Monday, May 16, 2016

Comics Review: Alec: The Years Have Pants, Eddie Campbell

This is a revised version of the review of Alec: The Years Have Pants that appeared in The Comics Journal #301. It was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on October 10, 2011. There are several changes from the TCJ version. The most notable is the removal of an erroneous reference to Campbell's use of assistants in the book's latter sections. Although Campbell has employed assistants on his projects, he produced all the artwork for Alec by himself.

Critics must have their categories for artists and works, and where does one place Eddie Campbell, particularly the Campbell one finds in the massive (600+ pages), three-decades-of-work compendium, Alec: The Years Have Pants? The category is easy: autobiography/memoir. But Campbell doesn’t really fit in with other cartoonists in this area of comics. Alec doesn’t have the studied narrative craftsmanship one finds in works like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and David B.’s Epileptic. Campbell also doesn’t have the entertainingly outsize personality that creators like Harvey Pekar, Robert Crumb, and Dori Seda give themselves on the page. He’s a different breed altogether: a cartoonist who embraces the intuitive, spontaneous approach of the latter group while maintaining the cool, cerebral tone of the first. He isn’t interested in hammering his narratives into a shape designed for a pedestal, and he doesn’t use them to provide an emotional outlet for himself or play the clown.

The rambling, offhand quality of the Alec material gives it a surface humility that is disarming; it often seems to have a take-it-or-leave-it quality--the sort of thing one finds either charming or negligible. And truth be told, a good portion of it is trifling; about half of The Years Have Pants collection is comprised of anecdotal strips that don’t aspire to anything more than pleasant diversion. But Campbell has his ambitious side. The Years Have Pants also contains three major sequences--“The King Canute Club,” “Graffiti Kitchen,” and “How to Be an Artist”--that have a power and occasional incisiveness that rank them among the strongest memoir work comics have to offer. Their casual manner only enhances their impact. They are vibrant explorations of friendship, self-criticism, and the anxieties of career. Each expands the formal language of comics in dazzlingly effective ways.

The first few episodes of “The King Canute Club,” the first Alec effort, may have one wondering if Campbell was the harbinger of the memoir-comics plague of the 1990s. (The “King Canute” strips were produced between 1981 and 1987.) It’s clearly the work of a tyro narrative imagination--one that’s extremely aware that the freshest story material is rooted in real-life experience, but doesn’t seem to know much beyond that. The immediate subjects are also quite similar: recountings of conversations that were probably far more amusing to participate in than to read. One is grateful that Campbell, unlike some of the autobiographical cartoonists who followed, doesn’t regale us with extended nose-picking sequences or accounts of his masturbation habits, but one still wants to tell him to get more of a life if he’s going to write from it.

But those opening episodes contain the seeds of a greater narrative sophistication. Campbell understands the necessity of counterpoint in building a narrative. His protagonist isn’t just Alec MacGarry, his alter ego; it’s also Danny Grey, a co-worker of Alec’s who becomes his best friend. Both in their twenties, they meet working alongside each other in low-level industrial jobs, and they make quite a contrast. Their backgrounds and temperaments are very different. Alec clearly comes from a bourgeois upbringing: he’s educated, intellectual, and he uses his erudition to socialize with others. (One character says to him, “You only know books. You don’t know anything for yourself, do you?”) Danny, on the other hand, is working class. He’s not book-smart (although he can name-drop classic philosophers as well as Alec can), and his attitude is devil-may-care. Unlike Alec, he’s not inclined to stand back and contemplate his place in the world; he is always looking for opportunities to enjoy himself, usually in carousing at the King Canute, a local pub. Alec says of him, “He lives his life to the full. No part is saved like a slice of birthday cake going stale.” And Alec can’t help but idealize him to a degree; he sees Danny as the center of his world. The two make for an intriguing study in contrasts, and it’s frustrating that Campbell initially can’t do more than play them off each other for anemic bits of humor.

Campbell’s artwork only emphasizes the weakness of the early episodes. It’s by no means inept; Campbell handles his panels skillfully. The compositional elements are nicely balanced, the details are well observed, and Campbell even finds an equivalent for the flourish of brushstrokes in the idiosyncratic, fragmentary areas of mechanical tone. But this is a painter’s thinking transposed to comics; one’s eye is meant to wander the composition taking in details, with the subject matter always at a remove. The approach is very different from what is traditionally associated with cartoonists, which is to make the image as immediate and dramatically concise as possible. Campbell’s art doesn’t create emotional identification or otherwise hold the reader’s hand in dramatic terms--he objectifies everything he shows--and it functions like an icepack on his material. An even, uninflected tone can make even the best humor fall flat.

The solution Campbell found to this problem was not to change his visual style, but to create a new dynamic to guide his treatment of the material. If the characters can’t create rhythm and melody effectively within their scenarios, then use the scenario itself as a contrapuntal element. Campbell’s new rhythm and melody became the visual moment of the panel played off Alec’s prose narration. And in a brilliant move, Campbell expanded the traditional relationship of text and image, which is for the text to follow the image’s lead. Campbell uses the text as both starting point and end point; the visuals enhance the prose exposition and are used to create a springboard for prose commentary. The shift also uses the art to best effect; the dense, sophisticated visuals take on a new authority. Autobiographical drama is left behind to create the comics equivalent of the personal essay.

It’s a form that appears more in keeping with his concerns. Campbell never seems particularly interested in mining his experience for moments of conflict and catharsis. His attitude is far more exploratory. As “The King Canute Club” proceeds, we see Alec getting increasingly caught up in Danny’s way of life. The day is always centered on drinking and hanging out at the pub. Jobs, lovers, places to live--everything else comes and goes. The reader is never asked to identify with Alec’s circumstances, only with his attitudes. One can’t help but smile as he moves from statements like “I just don’t feel at home in the world,” to “The nicest thing in this life is just to be with your friends. No big story need come of it.” Alec’s friendship with Danny eventually collapses, and though it's easy to see the tensions building before they explode, the poignancy doesn’t come from things ending so much as it comes from Alec’s confusion over what went awry. He can’t judge or reach a conclusion; he can only move on. “The King Canute Club” starts as a story about a friendship and develops into a meditation on the role it plays in one’s life. What’s most refreshing about it is that Campbell doesn’t even pretend to have the answers to the questions the material raises. The only things that are certain are the happiness when things are good and the pain when they unravel.

A master of the personal essay in prose is Henry Miller, whose work Campbell openly acknowledges as a model. There are similarities and some key differences. Both embrace a vivre-sa-vie attitude, but Campbell doesn’t share Miller’s misanthropy or propensity for caricature. With Campbell, people’s flaws and idiosyncrasies are beside the point. Aesthetically, Campbell’s principal debt to Miller is with the structural tricks both use to keep the reader from feeling adrift in the free-form narratives. When Miller launches into his digressions and commentaries, he often seizes on a repeated motif-word or motif-phrase to anchor both himself and the reader. (Examples include “fifteen francs” from one of Tropic of Cancer’s best passages, “this is better than reading Vergil” from Black Spring’s “A Sunday Afternoon,” and the great “money” sentence from Tropic of Capricorn. Virginia Woolf structures the short story “The Mark on the Wall” with much the same technique.) Campbell first tries his hand with this method in “The King Canute Crowd’s third section, which opens with a burst of obviously Miller-inspired language. (“...I saw humanity all pasted together with semen. It was running down legs at bus stops after early morning quickies.”) References to a dream of drowning, a quilt, and the phrase “the Glaswegian on the floor” show up repeatedly in an effort to unify the narrative. They don’t quite work, largely because they remain motifs; Miller’s graduate into tropes that create a host of absurdist and satirical effects. But Campbell masters the technique in “Graffiti Kitchen,” Alec’s second sequence, which he (with considerable justification) once called his single finest work.

Campbell began “Graffiti Kitchen” in 1988 and completed it in 1992. It takes place before and during the events of “The King Canute Club.” The focus is on Alec’s affairs with a teenage girl and then her mother, and how his continuing desire for the teenager complicates his relationship with both. The piece is an extraordinary balancing act in terms of tone. Alec goes through the entire story disgusted at his impulses and actions; one feels sympathy for his turmoil. But one can’t help but laugh at Campbell’s mocking perspective as he looks back on his alter ego’s conduct. The action’s pathos and the absurdist commentary play off each other marvelously well. The story is masterfully paced; Campbell plays his melody and discords with perfect timing.

His extraordinary use of the repeated trope is the icing on the cake. It all but defines the narrator’s commentaries. Campbell begins the piece by introducing a personification of his animal urges. He takes his skinny, bespectacled avatar and shows him stomping forward, fists clenched, and bellowing a beast-like “Garooga!” He can’t help but make fun of himself; he shows us his id-creature, and it’s a feral nerd on the rampage. Campbell quickly establishes the image’s capacity for multiple meanings. One hasn’t turned the page before it shows up again as a metaphor for jealousy. He also spins metonymies out of it, such as the paw prints that track across a number of panels. These first show up to signify Alec’s lust for the teenage girl. They then mark his disgust at himself for wanting her. (The prints track across a copy of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita). They finally represent disgust at himself for all compulsions, including intellectual ones. (The tracks appear across a copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses). The id-creature, in its various forms, ultimately encompasses almost all expressions of Alec’s emotional identity, from amused disdain to moments of narcissism to feelings of violent anger. The only thing more remarkable than the various meanings he gives the trope is the deft wit he shows with incorporating them.

“Graffiti Kitchen” often gives the impression one is seeing Campbell’s thoughts erupt spontaneously onto the page. It’s appropriate to a critique of drive and desire; if thoughts don’t match the impulses’ speed, they’ll never catch them. Campbell certainly deserves applause for the changes he adopted in the art style. He abandons the studied, painterly panels of “The King Canute Crowd” in favor of a scribbled sketchiness; “Graffiti Kitchen” often looks as if he wasn’t sure whether word or image would flow from his pen until he applied it to the art board. As a result, it has an energy and drive the earlier piece lacked. The feeling of spontaneity also makes the humor more forceful and the poetic moments seem effortless. Form and content come together beautifully.

As accomplished as it is as a stand-alone piece, “Graffiti Kitchen” also gains from being considered alongside “The King Canute Crowd”--just as one’s reading of “King Canute” gains from it. Together the pieces highlight that at any given time, one’s role in one’s personal narrative shifts with the circumstances. “King Canute,” Alec’s commentaries notwithstanding, presents Campbell’s alter ego as just one member of a larger ensemble, while “Graffiti Kitchen” finds him as the central actor in the story. The pieces also highlight that a story can only present an aspect of one’s existence, with the others disregarded to a greater or lesser degree. “King Canute” has Campbell looking outward on his friendships; “Graffiti Kitchen” has him looking inward at himself.

Alec’s third major sequence, “How to Be an Artist,” has him looking at both. It’s an account of his rise in comics’ artistic and professional community, and it also serves as an informal history of the field’s renaissance in the 1980s and ‘90s. The most compelling section is probably Campbell’s treatment of the ebb that followed the period’s climax in 1986 and 1987. He captures what a lively time it was, although few who lived through it would look back on it fondly. The field seemed torn apart by one controversy after another, and every charge for glory on the part of artists and publishers seemed to crash and burn like Icarus’ flight towards the sun.

The most powerful moments are the poignant ones: a creatively paralyzed Stephen Bissette sitting at his drawing board as the years go by; Alan Moore looking out the window sighing after his Big Numbers magnum opus collapses for the final time; the final indignity suffered by veteran newspaper-strip artist Stan Drake, whose obituary was accompanied by the misattributed work of another cartoonist. (The sadness is heightened by the irony of that cartoonist being Bill Sienkiewicz, whose conduct as related in “How to Be an Artist” makes him the closest thing the piece has to a villain.)

What gives these artists’ forlorn moments their power is that they’re metaphors for Campbell’s anxieties about himself. “How to Be an Artist” was composed between 1997 and 2000, when Campbell was in the latter stages of work on From Hell, his decade-in-the-making, 500+ page graphic novel with Alan Moore. One can easily imagine the doubts running through his mind: What if I hit a creative wall before I finish? What if the rug gets pulled out from under me in terms of getting my work to the public? (From Hell’s first two publishers went out of business before it was completed. The third collapsed shortly thereafter.) Will I be remembered and given my due after I’m gone? The last is probably the deepest and most unspoken fear an ambitious artist can have, as their work is their bid for immortality. When discussing From Hell, Campbell likens his situation to Odysseus’s exile at sea, writing “Odysseus ain’t home yet.” The tension is only leavened by the reader’s knowledge that From Hell was completed to success, and that our Odysseus did indeed arrive home. He also assumed his throne without killing a single suitor.

One of the most compelling aspects of “How to Be an Artist” is Campbell's visual treatment. He seems to have recognized the repeated tropes in “Graffiti Kitchen” not only enriched the story’s meanings and gave the readers an anchor, they heightened the piece’s rhythms as well. Campbell is never one to run a flourish into the ground, so he finds a way to repeat an aspect of the effect while giving it new elements. In “How to Be an Artist,” one doesn’t see much interjecting of a familiar trope at select points; Campbell instead interrupts panels of his own drawing with panels derived from xeroxes of photographs, clippings, and other artists’ work. This time around, the discords are visual, not textual. Not one feels arbitrary; they all advance the narrative, and they give it a documentary weight. The contrast with Campbell’s own drawings makes the reader more alert.

The only significant disappointment with Alec: The Years Have Pants is that once one reads beyond “The King Canute Club,” “Graffiti Kitchen,” and "How to Be an Artist<" the strips lose much of their intensity. Most are anecdotes involving Campbell’s life with family and friends in Australia, and they tend to be more cute than incisive. (The artwork also becomes considerably slicker.) What undercuts the strips is that Campbell appears to have found contentment. The anxieties over friendship, behavior, and career that fire the major sequences have fallen by the wayside. He occasionally tries to recapture a sense of urgency. For instance, in “After the Snooter,” he introduces the title character, a personification of his fears that he’s taken the wrong road in life, but there’s not much conviction behind it. The Snooter drops in and out of the strips every now and then, but Campbell can’t seem to figure out what to do with him. It’s never very long before Campbell returns to material about his family goofing around with the Internet, arguing about a new car with his wife, or attending the premiere of the From Hell movie. Happiness breeds frivolity.

One certainly can’t begrudge him that happiness. The glow of Alec’s major sections more than makes up for the flatness of the other material. Campbell’s achievements in Alec are considerable. No other cartoonist has made such accomplished use of the personal-essay narrative. Poetic techniques (Garooga!) are often unheard of in comics, much less used with the skill one finds in the better prose writers. Few cartoonists have ever been able to use painterly artwork or collage techniques to such brilliant narrative effect. And, as mentioned at the start of this review, Campbell doesn’t see his work as meant for a pedestal, which may make him more accessible for those impatient with the middlebrow acclaim greeting some of his peers. I close by noting that Campbell portrays himself as an oenophile. He deserves the tribute of a glass of 1980 Grange Hermitage (his preferred vintage) raised in his honor. Salud.

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