One of the few artists who evolves with similar ease in both the world of comics and that of contemporary art, Canadian cartoonist Marc Bell has brought to life a very unique (and often overwhelming) universe -- one animated by a very special sense of humor. Some of which might have creeped in the following interview. Be warned.
Xavier Guilbert : You describe your work as “Ahtwerks”, which, by association, led me to German (Kraftwerk, the Factory) and eventually to Kurt Schwitters’ concept of Merz, and the corresponding Merzbau.
Marc Bell : Kurt Schwitters ? Oh yeah, that’s nice. Yeah, I like Kurt Schwitters.
Xavier Guilbert : And all of a sudden, I had this Dada connection that really made sense with what you’re doing.
Marc Bell : Yeah, I like that kind of area of collage. And Dada, the kind of nonsense… I don’t know what to say, I’m not sure how to expand on that.
Xavier Guilbert : There’s definitely a retro feel to your work, with the characters. But there’s also the color palette, which has a lot of ocre and yellow…
Marc Bell : I know there’s a lot of yellow. There’s too much, I think. I think there’s too much yellow.
Xavier Guilbert : You think so ?
Marc Bell : Maybe.
Xavier Guilbert : Even with the sculptures that you’ve done, it really brings me back to the Dada aesthetic. With the same kind of materials…
Marc Bell : I’m glad you see it that way, because I really admire that stuff.
Xavier Guilbert : For me, with that association, there’s a lot of things that fell into place. The Merz from Schwitters, with the idea of combining plenty of stuff, discarded stuff. You use cardboard, matchboxes, concert stubs… Robert Rauschenberg did the same thing with his “combines”.
Marc Bell : I try not to collect things, I’m trying to specifically use what I have already. If you collect stuff, then you just have way too much. What I found was that you could make a lot, with very little.
Xavier Guilbert : Looking at influences or references, Crumb comes up, especially with your older works — the cover to This Is Nothing coming particularly to mind. You also mention Julie Doucet (in “Amy’s Dream of Kittens w/ Kittens” and “Marc’s Dream of Cartoonist Camp”), and your style then is also very reminiscent of hers.
Marc Bell : That dream comic was — I was asked to do something for an anthology about dreams. So Amy Lockhart had told me about her dreams of the kitten with kittens, and then I remember this dream that I was at cartoonist camp, and Ron Regé showed up. I sort of adapted the dream, and embellished it. I can’t remember my dreams very well, I don’t think that exactly what happened. Dreams are like, I can’t remember them completely.
I guess my work is kind of schizoid in a way. But then it overlaps. Like, I’m really into the traditional underground look of Robert Crumb and Julie Doucet. I’m interested in that, but then at the same time, even though when I was drawing comics influenced by that, I was also making artwork on the side that was maybe influenced by more “arty things” so to say, like Ray Johnson who — who you could sort of connect to early 20th century collage and Dada artwork. Absurd humor…
Xavier Guilbert : … and invented worlds ?
Marc Bell : Yeah. And then the things kind of overlap more and more, in some of the later comics, maybe.
Xavier Guilbert : The world-building aspects are very present in your work. With Paul and Shrimpy, it starts off in something like the real world, then progressively evolves into something that’s rather… far out. The references that come to mind would be Jim Woodring, both in terms of the world-building, but also the characters. But for the characters, I wonder if it’s not because you both reference older stuff, like the Max Fleischer characters.
Marc Bell : Oh, definitely. Jim Woodring and Fleischer were definitely an influence with that kind of stuff, for sure.
Xavier Guilbert : I looked at old Betty Boop strips, and they seem to use a lot of checkered patterns. That’s something completely absent from the Disney productions, and that leads to very busy panels, because of the patterns. That reminded me of the way you sometimes end up filling empty spaces with little motives.
Marc Bell : “Horror vacui”, as they say. Scared of white space.
Xavier Guilbert : What I noticed, is that the number of human characters tend to diminish, with what is now more associated with you taking over.
Marc Bell : Yeah, it turned into a pretty intense wall of… I don’t know. It’s kind of hard for me to articulate it, but it became… it changed, it became more of a — I don’t know if I would want to say “an impenetrable wall,” but it became more dense or something… as far as information that is kind of all over the place.
Xavier Guilbert : Your later works are very overwhelming — especially in your drawings, the comics are usually lighter in terms of the information overload. Does it mean you approach different mediums in different ways ?
Marc Bell : Oh yeah, I think so, definitely. With comics, even though this stuff is kind of confusing and dense, I’m actually trying to make it readable. Sometimes, I use repetitive devices to do that. But yes, I’m definitely trying to make the comics more readable. And I’m working on some comics now, and I’m really trying to make them clearer, but it’s kind of a struggle for me, because my stuff ends up being a little confusing, no matter how I do it. I mean, that’s kind of the charm of it too.
Xavier Guilbert : In the case of the comics, they are spread across a few pages, so the information comes in bits and pieces. While in the illustration, you get everything in just one helping, and you have to navigate it to try and make sense of it. In the end, as a reader, I have the impression that there’s about the same about of information, but adapted to the different delivery formats.
Marc Bell : Oh, I think so, I agree. I think that it seems like a good way to look at it.
Xavier Guilbert : Looking at your work, the first word that came to me was : cacophony. As if sitting by a window and hearing all the noises coming up from the street. It’s rather reminiscent of the meaningless messages we get bombarded with on a daily basis. For instance, the cover for Hot Potatoe lists the ©, (R), TM and (sic) signs — and this is just one element in a composition that’s overloaded with information. There’s also the strange messages that come over and over again — like the “Worn tuff elbow — keep 150 % moisturized at all time” mentions.
Marc Bell : It might appear that there’s a secret meaning, but there’s not a real secret meaning. But that’s exactly as you — maybe it’s a defense. It sounds so corny to explain it. I can say — “yeah, it’s how I deal with modern world, there’s too much information, blah blah blah”. It’s true, I think, but when you explain it, it sounds kinda corny to me.
Xavier Guilbert : There’s an American psychologist, Barry Schwartz, who wrote a book called The Paradox of Choice, saying that the amount of choice we are now facing in the most simple things causes a lot of anxiety. For instance, the average American supermarket carries close to 50,000 items.
Marc Bell : I know, it’s crazy. I was talking with someone who was in Kenya or something, and how he’d go to the public bathrooms and there would be no toilet paper. So he’s like : “okay, maybe I need my own personal roll”, so he went to the pharmacy, and he went to the aisle where the toilet paper is, and there’s just one brand. It just seems so much easier. “Okay, I’m gonna buy my toilet paper. I’m not gonna be bothered…”. You know, North America, there’s usually fifty brands, and they are all fighting for your attention.
Xavier Guilbert : Is this something that you resent, or you feel strongly about ?
Marc Bell : I don’t know if I resent it, it’s just how it is. I’m kind of making fun of it, it’s kind of satirical. I guess I am resenting it, because it’s my own personal form of backlash against all the stuff I’m being bombarded with. And probably, I’m a weird — I’m a cartoonist, and a lot of cartoonists have been using their art to make themselves comfortable in the world. They back themselves in a corner, and they’re just making their work by themselves, and it’s their way of coping with these things. I’m not trying to say it’s like that for everybody, but everyone comes up with their own way of dealing with all this stuff.
Xavier Guilbert : Besides the cacophony, there’s also a fascination for diagrams or technical-sounding explanations, as if you were trying to make sense of the world. Even if it often veers into the fantastical. There’s also this aspect of cataloging things, too.
Marc Bell : I’m interested in world-building, like a concrete world. But then, it’s… with me, it gets a little out of control (laugh). Because I’m giving a lot of information, but I’m trying to have certain touchstones. The comic I’m working on now, I’m setting it in this place, Lord Rupert Manor, and I’ve set some of my previous stories in that place. So even if this stuff is pretty out there, I’m always trying to — I set up a lot of things, but I’m always trying to dig backwards and try and build on all the stuff I’ve already set up. Even if it does appear at first to be very confusing, I’m trying to cross-reference in all the work. So I’m setting up these diagrams, that look like they are going to explain… something. I don’t know if they do in the end, but I enjoy the process of it. It’s not a traditional pay-off, like : “Oh, he set up this diagram or this system, and now I understand it all.” It’s ongoing, it’s the ongoing cacophony. It’s a good word, I think.
Xavier Guilbert : You say that it gets out of hand. Is that something that happens to you when you draw ? Do you get lost in the act of drawing, or is there a set composition or plan from the start ?
Marc Bell : Well… sometimes I picture something really elaborate in my head, but you can never quite do it. The pages aren’t big enough. So I always start these complex things, and they get more and more complex but then I have to cut it off at some point.
Xavier Guilbert : There’s a fold-out in Hot Potatoe that seems to hint at something very very big though. And this is not big enough yet ?
Marc Bell : Not really. It feels like I should do something bigger. When I say there’s only so much room, maybe I’m talking about a traditional page, a comics page. Say, maybe, like a page from that Gustun strip, for example. I’m setting up these diagram-type views that the character is moving through, but it always feels like I have to rein it in at some point, because — with comics, you have to define things graphically. It’s a good restraint.
Xavier Guilbert : You’ve published in different outlets. There’s Big Pile, which underwent a format change at some point — how did you deal with that ?
Marc Bell : With that I had no choice. In that case I had a strip that was more square, and then the publisher decided they were going to change the format of the comics page. I had to switch. I had to adapt to it, and figure out… When I was doing these weeklies, I was always trying to figure out ways to create stories that I could print later in books. So in some cases, it wasn’t very rewarding for the reader, weekly, because he would just get these little snippets. And in that case, the strip got smaller, but I was still pretty stubborn about trying to do something with it.
A better example would be when I was printing Shrimpy and Paul in Exclaim ! magazine. When I first was drawing that strip, it was half a newspaper page. So it was pretty big. And then they cut it, they cut the size in half, so then it was 4″ x 5″, but I was so stubborn… I drew the same amount of panels, they were just much smaller. Because I wanted to get a certain amount of work done. Originally, it was half a page, and I think it was eight panels or something like that. And when I had to shrink it in half, the only way it would work with what I wanted to do was with nine panels. So it shrunk in half, and there was even one extra panel. And I was still drawing them the same size, I think, and I was just shrinking them, and people would complain : “I can’t read it, it’s so small !” And I would just be : “Well, too bad ! ‘Cause I gotta get this book done…” It was just a matter of trying to build a certain amount of work to make a book, which I saw as the finished thing.
Xavier Guilbert : So the serialization was definitely a means to an end.
Marc Bell : I would want people to get a kick of the little pieces, but I was always trying to do something bigger with them.
Xavier Guilbert : The few collections I’ve seen from you are all over the place in terms of dates. It’s true for Pure Pajamas, which is your latest book, but the same goes for Hot Potatoe, with things dating from various periods.
Marc Bell : In a way, Shrimpy and Paul was — it was a period of time. I guess the first Shrimpy and Paul strip was 96, the very crudely drawn one that was first in the book. And then I started drawing strips for Exclaim !, and that was a period of time, between 1996 and 2003, when it came out. So it was all over the place, but it was a trajectory of work. Then, Hot Potatoe was artwork — I guess it was artwork from 2000 approximately, mainly from 2000 to 2008 or 2009. So it was an 8-year period. Then Pure Pajamas is a weird one, because it’s like…
Xavier Guilbert : It starts off with the most recent stuff, and ends up with things taken from This is nothing, back from 1998 or something. It is a bit jarring…
Marc Bell : It is jarring. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with putting some of the stuff in there, because near the end there’s some of the messy style. It’s pretty jarring. Now I’m working on a comic that’s all one story, so it will be a more complete, consistent thing, I’m hoping. I would call Pure Pajamas my hodge-podge book, if you know what I mean ?
Xavier Guilbert : Is this new book to be published in installment, or all at once ?
Marc Bell : No, I’m just drawing it all to be published at once.
Xavier Guilbert : Is that the first time ?
Marc Bell : Yeah, pretty much.
Xavier Guilbert : Is it different in the way you approach it ? When it’s printed, you can’t correct it.
Marc Bell : Yeah, all that other stuff was drawn page by page. I would pencil it, then I would ink it, and then I would print it in a newspaper and I would be able to edit it later if it was going into a book. But this is different, in that it’s all being drawn in pencil first, and so I can edit before I ink it but it will the first time it appears. This is the first time where I’ve drawn the whole thing in one go. It’s the longest story I’ve done, I guess.
Xavier Guilbert : Do you feel a kind of nostalgia ?
Marc Bell : Yeah. In the new thing I’m working on, I’m trying to make it more — it’s still pretty crazy, but I’m trying to make it clear. And I’m using some of the characters I’ve used before. I’m even using Monsieur Moustache, who’s been around since 1993. I used to draw him in the school newspaper I worked for. And he’s an almost Jim Henson-y type of character. I’m pleased with some of the drawing I’ve been doing on the new thing. It makes me thing sometimes of Jim Henson, trying to get to that kind of iconic, simple state. Even though the stuff is still pretty busy.
Xavier Guilbert : You mention Jim Henson, and the old cartoons…
Marc Bell : And Richard Scarry. A lot of people bring him up when looking at my work. He’s an American children’s book author from — maybe around the 50s. He would do books like What do people do all day ? and it would just be those animal characters, and everyone’s really busy. It just shows what everyone’s doing all day, different occupations.
Xavier Guilbert : How did it evolve towards this far-out universe ? Are some of the creatures oniric ? Or do they come from another place, like imagining a 600 ft. magic scientist, and trying to see what he would do ?
Marc Bell : Actually, the 600 ft. magic scientist started as a joke. Me and my friend Peter Thompson, we draw together, we drew those Hobbit drawings that were in Hot Potatoe. We would joke about — I don’t know, we would just talk about the 600 ft. magic scientist, and… It came out of nowhere, but then it would be repeated in our work, and then I repeated it in that comic. Things come out of word play and jokes between friends.
Xavier Guilbert : Do you take notes of that ? There’s a lot of things that come out again and again. Nowicker, for example. There’s also L.O., which stands for…
Marc Bell : London, Ontario. Because people talk about “T.O.”, which is Toronto, Ontario. And me and some friends from London Ontario, we work together a lot. I put together this book called Nog A Dod, I put it together in 2006 and it’s a collection of drawing books by myself and my peers. And for years, we’ve been cross-referencing each other’s work. It’s like we steal from each other, but it’s okay. Peter [Thompson] would draw something, or Jason [McLean] would draw something, and then I would take that information or drawing and change it, and vice versa. And all this terminology came about. And we’re from London, Ontario, and it has this history — in the 60s, there was an original art scene, where there were these artists who lived in London, and they were very stubborn London artists : “We don’t have to go to Toronto, we don’t have to go to New York, we’re gonna stay in London, and work here.” So there’s this kind of history in London about… I don’t know how to explain it ? It also relates to the regional scene in Chicago a little bit. The work isn’t that similar, but there are some similarities in attitude. And they were going on at the same time.
Xavier Guilbert : The fact that you’re in a place that’s not considered as the cultural center…
Marc Bell : It’s been a motivator for me to sort of be outside the center of things.
Xavier Guilbert : Outside, but also claiming some kind of autonomy at the same time ?
Marc Bell : Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly that. Claiming some autonomy, and being a little jokingly stubborn about claiming that autonomy. For sure.
Xavier Guilbert : What I find interesting with your art, is that it functions also in sequences. For instance, there’s the “Neo Gneppotism” series with connected drawings, or pages using very similar composition.
Marc Bell : They were like a series of drawings, yeah.
Xavier Guilbert : And they are still referencing the same, underlying, Marc Bell universe.
Marc Bell : Yeah, that was definitely a series — I think I created those for some art fair. And then I also reproduced them in Kramers [Ergot]. Which always — I would always feel kind of guilty reproducing those kind of works in comic anthologies, because it’s like… you know, people going : “argh, I can’t read this !” (laugh) But I guess you can still read them.
Xavier Guilbert : Well, people who turn to Kramers Ergot might be a little more open about what’s in there…
Marc Bell : That’s true. It’s a little more straight-up now, these days. It’s a little more straightforward.
Xavier Guilbert : I haven’t seen the latest issues, I stopped at 7. I’m thinking of those ones.
Marc Bell : That’s the time where it was really — 4 and 5 were kind of crazy. 4 is pretty good.
Xavier Guilbert : On the inside cover of Hot Potatoe, you have some kind of buildings put together…
Marc Bell : Oh yeah. What those are — I would look at different pieces in the book, and do a tiny icon of each piece in a way.
Xavier Guilbert : So this is Duchamp doing his little portable museum.
Marc Bell : Oh yeah. I found that book about him really fascinating, those interviews (Dialogues With Marcel Duchamp). Like, going backwards — I’m very interested in that idea. You could say that I’m going backwards, or maybe going sideways. This artist, I forget his name but I like his analogy, was talking about how his work was like a threshing machine going sideways. Does that make sense ? Instead of going forward, he’s going sideways. And going over the same ground. So I like to keep it — like literally, trying to go sideways.
Xavier Guilbert : Do you know those pieces from Juan Miro, where he used pictures of steel pipes and things taken from catalogs, put them on a page, and used it as a basis for his paintings ?
Marc Bell : I’d like to see it. So he was cutting up catalogs of his work ?
Xavier Guilbert : No, just — sales catalog.
Marc Bell : Oh. Because sometimes I cut up — I’ll do little self-published books, and I’ll actually cut those up, and put fragments of them, fragments of old pieces into new pieces. Another thing I’ve done, to illustrate the idea of “a little goes a long way”, I’ll have one tiny little piece of paper I like, and I’ll slowly chip away at it, and you could look through several pieces and see it repeated. I have this little piece of paper that had those Aztec and Mayan characters — and I love those. It’s like an alphabet, with abstract and weird little shapes that I really like. Those actual shapes have influenced my drawing. But also, this actual, tiny little sheet, I would cut up a little icon and I’d stick it on a collage, and that sheet has lasted me, I don’t know, like thirty pieces. If you looked at the last thirty collages I’ve made, there was probably one or two of those on each piece of this little sheet.
Xavier Guilbert : So you experiment a lot with collage ?
Marc Bell : Yeah.
Xavier Guilbert : Have you ever been tempted by animation ?
Marc Bell : Not really. That, I find to be way too much work. Maybe I could — I’ve been tempted by videogames, I want to make a videogame. Have a cash cow… Can you imagine ? A 600 ft. magic scientist videogame ? That could be good. Or maybe not. Who knows.
Xavier Guilbert : I saw you did the over for Pendleton Ward’s Bravest Warriors, and looking at his work, there’s some connection.
Marc Bell : Some people told me : “Marc, I watched Adventure Time, you should get a lawyer.” And I saw it and I didn’t really think it was ripping me off. I could see maybe — I saw a connection. But I’d have to get a pretty good lawyer. And I’m making a joke here, I’m not saying I’m going to sue Adventure Time. (laughs)
Xavier Guilbert : I wasn’t thinking about you doing all the animation yourself, but haven’t you been tempted to have some of your work adapted ?
Marc Bell : Oh, I would do that. I would design animation. I would do that, for sure. I think I could — if I was freed up, to not have to draw at all, I think I could make something pretty interesting. And I’m a pretty good collaborator too. I could probably work pretty well with the right kind of writers and stuff. I think.
Xavier Guilbert : You never had any proposal in this direction ?
Marc Bell : No. Never. I mean, actually, someone proposed, they wanted me to design some characters for a videogame, they were hired by Sony to make a videogame. They approached me about that, but when I looked at the details, I was like — no way ! It was work-for-hire. They wanted me to design characters that I wouldn’t own anymore. I was : Man, if that thing takes off, I don’t want to have to watch the commercials and be happy with the tiny amount of money they gave me — or relatively tiny amount of money. There was probably a small chance that it would have taken off, but…
Xavier Guilbert : Do you remember the name of the game ?
Marc Bell : No, and I probably shouldn’t say anyway, because I’m complaining. I don’t know, I should have gotten the name, maybe. Maybe they’re using my characters anyway. (laughs)
In the 90s, when I was really broke, and stubborn…
Xavier Guilbert : … which hasn’t changed.
Marc Bell : Do I still sound stubborn ? I don’t know if I’m stubborn now. I don’t think I’m stubborn now, but to do what I do now, I had to have been stubborn. I had to live very cheaply, and just stick to it. By being stubborn, I’ve kind of gotten to the point where I’m now, which is good. I’m not complaining.
In the 90’s I was working at Nelvana, which is an animation company in Toronto. They make like Little Bear, Sam and Max, Pippi Longstocking — or they did, I don’t know if they exist anymore, they probably do. The people who worked there, people who had the design jobs or the writing jobs there, would say : “Hey Marc, we’ve seen your comics, you should propose a cartoon.” So I think I went through the process of trying to propose something, but they threw so much paperwork at me… they threw paperwork that basically said : “If we take your proposal and steal it, you can’t sue us.” So I would have needed a lawyer to write my own paperwork. But I was broke. I was working for them for, ten dollars an hour, coloring their garbage or whatever. So…
Xavier Guilbert : The dream sequence was some kind of request. You also illustrated songs — was that also a request ?
Marc Bell : Yes, those were for Vice. My editor there would come up with ideas. I think the first one he asked me to draw was — “Can you draw ‘Rebel Yell’ by Billy Idol ?” So I would draw that, and he’d ask me to do another one, and I’d draw that. Sometimes I would refuse…
Xavier Guilbert : You seem to be only mildly enthusiastic about that.
Marc Bell : Do I ? (laugh) Actually, I think those are some of my best comics, in a way. Or the drawing. I think that was when I was at the height of my drawing.
Xavier Guilbert : Do you feel you’ve gone down since ?
Marc Bell : No no no. I haven’t gone down, I mean, I just switched. That’s around the time I stopped drawing comics. And I started working more on the artwork. I don’t think my drawing has gone down, but I started approaching it in a different way. Sometimes, I think to myself : “Oh man, I wonder what would have happened if I kept drawing comics at that pace.” Because I was drawing quite a few at that time, and I burnt out on it. And then I went right into the art, and I made tons — there was a period where I was making piles of that art. And I kind of burnt myself out on that, a bit. Now, I’m going back to the comics, I’m trying to ramp up the comics again. So I’ve been doing this whole… before, I was doing both, and then I switched to the art, and now I’m kind of switching to the comics, but I’ll still be doing art, probably.
Xavier Guilbert : Do you see the difference now, that you’re going back to comics ? Looking at your art, it’s clear that you brought elements from your comics…
Marc Bell : There’s a huge overlap. I don’t mean to separate it too much, because they relate so much.
Xavier Guilbert : But has the fact that you focused on art for a while changed the way you approach comics now ?
Marc Bell : I was worried about that. About going back to comics, and not being able to do them anymore. But it was perfectly fine. Better, even. They seemed a little clearer, even. If the pencils are any indication.
Xavier Guilbert : With your work, I have the impression there is some kind of learning process, with a personal vocabulary that builds up progressively on itself. And once you get used to those reccurring elements, things become clearer.
Marc Bell : Do they ? Oh, that’s nice to hear. (laughs)
Xavier Guilbert : I’m not saying they become clearer, but at least they become familiar.
Marc Bell : That’s good, I hope so.
Xavier Guilbert : And yet, looking at Pure Pajamas and how it’s organized in reverse chronological order, I’m wondering if you’re not trying to muddle things for the reader.
Marc Bell : I didn’t want to put the really messy stuff at the front. Yeah, it kind of jumps around. Actually, I was talking with Sammy Harkham about the book and he said : “you shouldn’t put any of that old stuff at the front.” And I thought about it, and I agreed. There was one strip near the front — “Kevin”. I kind of regret putting that near the front, but I did it for particular reasons, because I thought it was a way to introduce probably the whole Lord Rupert Manor thing. There are reasons I have for pacing it the way I did, but I think the most jarring point is the… the dishwashing strip. The really messy one. It’s autobiographical, and it’s really messy. That’s the most jarring moment, that’s the one I was going to take out.
I recently assembled a book by my friend Mark Connery, he draws Rudy comics. He’s had stuff in Ganzfeld #5. I just assembled a book of his, with stuff that spans twenty years. I did reverse chronological order, I started out with the new stuff, and went back to the old stuff. So maybe that’s — maybe that’s my way of doing things.
Xavier Guilbert : To get back to the Retro feel, there’s an absence of technology, or at least, modern technology in your works. There are no cellphones, and like for the 600 ft. magic scientist, it shows science as it could have been pictured in the 50s. There’s definitely no computers and no Internet.
Marc Bell : It’s more interesting to draw physical things, I think. To draw a scientist looking at a screen would be boring to me.
Xavier Guilbert : In the way you draw, there’s this strange approach to material. For instance, the way you do the strips of bacon, they really look like a strip of a road or something like that. This really reminds me of what Claes Oldenburg did — gives the impression that everything is somehow alive, and could suddenly be moving and…
Marc Bell : Like the Betty Boop thing, where everything is alive. I guess it’s entertaining. I’d be like : “Oh, this is kinda dull. I guess I’ll put a face on it.” I guess that Gustun strip is a good example of that too. The land, the floor is alive, the earth is alive. I’m not sure where that comes from.
Xavier Guilbert : It’s not the Earth, it’s — the Ea_th.
Marc Bell : Oh yeah, I know. It kind of irritates me that I did that. Why did I do that ? It’s just stupid. (laughs) Now I’m stuck with that.
Xavier Guilbert : Why are you stuck with it ? Why don’t you change it ? You’re the artist, you are all powerful.
Marc Bell : Oh no, it’s printed now, not much I can do. I was thinking about having a moratorium on misspellings. I’ve tired myself out. It starts to feel like a shtick, after a while. So maybe no more, everything has to be spelled properly. From wrong, to properly, and get really conservative. In a way, my stuff is kind of conservative. It’s not really dirty, or… It’s kind of “PG”.
Xavier Guilbert : It’s completely asexual.
Marc Bell : It is, I know it is. What is up with that ? And there’s a lot of dudes, where are the ladies ? I can’t draw — I’m not very good at drawing ladies.
Xavier Guilbert : There are a little bit in the first strips, but all of a sudden it’s just dudes.
Marc Bell : I don’t know what’s up with that. I kinda hate that about it. I mean, I don’t think — I don’t think they are macho.
Xavier Guilbert : It’s just the fact that the sexual element is completely absent — except for the nipples on Paul.
Marc Bell : I know, I know ! I’d have to get on the couch, maybe, to figure that out.
Xavier Guilbert : You mentioned jokes, and then there’s this stream of consciousness approach, and associations. But apart from one or two moments, there are no sexual references.
Marc Bell : I think an animal ejaculates on Shrimpy, at one point. (laughs) And there’s when Shrimpy goes over to a lady’s house — I forget if she’s Miss Polly or not — but he goes under the cover and she says : “get out of here” and he comes out and he’s wearing her underwear or something. But there’s not a whole lot of…
Xavier Guilbert : Considering the amount of work you’ve produced…
Marc Bell : Yeah, I don’t know what to say. Maybe… maybe I find that when things get too sexy, it’s kind of cringe-worthy. I don’t know.
Xavier Guilbert : At the same time, the way you approach the body is also very peculiar. Either there are incomplete bodies, with only one leg, or no arms ; or the way you represent yourself in the first pages of Pure Pajamas, that really echoes the cacophony we were talking about. In the sense there’s a character who’s huge, but with a tiny head. There’s the huge body, the part that feels, and then the tiny head that tries and processes all this information. And moving from that, I realized there’s a lot of your characters who don’t have necks. And the neck is like a symbol of that separation between the brain and the sensory part — as if there was no filter between them, with the cacophony going straight for the brain.
Marc Bell : I don’t know, I don’t know enough about it. I kinda like the self-portrait at the beginning of Pure Pajamas. I like the look of a big-footed character — big feet, little head ! Aesthetically, I like it, but there could be something more to it than that. But I’m not the right person to…
Xavier Guilbert : There’s one passage in Lord Rupert Manor where there’s a character who steps out of a suit, and the suit doesn’t have a head.
Marc Bell : Oh yeah, that’s Stroppy. See, he’s the star of the new story.
Xavier Guilbert : Again, there’s a big body, and inside there’s something that…
Marc Bell : Oh, there’s definitely something there with that. He’s this shriveled weirdo on the inside, but that’s actually his exterior, and he’s being protected by this other… this false exterior. That’s tricky. Do you have a reading on it, I’m curious.
Xavier Guilbert : I don’t know, I find very interesting the way you treat the body in the light of this cacophony. I really feel there’s this pressure from the world outside, and the way you have disproportionate bodies, with big arms and little heads.
Marc Bell : I wonder if anyone has ever analyzed Guston (the real Guston, Philip Guston) in that way. But I guess his characters don’t have tiny heads, they’re still still pretty large, but he’s got those big, clunky arms and thing like that. It’s very physical, right ?
Xavier Guilbert : You have also the “Worn Tuff Elbow”…
Marc Bell : (showing his own elbows) I got it. (laughs)
Xavier Guilbert : … but this is a part that works, where the physical is very present, it’s not glamorous in any way.
Marc Bell : Ever since I was a kid, I was always fascinated by the elbow. It’s just weird. Maybe it’s just some kind of weird body — I don’t know if it’s body mortification, but there’s something, some preoccupation there that I don’t know if I understand.
Xavier Guilbert : There’s also something with the knuckles…
Marc Bell : Sure, sure. (pause) I don’t know what to say ! It’s hard for me to — I can’t explain it.
Xavier Guilbert : So basically, you don’t try to analyze your stuff.
Marc Bell : Not really. I feel like it’s not really my job. That’s your job ! (laughs) But I’m glad you — it’s interesting to hear someone point it out. Because people don’t point that stuff out very much.
Xavier Guilbert : In the same way, you have those characters who have those very human attributes…
Marc Bell : But they don’t feel like regular people.
Xavier Guilbert : True, but still, when you focus on a detail — you focus on the elbow, and the elbow is definitely human. But you have other characters that are more block-like, more abstract, and there there’s a definite distance.
Marc Bell : I like that push-and-pull, I like to show some things detailed, and then sometimes pull back and have them more simplified. With comics, I guess you have to keep it simplified in some ways, so people can enter it. That’s why the drawings are different. You can enter those stories. Even if the comics are busy, I’m still trying to allow there to be some entry point into the characters.
Xavier Guilbert : Where do you feel this need to put out a lot of stuff comes from ? When you told me about the space change in Exclaim !, you could have gone with another strategy, you know ? Splitting stuff in two, for instance. But no, you were stubborn about putting out as much as before. You also mentioned the “Horror vacui”, and it all feels like some sort of compulsion.
Marc Bell : Oh yeah, I think so. But that story about compressing the strip, that was in the late 90s, early 2000s. I kinda burnt out on comics a bit, and then I went right into the art, and now I’m in a different stage where I’m not — I don’t feel I’m putting out a lot of stuff. I’m slowing making some art, but not at the same pace, and I’m slowing making some comics. I’m trying to ramp it up again, and put out more work, but these days, I don’t have a guilt or a compulsion to crank out a lot of stuff. I do feel bad, sometimes, I’m like : “Oh, I should be working at a faster pace”, but I’m just trying to give myself a break. I feel I’ve made a lot of work, so…
[Interview conducted on August 17, 2013 in Minneapolis, during PFC#4]
- A few examples of those pieces can be seen in this MoMA mini-site, under the title “Paintings Based on Collage | 1993”.