Monday, 24 September 2007

Flowers in a Foreground

While we're on the topic of appreciating what's there (as opposed to the really super-duper deep stuff underneath), let's talk about Eddie Campbell. Campbell has long been my favourite autobiographical cartoonist because he always seems ridiculously interested in the world outside of his own head. Campbell wrote himself out of his most solipsistic work, 2006's The Fate of the Artist -- it's hard to imagine any of his peers even attempting such a gloriously cheeky conceit, let alone making it work.

Anyway, the interest that I've mentioned manifests itself most obviously in Campbell's subject matter (the adventures of his friends, family members and fellow artists), which in turn demand the impressionistic richness of his art style. Essentially Campbell has had to create his own personal vocabulary of the comic book page (and isn't that true of every great author-cartoonist?), one equally suited to exploring the finer points of double dates gone wrong and musing on the philosophy of art.

Normally, I take in Campbell's artistic grammar on a page-by-page basis. His autobiographical works have the timing of a good newspaper comic, so I normally find myself too caught up in the procession of pratfalls, punchlines and moments of everyday glory to fully appreciate the content of his individual panels. There are exceptions of course -- there's a one-page drawing of a dreary street in Alec: How to be an Artist that catches my breath every time, but that image has a narrative context that necessitates this effect, so my broader point stands.

This has been changed by a series of recent posts on Campbell's weblog in which the artist has discussed his use of zipatone and tipex to achieve what he calls a 'painterly' effect. These posts make for great reading (didn't I tell you I was hot for process?), all the more so because Campbell provides plenty of images to back up his musings. The image at the top of this post is a great example -- looking at this single panel up close, I couldn't help but think of the differences between the way Campbell depicts the elements and the way Frank Miller does the same. This Sin City image is case in point:

It shares with the Campbell panel a sense of centralised composition -- in both images the human subjects are located in the middle of the frame, assaulted on all sides by a storm of pure white blotches. Beyond this similarity, however, the content of the images is as different as Miller's subject matter is to Campbell's. In contrast to the inky, melodramatic blackness that defines Miller's Sin City work, Campbell's panel contains a glorious abundance of different objects and textures -- bins, buses, buildings and bits of stray signage are all present, depicted in a series of overlapping tones where Miller would show only darkness. This isn't an attack on Miller, by the way. Whatever you think of Sin City, you'd have a hard time arguing that Miller's brutish cartooning and stark colour choices don't suit his OTT crime romances. The point is that the same mundane clutter that has no function in Miller's stories is central to Campbell's, and that Campbell's work succeeds partly because he's so good at suggesting the nuances of a 'simple', undramatic street scene.

'Normal comicbook drawing has always looked dead on the page to my eyes. I needed a style that could suggest light and air.'
So Campbell says in one of the aforementioned posts. Looking at another blown up image from Alex: The King Canute Crowd (below), I'm amazed at the way that Campbell makes all of this stylisation look so effortless:

From this perspective the mix of ink and tipex and zipatone has an abstract beauty that nevertheless meshes into a larger, more recognisable picture. And isn't that what Campbell's work is all about, in part at least? Life is full of detail that is every bit as arresting as the strangest flights of the imagination; let's hear it for artists like Campbell who are capable of making us see this with fresh eyes time and time again.

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