IT IS A STORY Cece Bell knew she wanted to tell, and believed it was something she should share. But it took decades of discovery and experience, and then artistic growth and parenthood, to get to a place where she was ready to put it to paper.
At age 4, Bell suffered a brief bout with meningitis that left her “severely to profoundly deaf.” Soon she was wearing hearing aids, and a large Phonic Ear across her chest. As her life, too, began to change profoundly, she created an alter-ego – El Deafo! – who, amid a child’s sense of vulnerability and uncertainty, was determined to feel empowered by her being “different.”
Now, at age 43, Bell has introduced her superheroic self to the world in her emotionally truthful graphic-novel debut — titled, naturally, “El Deafo” (Amulet). As memoir, it is a work that demanded its own journey.
“I think the story was easier to tell, since I knew the material inside and out, and I’ve pretty much spent my whole life trying to make sense of some of the things that happened to me,” Bell tells The Post’s Comic Riffs (ahead of her appearance Wednesday morning at Washington’s Politics & Prose bookstore, and tomorrow afternoon at One More Page Books in Arlington, Va.) . “But the [five-year] execution of the book was probably the hardest project I’ve ever taken on in my life.
“I’ve said it so many times my throat hurts: I don’t see how the graphic novelists in this world make more than one of these things in one lifetime!”
Bell was born in Richmond, and “El Deafo” recounts her childhood growing up near Roanoke. Her Virginia roots run through her work in many ways, including the very illustration itself. She created the inviting art of “El Deafo” with Eisner-winning colorist David Lasky, whom she and her husband met while attending the College of William & Mary.
Comic Riffs caught up with Bell – who now lives in southwest Virginia with her family, including her husband, children’s writer Tom Angleberger – to talk about the challenges of writing a memoir; mining emotional truths over factual truths; and how “El Deafo” has been received by other people who are deaf. (This interview was conducted by e-mail.)
MICHAEL CAVNA: Congratulations on a beautiful and utterly engaging book, Cece. Did you find this personal story easier to tell because you’re looking back and drawing upon your memories, or did that make it more challenging? And how long you did spend writing the book?
CECE BELL: Thanks so much for your generous words about the book, Michael. I think the story was easier to tell, since I knew the material inside and out, and I’ve pretty much spent my whole life trying to make sense of some of the things that happened to me. But the execution of the book was probably the hardest project I’ve ever taken on in my life. I’ve said it so many times my throat hurts: I don’t see how the graphic novelists in this world make more than one of these things in one lifetime! All told, it took about five years to do, but I was completing other projects during that time [the early reader “Rabbit and Robot: The Sleepover," and illustrations for the picture book “Crankee Doodle"]. The last two years of that five-year period, I was solely focused on “El Deafo.”
MC: One thing I find especially winning about the story is our hero Cece’s resilience throughout each setback great and small. No matter what befalls her, whether illness or accident or a lost friendship, she’s not Pollyanna-ish, but she’s not distraught or depressed, either — and it rings as real. Could you talk a bit about her outlook — and did that mirror yours?
CB: I was a very positive kid, and I’m now a positive adult. So yes, “Book Cece’s” outlook very much mirrored mine. I enjoyed, and still enjoy, challenging myself—hence the part in the book where I say: “I’m gonna show those kids that I’m not just ‘the deaf kid’ in our class—I’m the smartest kid in the whole school!” That wasn’t true, of course—I’m pretty sure this kid named Henry was knocking me out of the park every day. But anyway, that kind of attitude really helped me stay positive, and on track. That, and having a loving home to return to each day, kept me feeling a-OK.
MC: Related to that, Raina Telgemeier — in the same SPX session this month that she proclaimed herself a fan of yours — said she aims for emotional truth first, over literal truth, when writing her childhood-based memoirs [“Smile” and “Sisters”]. From your author’s note, I gather you believe similarly. Could you speak to how you approach such narrative choices when writing from your life, and how you weigh such decisions about emotion and fact?
CB: I’m totally with Raina on this one. I was more interested in showing readers how it felt to be the only deaf kid in the whole school, and what it sounded like, too. I also wanted to tell an entertaining story, and if I had presented my life’s events in the exact order in which they had literally occurred, you’d be asleep by Page 21, I think. I looked back at my life, chose the big moments and then rearranged them a bit. I chose the main people, and smushed them together a bit. The moments and the people in the book are capital-“T” true—they really did happen, they really did exist. The big moments in the book are the ones that are most literally true — for example, I really did kick my mother because I was upset about the sign-language classes she was encouraging me to take.
There are some small moments that are literally true, too. But sometimes, I had to come up with some small moments to tie those big moments together. For example, the conversation with my mother about not wanting to take the sign-language class—I’m sure something like that really took place, but I don’t remember what was said, or whether or not we were in the kitchen. You end up smushing all this together and – voila! – [you have] a better and more feeling story than if you had just plotted it out literally.
MC: You say that some of your “El Deafo” characters are composites of real people. Before you published this book, did you show it to anyone who inspired any of your characters? And have you heard from any real-life inspirations since the book’s publication?
CB: I didn’t show it to anyone featured in the book before the book got published. I did ask the people whose names I kept as-is in the book if I could use their names, though. Part of me wanted to show the featured players some stuff beforehand, but a larger part of me thought that if I did, and someone became upset, I would probably change the book, and it would no longer be as honest.
So…I’ve heard from Martha, and she loves it. I’ve heard from some of the teachers, too, and they’re cool with it. Even the one who I show using the bathroom—I did change her name to protect her privacy! I heard from Mike Miller [my crush in the book] that he received the copy I sent him, but I haven’t heard from him since! Uh-oh. But I haven’t heard from other people who may recognize themselves—yet. I’m pretty nervous about that day, if it should come. I know I wasn’t always fair. That’s what the afterword is for: to stress the fact that the book is most definitely the irrational-kid version of Cece [who is] telling the story.
MC: Speaking of realism, I’m so curious to know: The superhero themes and metaphors are so wonderful and help endear us to little Cece and her youthful bravery and sense of distanced identity from her classmates. Is “El Deafo” actually a name, if not playful alter-ego, you came up with in grade school. And if so, did it help?
CB: It really was a nickname I had for myself. I don’t think I shared it with anyone, though, at least not in my younger years. I didn’t actually see that “Afterschool Special” where the one kid calls the deaf kid “Deafo”; someone told me about it and I thought it was funny at first. Then it made me mad. Then I thought: The hell with it, I’ll call myself that so if anyone says it to me, I’ll be ready! It did help.
MC: Were there ever darker moments, or deeper rejections, or harsher wounds in your childhood, related to your deafness, that you chose not to depict in “El Deafo”? And if so, what was your thinking — and could you share an example or two?
CB: My darker moments came later, in sixth grade and beyond. I think these moments had more to do with my being a very late bloomer [we’re talking super-late onset of puberty] than with my deafness. There’s a book there, too, probably! I was so far behind the other girls that I found it hard to maintain certain friendships that had been meaningful to me, because the other girls were interested in boys and makeup and other grown-up things, while I was still reading Richard Scarry in my free time. That served me well later, though! But I never did get much, if any, teasing or bullying related to my deafness. Most of the teasing I received was because I was short!
MC: Speaking of the art and deafness, I applaud the decision to give these anthropomorphic characters their rabbit ears — all the better to show the plugs and cords that run to her/your Phonic Ear. Can you tell us some about how you created their characters visually? They have such warm features [that they’re] as appealing as [TV’s animated] “Arthur.”
CB: When I presented my first version of the book to my editor at Abrams, she said that the characters looked too “picture book-y”—too young. I’ve mostly done picture books and had never done a book for this age group before, so yeah, they did look kind of picture book-y. She asked me to age them up, so I tweaked a few things—but obviously the characters still have a little picture-book in them, so perhaps that’s what kept them sweet-looking. Any time I try to draw something dark, it is so not me that I throw it away. Write what you know; draw how you feel! I’m just not a dark person, and the times I’ve had to do darker freelance projects, I usually ended up crying in my big pillow at night.
MC: [Given the book’s] pop-culture references, I gather you’re in your 40s. Is this a story you wanted to wait awhile to tell — and if so, how did you know the time was right to tell it now?
CB: A lady never reveals her age. But I’m no lady! Yep, I’m 43. Good call! Well, for years and years, I said: “I’m never gonna tell this story.” I’m not sure what happened, other than finally coming to the conclusions that: a.) it’s a great story; and b.) I might help a lot of people if I tell it. I’ve struggled for years with the question: Are my books really helping anyone? Am I being selfish for sitting on my butt and writing and drawing and doing the stuff I love? Do I even have a right to complain about the work when it gets hard?
I hope that this book will help someone, anyone. I do know that the book is better for my having waited to write it, in large part because I’m a parent now, and I think the version of my mother in the book is a lot closer to real than it would have been if I had written the book before motherhood. Plus, I needed to get to a point where I was ready to tell the world without hesitation: I AM DEAF. That’s taken a long time.
MC: So what kind of feedback are you getting from deaf students and their parents, as well as other people who use hearing aids, or ASL? Are they relating to it?
CB: I’ve heard more from folks who were/are more like me [using an audio trainer in the classroom as kids] and their parents; I haven’t heard much feedback from folks who communicate primarily through ASL. I’ve also heard from a lot of parents and teachers, too. Those who have written have really related to a lot of the book, and have been able to acknowledge [thankfully] that every deaf experience is different. I try to stress this in the afterword—there’s a spectrum of deafness, and no deaf person’s deafness or approach to his or her deafness is going to be the same, and that’s cool. And interestingly, I’ve heard from kids and parents whose kids have other types of disabilities, and even from folks without significant disabilities, saying that the story resonates with them, too—that it feels kind of universal, or universal in terms of the suburban American experience, that is. That is really cool.
MC: On the matter of art, what was it like working with colorist David Lasky [co-author of “The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song”]? What was your process [in] working together?
CB: David Lasky is the bomb. … David and I went to [the College of] William & Mary together. He was the graphics editor at the Flat Hat, the college newspaper where my husband, Tom Angleberger, and I met. He was a mentor to us then, and I’m still in awe of him now. He’s been in the comics business forever and is amazing.
What happened was: I had a different colorist lined up, but that person soon realized that he had overextended himself and had to back out. I asked David if he knew anyone who could help me, and he said: “I’ll color it!” Just like that. I think I fainted from the combination of relief and excitement. David was terrific to work with. I sent David a packet of stuff that I liked [in terms of color and shading]—he did the shading, too, because, let’s face it, I’m no good at shading. I also sent him lots and lots of my reference photos to help guide him in color choices. I sent him my linework [all done on the computer] as I completed it, and he colored and shaded it, and sent it back. I fine-tuned what he did, and then we turned it in to Abrams. It was grueling for David—for both of us, I think—but he was such a good sport and so much fun to work with.
MC: So, what are you working on now, or next – [what’s on your drawing board or screen]? Anything you care to share a few details about?
CB: There’s a picture book coming out in early 2015 from Clarion Books which has no redeeming value except that it’s hilarious. Well, I think it’s hilarious. And part of what makes it funny is that it is the exact opposite of “El Deafo” in every way possible. It’s called “I Yam a Donkey,” and the premise is: A donkey and a yam get into a big argument about grammar. There ya go. In some ways, it’s closer to how I actually am as a person today: playing for the yuk-yuks, not worrying about the deafness so much.
I’m also working on a picture book for Candlewick Press, as well as a second Rabbit & Robot book, a fourth Sock Monkey book, illustrations for a series of early-readers by [husband] Tom, and a comic for the second Comics Squad compilation edited by the amazing Jarrett Krosoczka and Jenni Holm. A fuller plate than I think I can eat. Good grief.