Reviews – Gabrielle Bell’s Cecil and Jordan in New York and Jeffrey Brown’s Funny Misshapen Body
– by Shawn Conner
Jeffrey Brown and Gabrielle Bell make it look easy. Pen, paper, a memory or dream or anecdote, and voila: instant comics.
But both have been at the business of cartooning for some time, and though their respective styles seem simple enough – no fancy splash pages or playing with narrative a la Chris Ware here – the two have honed their storytelling abilities considerably. What isn’t said, the action between panels, and the ability to pace a story for maximum impact are skills that are in evidence by not being immediately apparent.
Of the two, Brown’s is more of what you might call “a good read,” and straight-through autobiography (he calls it a “memoir”, after all). Divided into chapters like “Semi Colon” (about his Crohn’s Disease affliction) and “Soft Drugs” (dealing with his drug experimentation), Funny Misshapen Body (Touchstone, softcover, $16US $21CDN) is front-to-back amusing and, once you get used to Brown’s off-the-cuff art (no white-out was harmed in the making of this book), charmingly awkward. Funny Misshapen Body is also a lesson in the art of self-deprecation, and watching someone studiously not take himself seriously for 300 pages can’t help but be refreshing.
Cecil and Jordan in New York (Drawn & Quarterly, hardcover, $19.95 US & CDN), Bell’s book, is more uneven, if only because these stories were created at different times, and have appeared elsewhere. It’s certainly a more handsome item – it’s published by Drawn & Quarterly, so production is top-notch – with some stories (the titular one) in colour, others in two-tone.
I like Bell most when she sticks more or less to reality; the titular piece is a little too surreal-cute, while the dream-story “My Affliction” (with crude black lines) lost me completely. Much more engaging are the pieces that seem a little more autobiographical, even if the names have been changed (or the stories have actually been invented whole-cloth): “Felix”, about a young student teaching art to the son of a famous sculptor, and “I Feel Nothing”, about an almost-hookup.
Taken together, Cecil and Jordan and Funny Misshapen Body complement each other – the former is a little more ambitious but less consistent, while the latter is unvaryingly fun but unadventurous. And both would be embarrassing to be seen with on public transit by any self-respecting adult. They’re comics, after all.