At first glance, Gabrielle Bell’s six-panel daily diary comics don’t have a lot in common with the Mines of Moria sequence in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings . Or at any number of subsequent glances, I suppose. But the more Bell I read, the more I think they share a primary strength: a sense of space, of environment. Autobio slice-of-life comics, by the nature of what most of us tend to do with our lives every day, often consist in large part of conversations, either with a small number of other parties or within the head of the diarist as they go about their day. Unless those conversations reference a specific landmark, cartooned depictions of them can, and often do, devolve into dialogues that could be taking place anywhere, or nowhere. They have all the spatial context of action figures or dolls or sock puppets held aloft by the cartoonist, one in each hand, and made to speak with the voices of the participants.
Not so with Bell, and not so in the most recent iteration of her annual July Diary project. Hers is a world where rooms, furniture, streets, buildings, and human bodies are arrayed in a three-quarter cheat to the audience, enabling us to see into corners, grasp the depth and dimensionality of each space. Her inimitable spotted blacks — little jagged-edged rectangular smudges — set off the surfaces of the objects with which she is surrounded, and pool in the wrinkles of her characters’ clothes like ink. It’s impossible to look at a Gabrielle Bell diary-comic page and reduce it to stick figures against a blank backdrop, any more than you could do so with the fellowship of the Ring dodging orc arrows as they flee down those crumbling steps. Her apartment, her garden, the streets of her neighborhood, the wilderness surrounding the trailer where her mother lives following the house fire that understandably dominates the diary — Bell makes them distinct, inhabitable, navigable spaces. That her rigid, six-panel grid closes those spaces off is a feature, not a bug. Each panel feels like a tiny, beautifully constructed diorama, where Bell and her acquaintances will act out the same moment forever.
The material in this year’s July Diary is especially well-suited to this presentation. When Bell finds herself pacing the room, perseverating over the fate of her garden in a fit of anxiety, it’s easy to imagine the motion-swirl of her body continuing in that circuit indefinitely, the physical process in play mimicking the mental one. When she struggles to get her phone provider to cut off her Internet access in order to thwart the peril of late-night “anxiety anti-depressant side effects” google k-holes, it’s easy to imagine her alone in that shoebox of a room, her browser issuing its silent siren call until she crosses the few feet over to it and logs on. And when noxious fumes slowly emerge as a recurring leitmotif, what better way to convey the way they overpower than to trap us in there with them? A container of fertilizer left to fester, a guest who overstays his welcome after befouling Bell’s bathroom as a consequence of an undisclosed illness, the smoke from the wildfires blazing near her mother’s home — covering a space wide enough to merit breaking the grid for the first and only time — feel like choking menaces to physical and mental well-being.
But the solidity of Bell’s cartooning makes the gaps in the edifice harder to ignore. When she announces that she’s skipping the second half of July in her “July 19th” entry, which instead depicts the events of August 1st, it’s with a hefty dose of self-effacement — “I know this is supposed to be a ‘July Diary’ but every page of the second half of the month was so dull and repetitive and pointless that I may as well have filled the pages up with random scribbles.” But the excuse feels like just that. Perhaps Bell is right and the events of the back half of July were indeed prohibitively tedious to chronicle in comics-diary form, but isn’t it precisely her ability to transmute quotidian shit into sequential-art gold which was demonstrated by the preceding two and a half weeks of comics? Certainly the final panel of the entry that preceded the jump, an image of Bell’s anxiety wrapped around her like the grasping vines of one of the overgrown plants in her garden after her mother gets a new cellphone plan enabling her to talk as long as she wants, had a strength that all but demanded further investigation.
The series concludes on a similar shrug-emoji note. “I’ve run out of things to say,” she says in a blank first panel, before going on to list events she elided over the course of the month — a visit to a friend, a shitty trip to a beach, a BoJack Horseman binge on Netflix. “I left out a lot of things but I can only represent this amorphous jumble,” she concludes, filling the final panel of the strip and the entire July diary project for the year with a big black scribble. This same device was used in the July 19th/August 1st entry to symbolize the “dull and repetitive and pointless” comics she decided against drawing. The choice is revealing: To as a meticulous a mark-maker as Bell, the idea of filling up panels at random is an unthinkable surrender. Better not to draw them at all.