The first time I met Marc Bell was at one of the first Canzines in the mid 1990s. He and Gavin McInnes (who went on to found the infamous Vice Magazine) had come down from Montreal, sharing one of the many jammed tables set up for zinesters to sell their wares. Throughout the day, Marc and Gavin’s mischievous antics, animated conversation, and general disdain for just about anything that stood still charged the atmosphere in the hall. They were creating a scene. And Marc’s charming comic zines–which positioned him as a kind of young Canadian Robert Crumb–flew off the table.
It is some 15 years later and Marc has never abandoned his totally original vision. Today he is represented exclusively by the Adam Baumbold Gallery in New York, and his work sells for far more than his much-collected early zines. If that weren’t enough, Drawn & Quarterly recently published a massive volume of his collected comics work entitled Hot Potatoe.
Last week I had an opportunity to interview Marc over the phone, just after his recent move back to his hometown of London, Ontario, with his partner Amy Lockhart.
Dave Howard: You’ve broken in and started doing the “art thing” more as your source of income, rather than your comics. Can you talk a little bit about your transition from one to the other? And what is it you feel you might be giving up and gaining by moving from comics to fine art?
Marc Bell: Well, I think the art thing came along at the right time. I was doing this weekly comic, and it was good because I was getting paid–steady income, though it was very small. And when the art thing came along, it was stuff I was interested in doing at the time, and someone was interested in showing it. In my weekly I was doing a story and it was driving me crazy. I felt I had started all this stuff in the narrative and I couldn’t deal with it. So, whenever I didn’t feel like continuing the story, I would do a thing called “International Doodle Week,” where it would just be a drawing. And then it became more and more frequent. Maybe about the same time–I’m not sure which happened first–there was a little interest in showing the art work in a gallery, at a level I hadn’t been able to do before. And there was interest in this stuff that I found interesting to make, and so it was just an obvious choice to move my attention a over bit. But you know, making the art, it’s still very cartoony, it’s the same thing I have always done, it’s just not about the stories as much. I don’t have to draw the same character over and over.
Bell: Filling up space. (laughs)
Howard: “The war with paper?”
Bell: Well, yes, that and the war with paper. Though the war with paper has more to do with the mixed media thing, with the collage work (than the drawing). I like creating the mixed media work because it feels like something is being accomplished. Using these bits of paper to make something, it actually seems like there is a purpose, but with the narrative stuff there wasn’t a purpose, because I wasn’t sure what I was trying to say.
My comics are kind of absurd already, but it was becoming frustrating because I wasn’t as confident about my writing and I’d think, “Oh, man, I’m working on this thing that’s supposed to be a graphic novel, and I don’t know where I’m going with it! I may go back and try to finish that stuff, maybe in the same way I finished Shrimpy and Paul. I spent a lot of time fixing Shrimpy and Paul up. I think it worked out all right the way it worked out.
Howard: I agree.
Bell: There’s a French edition that’s just been published.
Howard: Yes? In Europe or Quebec?
Bell: In Europe, with this publisher, Cornelius. I’m going there in April. I’ve never been.
Howard: Is your work getting more international attention?
Bell: Not that much but maybe a little bit from the new book. Maybe some people were sort of aware of it before, and these things work in cycles, so when people see it this time they say “Oh yeah, that guy.” Lambiek (a famous comics store in Amsterdaam) asked me to do a show, and so I’m doing a show there. And then I’m going to go to Paris for the Shrimpy et Paul thing. But I don’t’ know if there’s–maybe there’s a little attention.
Howard: Well it’s better than nothing that’s for sure.
Bell: Well, I feel in some ways the comics world has forgotten about me, because I haven’t been that active.
Howard: You’ve been a big influence. I hear that some people are now doing “the Marc Bell style.” Have you heard of this kind of thing? People copying you?
Bell: Copying? Well, a little bit.
Howard: Or more along the lines of influencing them, that kind of thing. I think that’s something.
Bell: I think it’s more that there has been a second wave of people that have been influenced by a lot of the same things. There was that whole wave of–there was the Royal Art Lodge, and Fort Thunder, and there was the work that you can see in that Nod a Dog book I put together. All that stuff was happening at the same time independently and now I think there’s a second wave of people doing that kind of stuff. Drawing, for example, is back in art.
Howard: You’re saying it’s a bigger thing, a group of ideas that have effected more than you, and that is now effecting a second wave as well?
Bell: Yeah. I was affected by Fort Thunder when I saw it but I was already doing my own thing. It was sort of the same when I saw the Royal Art Lodge stuff. I’d say Fort Thunder and Paper Rad have been the most obviously influential on these new artists. It’s an American thing, mostly. But I feel perfectly fine if myself and my peers may have had a hand in influencing things like Islands Fold or what have you.
Howard: Tell me about the book, Hot Potatoe. The book was something of a big deal–it’s really put you on the map, taken you to a different level.
Howard: I think so. I mean it’s a huge tome. It feels like a more permanent thing. I have a lot of your mini comics, and I’ve had some of your work, and I’ve enjoyed it. It’s part of the small, select collection of stuff I never really got rid of, collecting so many zines for so many years. Now, you have this big tome, you’ve amassed quite a body of work, and the book itself is a real pleasure to go through. It’s very permanent. It’s hardcover, it’s about an inch thick, it’s really solid. It’s something I’m going to keep, something I’m going to hold on to.
Bell: Yeah, no, that’s good. In some ways it feels a little excessive, but in other ways, I think it was a pretty good solid run of work, over that time, over the past ten years. I mean, I’ve made a lot of stuff, and I stand by that stuff. At times I think it’s almost a ridiculous book, and then on the other hand I think, no, it’s fine. It’s a group of good work. I like how it looks. I tried to set it up in a formal way. It just has that extra bit of excessiveness going on.
Howard: I don’t feel there’s any filler in there.
Bell: Oh no, I agree. Like I say, I stand by it all. People tease me about the book, like it’s a tombstone, you know what I mean?
Howard: Like it’s going to weigh you down, like an anchor?
Bell: No, like a tombstone, it’s like–well, what do you do after that? You’ve got this big Marc Bell book, what are you gonna do after that? I’m not sure how to explain it.
I don’t think there’s too much that was that extraneous. Like there may be a few things I could cut out, but I’d have a hard time cutting much of it out, I do stand by it. And there was stuff cut out, it’s certainly not everything I did in that time span.
Howard: Ten years is a long time.
Bell: It is a long time. There’s more. But, yeah, I’m proud of it. I intended it to be a satire of a monograph. But a half-satire. Half serious, half satire.
Howard: It does feel to be some self-consciousness there, almost. Some of the joking and the self-referential stuff.
Bell: Yeah. But then, you know, I had a big part of putting it together, organizing it, and putting writing in there–it doesn’t have that detached element. It says right on the cover “I am not a museum.” Normally an art book would be put out by a museum or some third party so there would be a certain distance. This book is self conscious because I have had a hand in it, and I’m certainly making light of that.
Howard: Do you ever get caught up in any kind of self-consciousness about your art?
Bell: Well, oh yeah, there’s always self consciousness going on I think. I make self-conscious work, it’s always deflecting from itself. When I first started using found scraps of paper and “doodles” to create collage/mixed media work, I found it pretty interesting because I hadn’t thought to take this stuff that I’d been collecting and make it into a more finished, refined work, so to speak. As I continued, it became more self conscious because it became more of a predetermined method. But I think it just becomes simply a way of working, and I try not to be too internally negative about it, I usually just try to let it go.
Now that this type of work is more “popular” it’s like it’s become even more self conscious. Sometimes I start thinking I’m just part of this trend of this weird, nonsensical, cartoony or psychedelic or whatever–“hip” artwork. So that makes me self conscious. But then I just try and remind myself I’ve been doing this kind of work for a long while, and I don’t feel too terribly about it.
Howard: As you’ve moved away from narrative work into less-constrained world of fine art, the characters from the backgrounds of your comics seem to have taken the foreground. It almost seems that your work is made entirely of elements that once upon a time would have been in the background of your comics. That was a pretty bold thing to do, to really trust yourself to just go with what feels right rather than what sense–or the constraints of narrative–tells you differently. Was that a new experience for you, to just go with what felt right? Can you advise other people how to get at that? Is it a “way” or is it a natural development?
Bell: It might just be what I’m supposed to be doing, you know? It may be a way of working, or I just figured out what works best for me, instead of trying to force this story that I’m not necessarily entirely comfortable with.
Howard: Less and less interested in?
Bell: Maybe. Some people who are more interested in and who want to read comics sometimes don’t get what I’m doing, and they see it as doodling that’s just gone out of control. You know what I mean? But I don’t know how that would help anyone else discover what they’re supposed to do.
Howard: Your way is your way, and not necessarily–
Bell: It’s my way or the highway! (laughs).
Howard: (laughs) Well, I guess you’ve answered my question.
Bell: (laughs) Dave Cooper said to me once, think of yourself as an artist who happens to do comics.