Drawn & Quarterly is a Montreal-based publisher known for printing comics and graphic novels, and HOT POTATOE, Canadian artist Marc Bell’s latest book for them, is, in its scope and presentation, more like a catalogue raisonné than a story in pictures. At over 250 images, it is a truly a Ulysses of graphic novels, a genre-defying autobiography, an effort at mythmaking, a source of eternal gags, and references to earlier gags. HOT POTATOE is a massive exhibition catalogue without an accompanying exhibition. HOT POTATOE is a Pale Fire, as well, a lifetime’s worth of work completed in eight years by someone under forty. There are introductory essays from the likes of such perfectly Nabokovian critics as Dirty Debbie, Tommy Lacroix and Lulu Peabody-Sherman, as well as careful annotations for each image, a glossary of terms used by Bell, an extensive interview with the artist and a chronology of Bell’s career that notes with confidence events in the years leading to his death in 2075 in Hamilton, the extinction of the waffle and the rediscovery of Bell and a massive museum retrospective in 2081 at the “Gerard Doody Jr. Waffle Museum in Houston, Texas.”
Marc Bell works his way through the culture from allusions to Hollywood movies, low-brow animation, and high-brow art to late-night commercials, underground comix to gangsta rap. Bell has a gift for incomprehensible gab, juggling a dozen language gags in complicated comic pages that, like Ulysses, could take you twenty-four hours or a lifetime to read. Known to a host of fans for Shrimpy and Paul, a long-running four-panel narrative comic strip that appeared in alternative weeklies across North America, Bell has said in an interview that “the ‘mixed media’ work I do is probably the most removed from the comics but they are usually still composed with a grid in mind.” It’s true the grid is still there. Totally invisible, but it exists. A kind of intertextual graphic art novel in which the creator plays a version of himself being investigated by yet another version of the creator. Marc Bell’s heavily text-based, comic-based work he calls “fine ahtwerks” are biting the fringe of the avant-garde in both the comics universe and that of contemporary art.
To look, Bell’s style is fluid and practiced; his figures are a collision of early idiom that includes wide slacks with sharp creases, a Cliff Sterrett style via Philip Guston’s lumpy, potato-nosed, Nixon-cheeked amoral protagonists on canvas. Bell, like Guston, has found a way to imply the comic frame and do without. And Saul Steinberg’s subjective landscapes within. Yes, in his art pieces, the figure becomes the frame. The text bubbles float untethered or popped, and words and letters are in a freefall.
Many have seen Bell’s experimental work over the years in the drawing quarterlies Kramers Ergot, The Ganzfeld, PictureBox editions and elsewhere. Most of the hundreds of original artworks shown here passed through the hands of his New York dealer Adam Baumgold; Bell’s many exhibitions are listed at the back of HOT POTATOE.
The Dan Quayle reference in Bell’s title is intentional. Wrong spellings and goofed grammar crop up everywhere in his work. Misspells are essential for an artist schooled in the history of comics. The Joycean urge for neologism was in full effect in Krazy Kat’s unspooled poetry of the Coconino playa, and the musicality to Li’l Abner’s backwoods modernist malapropisms and Pogo’s post-Disney patois shook newspaper readers awake in the morning. Bad spelling is an act of debasement before the reader, and comic creators never claim to be anything other than clowns, but it tests the reader to see if they’re too pretentious to hear. Toons always used [sic] grammar to decipher the real sickness in society, and it is worth noting Bell is extremely prolific. Verily, this is gnee-o gneppotism (in dude city) is the title of an ink and watercolour work from 2003 of two men, possibly George Lucas’s interns, about to shake hands on “bizz-ness.”
In the past, Bell has collaborated with plenty of artists himself on handshake deals. After moving from his hometown London, Ontario, to Vancouver with Jason McLean, the two collaborated on the All-Star Schnauzer Band (a fictional rock group whose gig posters the two created), and self-published a shelf’s worth of mini-art books distributed at BBQ’s, art fairs and comic shops. He and artist Jason McLean continued to collaborate during a time when the two began to share paper with a growing circle of like minds. Bell worked on projects with animators and painters Amy Lockhart, Shayne Ehman, Keith Jones, Jo Cook, Owen Plummer, and Robert Dayton, and began his strip Shrimpy and Paul. Conundrum Press in Canada and PictureBox distributed the us edition of Bell’s anthology of this heyday of Vancouver minibooks, a collection of drawings and collages spanning roughly 19932005. Called Nog A Dod: Prehistoric Canadian Psychedooolia, it was published in 2006 and featured the extended family of artists with whom Bell collaborated in his drawing life. Nog A Dod *was a *foie gras primer on a Vancouver scene full to the neck with great drawers; the book has all sorts of individual and shared work, but never enough of one particular style. In HOT POTATOE, we see Bell’s style on its own and can really marvel at the vastness of his enterprise, and the extent to which Bell has dedicated, possibly pathologically, his life to the amazing world of Nog A Dod.
HOT POTATOE by Marc Bell, Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2009. Hardcover, 276 pp, $44.95.
Lee Henderson is the author of a book of short stories, The Broken Record Technique. His first novel, The Man Game was published by Penguin Canada in August 2008. He is a Contributing Editor to Border Crossings.