The last few decades have seen an explosion of autobiography and memoir in the comics world. High profile works like Art Spiegelman's Maus and Marjane Satrapi's Persopolis have drawn mainstream attention, and publishers Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly have made it their mission to showcase work that is a conscious antithesis to the fantasy and superhero clichés that glut the market.
Gabrielle Bell is a good example of this new wave of comics, and displays both the strengths and weaknesses of confessional comics. Bell draws on certain antecedents -- her storytelling style recalls a more subdued version of Julie Doucet, though she synthesizes her influences and makes them her own. Like many alternative cartoonists, she started by self-publishing her own comics, and her drawing style has a homely, handmade quality that suits the modest realistic stories she tells.
The title story, "Cecil and Jordan in New York," is based on an idea by her friend Sadie Hales (who based it on a dream she had when touring New York with former local filmmaker Jon Olsen). It's a slight fantasy of a woman who feels ignored and turns into a chair, thus becoming more useful. It's hard to think this would be the central story of the book if not for the fact that it was adapted by filmmaker Michel Gondry and Bell for a segment in the recent omnibus film Tokyo. Bell's painted art in the story is a bit clunky, and loses the quirky charm of her black-and-white line work and one-tone color in the rest of the book.
"My Affliction" is the cartoon equivalent to automatic poetry: a work transcribed directly from the subconscious. As a dream piece, it's less belabored and more fascinating than "Cecil and Jordan."
Most of the rest of the stories are better and fall into two categories: stories of her childhood and adolescence, and tales of bohemian slackerdom in NYC.
In "I Feel Nothing", a woman gets invited by her egotistic bar owner neighbor to have some whisky for breakfast. The page where she imagines the downward slide her life would take if she accepted his advances is hilarious, and the story ends with her mundanely opening the video store she works at. Bell prefers these anti-climactic endings, and they ring true.
The most successful stories in the book deal with her growing up poor in Mendocino County, and the shifting adolescent cliques of high school. It's very rare that the perspective of low-income kids is portrayed anywhere, let alone comics, and Bell is expert at capsule dialog quirks that define a character. Despite the travails of her protagonist, there's always a sense of life and potential beyond the horizon.