Fans of filmmaker Michel Gondry may already be familiar with some of Gabrielle Bell’s work without knowing it. “Cecil and Jordan in New York,” the title story of Bell’s new collection, was recently adapted by Gondry into the short film Interior Design, one-third of the tripartite Tokyo! This deceptively simple fable contains the best aspects of Bell’s work: a sharp eye for human foibles, especially in relationships, and a dry, melancholic sense of humor. Jordan is an aspiring filmmaker, and his girlfriend Cecil accompanies him to New York, where her isolation and loneliness grow until she decides to transform herself into a chair. She’s picked up by a passerby and quickly adapts to her new life as a household object. When the stranger who took her home is out of the apartment, Cecil turns back into a girl, but otherwise, she’s simply a chair, observing in the story’s poignant and stinging final line that she’s “never felt so useful.”
Cecil and Jordan In New York collects several of Bell’s comics that were previously published in Mome, Kramer’s Ergot, and other anthologies beloved of the indie-comics readership. These anthologies, while providing a showcase for surprising new talent, also have a tendency to be overly earnest and heavy-handed and disappointingly similar in their visual style. Bell has her own weaknesses along those lines. Some of the autobiographical stories and the stories concerned with artistic angst and urban anomie, though perceptively written and executed with technical skill, are weighed down by their relentlessly heavy mood and self-consciousness. Other creators have proved more adept at parsing the difficulties of being an artist and the feeling of alienation in childhood and adulthood; Eddie Campbell has done it with more humor, and Alison Bechdel with a more refined literary sensibility.
Bell is at her best when she uses a lighter touch. “My Affliction” takes elements of fantasy and dream logic to explore the complexity and uncontrollability of love and desire. In “Gabrielle the Third,” she focuses her powers of observation on a pair of pigeons, dubbed Copper and Gabrielle Jr., nesting on her windowsill. The birds make her think of “two homeless people arguing in gibberish, driven insane by the elements, endlessly complaining in a sustained, high-pitched, hysterical lament,” and at first they aren’t entirely welcome guests. But soon they and their chick, Gabrielle the Third, are a daily part of Bell’s life, and perhaps even family: “I worry about when the day comes for Gabrielle the Third to learn to fly. One missed step, and all of their work is for nothing.”
The final story in Cecil and Jordan In New York is one of the strongest. “Helpless” is a day in the life of two teenaged best friends, Sidney and Cecil. They play with construction materials, go swimming, fend off the advances of a pair of creepy older hippies, and run into some minor trouble with the police (who they refer to as “Yogi and Boo-Boo”). Bell paints their activities with a sense of whimsy and adventure that is positively infectious. The story is sweet, funny, and by virtue of its placement at the end of the volume, haunted by the sense of heartache that the reader suspects is awaiting the girls when they grow up. One wishes that they might stay in this fearless, fun-loving place forever, and never find themselves trapped in a life where the best option is to turn into a piece of furniture.
Karin L. Kross is a writer based in Austin, Texas, and a former comics columnist for bookslut.com.