Craig: It seems weirdly appropriate that on this most foolish and whimsical of days, Charles and I are launching a series of articles on Eddie Campbell's Alec/autobiographical comics and graphic novels, including The King Canute Crowd (1984-1990), Graffiti Kitchen (1993), The Dance of Lifey Death (1994), How to Be an Artist (2000), After the Snooter (2002) and The Fate of the Artist (2006). Our critical attention to Campbell is designed to get everyone up to speed for Campbell's next book, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, due from First Second in August. Our plan is to present one Campbell article per month until then.
Today, though, we begin with some introductory observations about Campbell and his work, and we're doing it dialogue-style, within a single post, as a back-and-forth between Charles and I. Charles sets the scene with a cogent overview of Eddie the artist...
Charles: Something I love about Campbell's work is the seemingly tossed-off way he approaches cartooning as handwriting: the looseness of his work, the way he sketches and scratches on the knife's-edge between deliberation and happy accident. He brings dignity to the idea of drawing as doodling, as a means of idling, of thinking through one's fingers. Especially in his autobiographical comics (with or without the distancing device of alter ego Alec MacGarry), Campbell works with a raw spontaneity of line and the offhand logic of association.
I should say that he seems to do this; actually, there's a deliberateness, an insinuating narrative logic, behind even his most ragged images. Campbell the designing artist peeks slyly out from behind Campbell the doodler; he's like the recessive, self-effacing chum who, you gradually realize, is the smartest one in your circle, the common denominator of your brightest conversations, and, in truth, a winking ironist who has you and your circle all sized up. Sitting at the doodler's elbow, this ulterior Campbell has larger designs on you as a reader, but lets everything fall into place easily, with a fetching looseness of style and manner. Said looseness belies the craftiness of his images and the well-observed solidity of his world.
Idler, rambler, spectator: all those splendid eighteenth-century job titles well fit Campbell's persona as a first-order doodler and raconteur, a spontaneous though cultivated sensibility who never lets technique waylay his work's disarming intimacy and fragile, calligraphic charm. In his autobio work, Campbell's idle, shuffling manner, along with a surplus of wry humor, allows him unguarded access to the darkest and tenderest spots, spots he often prods to telling effect (pivotal works in this vein, I'd say, include Graffiti Kitchen and After the Snooter). Turns out Campbell is a lancing satirist and an astringent observer of himself and everyone else. The work may go down handily, with the seeming guileness immediacy of cartoons, but the lingering aftertaste is often surprisingly acrid. Good thing it's so funny and wise.
Craig: I'm an impostor, and you shouldn't take anything I say about Eddie Campbell seriously. While Charles' rapturous description of Campbell's art makes it clear that he's a true-blue fan, there are whole swaths of Campbell's oeuvre I'm either ignorant of or don't like. I've read maybe five issues of Bacchus, and though I liked the art (even when other hands were involved, like Pete Mullins'), I couldn't get into either the characters or Campbell's twee version of Lee-Kirby mythos-building. And while it goes against prevailing critical opinion--and makes me feel like a persnickety jerk to boot--I think that Watchmen, superheroes, BEMs and all, is a better book than From Hell, because Dave Gibbons' art perfectly complements Alan Moore's words. In multiple sequences in Watchmen (remember Tales of the Black Freighter?), Moore's writing drifts away from the denotative meaning of the visuals, but Gibbons' pictures are so clear and easily legible that they nail down what's happening in the sequence without any verbal assist. This is also true of the "silent" passages in Watchmen, where Gibbons' art, without words, shows us (for example) that a little girl has been dismembered and fed to dogs [click the thumbnail]:
Campbell's art in From Hell, however, is harder to follow, and less an example of the "guileless immediacy of cartoons." Unlike Gibbons, Campbell doesn't sweat over the details. As Charles points out, Campbell's "calligraphic" style can seem scratchy, rough and off-putting at first glance, and his way of framing the human body inside panels is unorthodox too: he typically stages action in the middle-to-long distance, with a minimum of close-ups, allowing him to emphasize body language instead of faces. In his interview with Dirk Deppey in The Comics Journal #273, Campbell talks about his "10 principles toward a rhetoric of the comic-strip vocabulary" and explains his reasons for middle-distance staging and framing:
Anyway, the last of my rules is that you must show at least one pair of feet on every page. I remember Pete Mullins, he used to find that funny that I had these really complicated rules, but number 10 was that you had to show a pair of feet on every page, from the sublime to the ridiculous. He said to me recently, "You know, Eddie, but you’re right. I've gone into other fields, you know, television animation and everything, and I still remember that. It sticks in my head. It's useful."
Make sure you show a pair of feet. Otherwise, you're creating talking-head situations, and there's no point of reference for the human frame, the human body, and the relative sizes of people, and the relative size of people to their environment. And if you've got this business of remembering to draw one pair of feet a page, you make yourself take it all into account. This reminds you to stand back from the action and judge the balance.
Let's mull over Campbell's rule a bit, and tease out some of its implications. I share Campbell's disdain for "talking-head situations"--I tire of movies and TV shows that follow continuity editing so slavishly that every exchange of dialogue is a ping-pong match between two giant faces--and Campbell's insistence on "one pair of feet a page" and his use of distant framing keeps the audience more removed from narrative events, sometimes to stunning effect. In From Hell, the chapter-long dissection of Mary Kelly is all the more chilling because Campbell's middle-distance framing and Moore's deliberate storytelling pace create a cold, clinical, inhuman mood.
I don't think, though, that one of Campbell's great gifts as an artist is his depiction of the human figure in a fully-realized environment, since backgrounds tend to be indistinct or altogether absent from his panels. Campbell's tour de force of environmental rendering is undoubtedly Chapter Four of From Hell, Gull and Netley's tour of magical London, but even there the pictures don't quite mesh with the torrent of erudition pouring out of Gull's/Moore's mouth. It's a speech about architectural specificity illustrated with drawings that are often too sketchy to represent real places. This big panel, for instance [click]:
The weather is beautifully evoked with slashing pen strokes, but those same strokes hide St. John's from our full view, preventing us from seeing exactly how Hawksmoor (the architect) inscribed the "derangement" of magicians and druids into its stones. To be fair, elsewhere in the chapter Campbell renders other locales with almost photographic precision, but they never seem fully integrated with the people in his world. In the Deppey TCJ interview, Campbell notes that Pete Mullins did many of the architectural backgrounds in From Hell by copying photographs "onto a background," and the results look false to me, the way rear projection in movies looks false as flesh-and-blood actors travel through flattened space.
For me, the climax of the chapter comes on the second-to-last page, when Gull convinces Netley that everything in London is a magical metaphor for patriarchal power [click]:
The environment here is reduced to a horse, a carriage (with "a sun and a moon"!), and a few lines to indicate pavement, but look how Gull confidently straightens his hat in panel one, how Netley holds his throbbing temples in panel four, and how Gull, waving his hand in triumph, hovers over the vomiting Netley in panel eight. Campbell's genius lies in his knowledge of how people move, of how weight shifts in their bodies. Graffiti Kitchen is almost completely stripped of backgrounds, there are only a handful of close-ups, and it's probably my favorite Campbell comic. Why?
In the above Graffiti Kitchen page [click!], the images are highly dependent on the words, and vice versa. In panel one, the words create the expectation that we'll see a nightclub and Alec's group of friends. Without the caption and word balloons, we might be able to identify Alec MacGarry's coat (If we’re lucky), but the rest of the people are nothing more than white-paint squiggles. This is also the case for the rest of the drawings. In panel three, it'd be impossible to figure out that Alec is "bashing the necks off" beer bottles by looking at the image alone. In most of Campbell's autobiographical work, words guide the narrative while the images add another channel of meaning: Campbell's signature talent at capturing body language through doodling. Ironically, the word-bound Alan Moore puts more emphasis on images than Campbell the solo artist does.
And this is why Campbell was born to do comic-book memoirs. Somebody should write an essay devoted to Campbell’s skill as a prose writer—I wish I could write blog entries as charming as Eddie's—and it's that raconteur's voice I hear inside my head as I read The King Canute Crowd or The Fate of the Artist. Further, the protocols of the autobiographical genre keep the narrative tightly focused on Alec/Eddie and the people important to him. Campbell-as-character dominates the panels, and the art doesn't have to stick to realistic portraiture. The consistency of the prose voice, and the "me-me-me" focus of memoir, frees the images up, allowing Campbell to draw comics with unprecedented poetic immediacy. Campbell doesn't have to worry about being "on model"; he can just draw models, most taken from a mirror or from real life, with the spontaneity of a best friend doodling in a sketchbook. The result feels more like life itself caught on the fly rather than a representation of life. It's alive; it breathes.
Charles: Craig, I love your conclusion there! So well put.
I agree that Campbell is most at home as a graphic memoirist, that his comics tend to be text- as well as image-driven, and that's he's a terrific prose stylist (in this last particular he reminds me of Jim Woodring). Further, I've got to concede that fully-realized spaces, in the sense of physical environments, are not Campbell's strength, certainly not compared to his command of body english.
Regarding the last point, it was always obvious to me that the architectural set pieces in From Hell relied on Mullins and/or photocopying, and, yes, there are times when they look disconcertingly detached from Campbell's figure work. Campbell's work in From Hell certainly does not match the spatial precision of Gibbons on Watchmen, or, for that matter, the meticulousness of Gene Ha & Zander Cannon on Top Ten or Jim Williams on Promethea. Campbell has recently made moves in the direction of more spectacular physical settings -- I was startled to see the complex renderings of space and place in The Black Diamond Detective Agency, though there again he relies somewhat on photos -- but the human interaction of figures has always been more important to him than posing the figure against a perspectivally "deep" space. This may have to do with his love of comedy above all else, and may also help explain why his version of "Lee-Kirby mythos-building" is not entirely successful: Kirby's yen for the cyclopean, for that childlike sense of being overawed by the "gods" and the elements, is certainly not much like Campbell's understated comic sense.
That said, Craig, I have to disagree with your take on both Bacchus and From Hell. The first Bacchus stuff I read was Doing the Islands, and that series, which is something of an idyll in the middle of a larger continuity, has these wonderful, backward-looking episodes that serve to point up Campbell's abiding interest in history. To me, the pleasures of Bacchus are mostly by-the-way: what I like about the series has to do with the way the gods' long memories allow Campbell to do same sort of stuff he did in his "History of Humor" -- that is, unearth and put a puckish, ironic spin on some of the more obscure byways of human history. Some of those Bacchus short stories are terrific: troves of near-buried history, given sly Campbellian treatment. There's also an obvious pleasure, throughout, in the sheer pleasure of telling yarns, even if they turn out to be wayward, shambolic, shaggy-dog stories. Granted, I grew less interested in the later serialized Bacchus, in particular the incestuous roman à clef stuff about the self-publishing movement (King Bacchus), but I've always liked Campbell's way of cutting together history and mythology.
As for From Hell, I take your points about how Campbell's middle-distance framing keeps us "more removed" from the narrative. I agree that the results are sometimes stunning, but I would add that the results are often palliative as well. Frankly, a From Hell rendered with Gibbons' meticulousness would probably have been repellent in the extreme; I'm not sure I could abide it. And this I think is the great strength of Campbell's contribution to From Hell: besides having a knowledge of history to rival Moore's own (he may be the only artist collaborator to call Moore more than once on historical inaccuracies), Campbell also brings a cartoon rawness to the proceedings, offsetting to a degree the closely-tended formalism of Moore's script. I think this works wonders, both to remind us that the "London" of the novel is an imaginary, mythic London and, at the same time, to underscore and render more sympathetic the novel's grotty emphasis on the lives of the working-class and the marginalized. Furthermore, I'd say that Campbell's middle-distance staging makes manifest Moore's own tendency to waver between empathy for his characters and cool, dispassionate observation: sure, Moore seems to like his characters, generally, but often he loses them to the byzantine machinations of plot (I made a similar observation in my review of Moore & Gebbie's Lost Girls). Of necessity, he often stands at a remove from the characters. Campbell captures this quality graphically, but, at the same time, the manifestly drawn quality of Campbell's figures lends some relief from Moore's formalism. Those artists who counter Moore's formalism with a lively, scratchy line -- I'm thinking of Steve Bissette here as well as Campbell -- complement Moore's structural brilliance in a refreshingly graphic way. For my money, Campbell's contributions to From Hell, as cartoonist and history buff, are saving graces.
By the way, none of the above is meant as a knock on Watchmen. It may be that Watchmen is a more cohesive novel than From Hell, but, if so, that has to do with Moore getting waylaid by his fascination with Dr. Gull in the latter half of From Hell and losing his grip on the novel's multi-sided depiction of Victorian London. It's not a comment on the effectiveness of the artists.
Whew, that's enough for now (gads, an Alan Moore thread is threatening to break out!). We're looking forward to tackling specific stories by Eddie Campbell in the months ahead, and we hope you'll join us for future installments of this, Thought Balloonists' first creator-centered series!