Gabrielle Bell’s latest work, a collection of autobiographical vignettes called Everything Is Flammable (Uncivilized, June), tells the story of the author’s fraught relationship with her mother—an eccentric loner who lives in a remote rural area. Her mother loses her small house in rural California to a fire, and Bell must trek there several times from her home in upstate New York to help her rebuild. “I always feel compelled to draw comics to try to figure out my relationship with her,” Bell says about her mother.
For Bell—whose Voyeurs was named one of PW’s Best Books of 2012 and whose work has been anthologized several times in the Best American Comics series—Everything Is Flammable is a triumph: a sensitive, sober, and sometimes-surreal exploration of a troubled mother-daughter relationship and how difficult it can be to build bridges within one’s own family.
Bell fretted about how her mother would receive the book. “I showed her the really important parts,” Bell tells me when we meet at an artists’ space in Queens. “And she didn’t really like it. The problem with autobiographical comics is that the most interesting stories are those that others don’t want you to publish. I censor myself a lot. I have to think about whose feelings I’ll hurt or who I’m going to alienate.”
Bell said that she shudders to think how her mother might respond to the entire book: “I’m afraid that I’ve sacrificed her privacy for my own career gain.” But she observes that creating the graphic memoir helped her come to terms with their relationship.
The story started the day Bell received a chilling phone call. A candle had tipped over in her mother’s house, setting the entire place on fire. Her mother lost all her belongings as well as her home. With limited resources, no partner, and none of her adult children living nearby, Bell’s mother was alone and helpless in rural California, crashing in a trailer park and relying on the occasional support of neighbors.
Bell traveled to her mother’s place to provide some help—as well as to gather material for her comics. “I started taking trips to my mom’s house, and from there, I started deliberately creating stories,” she says. “I knew that I was going to do a series of comics about it; I was writing it in my head and keeping notes. I was approaching it like a diary but also turning it into short stories.”
The book doesn’t merely traverse the pair’s recent history in the aftermath of the fire. Like Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother?, Everything Is Flammable peeks into the mother and daughter’s past. The relationship between Bell and her mother has always been tense. Bell has described her mother as “morbidly shy,” and in Everything Is Flammable, it’s clear that her mother tends to retreat rather than advocate for herself. This puts Bell in a position that often vexes her—the role of being a mother to her mother. It’s a pattern that began long before the fire ever took place.
In one chapter, Bell recounts seeing several childhood pets die, but she remains unmoved—the accidental deaths of several cats is nothing compared to the random abuse that Bell and her mother suffered at the hands of Bell’s stepfather, Jeff. In one panel, Jeff slams Bell’s head onto the floor multiple times, supposedly for failing to show respect after a beloved pet dies; no other family members are around to intervene.
We see the ripple effect of Jeff’s abuse on Bell’s mother in the present day. Her behavior toward her neighbor Gus, a well-meaning though socially awkward ex-con, can be confusing. He attempts to help, but because she has been victimized by male companions like Jeff, she quickly turns suspicious and belligerent when she thinks Gus is trying to control her. Bell pulls Gus aside, telling him, “My mom’s had a hard life,” and adding in another panel, “Just respect her boundaries.... She’ll start to trust you.”
Bell doesn’t shy away from portraying trauma on the page. “To make [a traumatic incident] into a comic was cathartic,” she says. “When you make it into a comic, you’re documenting it. It makes it a thing that happened, rather than just a lurking, shadowy memory.”
Bell acknowledges that her mother may not feel as liberated by the prospect of having her life captured in a graphic memoir. Although she is used to sharing stories about her own life in her comics, she says that her mother might feel that Bell’s depiction is unfair. “I’m afraid of how she’s going to feel about the fact that other people will read it,” she notes. “It’s got to be hard for anyone to have others see them like that, needing people and being helpless.”
The isolation of rural life and the power of storytelling seem to mark Bell’s life. She was born in England but grew up in the U.S. After living in Michigan for a few years, she and her mother, brother, and stepfather moved to rural Northern California. “I grew up in the country and I was so isolated,” Bell says.
She managed to broaden her horizons with art classes and other enrichment programs in school; in a previous author bio, she noted, “As a teenager, I attended Project Upward Bound at Humboldt University, a college program for low-income and at-risk students where I took classes in Shakespeare and composition and decided to be a writer.” She grew up aspiring to be either a writer or an artist, and she discovered the indie comics of acclaimed cartoonists Peter Bagge, Dan Clowes, Julie Doucet, and the Hernandez Brothers. She began to explore the combination of text and visual storytelling. “It was a revelation,” she says.
After high school, Bell moved to San Francisco and continued to experiment with different career paths, but she only seemed to thrive when creating comics. “There was no improvement in my art and no improvement in my writing—but if I put them together, then there was improvement,” she says. “It was a strange chemical reaction.” Bell adds that when she finally completed a comic, xeroxed it, distributed it as a zine, and gained readers, “I knew for sure that I could invest my life in this.”
In 2001, Bell moved to Brooklyn. Unlike most comics artists there, she hadn’t gone to art school; she taught herself how to make comics. “Each comic I did was better than the previous one,” she says. “So it seemed like, mathematically, there was no way that I wouldn’t eventually succeed—even if it took 20 years, which it kind of did.”
Though Bell’s approach to making comics has evolved, it remains a meticulous process. She starts out simply: “I’ll write ideas down in a little notebook. When I sit down to do the comics, it’s almost like transcribing the ideas I’ve already had.”
But then comes the laborious task of drawing. Bell starts out by storyboarding with stick figures. “From there, I’ll use a lightbox and put another page over that and create something more elaborate,” she says. “And I’ll just keep doing that with the lightbox so that the next draft will be taken from the previous one. It gets more and more detailed, and the final draft will look like a comic page.”
Bell used this painstaking method to create her other works, Truth Is Fragmentary (Uncivilized, 2014), The Voyeurs (Uncivilized, 2012), Cecil and Jordan in New York (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009), Lucky (Drawn & Quarterly, 2006), When I’m Old and Other Stories (Alternative Comics, 2003), and her self-published minicomics from her early career. “It’s an incredibly long process,” she says with a self-deprecating laugh.
What sets Bell’s work apart is not a particular style of rendering or writing but her point of view. At times melancholy, often darkly funny, and always bracingly honest, Bell examines the frustrations of day-to-day existence with an eye that is painfully keen. For instance, in her diary comics and her books, she’s just as likely to ponder the significance of her absentmindedly naked neighbor as she is to consider the significance of her life. “SOME DAY YOU WILL DIE,” she wrote in one of her comics, and then offered a rejoinder: “Yeah, but not for a long time, right?”
Through the diary comics genre, Bell has explored everything from financial struggles, depression, and anxiety to romantic relationships and, of course, her relationship with her mother. And in Everything Is Flammable, money problems spark much of the conflict; after all, there would be no story if Bell’s mother could just cash in an insurance plan and buy a new condo.
Several scenes in Everything Is Flammable touch on the way that money struggles can amplify or ameliorate family problems. When Bell accompanies her mother on long drives to get a deal on furnishings or a small prefab home, they end up spending hours and hours in the car trying to fill the silence. This time spent together at first ignites old conflicts, but it ultimately helps them resolve some of their long-standing disputes.
While the mother-daughter relationship hasn’t been transformed the way it would be at the end of a Hollywood movie, Bell has become “more empathetic and gentler”: “I used to get impatient with her, and I think I’ve really accepted who she is,” Bell says. “And I’ve accepted who I am, too.”
Grace Bello writes regularly for PW on graphic novels.