AN INTIMATE FEEL A page by Gabrielle Bell.
"You could do a comic about it," a friend tells Gabrielle Bell in one of her comics.
"People often say that to get me to do things," she replies. "And you know, it works."
That notion of autobiography as fodder for comics is powerful in the slice-of-life literary tales in "Story/Line: Narrative Form in Six Graphic Novelists" at Rhode Island College's Bannister Gallery (600 Mount Pleasant Ave, Providence, through March 1). The organizers, RIC art professor Natasha Seaman and Boston cartoonist Karl Stevens, select serious stories in two flavors — mundane realism and surreal adventures. Sometimes, as in the case of Bell, the artists also combine the two.
These more quiet, contemplative comics contrast with the work recently on view in the exhibit "X-TRA ZEUS!" at World's Fair at Machines with Magnets in Pawtucket. That show featured the weirdo, feral, personal, punk, outsider, sci-fi shenanigans of the major comics talents active in Providence. "Story/Line" is all cartoonists from away.
Bell, who resides in New York, is the most acclaimed of the bunch. And from her pages here, it's plain why. Her warm, personable stories cover autobiography (a boyfriend, a party with friends, getting lost in the woods) and flights of fancy or anxiety dreams (zombies, a baby delivered in the mail, an ice cream truck driven by a bear). Drawn on graph paper ripped out of notebooks, they have the intimate feel of a diary. Her pen drawings are realist but cartooned in a way that channels the honesty and vulnerability of her accounts.
Stevens, whose comics used to appear in the Boston Phoenix, draws his autobiographical works in hyperrealist watercolors and intensely crosshatched pen drawings. Early on, it could seem that he relied too heavily on photos, making his drawings feel wooden. But his sense of verisimilitude has become more impressive as he has gained more mastery. The striking realism continues in his stories here — snippets of his life after he dropped out of art school and became a boarder with the family of a former teacher. He draws naked ladies. He eats dinner with the family. He gets drunk and high. He looks for love — or at least sex. It's a melancholy, dissolute world.
AN ANXIOUS TALE by Kevin Mutch.
New York's Kevin Mutch shows prints of an anxious tale of an adjunct professor teaching art students how to retouch photos of models. Then things go Twilight Zone when a man next to him on a bus begins muttering stuff about the teacher's dreary life, as if he can read the guy's mind. There's potential here, but the twist feels pat; his cartoon realist drawings are too.
The show's comics are notably well-displayed on the walls and slanted tables. And the organizers include whole stories (or at least significant excerpts), avoiding the flaw of many comics shows of just excerpting a page or two here and there as if only the drawings mattered.