by Eddie Campbell. Eddie Campbell Comics, 2002. $14.95.
At first, After the Snooter reads as a straight-forward collection of domestic vignettes and memories from Campbell's childhood and adolescence. (The first thing you notice is that in Snooter Campbell finally abandons his "Alec MacGarry" alias and calls himself by his real name.) As ever, one of Campbell's primary virtues as an artist is his skill in choosing funny and/or poignant stories from his life. A single pager titled "Grooming Yocky's Arse" features Campbell's long-suffering wife Anne, who makes the alarming discovery that the family cat has grass sticking out of its ass. Anne gradually cuts the grass "until the problem works itself out," and the strip ends with Yocky breaking the fourth wall like this:
I find the cat's mortified face in this final panel hilarious. (There seems to be something inherently funny about Campbell and his relationship with Yocky; later in the book, Eddie describes an overseas trip to the cat in pompous terms--"I shall tie a bow on the millennium"--to which Yocky replies, in a thought balloon, "Get knotted.") I've mentioned another single-pager, "Confiscation," that I mentioned in a previous Thought Balloonist post to talk about how Campbell weaves the "tiny fragments" of his comics into thematic and emotional wholes.
After the Snooter is all about this weaving, all about Campbell using themes and structure to connect the book's short pieces. In "Football," Campbell reminisces about a soccer game he played as a boy, and ends with his youthful self frozen running towards the net, leg cocked back to kick the ball. This interrupted narrative is never resolved--we never find out if Campbell scores--but ninety pages later, in "In Wallyhood," Campbell proposes an explanation for withholding closure: his hatred of neat endings and his belief that "revenge scenarios" and other familiar plots make characterization impossible. (What could be more Hollywood/"Wallyhood" than the nerdy kid kicking in the winning goal?) So Campbell avoids conventional plotting and instead favors repetitions with variation, interruptions and lively digressions.
Most obvious is his tendency to re-present important characters and incidents across several different strips. Anne and their three kids appear throughout the book, and the Snooter, an ugly bug (and bug-man) that stands as a metaphor for Campbell's anxiety on sleepless nights, stars in several multiple-page pieces. A conversation between Neil Gaiman and Campbell begins in one strip, where Campbell says "I wake up in the awful dark with the terrors of the infinite upon me"; this conversation continues over 30 pages later in another story, where Campbell asserts that "the beasts of cancer and catastrophe" behind his angst are real, and that his ambling life is an illusion. (The real conclusion to Eddie's existential terrors only comes at the end of The Fate of the Artist, where God-the-stick-figure shows Eddie that the universe really is an accident "held together with paper clips and sticky tape.") Campbell's nighttime fretting is twice represented by a picture of him lying in bed thinking "Jesus suffering fuck." He twice invokes James Cagney in White Heat (1949) ("Top of da woild!") to describe his total immersion in make-believe games as a child. A rumination of Zip-a-Tone is followed 23 pages later by a tour-de-force exhibition of Campbell's Zip-a-Tone chops as he draws the clouds Alan Moore exhales while chain-smoking. And on the second-to-last page of Snooter, Campbell draws, literally, an analogy between a fall he took off as bus as a child (on a trip to buy comic books) and a tumble he took on a Madrid sidewalk (on a trip to sign his own comic books) as an adult (click on the image):
Campbell's interruptions and repetitions often work to portray him as an unreliable narrator and a guy riddled with diverse, and sometimes contradictory, opinions and beliefs. A couple of Snooter strips focus on Campbell moonlighting as a court sketcher for the TV news, and in the first Campbell surveys the defendants he's drawn, including two reprobates who "set fire to a vagrant" and a man who shot his wife. Eddie's conclusion: "My God, there's heaps going on out there." Yet in a later strip, he watches TV with his parents while the news blares "IRA, AIDS, bombs, unemployment, cancer," and Campbell blames TV for infecting old folks with "a pessimistic view of the world." It's weird to hear this criticism from someone who sketches for the TV news, knows the gamut of criminal behavior, and considers the essence of life to be cancer and catastrophe--Jesus suffering fuck, has TV got it right all along? Likewise, in "Another Sleepless Night," Campbell tells some of the stories behind his empty wine bottle collection to justify his drinking habits; this is immediately followed by a convoluted tale about Neil Gaiman, clandestine phone calls, and a bottle of '79 Grange Hermitage that, in Campbell's words, twists the truth by condensing "the events of two separate, five-year apart Neil visits" into a single narrative.
Eddie plays tricks on us. On page 146 of Snooter, Campbell explains the origin of their new dog's name (click on the image):
As Campbell admitted in an interview with Dirk Deppey in The Comics Journal #273 (January 2006, and a must-read for all Campbell aficionados), Bunny Wilson is "a hoax, he doesn't exist" (85). Here's Campbell describing his practical joke:
But on the back cover of one of those [issues of Bacchus], we have a character Bunny Wilson supposed created in the '50s, called Monty Zoomer, the speediest superhero, and [Mick] Evans bashed it all up in Photoshop and we made it look like an old 1950s Australian comic. [See this.] That was my plan. I'd introduce all the real cartoonists and then slip in a bogus one and see if anyone noticed. So while I was making fun of real personages, I intended by slight of hand to play a joke on everyone. (86)
Campbell killed off Bunny Wilson when he realized that he couldn't top Seth's Kalo hoax, but I remain fascinated--and, admittedly, a bit annoyed--that this gag leaked into Campbell's less genre-based, more "serious" autobiographical work. He exaggerates, he lies, he contradicts himself, and he tries to fool us: should we trust any of his stories?
One of the biggest areas of contradiction in After the Snooter is Campbell's domestic life. He's a wonderful chronicler of the quotidian, and there are moments where his interactions with Anne and kids are delightful. (My favorite may be "Sexy," where Mr. and Mrs. Campbell swap clothes as a gag, and then young son Callum tells a prim neighbor "My dad wears mum's dress.") Yet it's far from bliss. His dead-of-night dreads are sparked by the domestic responsibilities of buying a house and car, and another of his fears is becoming just like his dad. The final strip in Snooter opens with Campbell imagining that his sexual technique is identical to his father's on the night wee Eddie was conceived, and segues into worries (about where his violin and collection of Punch magazines are stored) apparently vexing enough to keep him up at night. Another running motif is Campbell's detachment from his kids; at least three times in Snooter, Eddie answers comments and questions from his daughters with disinterested comments like "Hmmm...yeahhh" or "Of course it would, honey":
Now I'm not bringing this up to claim that Campbell is a bad parent, though more could be said about Campbell's views on being a father. (In one Snooter strip, "Give Us a Hug, Then," Campbell has no sympathy for adults who complain that "My daddy never hugged me and now I'm all fucked up, boo hoo"; in the fumetti sections of The Fate of the Artist, Hayley Campbell describes her father's conversational skills thusly: "Well, people talk to him in the same room and never get an answer.") Personally, I think Campbell perfectly captures the profound ambivalence of being a dad. The best moments of my life include playing with, talking with, traveling with my kids; there are also nights and mornings that are such a grind that I can't do more than grunt and spit around my family. The way Campbell characterizes domestic life as chaotic, distracting, fun and infuriating all at once seems dead-on to me, and of obvious inspiration to him. In "Running a Publishing House Out of the Front Room," Campbell moves his studio out of the house, and his cartooning stops cold. It's only when Anne is cutting paper, his assistants are chatting with him, and the kids are marching in from school that he's able to churn out pages for From Hell. Yet this strip is followed by more night terrors and a long visit from the Snooter.
Although Campbell's portrait of domestic life is shot through with ambiguity, there's one sentiment he expresses with great clarity in After the Snooter: his gratitude to the educators and artists that made contributions to his intellect and his art. In How to Be an Artist, Campbell wrote--combined with a panel from Krazy Kat and a little Alec figure asking to enter Coconino County--"But hey! To cultivate a separate life from the one happening in front of you. There's a thing to pursue." Much of After the Snooter is a travelogue of the folks who populate Campbell's inner terrain. He gives belated thanks for a music teacher who took Eddie the schoolboy to the opera, and he talks about his discovery of Lee-Kirby Marvel Comics as a life-changing event--which it was for me, and Charles, and probably 3.5 million other boys. (Another example of Campbell's canny sense of organization: in the strip "Ouch!" he calls creators like Lee, Kirby and Steranko "magical," but "Ouch!" is immediately followed by a one-pager where Will Eisner is good-naturedly made the butt of a joke.) These two poles--high art like opera and popular culture like Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.--conflate and explode in "On the Street Where I Lived," where the cafe on the street in Campbell's imagination is populated by all his inspirations (one final time, click on the image):
This is the street where I live too, Eddie. Bernard the poet chants in my memory, and my mind is packed with the same precious collection of trivia and high art, and sometimes I can't tell the difference between them either.
Campbell would argue, however, that it's not enough to wander the street of your imagination; artistry consists of somehow imposing your creative terrain on the world outside your head. His test cases for this theory in After The Snooter are old chums Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman. In "The Magus is House Proud," Moore is described as an alchemist who turns the everyday (at least the everyday in Northampton, UK) into "something magical" and a homeowner who is converting his house into an exotic palace. Gaiman, also an alchemist, accepts the gift of a homemade bow and arrow from Callum with a great rhetorical flourish: "Oh, this is wonderful. I can use this when I side with the dwarves in the beleaguering of Angband." Such exercises of imagination affect the people around us. Thirty pages later we see Callum fantasizing, just like Uncle Neil, about the stick that turns into a weapon. But perhaps the true alchemist here is Campbell himself. His imagination sometimes remakes the world in callous ways: in a strip about his court sketching, Campbell is called upon to draw "four villains in a big iron case with bulletproof glass," and panics because the cage is all right angles and he's forgotten his ruler. (The formal problem of drawings angles becomes more important than the prisoners.) But he is also capable of assembling stories about his family, friends and aesthetic passions into a book greater than the sum of its proverbial parts, a book that overflows with love and intellect. After the Snooter is my favorite of Campbell's autobiographical graphic novels.