Gabrielle Bell is an introvert in a world of extroverts, an overthinker navigating a landscape of overstimulation. Fortunately, she’s discovered the forgotten secret of autobiographical comics: not only is it OK to make stuff up, but it’s often a very good idea. The short pieces collected in The Voyeurs (Uncivilized Books)—many of which first appeared on Bell’s website or in her irregular comic book, Lucky—mostly purport to be the daily diary of their artist, who portrays herself as perceptive, deeply self-doubting, and slightly neurotic. But every few pages, something happens that stretches credulity, or shatters it. Her life is the raw material for these pages, but she doesn’t let reality get in the way of making wry, charming art.
Bell’s line trembles as self-effacingly as her writing; most of her images are middle-distance drawings of people talking to each other in public or private, interspersed with little diagrams and flashes of dreams and imagined scenery. Her real-life friends and partners (including Michel Gondry, with whom she directed an adaptation of her story “Cecil and Jordan in New York”) turn up on nearly every page, but she’s more their foil than they are hers. Her panels, four or six little crammed squares to a page, are packed with her constant interior monologues as well as observed dialogue. “For me, going to the beach is like smoking pot,” she writes above an image of herself miserably running after a windblown hat. “It’s something I try every couple of years or so, only to be reminded of how incapacitatingly unpleasant it is.”
Like a lot of introverts, Bell is also quietly hilarious, and her favorite kind of comedy comes from social uneasiness—the title story finds her and a group of friends on a rooftop, discussing whether or not it’s appropriate for them to be watching a couple across the street having sex, but unable to stop looking. In one long sequence, she goes to San Diego Comic-Con and desperately attempts to have a reasonably good time (“otherwise, Comic-Con will have won!”); plunked down in the middle of American comics’ loudest, most outsize setting, all she wants to do is think about Epicurus. The book’s funniest segment depicts Bell accepting a Nobel Prize for her (nonexistent) comics adaptation of Valerie Solanis’s SCUM Manifesto, and explaining how it came about. It’s nearly undiluted fantasy, but it’s also a smart, sidelong commentary on the legacy of radical feminism in both her generation and her mother’s.