When I'm Old & Other Stories
by Gabrielle Bell
(Alternative Comics, 2003)

From the innocent title and cover artwork a browser could be forgiven for thinking that Gabrielle Bell's comic collection When I'm Old & Other Stories is an innocent assembly of heartwarming stories. The opening story of Amy, a babysitter with a worrying imagination, seems sweet enough; but by the time the title story ends with Bell's future alter ego hollering come-ons to young men from her addicts' perch on the streets, it's obvious that this is no ordinary journey of personal enlightenment. It's something far stranger, and far more fun.

There's no particular genre to these tales. A few seem autobiographical, but all have an element of strangeness that suggests fiction. "I Ate Shit and Pretended to Like It," a tale of minimum wage brilliance, has no overtly fantastic elements, but seems unlikely; "Night Shift," a story of impossible changes, comes off as a realistic and accurate portrayal of shift worker dissatisfaction. Bell rarely descends into the sort of autobiographical whining that so often occupies minicomics, preferring a good hard rant to a slow mope.

Those stories, which seem as though they might head that way, soon take a turn into the absurdist and surreal. She has perfected the small, significant trick of blending her fantasies and daydreams with real experience, so that it's hard to tell when the slide into fantasy begins until several panels after the walls began dancing.

Bell also deserves credit for her art. Energetically unpolished, it grants everything under her pen a sense of animation. This is especially effective in "The Wicker Chair," which calls for the usually unresponsive setting to come to life, but it adds urgency and a sense of population to all her scenes, which can otherwise be rather short on characters. These lively walls and introspective upholsteries make for atmospheric settings, crucial for an artist with such psychodramatic tales leaning on such simple language. "Just One Reason," a serial tale of homicide, would not have half its psychotic cheer if not for the creeping threads of shading and daunting, hallucinatory perspectives. Minicomic art often seems shoddy and rushed when enlarged, but Bell's attention to detail and purposely sketchy style seem intended for this full-size treatment.

Gabrielle Bell is the sort of creator easily overlooked by national comic distributors and usually confined to a local following. Hopefully the presence on shelves of When I'm Old & Other Stories will introduce new audiences to her strange view on life, and finance more trips into the surreal.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 1 May 2004

Buy it from Amazon.com.