Thursday, May 19, 2016

Comics Review: The Fate of the Artist, Eddie Campbell

This review was first published at The Hooded Utilitarian on March 11, 2011. It was originally a contribution to the site's roundtable on Eddie Campbell's work. For an index of the other roundtable essays, click here.

In memoir comics, it is standard for the author to self-identify exclusively with his or her cartoon representation. The supporting characters are almost always othered in the author’s stories. Eddie Campbell's work is an exception. In his extended autobiographical narratives, he consistently uses the supporting characters as tropes for his aspirations and anxieties. They exist as a prism through which he and the reader can see himself. In “The King Canute Club,” the first extended sequence in his Alec series, one has Danny Grey, the personification of the Campbell/Alec character’s goal of life unencumbered by bourgeois concerns. The “How To Be Artist” sequence gives us Campbell peers such as Alan Moore, Bill Sienkiewicz, and Stephen Bissette as metaphors for both Campbell’s dreams of career glory and his nightmares of failure. With “After the Snooter,” the title character exists as a pointed metaphor for Campbell’s misgivings about his life's direction. Not even Campbell’s cartoon avatar is safe from being divided into multiple entities: “Graffiti Kitchen” features the Campbell figure as both Campbell/Alec and his honking, rampaging id. Campbell contains multitudes, and he puts them on the page for all to see.

Campbell’s representations of himself are unstable, and in the extended Alec narratives, this instability of representation is often accompanied by an instability in the stories' visual fabric. The instability has only increased over time. “The King Canute Club,” the first sequence, features Campbell’s least complicated self-depiction and the most stylistically concrete visualizations. In “Graffiti Kitchen,” its immediate sequel, there is a dramatic shift in the art style; the studied, painterly images give way to a capricious scribbled spontaneity. As I wrote in another essay, the pages often look as if Campbell “wasn’t sure whether word or image would flow from his pen until he applied it to the art board.” The visuals of “How To Be an Artist” are even more radically destabilized; the flow of Campbell’s own drawings is frequently disrupted by the inclusion of panels derived from clippings, xeroxes of photographs, and details from other artists’ work. Reading the Alec material, it often seems that the less centered Campbell’s self-conception is in a story, the more his artwork seems to deconstruct itself. In his autobiographical mode, increased narrative complexity leads him to increasingly refine the refinement out of his art, distilling it first to idea and then to an idea’s external prompts.

Campbell also becomes more playful towards his visuals. His antic side has been apparent in his autobiographical material from the start. “The King Canute Club” finds him trying to mimic the use of absurdist motifs and tropes in Henry Miller’s work, and “Graffiti Kitchen” saw those efforts blossom into the slapstick poetic conceits that are that effort’s most striking achievement. In “How To Be an Artist,” his sense of humor begins to find inspiration in the visual side of his material. He occasionally pokes fun at the appropriation-heavy collage strategy of the visuals, such as when he arbitrarily depicts a couple of incidental characters as Archie Comics’ Betty and Veronica. The wittiest moment in this regard is when he has his cartoon avatar knock on the frame of a panel appropriated from George Herriman’s Krazy Kat, asking if he can come in. (My thanks to Caroline Small for reminding me of this bit in her fine discussion of the “How To Be an Artist” sequence. Click here.) The more integral the visual style becomes to the content of a piece--the more the visuals become the textual content itself--the more ripe they are as a source of humor.

Which brings me to The Fate of the Artist, a wonderful piece that is perhaps the culmination of Campbell’s work in the autobiographical mode. He takes the decentering of his narrative self-depiction about as far as it can go. In addition, the book is even more--much, much more--of a visual hodgepodge than “How To Be an Artist,” although when I call it a hodgepodge, I mean it in the best possible way. It’s a bravura mix of visual and narrative rendering styles, each of which is just about perfect for the narrative and metanarrative moments they’re used to illustrate. Best of all, Campbell is laughing at himself every step of the way. His self-depiction is the butt of the story’s humor, and he highlights and mocks the artifices of his storytelling strategies throughout.

Campbell’s narrative persona is the subject of The Fate of the Artist, but he’s not really a character in it. The story is about his ostensible disappearance, and he’s almost never a player on its main stage. The identification figures for the reader are his family, principally his wife and daughter, and he all but exclusively exists as someone for them to remember and describe. Campbell’s narrative counterpart is generally only shown as he is seen through the eyes of others. The goal in this is to create comic distance, and that gives what turns out to be a portrait-of-the-artist-as-an-aging-crank a hilarity it wouldn’t have otherwise had. It’s difficult to laugh at the absurdity of a character’s behavior if one is called on to identify with him.

The deeper joke of The Fate of the Artist is that we’re not actually seeing Campbell through others’ perspectives. We’re seeing his version of himself--or at least the version he wants to show--presented through the fiction of seeing him through others’ perspectives. But it’s not a joke on the reader; it’s a joke for the reader to share in. Campbell wants the reader to laugh at his narrative counterpart, but he also wants the reader to laugh at the artifice through which he is creating his narrative counterpart. It’s a self-portrait that pretends not to be a self-portrait, while perpetually winking and nudging that it’s really a self-portrait after all.

Campbell constantly calls attention to his construction of the story. He repeatedly shifts through different storytelling media, which has the effect of those media highlighting themselves as media. Parts of the book are prose narrative, others are comics-form flashbacks, while others are fumetti of Campbell’s daughter supposedly discussing him with an off-panel interviewer. The look of the flashback sequences is consistent, but the perspective they reflect certainly isn’t. Most are told from the point of view of Campbell’s wife, but some are third-person, while others are the recollections of his daughter. In at least one instance it isn’t clear whether the reader is seeing something through her eyes or the eyes of her brother. (My only disappointment is that Campbell didn’t give us a flashback from the perspective of the family dog.) Campbell cracks the fictive reality even further by using the visual approach of the flashbacks to depict historical fantasias or to dramatize another author’s story. And he outright shatters it by highlighting that the dramatizations are indeed dramatizations. He informs the reader that the characters are actors playing roles, and in one panel he depicts a scene with a cameraman and boom mikes.

Even the text pages call attention to themselves as constructions. Campbell integrates assorted images into them. The raised capital letters that mark the beginning of a text passage are replaced with photographs of various objects, including a key, a peppermill, and a crushed cracker. Occasional “Campbell-style” cartoons illustrate select bits from the text. Campbell will also play with fonts, font sizes, baselines, typefaces, and the vertical margins for individual lines in order to create emphasis. But he also plays with the typesetting for no apparent reason, and several images seem added for no purpose beyond creating clutter.

The most conspicuous of the clutter-images are the ostensible clippings of old faux newspaper strips, which seem to function as oblique commentaries on the main narrative. However, they almost never cohere with it. The faux strips also lack a clear temporal context. They look like clippings from old newspapers, but one of the continuing strips focuses on the everyday misadventures of Campbell’s daughter, and another often stars the Campbells' dog. The strip that recurs the most is “Honeybee,” which features a bourgeois couple from the Edwardian period (or even earlier), but whose conversations occasionally have a modern-day bent, such as when the husband complains about the ubiquity of the term “soul mate,” or the wife contemplates what underwear she’s going to wear to work the next day. The strips’ only real function is distraction, and while they’re likely to aggravate a reader who prefers tidiness in narrative, others may find their negligible quality relaxing and even look forward to the breathers they offer from the story. The effect is comparable to how some people enjoy commercial breaks on TV. But these strips also serve a narrative purpose: they create a contrast with the story passages that make the latter all the more vivid.

The Fate of the Artist is a brilliantly artful mélange, and it raises the question of where Campbell can take autobiography next. His major works in this mode are all characterized by an increasingly faceted self-depiction. It’s hard to imagine how he can build on the conceit of removing his persona from the story’s foreground and presenting himself through the eyes of others. The major works are also characterized by visuals that call increasing attention to the shaping role of Campbell’s hand, and one can’t see how he can go much further with that, either. But Campbell never seems at a loss when it comes to pushing the envelope. It will be no surprise to someday see The Fate of the Artist as a stepping stone to an even more radical and delightful effort.

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