Truth is Fragmentary by Gabrielle Bell

25th Sep 2014

Truth is Fragmentary by Gabrielle Bell
The acclaimed cartoonist returns with a collection of witty and honest diaries from her travels to international comics festivals.

Gabrielle Bell’s previous comics journals, Lucky and The Voyeurs, were autobiographical triumphs. Her work has been featured in the The Best American Comics, The Big Feminist But and adapted into a film anthology by Michel Gondry.

Achieving this level of success means having the opportunity to travel to comics festivals and events worldwide, despite being, as she puts it “an impoverished cartoonist.” Naturally, she decided to document her travels, as well as her time at home in New York.

From 2010 to 2013 she visited France, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Colombia, posting comics on her blog regularly. She didn’t intend to make them into a book until cartoonist and publisher Tom Kaczynski of Uncivilized Books requested some of her work.

Bell’s decision to document these trips appears to happen almost in real time as she makes her way to Sweden at the beginning of the book. It’s an experiment, without a rigid plan or timescale.

However, every year in July she draws a comic every day for the month. This inevitably interferes with her social life, causing her to miss parties and other occasions.

Friends often point out that she doesn’t have to keep making these comics, that it’s an entirely self-inflicted pressure, but she keeps at it regardless.

She takes longer between comics when free of the constraints of the July Diaries, but it never feels as disjointed or fragmentary as the title suggests.

The fact that she documents events so quickly after they happen adds to the enjoyment of the book, sweeping the reader along with Bell on her journey.

Some comics are done when she’s physically in transit, even on a plane. The diaries take on a life of their own, as she factors in characters who turn up during the time she spends drawing.

There are times when she veers off into surrealism and fantasy, though it’s always obvious when this is the case – you’re not going to be left wondering whether a bear really did serve her ice cream in the woods. There are also some delightful asides featuring ghost cats and a meditation on mountain versus prairie voles.

Some issues of sexism arise during the course of the book, and it’s refreshing to see Bell tackle them head-on with a feminist outlook. At comics events she brings up the representation of women (or lack of) in the comics industry.Some issues of sexism arise during the course of the book, and it’s refreshing to see them tackled head-on with a feminist outlook. Bell describes how she is simultaneously hit on and judged for being single at 35. At comics events she brings up the representation of women (or lack of) in the comics industry.

Bell suffers repeated existential crises during the course of the book but her sense of humour is present even in her darkest moments. She might be exaggerating her social awkwardness for comic effect, but she is obviously an introvert and makes plenty of interesting observations on the matter.

She craves time alone, and it’s hard to imagine how she would have kept up with these comics so industriously had she been out socialising on a regular basis.

Sometimes she wants to embrace isolation completely and move to a remote location, other times she remembers that she needs social interactions in order to make autobiographical comics of interest.

She does in fact interact with people regularly during these journals – it’s not solely a peep into her mind. There are some recurring characters who are portrayed in a mostly positive but realistic light.

A boyfriend, Steve, appears seemingly out of the blue and becomes the subject of a self-referential comic on how he worries that part of her charm as a cartoonist is in portraying herself as a carefree, single girl, and he doesn’t want to become a problem for her. He continues to be featured but certainly doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the comics.

There are also cameos from some well-known indie cartoonists. Scott McCloud is amusingly portrayed in a very similar style to how he draws himself, right down to the checked jacket.

Bell’s artistic style is perfect for this type of diaristic comic – simple but lively line drawings which communicate the atmosphere of the situations. Most are black and white but there are some colour sections.

The book ends with a section where, influenced by French Renaissance writer Michel de Montaigne, Bell narrates the comics in the third person, from the viewpoint of her ‘secretary’. It’s an enjoyable change of pace and a witty insight into the artist’s view of herself.

Truth is Fragmentary is a funny, thought-provoking and exquisitely observed book. For those craving more, Gabrielle Bell’s latest diaristic comics can be found on her blog.