Marc Bell, a Canadian cartoonist, has been making comics, art books, zines, collages, mail art, paintings and sculptures since the early 90’s when he went to an art high school and later took fine art in University. In this conversation with his old pal and colleague, Megan Kelso, they discuss his current work, collaboration, inspiration and the travails of being a “mid-career artist.” The conversation took place in a series of email exchanges during August and September 2019. Marc was scheduled to be a special guest but had to unfortunately cancel due to border and immigration fears.
Megan Kelso (K): Hi Marc! I’m intrigued by what seems like a new visual direction in your work, at least new to me. I think I first saw it in those large canvas painting/drawings you did. I know you did some originally for your residency at Struts in Sackville. One of them was called Puritanical Psychic Attack. Were those the first of these purely abstract shapes with dark spot blacks?
Marc Bell (B): I guess these spot blacks started showing up a couple years ago. They have been showing up in the “artier” stuff, the kind of things for my publication Boutique Mag. I think at one point I started adding the blacks into the negative space of block lettering and it went from there. When I started drawing these things they made me picture these looping designs in this group of animations that Julie Doucet had made. I haven’t seen those in a while but I hope mine aren’t too close to those.
And I took this style into the large paintings. Which were based on a bunch of little glyphs I was drawing that were based loosely on Mayan glyphs. So I suppose I am openly culturally appropriating this stuff. But I love that stuff and feel an affinity for it.
K: Have you made more of those large works?
B: I made three large “paintings” of this kind at Struts, which I ended up showing at Weird Things in Toronto. When you do a residency you are sort of on display and so I thought it might be good to do something larger, which I almost never do. Instead of being in a corner making tiny drawings. These are 5” high by 4’ wide. I started one more that is sitting in Sackville at a friends’ house. And I have one half-finished one at my apartment. It is not very encouraging to make more. They weren’t selling, even at the price of much smaller works of mine, and then you have to store these things. I guess you just roll ‘em up, but still. I don’t have a regular gallery to show at these days so it seems a little pointless.
K: You said in your cartoon diary about the drawings you did at the Struts residency that you were making them with Posca pens on gessoed or primed canvas. Did that turn out to be a fruitful working style? Also, what else are you drawing with these days?
B: Yes, I was into it. I primed the canvas at Struts with house paint primer but then thinking about making more I purchased a roll of pre-primed canvas, which was much easier. I suppose the earlier hand-primed ones are funnier though because they are stretched in sort of an amateur way. Other than that I am using the same old materials. Fabriano paper and Japanese nibs. Rapidograph pens and I also use some scrappier paper.
K: You have always had a lot of cute characters, especially the tiny/minor ones populating the streets and off to the sides in many of your strips. And Shrimpy, of course. But one of the things I love about your work, is that you consistently undermine the cuteness with a kind of grossness and horror (heads being cut off, guts, things rotting, things being messed up, destroyed, etc.) I think your work tends towards cuteness perhaps because of your cartoon influences? Are you veering away from cuteness, resisting it these days?
B: Hm, I am not sure. I suppose there is still a certain cuteness or “cute brute” in Worn Tuff Elbow #2. Lots of little side characters. But as far as how that comic rates on the cuteness scale I am not sure. I certainly see those glyphs as somewhat cutesy. I guess I get nervous about any cutesiness taking over?
K: I want to ask about collaborators, is this part of your art life currently? I read some of your interviews and Mark Connery comes up. Is he somebody you collaborate with or just mutually appreciate each other’s work?
B: Well, I edited his book Rudy and we have made lots of drawings together. Mark gave me a new page of Rudy comics for Boutique Mag #4, which I coloured and I am excited to publish. I also collaborated on a satirical news article about “Outsider Art Birds” with Jonny Debs for Boutique Mag #4. He drew on photos of birds, giving them little hats and glasses and the story is that they shit on the heads of phonies. Some of our text conversations were transposed into Sedberg & Lilycups, a sort of theatre script that appeared in Worn Tuff Elbow #2. There is also going to be a fashion line in the Boutique Mag, collaborations with Sadie Olchewski. I have been going to regular drawing nights with various people in Vancouver, which has led to several drawing booklets, usually under the name “Arnold Snork”.
K: I’m glad to hear that collaboration remains a part of your practice. I think it’s such an interesting through line in your career, both inspiring and admirable. Did these collaborations and drawing nights in Vancouver give birth to Boutique Magazine or vice versa? Or if not when/why did you start Boutique?
M: Boutique Mag started around 2014 in Ontario. Colour Code in Toronto wanted to publish something so I put #1 together as a collection of some self-published things I had been putting out for a few years previous (the annual Belly Wot Leaflet! and Swed, for example) and created some new things for it as well. They did some nice work riso-printing it. Boutique Mag #3 was self-published in Vancouver and was all new. With this latest one I thought it might be interesting to bring in a few other people for variety’s sake though it is still mostly my work. I am co-publishing this one with Bellingham’s Neoglyphic Media and we are going to create a bonus item using some of the aforementioned Hoser~Glyphs. The idea should be pretty funny if it works out.
K: Another thing I love about your work is what I perceive as a certain restlessness….moving between different drawing styles and modes of expression, that you have these different threads in your work that you leave off and then pick up again. In my mind they all cohere into a Marc Bell world, or a Marc Bell feeling. I love how the feeling of the post office, from your early days of doing mail art, still imbue your work. A sense of a large bureaucracy kind of tying the whole Marc Bell world together is always present. Can you elaborate on this and describe the current balance of what you’re working on these days and perhaps, if you’re working on different things, how they do or do not relate to each other, or how they satisfy different creative imperatives in your life? I think in the Dan Nadel interview (TCJ) the two of you discussed the differences between work that was meant to be entertaining vs. work that is more about your internal world, and also whether you are thinking or not thinking about an audience. So where are you at with those things these days?
B: Thanks Megan, I appreciate that you see this as a whole winding continuum. That is my intention with it. I think at a certain point I had this restlessness about tying things together in even an oblique way so that it does seem like a living thing. It never appears to become closed off because I am always adding to it. I am not sure if it would ever make a ton of overall sense but that’s ok. Maybe it’s like the real world in that way, ha. I am not even sure where I stand on the entertaining/internal scale these days. It was interesting to think about but I am sure a lot of people would feel blocked out by the current stuff. It usually goes either way. I look at my strip in the new Kramer’s and think “uh oh” and “oh well, who cares.” I’m not really into pedestrian things anyway.
K: I loved the origin story of the Wild Baloneys in Worn Tuff Elbow #2 and the Grand Finale Putt Putt Golf/song disquisition of the All Star Schnauzer Band in Stroppy. These were both bravura performances, seeming to be a kind of capping off/final word on cartoon riffs that you’ve been working with for years. Maybe I’m wrong and there are more layers to come? Or maybe these are “endings” of a sort? I am curious what you think!
B: Oh, if they cap off certain ideas for you that’s great, phew! I do have more ideas about how to explore the Wild Baloney and the Remote Villager characters so hopefully I can get to that. And I have some ideas for On/Off Schnauzer. Things seem so scattered for everybody these days, me included, so I am hoping things can calm down a bit and I can make some of these adjustments/additions to the overall tale at some point. Or maybe things will just get wackier? Who knows?
K: I think you are approaching 50? I am 51 and I think you’re a few years younger than I am. Here are some questions about growing older. You mentioned getting carpal tunnel (I think in the Dan Nadel interview)… how are your hands these days, and your general fitness in terms of art making, body as tool, etc.? Do you need to live/work differently to be productive? Do you find your approach to working has changed appreciably as you get older? For example, I have found that as I get older, I’ve become more comfortable with drawing looser and “not knowing” so much where I’m going with a story. I’m more open to the risk of things looking “bad.” I wonder if you have noticed analogous changes or really any kinds of changes in yourself and how you make art, or if your generative process has changed?
B: Yes, I am 47. I suppose the biggest thing has been my eyes. I am near-sighted and my eyesight was deteriorating for some time it seems but I didn’t bother getting new glasses. I finally threw down and new ones allowed me to see far away but I found I couldn’t draw with them on anymore, they were too overpowering close up. I was really irritated at first but now I am used to taking them off to draw. I guess I need to get bifocals next, ha. The carpal tunnel happened at a height of productivity but also I was colouring things in a very dumb and slow way (on the computer).
K: Also related to getting older, living through phases, financial markets, art trends, where you are in the scene (young artist, mid career artist, older artist) do you have any thoughts about this? I think about this because I wrote a manifesto at the beginning of my first book, that I planned to be drawing comics until I was an old woman, even if it meant I had to live on cat food to make it work. I watched my mom die of dementia a couple years ago, and it only made me more determined than ever, that even if I lose my mind, I plan to keep drawing through it all, or even if my line gets terribly shaky, like Charles Schulz, anyway, I wonder if you have any thoughts along these lines?
B: Sorry to hear about your mom, Megan. That must have been hard. I saw my mom go through that for years and years with her own mother a while back and it was a difficult situation. For me it appears there is no going back now, I don’t think I am employable. I seem to get these little windfalls every once in a while that keep me going. I did actually look into getting a job as a property manager recently, like a groundskeeper. It was implied that I would be able to work a bit on my art during the down times. However, I checked out the potential art-making hiding spot and it wasn’t to my liking, no window. There are certain things one might require to be comfortable to work. And I thought it would cut too far into my time in general (it was full time). It’s usually a reassurance to me that I could always stop making work and that would be ok. But I probably won’t. By the same token I don’t like hearing people say “I would like to be more creative and I have to do A or B or C.” One is either doing it or they aren’t. If you aren’t, that’s ok, it’s not the end of the world.
K: I think that’s interesting, what you say, “It’s usually a reassurance to me that I could always stop making work and that would be ok. But I probably won’t.” I feel similarly, and yet I just keep going even though it kind of feels that the world is passing me by. I think probably every artist who reaches a certain age and is still working must come to grips with that feeling? For some there is more outside attention than others, but it seems like everybody feels that on some level as they get older?
B: Oh yeah, I think so! It’s a large mid-career slump one has to tough through right? And then you hope you are reassessed later. Or you hope that the kind of work you made can still be in fashion or relatable.
K: Ha ha yes, most of one’s career, it turns out, is the mid-career slump one must tough through, huh? It is an interesting question to me— who stops and who keeps going and why? I don’t know if it’s answerable really, but I was wondering, do you think about the transcendental aspects of your work? Like where ideas come from, how they arrive, how you cultivate them? I’ve read interviews with both Alan Moore and Lynda Barry who discuss it as literally an act of conjuring. I haven’t talked about it with Ron Rege, but judging from his work, he seems to go there too. Do you go there at all?
B: I think perhaps I have gone there. If there is a way to describe it. I probably wouldn’t use the word conjuring but I like it because it’s funny. I think creating Shrimpy and Paul and Friends was like that for me. When something comes crashing together in a great way and the ideas keep appearing. I think it could have something to do with getting into a good workflow. Staying at it. And then when I was making piles of art for the gallery it was happening again, I was getting into a serious zone, I was basically an assembly line. Perhaps everybody is different and has different time frames with these things but I do find I have to work a little harder to get at that kind of thing now. Maybe it’s harder to get momentum now. But then at the same time it’s also relatively effortless when I can get going because I have already put so much time into making things. It’s like I’m an “old hand” at it. Literally. Like, “OK, no problem, I will draw somebody named Lady Gazebo sitting on a friendly anthropomorphic waffle creature with eight legs that is walking through a complicated cityscape filled with a jumble of cute and odd characters, coming right up.”
K: Lady Gazebo on a waffle creature indeed! Thanks for everything, Marc, the conversation, but especially the drawings.