The eleven short stories that make up Cecil and Jordan In New York: Stories By Gabrielle Bell (Drawn and Quarterly) all flow so effortlessly into one another, and compliment one another so strongly that the experience of reading it was like that of listening to an album.
The songs might have been written over a period of years, come from a variety of inspirations and have been originally put down in different practice spaces and studios in different cities or different countries, but when you listen to them as an album for the first time, they’re part of a seamless, unified whole, and seem like that’s the way they were meant to be all along.
That’s what this book is like.
It collects Bell’s stories from a variety of anthologies—Kramer’s Ergot, Mome, her own Lucky—but there’s nothing fragmented about the collection. There’s a consistently honest, observational tone that overrides the stylistic difference and narrative choices in each of the stories, differences that may only be apparent on a second, closer reading and binds the stories together.
Here are a few words about every single one of them.
“Cecil and Jordan in New York”
The title story is a wonderful act of subversion, a short magical realist story that reads like any of Bell’s Lucky stories. The young, female narrator talks about her and Jordan’s moving to Brooklyn and trying to stay out of the way of those putting them up.
And then, halfway through, she turns into a chair.
This is the story which director Michael Gondry has adapted into Interior Design for his part of the trilogy film Tokyo.
Visually, it’s the least Gabrielle Bell-looking story in the collection, a brightly-colored story in which few of the lines are black, and even the narration boxes and dialogue bubbles are blue rather than white.
“I Feel Nothing”
A young woman is awakened by her upstairs neighbor at 8 a.m. and invited to talk, drink some whiskey and do a lot more. She’s tempted to take him up on some of his offers, like blowing off work to spend the day with him, and, through a nine-panel grid, considers a life with him, and then without him. This one’s black and white, and features some very nice, subtle manipulation of panel layouts.
“Year of the Arowana”
This is a six-page story in which a young woman writes a letter to a friend of hers, relating an evening out in which she and another friend met a favorite poet in the East Village and end up spending the evening with him and a friend of his.
It’s a surprisingly complete and dense story that, like many of the other shorter ones in the book, feels a lot bigger and longer than it actually is.
This one’s black and white, but with purple shading, and each page is a strict six-panel grid.
Based on Kate Chopin’s “Story of An Hour,” this seven-pager packs a devastating emotional punch, and functions as one of the strongest demonstrations of the incredible economy of Bell’s work. In the space of a single page, she shows her main character reacting to and coming to grips with the news that her husband has just died.
It’s also a nice demonstration of a strength of comics in general, allowing Bell to show such a complex series of tumultuous emotions in a simple, silent series eight drawings, rather than having to turn to words and communicating them verbally, as Chopin did.
The second color story in the collection, this one is softer and more subdued in its palette than the title story, and does feature black lines and white dialogue bubbles.
At 34 pages, it’s a much longer story than the vast majority of these, and tells the story of a young art student who is hired by a rich, famous artist she admires to tutor his young, unhappy son. There’s no narrator in this one, making it a very natural story, and here Bell stacks her panels so that the eye moves horizontally more than vertically.
A short story of a group of friends who were close knit as teenagers trying to reconnect at a concert featuring their former favorite band together. The black and white in this story is quite stark, and there’s no shading; this one is strictly regimented into nine-panel grids.
This was one of my favorites. It’s a nineteen page, shaggy dog narrative in which the young narrator goes through a sequence of events that seem to come from an epic dream, only it’s rather tightly controlled, so that the events relate to each other in a way dream events might not, no matter how crazy the single events are. And they’re pretty weird. It opens, for example, with the protagonist being dropped by her boyfriend, a giant she calls The Behemoth, and then stopping in mid-air, where she’s stuck for several days, until a heavy rain pushes her close enough to a tree that she can climb the rest of the way down.
This is another strictly black and white story, and Bell’s line is looser and more jittery than in any of the other stories.
A six-page story in which the young, female narrator that might or might not be Bell runs away from home and returns to her summer camp in the off-season. For, like, a day.
Fine lines and extremely delicate cartooning are used in service of a story that might be autobiographical and might not—so many of Bell’s protagonists look like Bell that it’s really hard to tell. It’s a few days in the life of brother and sister with an unhappy home and an unhappy school life. This is from a 2007, Ariel Schrag-edited anthology Stuck in the Middle: 17 Comics From an Unpleasant Age.
It’s some of Bell’s best art work in the book, and is another one color over black and white comic.
“Gabrielle The Third”
This one’s gotta be autobiographical right? The main character looks just like the author’s comic book avatar, and her name’s even Gabrielle.
It’s the story of a little family of pigeons that live right outside the narrator’s window, and her relationship with them…and her own mother.
The final story in the collection is another black, white and purple one, this one featuring two girls trying to amuse themselves throughout a night out. It’s more a series of events than an actual story, but it certainly captures and communicates the feeling of being in the glorious (and too-short) period of growing up when you’re no longer a child, but you’re not quite an adult yet, and still subject to your parents and city curfew laws, if only for a little while longer.
And that’s a few words about every single story in Cecil and Jordan in New York.