MARC BELL in the London Free Press

“Cartoonist's new book plays with London roots” / London Free Press / James Reaney / November 24, 2009

CWhen The Free Press last seems to have encountered Marc Bell, it was 1997 and he was known as “the Weird Cartoonist.”

Bell was looking forward to a gala launch at a Toronto venue for his latest work.

“Basically, I’m broke,” he said then. “But I like making books. I like the idea that you can buy something for $3.”

Bell was soon to move on from London — and find his career moving up.

On Wednesday, Bell is back in home town on the same night his show closes at the hip NYC gallery that represents him. Now based in Montreal, Bell has become an internationally renowned artist who has influenced a new generation of artists working in a similar vein. Critics say his work involves wordplay, comics, folk art, popular culture and fine art.

Bell is joined by fellow Montrealer Amy Lockhart at the Black Shire pub tonight. Bell will be showing images and talking, while Lockhart will screen some of her animation, organizers say.

Lockhart and Bell are celebrating the recent arrival of books, published by Drawn & Quarterly. Bell’s is Hot Potatoe. Lockhart’s is Dirty Dishes.

Bell’s works vary from pen and ink drawings coloured with subtle watercolours, to comics, to elaborate mixed media cardboard constructions. Drawn & Quarterly says those elements are combined for the first time in Hot Potatoe.

Bell is the author of several books including Shrimpy & Paul (Highwater) and The Stacks (Drawn & Quarterly).

Back in 1997, Bell’s creations as the Weird Cartoonist’s featured a depressed, spineless-looking character called Marc Bell. He had no family, no steady job and no normal friends. “It’s basically a mixture of quasi-autobiographical stuff and — ah, what would I call it? — kind of a joke,” Bell said at the time. “I usually try to base stuff on real life. It’s me, but it’s not me. It’s sort of absurd stuff. It’s dark, but it’s playful.”

The playfulness continues, even if Bell can take a different look at what it means to be Marc Bell these days.

Bell’s Hot Potatoe plays on the famous spelling of “potato” by former U.S. vice-president Dan Quayle. Somewhere in the book, Quayle offers the only negative review of Hot Potatoe, saying “(Bell) just didn’t get it right at all.”

That entry is part of a chronology which begins with Bell’s birth in London in 1971. It continues even beyond his death in 2075 when Bell dies after being attacked by the prime minister, George Stroumboulopoulos. The mixture of fact, fiction and fantastic satire in the chronology includes enough detail to qualify as Bell’s own self-portrait of the artist as a young man.

The chronology records his continuing friendships with such London-tied artists as Peter Thompson and Jason Mclean among others. Bell attended Saunders and BealArt before studying at Sackville, N.B.’s Mount Allison University in the 1990s.

“We ended up influencing each other’s drawing a great deal,” Bell says of his friendship with Thompson after they had finished Bealart. “We were hanging around with Jason, too, a bit.”

These days, Bell, Thompson, Lockhart and Mclean are among the artists in the hit touring exhibition, Pulp Fiction, organized by Museum London in 2008.

A key event in his artistic development had taken place much earlier, at Westmount public school. His December, 1976 kindergarten report is reproduced in Hot Potatoe, saying the young Bell “has made a good adjustment.”

Helping him during the early school years was his mother, Sharon Bell of London, one of several of Bell’s family here.

Early on, a teacher was not impressed by Bell’s art skills. Word came home saying her young son was not a good artist. Knowing that he was, Sharon Bell took samples of Bell’s intricate drawings done at home to the school. Those early masterpieces immediately cleared up the picture.

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