Cecil and Jordan in New York: Stories by Gabrielle Bell
Drawn & Quarterly, 148 pg
Gabrielle Bell’s Cecil and Jordan in New York is an inventive and funny collection of short comics that is able to take youthful angst and not dwell on its difficulties, but expand the experience into stories that read like fables. The 11 unconnected stories collected in this volume follow high school misfits in small towns, and new inhabitants in the big city as they struggle to make ends met. While the ground has been covered many times in graphic novels, and sometimes seems a requirement that every graphic novelist write about their struggles, Bell shows promise as a fabulist. At her best she creates stories that surprise you with a the unexpected.
The eponymous Cecil and Jordan in New York is a good example of her ability to express angst through fable-like stories. The story starts off common enough: two friends move to NY and find that the city is a harsh place and the friends they were relying to help them don’t have the time. Cecil is Jordan’s girlfriend and has nothing to do: she is the girlfriend, as she says in one panel. It is a lonely experience as her boyfriend pursues his film making career. As she is wandering the streets during winter she decides to become a chair. Once the transformation is complete she lives a new life as a chair when people are around, and as herself when the chair’s owner is not home. The transformation to chair is both an escape from the hardness of reality, but also a longing to be wanted. In the last panel she says, I’ve never felt so useful. The ideal life isn’t to be ensconced in an apartment, but to have a purpose and be with people who need you. It is here that Bell captures loneliness so well, yet leaves the reader laughing (there are more difficulties in being a chair than you would think of).
In My Affliction a young woman is captured by a giant and in escaping falls from a great height. Hurtling towards her death she suddenly stops mid air and it turns out she can now float. This is the first of many strange episodes as she begins various relationships with men that all turn out to be wrong for her. The men range from a truck driver with a myna bird that swears at ever turn; a giant that keeps her in a cage; a rich man who’s more interested in making his boat perfect. Each, though, is only someone she has to bond with because her affliction, the same one that lets her float, makes her give herself to others. Using the episodic structure of a fable she has fun with relationships, ultimately creating a story that condenses the story of five relationships into a brief comic, and finds a triumph in surviving them.
Several of the stories take place in a small town where the narrator lives with her parents in small cabin that without electricity. These stories are a good laugh at the expense of hippies who tried to live off the grid and found out it was hard, not only physically, but socially. The focus, of course, is on the young protagonist who hates the lifestyle and who obviously wants a different life. Yet as with most of the stories the desire to escape is subtle and Bell creates a character whose way of coping is to not rebellion, but just to survive. As in Hit Me, the way to escape is to no longer be the strange, smelly kid, even if that means turning your back on friends. Like many of her stories, Hit Me ends in a realization that relationships so often dissolve this way and leave one regretful.
Gabrielle Bell’s collection is a funny and shows some inventive story telling ideas. Hopefully, her coming work will continue to evolve from this good start.