Sam Ombiri on Gabrielle Bell’s “Cody”!
Sam Ombiri here: Sometimes I think about “Cody”– a story by Gabrielle Bell that appears in Kramers Ergot 8 – and about how much it does with so little. I guess I could question what does it matter that it does? After all, “doing so much with so little” can seem to be the mission of comics, if comics were to have a mission. Maybe I’m complimenting Gabrielle Bell’s success on that mission. The fact that Bell did so much with so little is not more important than what was actually done. I’m just really struck with this amazing story, and I’m trying to find ways to express how much I sensed the success of “Cody” in utilizing the comics form (not to rob the genuine intentions of comic and what it’s aiming to do).
Well, that’s a lie. Truth be told, the very first time I read the comic, because it didn’t tell me how to feel and the drama wasn’t calling so much attention to itself, I kind of just skipped over all that was happening. I read through elements in the story, not really engaging with said elements. Like, for example, a friendship dissolving between Audrey’s dad and Cody, because nobody is paying any mind to it. Not even Cody, who is being so mistreated. While Audrey’s dad can be blamed for leaving Cody behind to be arrested, it isn’t for reasons that aren’t hard to guess, displayed by how Cody treats Audrey. At the same time, the way everything ended unfairly on his end, it’s easy to see why he doesn’t feel like he owes anyone anything. The way Gabrielle drew Cody being arrested conveys to me his realization that nobody truly cares about him. I wonder if Gabrielle gave him a dog to be less lonely? Anyway, Audrey’s dad is confronted with having to take responsibility for the man he used to be, not to mention the torment he has clearly been subjecting his wife to, and possibly at one point considers escaping it all, maybe with Cody?Would all this drama then be more effective if I was told what to feel?
The way the comic is drawn feels so surreal, because it’s presented like nothing’s changed from the work that I’ve typically read from Gabrielle Bell. It’s hard to describe the feeling; it’s like if someone had told me that Ali: Fear Eats the Soul was directed by Douglas Sirk. It’s even crazier, because it’s Gabrielle Bell doing a comic that is so unlike her typical work – which is mostly autobiographical – but there’s no loud announcement that there’s a major shift. It’s so quietly done that it’s almost suspicious. I mean, for sure Gabrielle Bell’s regular work is not so unlike “Cody”, but the other purely fictional work I’ve read from her has been Cecil and Jordan in New York. This feels wholly unexpected for me. I mean in her autobio work she’s so good at portraying events or lack thereof in her life – it makes sense that her fiction would be this ridiculously good.
The beginning is just as terrifying as the ending of the strip that comes before it in Kramers 8. I’m not talking about Leon Sadler’s thankfully comforting page, in between this unsettling horror, but the one before it in the story Kevin Huizenga had covered.
There is something horrifying about Gabrielle Bell starting her story with a car crash, one whose only purpose is to remind our narrator of Cody, someone she once knew. It’s like, people have died and for no reason other than the minuscule purpose of making the main character briefly think about a guy named Cody. This isn’t a thing that I have to think long and hard about – I immediately feel it when I read the image and the words, but when I think about it some more it’s even more frightening. This is because the first panel is on the field in the past (most likely – nothing in the rest of the strip suggests otherwise) where the story takes place, so the setting is introduced already. Then a car crash “introduces” Cody, and one that’s not by any means loud – the way it’s drawn is especially ambivalent. The main character, Audrey, is looking at it, but her face is away from us. This oddly reminds me of Carlos Gonzalez’s comics. The way he draws his stories – while his stories and the way they’re drawn are incredibly grounded, whatever it may be that you’re being presented with, you’re not being told, at least by the drawings, what to be horrified with or what to find strange and what not.
It’s like something Anders Nielsen said in an Inkstuds interview, that “sometimes in comics it’s best not to show things. So even a character’s expression – if a character is having an emotional response or little revelation or something, it’s almost always better to have their heads turned away from the camera. And I think of violence happening off-screen is sort of like the same thing. It’s more visceral, and it happens in the readers head instead.”
It’s not a totally similar feeling that I get when I read “Cody”, but I just don’t know, I’m really troubled when I read the beginning. Just something about how the words that lead us to this incident are so casual – “Mostly I don’t think about it, but sometimes something will remind me of Cody.” It’s so casually and ambivalently spoken. I mean, on the list of horrifying images in comics this isn’t at the top of the list, and yet this is incredibly tragic and horrifying. I think it’s that such little care is given…it vaguely reminds me of the rhythm that Terrence Malick’s Badlands had – it speaks to the abrupt nature of life.
Another comparison that came to mind was Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I refer to how the drama is muted and every detail is there for a reason. The drama is there if you engage with it, and there are these points in the story where it viceraly hits. “Cody”, like all the comics in Kramers 8, really knew how to hit in this specific way that’s so flabbergasting and disorienting, and at times, as shown by Bell’s “Cody”, incredibly compelling. – Sam Ombiri
Joanie and Jordie – 5-17-2018 – by Caleb Orecchio