The Stacks by Mark Bell

January 17, 2008

Something to get lost in, The Stacks opens with at least a partial map. As if he understands we’ll need some help, Marc Bell offers four pages of “secret codes,” clueing us in to the fact that “oven mitt means ‘take it easy’” and “nipple’s [sic] mean macho—man very much alive.” Forty pages of odd art later, he notes that “young Klee wondered if women had udders.” Maybe not in our world, but what they have in Bell’s curious world, only he knows. His entrancing doodles riff not just on Klee, but Philip Guston too. Like both those fine artists, he delves into Old Time cartooning as if it’s the fundamental image of a thought. The characters aren’t fun playpals but chunks of meaning rearranged, and The Stacks becomes a map of his mind.

Fortunately, Bell never seems to build his world from within his hermetically sealed studio. He makes frequent enough reference to the world outside, whether in lists of celebrity names or Canada Council for the Arts rejection letters. All these things get transformed by his bottom-feeding sensibility, as scrap paper and envelopes become art. That palimpsest of the outside reminds that about half the pieces in The Stacks originally surfaced in a gallery show. The other half appeared in an early mini-comic. Perhaps “comic” is off the mark, since only one traditional comic-with-panels appears in the whole book. The rest runs the gamut from paintings and collages to intricate, lighthearted drawings, and everything builds his vision of an off-kilter world.

Unlike many of his peers in both fine arts and comics who use such imagery, his vision’s not limited to the ironic. Instead, he’s created a world that’s whimsical and open. It invites lingering. What it lacks in immediacy, it more than makes up for with a sense of depth that extends beyond the page. As a whole, The Stacks rewards a second visit, and I get the impression that Bell’s world could take visitors, in the short or even long term. After all, anywhere that Tim Ho-Ton sponsors the Canadian Curlers is a place I’ll gladly sit a spell, even if Canadia [sic] doesn’t have an udder. That is to say, excellent work.

This review originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of The Comics Journal, #278.

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