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Coming of age in a post ironic black-and-white world

By Gabrielle Bell
Drawn and Quarterly, 111 pp., $19.95

By the final frames of her debut autobiographical collection, "Lucky," Gabrielle Bell has found a steady job, assembling jewelry at a boutique outside Williamsburg , Brooklyn. The work suits her -- it's easier than the nude modeling that came before, and more lucrative -- but she can't shake the "boredom layered up on loneliness, a gaping emptiness, directly contradicting the rich life I had intended to lead." This is as introspective as it gets in Bell's world. There's a vague spiritual malaise, the feeling that everything could be better, if only given the chance.

"Lucky," a graphic novel that was written and initially self-published when Bell was 27, is in some ways a straightforward and familiar story. In stark black-and-white frames, four to a page, it tracks the progress of a young artist struggling for professional and emotional traction in a city already clogged with people like her. Bell is lost, but she can't find time to get found: There are menial jobs to be undertaken for food money, and there is the ongoing search for an apartment for her boyfriend, Tom. There are art galleries to visit, friends who need support, and crazed, rain-soaked trips to visit siblings in Boston, in a rush to get out of one city, only to get trapped in the next.

But most of all, there is the comic itself, which becomes the one constant in Bell's shake-and-rattle world, and part of the book itself. She slaves over the comic in her free time. She becomes overjoyed when one friend praises it, and despondent when Tom questions its appeal. In this way, "Lucky" becomes the meta-story that drives the entire book: Bell often draws herself hunched over a desk, hammering out a particularly difficult patch of dialogue, while nearby we see a second Gabrielle Bell, going about her work.

The Canadian press Drawn and Quarterly scooped up Bell after her vignettes were published elsewhere, and this edition finally brings some continuity to the story. Bell has become a real person, and is no longer a vague conceptualization of Gen-Y angst. She tastes success, weathers failure, and discovers she has the strength of mind to admit that sometimes, "it is necessary to tell ourselves lies."

"Lucky" is also a startling achievement: a coming-of-age tale -- from hipster Williamsburg, no less -- told without a whisper of irony. This is not to say that Bell isn't interested in shattering pretentiousness where she sees it. In one memorable scene, she attends a lesbian performance-art show, presided over by a woman in "sideburns and a blue wig, who did a modern dance in which she shed her tuxedo," exposing herself. With pitch-perfect dryness, Bell adds that "what was truly disturbing was that she continued to host the show in that costume."

But for Bell, if there is posturing to be found in the local performance-art scene, in the strange sculpture installments that dot local museums, in the cagey attitudes of her 20-something compatriots, it is mostly because hers is a world that lacks the means -- or the will -- to fully understand itself.

On one trip to visit a friend upstate, Bell finds herself sitting alone at the edge of a pond. Gone is the bustle of the city. Ushered in is the sharp, needling feeling of "an emptiness, like any other creature. Nothing original, nothing special." Bell remains sitting until the mud soaks through her shorts, and into her skin, and until "all I felt was my heart beating."

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