The Search For Calmness in Gabrielle Bell's Everything Is Flammable

Everything is Flammable
by Gabrielle Bell
published by Uncivilized Books

In her comics, Gabrielle Bell finds these moments of humanity in the mundane. Most of her new book Everything Is Flammable is about the aftermath of her mother’s isolated home burning down. Instead of showing her mother in the midst of a burning home, watching everything she owns go up in flames, Bell’s book begins a day or so later when she gets a phone call about the event. The book isn’t about the loss of a home but about the day after that and then the days, weeks and months that follow. It’s about finding a replacement pre-built house or even the right wood-burning stove to heat that house. In these big life changing moments, Bell finds the relatable details of everyday life.

Bell’s travels and adventures would be the focus for other cartoonists and autobiographers. And while her books begin with those travels, Bell doesn't focus on the grandness of the adventures but on the small, personal details. Instead, Bell fills her book with anecdotes about her garden and the damages it takes in a storm, shopping for a pre-fab house to replace her mother’s destroyed home, and unwanted neighbors who become reluctant friends and confidantes. In these large and life-changing events, Bell finds the moments that make these moments small, personable, and relatable.

Reading these small moments could almost feel like a drag as if Bell doesn’t provide any kind of escape from our daily lives in the pages of her comics. Honestly, as autobiography, Bell’s life doesn’t look any better or any worse than any other person’s. And maybe that’s the point. Maybe Bell’s goal is not to tell stories that define our differences but look at the similarities in all of our lives. Sure, some of the details may change. Maybe you’ve never had to experience losing your house a fire but most of us have had to deal with the idea of looking for a place to live or with having to find furniture for a room. Or with dealing with someone who just sort of wandered into your life and then just never left.

This normalizing of our similar experiences are captured in Bell’s unwavering comic lens. With a fairly consistent perspective to all of her drawings, the voyeuristic quality of visual narrative keeps that audience at a steady distance from Bell and her characters. There’s no closeups and very few establishing shots in her comics. She keeps her characters and her moments at an arm’s distance. Using a basic six grid page and panels that are all viewed from a similar perspective, Bell’s cartooning lets you see have a window into her life without ever allowing you an intimate glimpse into it.

So it’s odd when Bell lets us have an intimate view into her personality and thoughts. While so much of Everything Is Flammable is a search for normality in what should be times of crisis (and if a house burning down isn’t a crisis, I don’t know what is,) Bell has these moments of vulnerability as people either assume a closeness to her or she considers ways of settling down which seem like they may make her life less chaotic. It’s in these moments where Bell lets her character engage with the world other than just chronicle it.

Gabrielle Bell’s cartoonist’s eye captures the world around her, finding these times of humanity amid the chaos and noise of life. Everything is Flammable is about dealing with her mother’s loss of her home but it’s also about just dealing with her mother and this strange, unique life that she has. It’s about Bell trying to help her mother while also trying to find peace and contentment with her own life. While telling stories about her trips and her own life, Gabrielle Bell presents the moments between the big events where she and her world are vulnerable to everything that’s going on in the world around her.