everyday alchemy gabrielle bell la diary

Everyday Alchemy: The Comics of Gabrielle Bell

NOTE: This essay was originally published as introductory text to L.A. Diary by Gabrielle Bell in October, 2009. L.A. Diary was collected in The Voyeurs.

“Quit the night and seek the day”— from a Magick ritual

The Diary as a form didn’t begin to flower until the Renaissance and the “invention” of the individual. However, a more ancient lineage of the Diary is indicated by the existence of the Latin term “diarum” or day. The Diary is a daily act; but what kind of act? Perhaps the first diaries were calendars. Before a diary can be kept, time must be invented. In the Paleolithic, ancient astronomers transformed lunar phases, flood cycles and other natural phenomena into marks on wood or bone. It was a way to gain knowledge and understand the forces that ruled their lives. Imagine the cognitive leap: “if I make a mark everyday, I will learn the secret of the moon.” It wasn’t just the invention of time, it was also the invention of process itself: the daily act through which something can be learned or achieved.

At some point the act of recording turned into the art of predicting and eventually into ritual. Natural phenomena became hidden behind the semantic inventions created to describe them. They became sacred calendars, rituals and gods. The original act of discovery turned into esoteric lore and occult secrets. The origins of these systems were forgotten and mutated into divine revelation. Man became enslaved by it’s own creation: In the beginning was the word.

The Renaissance, “Cogito, Ergo Sum” and Psychoanalysis, ushered the individual onto the historical stage. Sacred law gave way to profane science. The Diary as we know it today came out of that ferment of ideas and became an important way to construct the uniqueness of the individual. Today, in the the Age of Blog, unprecedented literacy and access to media has created a world of diarists: “I keep a diary, therefore I am.”

The Diary 1 entered the world of comics in the 1970’s through the work of Justin Green. Following Green’s lead, major artists like Harvey Pekar, Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb and Eddie Campbell contributed to the genre. By the end of the 1990’s the autobio comic was a staple of alternative comics and a new generation of artists like Julie Doucet, Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Joe Sacco, James Kochalka, Phoebe Gloeckner and Marjane Satrapi pushed the genre into uncharted territories.

The intense confessional nature of Green’s work set the tone for much of the autobiographical comics that followed. From the compulsive taboo breaking confessions of Crumb, through the uncomfortable revelations of Brown, Matt and Doucet, to the brutal honesty of David Heatly, the trajectory of the genre has been largely towards greater transgression. Authenticity constructed as a continuous duel of grimaces.

Gabrielle Bell’s comics have much in common with this lineage, but in her recent Diary Comics, traces of that more ancient tradition peak through. Reading these pages one gets the sense of the Diary as a daily magickal act: the declaration of fidelity to the Great Work. Individually the stories are small slices of mundane moments. Taken as a continuum, the accumulated moments transform into a world. It’s not just the world as seen by the artist, but an internal world of being. If Justin Green’s or Robert Crumb’s compulsive cartoon confessions resemble divine (or demonic) prophecy, Gabrielle Bell’s comics diary is an assemblage of quieter revelations. Bell is not possessed by demons, instead the daily resolutions, reminders and notes to self act as spells and enchantments to bind her to task at hand: drawing comics. Her daily frustrations and worries expose the difficulty of Art and act as a reminder that the divine breath of inspiration is created within, from small everyday miracles.

Tom Kaczynski
Minneapolis
October 3, 2009

  1. Though much of the work mentioned isn’t strictly a “diary”, it does belongs to a common continuum of comics that evolved over the last three decades. This melange is commonly referred to as autobiographical (or autobio) comics and it includes a diverse range of work, from daily internet diaries to graphic novels.

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