MARC BELL in the Montreal Mirror AND on the cover!

Bringing home the bacon, and the waffles too

Montreal Mirror    |    Rupert Bottenberg    |    November 30, 2009

Occasional Montrealer Marc Bell packs a
plethora of deranged doodles, perturbing
paintings and weirdo wordplay into a big
damn retrospective book, Hot Potatoe

From his early days in the ’90s mini-comics scene through strips in Vice, Exclaim! and yes, the Mirror, and on to New York City gallery shows and Ganzfeld contributions, Marc Bell—a native of London, ON and an on-again, off-again Montrealer—has mastered a distinctive visual art style that’s equal parts diligent design and frenetic frivolity, folk-art naiveté and cryptic wit. The disciplined density of his fine linework captures a complex code of slapstick Weltschmerz that many have since imitated but few if any have matched.

This week, Bell and his publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, launch the massive, hardcover retrospective book Hot Potatoe. The Mirror conducted an e-mail interview with Bell about the dawn of his doodling, his fraught connection to comics, the significance of bacon and Bingo Bango Man.

Mirror: Hot Potatoe is a hefty tome, the size and weight of a pineapple upside-down cake. Even so, despite its 270-odd pages, it’s still bursting at the seams with characters and shapes and words and patterns and stuff. I’d imagine compiling such a juggernaut was an exhausting task.

Marc Bell: It was certainly a task. And I was certainly exhausted when I was finished. Also, a little tired of myself! That is a lot of Bell in there, but I really did try to weed out the weak.

M: In the book, you frequently refer to your formative doodle sessions with artists Peter Thompson and Jason McLean. Can you tell me a bit about how those experiences made you the manly man you are today?

MB: I met both those guys at Bealart, an arts high school in London, Ontario, in the early ’90s. We formed the All-Star Schnauzer Band there, a joke band that we continued to promote and develop. I started drawing with Peter. I was a little bit more Black Sabbath and he was a little bit more Talking Heads, and we met in the middle.

I went away to school in New Brunswick, Jason went away to school in B.C. and Peter stayed in London, and none of us cried about this because we are real men. We sent each other elaborate packages in the mail that we decorated with delicate little nancy-boy clippings and curiosities and childish sayings.

M: A few years ago, you had a weekly strip in this very paper called Wilder Hobson’s Theatre Absurd-o. By your own admission, you painted yourself into a corner with that thing, and nobody here could make a lick of damn sense of it.

MB: Ouch! I did an artist talk last night at Concordia and there was this young man there who used to read my weekly strip, starting when he was around 12 years old, and he said he was really into it and used to clip it and even copy from it. That was nice to hear.

I think my comics divide people. Some people love them, others don’t—or are bewildered. I did receive some entertaining hate mail for Wilder, including several e-mails from this guy who claimed to live under a bridge and thought I was directly attacking him in the strip, and he threatened physical harm. I wasn’t too worried because he lived in Halifax and I was in Vancouver at the time. Also, I am pretty “tough.”

M: For the most part these days, you’ve moved away from the comics medium and its traditional formal conventions. However, you’ve held onto a certain comics-based iconography and language, as well as emotional and philosophical tone. How important is the comics medium to you?

MB: Well, it is my roots, of course. I will always be seen as a comics artist because it’s how I became known in the first place, and I am still informed by comics. I do like having my feet in both worlds, and find the art world interesting because it is so expansive. The comics world will always like having me around, even if it is mainly to complain about me and how my comics never made any sense.

The art world, on the other hand, will always be relatively indifferent, I think. I don’t have the high concepts or youthful ambition it takes to make a real splash, so to speak. At the end of the day, it’s all the same. You go to bed and then get up and try again.

M: You’ve done a fair number of somewhat three-dimensional, collage-based works in recent years. What can you tell me about that?

MB: I had an opportunity to create a solo show of my work and so it was a good time to develop this kind of collage stuff I was already doing. Ray Johnson was an influence. He created these incredible collages with a relief surface using very simple materials. His stuff was art but it was also cartoony.

The thrizzle of the sizzle

M: You have a host of funny little critters and bonhommes who recur in your work. Who are a few of your favourites and like, what’s their deal?

MB: Comic-book characters usually have to be a little simpler because they have to move and tell a story. Mr. Socks and Bingo Bango Man are favourites of mine. They are in a co-dependent relationship because Bingo Bango Man has no arms and is very limited as far as life skills go, and Mr. Socks is always helping him out. Mr. Socks could use some me-time but he just can’t help himself, he is too stressed out about his friend.

As for characters in my art, Balsam Adhesives is a good one. He wears a waffle cone hat with a strand of bacon woven through it. There’s also Bad Mon Tonne. He wears a hat that resembles a shuttlecock.

M: Your work is full of bits of text, seemingly random and juxtaposed fragments of conversations, weird catchphrases and commercial slogans. What compels you to do that?

MB: Maybe it is from creating comics and being interested in the combination of words and pictures. I like the idea of random announcements of nonsense. I like the lyrics of Mark E. Smith of the Fall and sometimes I am trying to get at something like he does, but visually. I’m sure he would hate hearing that and dismiss my work as rubbish. I would like to send him a copy of the book so he could throw it out with his spring cleaning.

M: There’s also a lot of food in your work. Bacon is ubiquitous, waffles and bologna abound as well. However, the only reference in Hot Potatoe to what might be considered healthy food is this one metal dude you drew with “plain soy vanilla” on his T-shirt. What’s with all the food, and why do you gravitate to the unhealthy stuff?

MB: It does look like there is a lot of unhealthy junk food in there. I’m not sure you are aware of this, but soy milk is also a highly processed food. But seriously, I’m not sure why there is all this food in there. It could have something to do with the fact that food ads are everywhere. Food is the lowest common denominator.

I once drew a boxy, abstract form of bacon and I liked how it looked and so I kept on with it. The waffle imagery goes back to my Schnauzer Band days. The Schnauzers had this stadium stage show with a waffle as its centerpiece. Mr. Duck Chocolate designed it, it was his brainchild.

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