Hot Potatoe: Fine Ahtwerks, 2001-2008
(Drawn and Quarterly)
US: Nov 2009
If I was backed into a corner and had to come up with one word for Marc Bell’s newest release Hot Potatoe, I would have to go with dense. Both in style and content, there is so much to wade through, let simmer, and sink in after digesting Bell’s work. Bell, a Canadian cartoonist/artist, has dedicated himself to creating what he refers to as “fine ahtwerks,”and alternates between being exhibited in fine art galleries, like the Adam Baumgold Gallery in New York City, and creating independent comix and album art for underground bands from his hometown of London, Ontario. In this way, Bell seems to be part of a growing trend of individuals who exist within the overlap of the art world and comics scene Venn diagram, a space whose very existence contests the necessity of the line in the first place. That said, his work similarly reflects both comic culture, as well as fine art among other references.
But, as hinted at before, what one is perhaps first struck with upon opening up Hot Potatoe is just how much is in there. All 272 pages are filled to the brim. Even the inlays of the book are covered with illustrations. If the sheer volume of these drawings weren’t enough, their elaborate detail is even more mind-blowing. Nearly every drawing is chock-full of little phrases, often repeated throughout, and intricate patterns and filigree. And despite the sheer magnitude of work that is contained within, it never feels thrown together or schizophrenic. In fact, Bell’s illustrations and comics are incredibly coherent, and while not telling a straightforward narrative throughout, make sense taken together. This is most likely because of the insane level of internal mythology that goes on within Bell’s drawings and comics. Certain phrases like ‘bloo chip,’ ‘gnee-o gneppotism,” ‘(Bell’s) trad,’ and common images like soft drink cups, bacon, and the ‘worn-tough elbow’ are intricately woven into various pieces of both his strips and his art/illustrations.
Existing alongside Bell’s own mythologies and sometimes unclear references are common cultural artifacts and figures from the larger sphere of North American culture. Lindsay Lohan, Gold’s Gym, Tim Horton’s (re-rendered as Tim Ho-ton), as well as the artist Philip Guston, all make appearances in Bell’s work. Philip Guston, whose own art of the 1960’s has often been commended as strongly cartoon-like, is, in fact, the title character in one of Bell’s longer strips, “Gustun: On These Layers of the Earth” that he drew for comic, illustration, and culture magazine, The Ganzfeld. Beside these more explicit references, Bell also incorporates bogus corporations like Hot Bun Parachute, Gravy World, and Gnostic Pizza, especially in his series of collages that he makes of soft-drink cups. His revisions of popular culture through misspellings, and placing them alongside other more obscure references, makes what would usually be incredibly familiar seem absurd and almost uncanny. It sometimes comes off as a bizarre time capsule in which things that would be familiar and common currently are taken and placed in a time and place completely removed from their usual context.
While I am often wary of art and comics, particularly those that employ either heavy abstraction or an otherwise impenetrable style, Bell’s work seems to be especially successful in evading being absurd and nonsensical for sheer obscurantist purposes. Alongside the strong presence of consumerist tropes and employing an absurdist, scatter-shot panorama of popular culture, is a very interesting tendency of hearkening back to human figures. Often after looking at the page for a moment, among various phrases scrawled across the page and weird patterns proliferating, it suddenly becomes obvious that the center figure, or sometimes even the very outline of the whole drawing, is actually feet and eyes, and lo and behold, something very like a human figure, albeit often a strangely proportioned one. In this way, Bell seems to distinguish himself by tracing a unique way in which one might think about how something as commonplace as the human figure itself might be more foreign or strange than initially assumed, as well as how that which is usually thought of as absurd might be more familiar than it seems.
Hot Potatoe, in addition to being well-put together in terms of the flow of drawings and comics, similarly has a great collection of essays, as well as an amusing interview. While a lot of essays and pre- and post-scripts in comics collections seem, honestly, to be a throwaway or almost an afterthought, the extra material in Hot Potatoe offers a really nice complement to the drawings and comics. The essays range from the humorously scholarly to the just plain humorous, but in this sense fit well with Bell’s own ridiculous, yet smart and strangely sincere style.
One of the most interesting essays included is one by the unfortunately named Mark Slutsky that is an excerpt from a larger Financial Review article. In the article, Slutsky proclaims that there has been no artist more “attuned to the debt crisis” than Marc Bell. He points to an illustration that Bell did in 2004 called “Angry/Funny Side,” stating that it is “an astonishingly direct attack on the speculation-driven investment tendencies that enriched hedge fund managers, but that ultimately led to instability and financial ruin.” Slutsky then proceeds to do more of a close reading of the illustration that is both at turns engrossing and amusing. Either way, the essay adds an interesting critical lens through which one might come to understand Bell, as well as points out some of his influences and his own influence on realms even outside the arts and comics world.
While it is certainly dense, Hot Potatoe isn’t completely impermeable. In fact, Hot Potatoe’s ability to negotiate between seeming opposites is its ultimate strength. It walks the line between arts and comics, navigates comfortably between absurd humor and sincerity, and seems to be both entrenched in the overly familiar and the totally weird. If for no other reason, Hot Potatoe should be checked out for its impressive ability to marry such disparate seeming elements.