMA: Right. You seem to have back-loaded this collection with the autobiographical stories; there are four consecutive stories about women who share your name.

GB: Yeah, those are pretty autobiographical.

NRAMA: The other stories then are semi-autobiographical, with strong elements of fiction in them?

GB: Yeah.

NRAMA: After working Lucky, was fiction something you want to do more of now?

GB: Well, I’ve been doing fiction for a long time now too. My first book, When I’m Old, was a lot of fiction. I’ve been working on fiction stories all along; it’s really the kind of fiction that draws on autobiography, so I don’t really always draw the line or define a story as one or the other completely.

There’s definitely something I’m doing differently between Lucky and these short stories. In a short story, even if everything “happened” in the story, there’s still a certain fictional aspect. Like maybe rearranging the order of events to make it more dramatic. But in Lucky, even if things are changed around a little, I’d be more inclined to call it autobiography.

NRAMA: Most of the stories were very realistic, you could clearly see them happening to a person. Except two stories, “My Affliction” and “Cecil and Jordan in New York,” which both having almost a parable quality to them. Why did you approach those stories in that manner?

GB: It’s hard to say. I wasn’t really making a conscious choice. The chair story, “Cecil and Jordan,” a friend of mine, actually the girl Cecil is based on, gave me the idea. I needed to do a story for Kramer’s Ergot, and while I was fishing around for ideas, she offered up that story. I tried it and sort of expanded it, and it seemed to work out. I wasn’t trying to do something magical.

Cecil and Jordan, page 12

And then “My Affliction” came from a writing exercise that I was doing. Actually, I was doing an experiment with my left hand, because I’d had a right-hand injury at that time. I was just scripting comics with my left hand and going where they seemed to take me. There were a lot of aborted attempts and things that didn’t really work out, but that story was not only drawn with my left hand, but also written with my left hand, which seems to have a different tone.

NRAMA: That’s interesting. I’ve never thought to try something left-handed to see how it affects the tone.

GB: Yeah. I didn’t think of it that way. Clearly, it affects the tone of drawing, but in retrospect, it affected the tone of my writing too.

NRAMA: The character Cecil is in two stories, “Cecil and Jordan in New York” and “Helpless,” although she behaves differently in each story. When you say that a lot of your fiction has semi-autobiographical elements, do characters like Cecil serve as something of a stand-in to capture aspects of your life?

GB: Cecil is sort of a stand-in for a friend of mine, actually. But it’s not really how she is. In “Cecil and Jordan,” I’m portraying her as shy and sort of shrinking. In “Helpless” I have her as very aggressive and totally bold, not shy at all. I think she’s got both of those in her, a combination of the two. And there’s other things going on too.

NRAMA: Each story can only capture so many facets of a person, sure. On the subject of “Helpless,” I’m always interested in how creators work music into their characters’ lives when the music is obviously something important to that character. Since comics are silent, it’s not really a natural fit, so I was curious about your approach to that story and why you framed it around a song.

GB: I didn’t think about that. Generally, I try to stay away from music in comics, because it doesn’t work. In movies, it works; it’s really magical, because there’s this quality to music that creates an emotion that you can’t recreate by just writing down the lyrics.

Even in this comic, she’s playing the guitar, but she’s not very good. So it’s more depicting that she’s not very good. She gets halfway through the first line and has to pause because she can’t keep up with the strumming and changing of the chords.

NRAMA: So in this case, it becomes more about her than the music?

GB: Yeah, and the words of the song. Music, I don’t think it’s the best thing to do; unless you’re a really good artist who can portray the feeling of music. But even then there’s this whole other part of the body that’s experiencing comics.

NRAMA: Most of the stories are in black and white. A few are in color. Was there any rhyme or reason to that, or were the color choices made because of the original anthology publication?

GB: I think it had a lot to do with where it was originally published. The long one, “Felix,” they asked me to do it in color. And Kramer’s, they said I could publish in color as well. I’m not that partial to color, but it seems that as a cartoonist, you don’t have a lot of opportunities to experiment with it, so you take it when you can.

Cecil and Jordan, page 29

NRAMA: You colored everything yourself, Gabrielle?

GB: Yes. It’s so time-consuming. I’d rather spend the time creating the story. I’m more interested in the story than the art usually.

NRAMA: One thing I find interesting about autobiographical and semi-autobiographical storytelling is like you said about Cecil, one story she’s shy, the next she’s outgoing. You’re only seeing things from a certain angle, one set up to serve the particular story being told. Is it hard to balance the different facets of a person and remain focused on the part of them that drives the story?

GB: No. I try to be true to the character as much as I can. I don’t want to make a person look bad, but I try to create characters. The real person that the character might or might not be based on is not really them to me. They’re just somebody that I drew from. And I draw from other people, so it’s more like a composite character. The character becomes this other person once it’s on the page, and it becomes more about what would this character do rather than what that person did.

NRAMA: Okay, Gabrielle, if somebody’s flipping through your book on the shelf or in a bookstore and they stop on one story. Which one do you want them to read to convince them to pick up the book?

GB: Are you asking what my favorite child is?

NRAMA: I guess I am.

GB: It’s really hard to say, because I cannot read them objectively. I’m quite proud of “Hit Me,” and “Cecil and Jordan” I’m proud of, partly because it’s visually appealing. I’m proud of them all for different reasons than why another person might like them. “One Afternoon,” where the woman thinks her husband died, was the first comic I made that felt like a real comic, not like something that looked like a comic. I can’t quite explain why, but there is something very important about that one to me.

“My Affliction” is pretty entertaining, though if you’re just flipping through the book, and maybe you want to read something that will make you laugh.

NRAMA: Any plugs, Gabrielle?

GB: I’m working on another group of stories that will probably be interconnected, and another issue of Lucky. That’s about it, two different sides of my brain. Fiction and more Lucky.

Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories by Gabrielle Bell goes on sale in March, 2009. More information is at Drawn & Quarterly.

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