This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing a cartoonist whose transition to webcomics has been rather recent: Gabrielle Bell. She started out self-publishing zines, and eventually made the leap to Alternative and later Canadian comic book publisher Drawn and Quarterly. Her print collections include When I'm Old and Other Stories, two volumes of Lucky, Cecil and Jordan in New York, and Kuruma Tohrimasu. She's also been in several editions of Best American Comics, which is how I first became acquainted with her work.
Recently, Gabrielle began publishing the autobiographical Lucky as a surreal webcomic. I recommend you start out with Manifestation, her chronicle of agreeing to write about Valerie Solanas's S.C.U.M. Manifesto. We talked about feminism, mothers, and web versus print comics in the interview below.
RMJ: What is the role of feminism in your work?
GB: I guess every female artist has to think about feminism for pretty much her whole life as she is making her art...so I think it's hard to talk about. As a feminist, I try to realize myself as a person and an artist as strongly as I can in opposition to the images and ideas of the traditional women presented in the media, in hopes that others will recognize this and feel free to do the same.
I think I'm lucky to be an artist for that reason. I do this autobiographical character, so I am presenting "myself" to the audience. But I create that "myself" as almost a fictional character. And partly that character is weak and insecure and mean-spirited and vulnerable, but also cool and strong and smart.
RMJ: Are you familiar with Kate Beaton's comments from a couple of months ago about sexist compliments?
GB: Kind of. When a man says "I want to have your children" or "I want you to have my children," that this is a very sensitive subject...because I saw what having children did to my mother. I guess it'd be more complicated if I actually WANTed to have children. I think that it's hard to call out sexism because there's so much of it, we're supposed to just live with a certain level of it. So I think it's good that Kate did that.
RMJ: Let's talk a little about Manifestation. Most of the comic focuses on a conversation with your mother. I loved how the "unwork" concept was tied in at the end of Manifestation, with your mother unworking homemaking.
GB: Yes, definitely. She was so lazy. She was the most ineffective, useless frustrating mother and housewife ever. I used to fantasize that something would happen to her and she'd wake up one day and be a "normal" mother—wear dresses, bake cookies, be friendly and hospitable.
I think, having come of age as a young woman in the sixties and seventies, when there was a feminist revolution—I mean, all sorts of cultural revolutions, but in particular a big change for women after an oppressive time in the fifties and sixties—I don't think any woman could be immune to that—it affected her, but then she had all these kids and lost control of her life.
But in a very passive-aggressive way she passed on certain values to me. In the end I have her talking about how she couldn't have a paper-route like her brothers—her older brother, in particular who went on to become a writer and start a magazine of his own—and she was stuck baby-sitting and she went on baby-sitting for the rest of her life, for her own babies.
RMJ: So she was kind of trained into a particular role, and it ended up trapping her.
GB: From the very beginning. But things have changed somewhat now. Anyway, she didn't tell me I had to baby-sit. I think she didn't know what to tell me, I think she was paralyzed So she sort of stepped aside and let me figure things out for myself which is not the ideal situation, but it was the very best thing she could have done given her circumstances
RMJ: How is the webcomic Lucky different from the two-volume graphic novel Lucky?
GB: I think the nature of it being on the web has changed it enormously. It's really helped it. But at the same time it's taken over my whole life and I've neglected my other more fictional work. I guess when I wasn't doing it on the web, I was doing it for myself, and now that I'm doing it on the web, I'm doing it for the world. And it's a good feeling to be doing something for the world and [be] part of this giant conversation.
RMJ: But you were still putting stuff out there in print before you transitioned to web.
GB: Yes, and I miss that! But I'd do a comic and it wouldn't be published for about six months and a few people would read it—mostly just comics fans and and comics artists. But now it feels like my comics are being read by all different people. Actually, I wish my comic could be in the Village Voice or The Stranger, some regular print publication. I don't think the web is ideal for comics. But it's worked better for me
RMJ: Why isn't the web ideal for comics?
GB: They are art. It is a delightful thing to have a beautiful comic book to read—like going to a museum or a concert or watching a movie in a theatre
RMJ: I'd never really thought of it from that perspective. Personally, I feel the same thrill finding a new webcomic I love with an archive I haven't read that I did when I was a kid and I would get a new Calvin and Hobbes book, or upon discovering Harvey Pekar in college.
GB: Really? You don't need to see it on paper?
RMJ: I can't read strips that were intended for paper on the screen, usually. But webcomics are oftentimes designed for the web, so it feels natural to read it on the computer. I love clicking "next day" or "forward" or whatever while I"m catching up on a strip.
GB: I draw Lucky to be published on paper, but I also write/draw it with the internet screen in mind now too. I think...hope...that has opened it up a bit. I try not to do too many "to be continueds" because I fear I'll lose my audience.
Later this week, Beyond the Panel will take a break from interviews to comment on the Penny Arcade rape culture fail. Look for it on Thursday!