Comics Are Trying to Break Your Heart #205 by Drew Barth

Observation

I’ve never been able to work in a cafe. There’s always something about the noise and the continual threat of someone wanting to talk or look at whatever I’m working on. But then others can get something more from the feeling of being out in public and having their work out there, even if it’s something they subtly try to hide with one arm as they sketch the person sitting across the cafe from them. It’s the kind of technique Gabrielle Bell goes through in her short diary work, Career Shoplifter.

Career Shoplifter is a diary of a few months in spring of 2022 and a sketchbook of the people Bell has observed and interacted with in New York cafes. It’s a portrait of an accomplished artist going through some of the most harrowing aspects of creating anything: the idea that you’re running out of things to create and time to do it; that you’re not the successful person you’ve potentially convinced yourself you were for a brief moment and that everyone around you knows you’ve failed. The book reveals those daily struggles of coping with anxiety, the people you meet in cafes, and the restlessness that comes with not knowing if you’re doing enough. 

Critics and fans sometimes use the cliché of calling these kinds of comics “intimate.” Bell herself parodies that impulse in one of the final comics in this collection—the fact that her diary comics are edited, the fact that her personal diary is self-censored, the fact that her personal thoughts are lies. Even still, the book doesn’t quite feel like sitting in the cafe beside Bell, but rather being told by her about the people she’s seen and the anxieties she has been feeling along with the steps in meditation she’s taking to help with them. While it’s easy to talk candidly about impostor syndrome and social anxiety, it feels much more difficult to talk about the steps you’re taking when you’re looking to mitigate some of these issues you’ve been living with for so long. And it’s a process—one that’s long, slow, and feels like it’s not enough when you’re at your worst. And Bell shows us all of these: the small moments of being just a bit better as well as the depression and anxiety’s slow encroachment despite all of her efforts. Even if they’re edited diaries, they still show us this portrait of Bell as someone going through all of these parts of self-improvement.

As quick of a moment in time Career Shoplifter represents, The book shows us so much about both the author and how comics can really work as diary pieces. Even if it’s only some of the shorter aspects of Bell’s life—these snapshots of time spent in cafes—you still get a sense of the person behind the pen and everything they’re going through. It’s what these small moments captured in comic form can help to represent: we’re not just looking at her from the outside, we’re being shown in these small panels. 

Get excited. Get shoplifting.

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Drew Barth at Miami Book Fair in 2019.

Drew Barth (Episode 331, 485, & 510) resides in Winter Park, FL. He received his MFA from the University of Central Florida.