The most fascinating thing about Marc Bell’s Hot Potatoe is the stream-of-consciousness artistic sensibility that permeates every page, from the cover to the contents to the numerous essays within. Nonsensical words, doodles, and character drawings are found everywhere in this luxurious book, as are echoes of Bell’s influences from comix, pop culture, and the world around him. Bell honed his style while attending an arts high school in London, Ontario, with a group of likeminded, comics-obsessed artists including Peter Thompson and Jason McLean. They shared a keen interest in comics like Ralph Smart Adventures and Boris the Bear, and collaborated often, a practice that Bell continues today.
Hot Potatoe is filled with gorgeous reproductions of Bell’s convoluted, dizzying drawings, paintings, and mixed-media constructions. It’s a visual feast, interspersed with several essays, some of which will thoroughly mystify anyone unfamiliar with the linguistic intricacies of Bell’s world. There is a transcript of an enlightening interview between Bell and Drawn and Quarterly’s creative director Tom Devlin, occasionally interrupted by inane remarks from the audience. Similarly, an essay about Bell by Tommy LaCroix begins innocently, before devolving into an excruciating glimpse into the writer’s bout with severe alcoholism.
Bell’s “fine ahtwerks,” as he calls them, owe a debt to the American painter Philip Guston, and allow Bell to free himself from the boundaries of linguistic meaning through the use of an idiosyncratic cast of characters and neologisms. The words “bloo chip,” “gneppotism,” and “buncake” all feature prominently in his work. In 2008’s Shoo Slog (included in this collection), words, scenes, and characters seem to stop just short of overlapping on the page. So crammed with imagery are his works that Bell must suffer from horror vacui (the artistic term for fear of empty space). Even his biography overflows into the year 2075, when he will be killed trying to defend himself against Prime Minister George Stroumboulopoulos.
Hot Potatoe is a book for a particular audience, but what a book! It will inspire fans of Bell’s work, and intrigue, confound, and bewilder everyone else.