There was a point in my life when I was traveling near constantly, flown to random cities by a large corporation, dropped into locations hosting major events that required more help than they had on payroll. The experience was disconnection incarnate — all those people and faces blending together, all those locations struggling with the same problems, just reconfigured. I'd do my thing, observing and taking notes, troubleshooting and blending in. But I was always removed from what was going on, stuck in the limbo between inhabitant and voyeur. When you think about situations like this, something like Fight Club might come to mind, with its anonymous protagonist a ghost in his own homeland, but in truth Gabrielle Bell's The Voyeurs is more accurate and, more importantly, more inhabitable.
Bell has it down from the moment the cover is seen, with its minimalist night time glimpse at Bell glimpse at others, demanding that we open the book and get closer Bell, demanding that we find out what it is she's observing. There's a beautiful cohesion to the cover and its contents, particularly since you can make out a story happening between that cover and the first part of the book. Let's pretend that Bell isn't on her laptop watching cat videos (though that's a voyeurism, too) but that she is instead on MySpace (this is where we remember that this work starts in the time when MySpace was still the most important social networking site), seeing what her friends are up to. But all of them are offline, and she's left wondering what could be distracting them from the internet, that ultimate addiction.
The answer is they've gone vintage, observing on their own, but offline, gathered on the roof of Bell's apartment, watching a couple across the street fucking with the windows open. The cover is passivity, something harmless, but Bell's first story is consciously the opposite, something closer and more intimate and therefore creepier. Yet none of the voyeurs, Bell included, can turn away, at least not until the couple catches on and closes the blinds, going offline in a realer way. The Voyeurs is Bell's journals in comics form and this is arguably the only instance in the book when she sticks to a typical definition of voyeurism. There's the sexual aspect, but there's also the clarity of the act — this couple did not explicitly ask for this intrusion, they merely enabled it, and Bell and her peers are taking advantage of that opening.
The rest of the work, by contrast, hinges on a more subtle form of voyeurism, in which Bell is involved in interactions with others, but she is always secretly observing them, taking notes for later use. There's a queasy intimacy as a result, because we as readers are given our own disconnect. We know that these comics are Bell's diary entries and we associate that kind of writing with secrecy and privacy, but Bell has made them available to us. She wants us to watch her watching others and she has forced us to take part in a two way voyeurism as a result.
Notably, the relationship Bell documents between her and the film director Michel Gondry appears to break down in part because he recognizes what she is doing and pushes her to go further with it, often asking whether something that happens between them will wind up as one of her comics, or even occasionally outright asking that she turn it into a comic. It's not that Bell's art is tied to her being as invisible as possible, but by recognizing what she's doing and intruding on it, Gondry has broken the (dis)connection, forcing himself into the spotlight as a subverter of Bell's particular strand of voyeurism.
That's a feeling I can get behind, because the weirdest parts of my old job were the interactions I had with people who called attention to my role and what I was doing, emphasizing my otherness and creating an awkward self-awareness that magnified the absurdity of my position. For Bell, though, this is a permanent state, something that goes back to her early interactions with her step-father, whose overly touchy hugs instilled a discomfort with closeness in her. Bell's art reflects the anxiety she feels when she's close to people, her panels often stuffed to the brim with words and faces and jagged settings. Her style utilizes bold symbols equally well, but those moments come in to interrupt the chaos of the rest of the surroundings.
Even the semi-fictional section of the book, which involves Bell's ambitiously announcing that she's making a comics adaptation of The S.C.U.M Manifesto, still posits her as an Other, incapable of fitting in even when she's successful, and therefore prone to fucking things up. That's not to say The Voyeurs is a jarring, uncomfortable work, it's just that Bell knows how to utilize her own anxieties for her art, allowing us to find the humor in the situations she winds up in and therefore experiencing the entertainment she finds in observing her own life.
In the wrong hands, The Voyeurs could have been a stilted, dire experience, chock full of the kind of forced weirdness that populates so many autobio comics. Bell may feel uncomfortable in her daily life, but she has a mastery of storytelling that enlivens her anecdotes and allows our voyeurism to go beyond titillation and instead into a realm of shared wisdom. Through Bell's eyes we see the awkwardness of interaction, which seems to have only increased with the introduction of the internet and the convenience it grants communication and observation. The Voyeurs calls us out with its title but by the end, Bell shows us why that's a moniker we should embrace rather than run from.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he's the last of the secret agents and he's your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, where he reigns as the co-managing editor, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter ego at Fitness and Pontypool.