companions like Jeff, she quickly turns suspicious and bellig-
erent 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
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,
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
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 com-
pleted 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.”
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 &
What sets Bell’s work apart is not a par-
ticular 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 sig-
nificance of her absentmindedly naked
neighbor as she is to consider the signifi-
cance 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.