Marc Bell’s comics are strange and unique, and often carry the burden of unfair comparison. First and foremost, there is the matter of his relationship to Robert Crumb—while there are certain surface similarities, such as the ever-present big feet and the detailed hatching, his work departs from Crumb in a number of important ways. Crumb was and is an angry artist using cartoons as a means of lashing out at a world he variously detests, envies, and judges. Bell’s affect is almost completely blank. His characters inhabit a world of bewildering complexity and seeming absurdity. Things happen in a seemingly random order, until they stop, at which point the story has either congealed into a satisfying whole or not.
They’re not “dream comics,” certainly unlike Little Nemo, or the work of Jim Woodring. There’s solidity to his figures and to the surreal environment they occupy that grounds the narrative despite its apparent confusion. The stories make sense despite themselves, which is sometimes a problem for the unwary reader. As much as they may seem to be the kind of stories best ingested at a gulp, they reward careful attention and repeat visits. If you aren’t patient, you won’t get half the fuss.
Stroppy (Drawn & Quarterly) is Bell’s return to cartooning after a four-year absence (his last book being 2011’s Pure Pajamas). On the acknowledgments page Bell thanks Tom Devlin (D&Q’s creative director) for “forcing [his] hand to draw more comics proper.” Readers owe Devlin a debt of gratitude for pushing Bell back in the direction of comics after years spent in the wilderness of fine art shows and commercial work. This is Bell’s longest sustained narrative to date, and hopefully not his last.
A lot has changed for Bell’s work since his 2003 breakthrough, Shrimpy And Paul And Friends, released by the late and lamented Highwater Books (the brainchild of—guess who?—Tom Devlin). The larger graphic album format frees up Bell’s layouts, allowing him to use rich, flat colors in place of the dense crosshatching that marked his earlier black-and-white strips. The large pages each feature four large panels, and each panel is packed with detail. This is important: You never know which doodle will be a throwaway gag and which will be an important plot point in 50 pages.
Although there is a plot, describing it is a fool’s errand. The title character works at a processing plant where remote villagers have their brains removed and replaced with docile computers. He loses his job because of an obnoxious acquaintance obsessed with the Mighty All-Star Schnauzer Band, a mysterious outfit who quickly gains control over the major industrial and real estate holdings in Stroppy’s neighborhood. But there is hope for Stroppy in the form of a song contest sponsored by the Schnauzers, to which Stroppy submits his friend Clancy’s poem. As disjointed as that might appear, there’s a method to the madness, a journey culminating in a tour of the Schnauzer’s greatest hits mini-golf park, and a series of gratifying resolutions for all and sundry. Bell’s return to comics is at once satisfying and exasperating, in a good way: certainly a reading experience like no other.