Monday, 7 April 2008

Pieces of the People We Love


Hmmm... it's always good to start a post with a random Eddie Campbell image, isn't it? This one depicts "Wee Eddie Campbell growing up on Straight Street, hoping one day to make his way in the world as an artist", which more or less sums up how I still feel today. Oh, yeah, and I nabbed it from this post on Campbell's blog, if anyone was wondering.

While we're talking about Eddie Campbell, here's a fairly bloggy ramble about The Fate of the Artist that I originally posted on this I Love Comics thread back in 2006:

"For me, the joy of reading Eddie Campbell’s autobiographical work has always come in appreciating the way that he little lyrical threads and weaves them together around a central theme. Since both of these qualities are easy to overlook when you're reading something for the first time, I do normally find that my enjoyment of his works grows with every reading.

The Fate Of The Artist is interesting in this regard, because it pushes both of the aforementioned strengths to new limits, leaving out any sort of immediately flowing continuity in the process. I mean, both the Alec books and After the Snooter have this very personal “having a story told to you by an entertaining mate” quality that is all but absent from his latest work, and that’s important here… Campbell’s both developing his existing storytelling techniques and also trying out a few new things (more on this later).

The individual components of The Fate Of The Artist are so disparate that it does feel quite slight and tongue in cheek at first. But then you realise that all of the clashes and connections between the various forms and levels of reality convey this very strong sense of disassociation and worthlessness. That’s what constitutes the Eddie Campbell shaped hole at the heart of the book. Taken in this light, I think the form of the comic is actually quite brilliant: it perfectly depicts this mindset while also playfully mocking it, making the work richer and more nuanced in the process. Or at least, that’s how it feels to me.

A few more thoughts:

--The Fate Of The Artist is almost a negative image of the Pottersville section in It’s A Wonderful Life. In Capra’s movie, we see the world without George, and it’s hellish (okay—the “She’s a librarian? NOOO!” stuff comes off a bit silly, but whatever). Campbell, on the other hand, writes himself out of the picture, and everyone’s taking the piss out of him and commenting on how much of an arse he was. Like I said before, I think this is a tonal device intended to make sure that the whininess of Campbell’s mental state doesn’t annoy us too much, but it probably makes the book even bleaker in the end.

--That Capra comparison doesn’t match up 100% because Campbell doesn’t imagine what it would’ve been like if his life never was, but I think that’s an key part of what’s going on here. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey sees life without him in it and thus realises his importance to the fictional world he inhabits. This is every bit as egomaniacal as the picture we get in The Fate Of The Artist, where the denizens of Campbell’s fictional universe (as well as the comic strips that exist in it) directly or indirectly, mock, undercut and complain about him in his absence. His worthlessness is proportional to George Bailey’s worth in their respective stories.

--When I talked about how Campbell was playing with storytelling tricks old and new, I was thinking about the influence of Ice Haven, In The Shadow Of No Towers and various bits and bobs by Chris Ware on The Fate Of The Artist. These comics all use old-fashioned comics strips and other visual distinctions for different purposes, but they do very much “use” them, if you know what I mean. In the hands of Clowes, Ware and Speigleman, different styles are adopted and combined to create very distinct emotional and artistic effects; something that Campbell is definitely trying to do in his new book, with its cheeky detective story, typographical intrusions, artistic histories, comic strip depictions of marital dysfunction, etc.

--At the same time, you can trace a lot of the different elements at work in The Fate Of The Artist to Campbell’s previous work. The smoother toning of the artwork relates to both his aborted History of Humour and to the collaborations with Alan Moore collected in A Disease Of Language; the use of “actors” in some of the comic strips can be seen as an extension of the Alec pseudonym/persona; the artistic histories that pepper The Fate Of The Artist are prefigured in the subject matter of both the History of Humour and How To Be An Artist; the use of disparate visual elements to convey something about a theme/life can be traced back once more to his comic strips derived from Alan Moore’s spoken word performances, and so on.

--It’s also worth noting that Campbell still works the interplay between words and pictures like no one else. There are lots of very visual moments in The Fate Of the Artist (see the bit where the artist gets washed up on shore—wowza!), but when Campbell wants to he can make the prose narrative drive a page, with the visuals bouncing off of it, commenting on it and illuminating it as it goes on. He’s almost the anti Harvey Pekar in this regard: lots of American Splendor stories seem really static to me, with huge screeds of Pekar’s text covering up some very uninvolved visuals. Partly because Pekar’s a writer rather than a cartoonist, and partly because Campbell’s just a really fucking good cartoonist, the difference in the way these two autobiographical authors integrate text into their stories seems really, really huge!

--The key scene in After The Snooter, for me, was the one with the young Eddie Campbell piecing together the adventures of various Marvel characters in a disordered, issue-by-by issue fashion. That whole book felt like the older Eddie Campbell’s attempt to do so with his whole life. He was arranging the various episodes, dropping the Alec persona, wrestling with mid life problems, etc, and it made for good, full-bodied reading. The Fate Of The Artist stands as a fine contrast top this—Campbell disembodies himself in it, and it’s both way sillier and quite a bit darker for it.

--And yeah, Campbell’s funny, in an very wry and silly way. The yuks in his books are surprisingly old-fashioned, and its true that his comics make you chuckle inwardly more than laugh out loud, but I love ‘em all the same!

Yeesh, somebody shut me up already! Take the microphone away before I return to ramble again!"

There's lots of good back and forth on that thread, most of it less overbearing than the chunk of my own writing I've just quoted, so go check it out if you're interested.

But hey -- obvious influence alert! The screed about It's A Wonderful Life just screams of David Fiore. Indeed, I think I'd just finished reading his first novel Darkling I Listen shortly before reading The Fate of the Artist, which... has anyone out there read Darkling? Cos I'm totally stealing from it above!

Also: The Eddie Campbell conversation kicked off in this Thought Balloonists post continues at blog.kobek.com, with an excellent piece about the visual style Campbell adopted for From Hell.

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