by Eddie Campbell. Eddie Campbell Comics, 2001. $13.95 US.
Welcome to the third installment of our series on the comics of Eddie Campbell, in particular his autobiographical "Alec MacGarry" graphic novels. (Previous episodes can be found here, then here.) Today our subject is Alec: How to Be an Artist.
How to Be an Artist is a book I've considered, and am still considering, using in my comics classes as a critical text as well as a “graphic novel” in its own right. A personal, not to say biased, life-and-times account of the comics and graphic novel revolution of the 1980s, the book serves as a historical/critical study as well as a memoir. Inevitably, it’s partly fictive in manner (Campbell’s memoirs always own up to their use of organizing and distancing devices), but, still, How to Be an Artist looks like an attempt to get down the facts of the time in a scrupulous if idiosyncratic way. I’d say one of the book’s many virtues is that it completely destabilizes the putative distinction between primary and secondary texts.
In other words, How to Be an Artist manages to be, all at once, literary autobiography, autofiction, history from the ground up, the biography of a scene (that is, the British small-press comics scene), an acidic commentary on the passage from scene to pop culture fad, a too-hasty postmortem on a movement that in fact has not died (the graphic novel movement), an anthology of Campbell’s influences and critical opinions, a constellation of character studies (some of them stiletto-sharp and quietly devastating), and a protean, unpredictable, often barbed yet delightful, and still somehow very sad, cartoon narrative. It’s one of several books in Campbell’s catalog to play hob with generic distinctions, and, like a lot of Campbell’s stuff, its tone is tough to place.
It’s hard to parse out the strengths and weaknesses of this book, either as critical history or as memoir. That is, it’s hard for me to be objective about how the book works or what it means, probably because it appeals strongly to those who, like me, feel themselves simultaneously inside and outside Team Comics. When I first read How to Be an Artist, back in 2001 I think, what I found most enticing about the book was probably the way it served as a window onto a scene I knew about only from journalistic or historical repackaging (say, scraps from Roger Sabin, or Paul Gravett, or the odd interview in the comics press, or what I’d learned about Campbell’s career from profiles here and there). I liked being able to see the British small-press scene from a participant’s POV, and to know more about the roots and familial connections of the British talent that had so determinedly made its way into US comics in the late eighties and on into the nineties. I was especially interested in Campbell’s gestures toward explicit criticism, for instance his listing of distinguished graphic novels (including one of his own) in the book’s final chapter.
At the same time, I was puzzled by the book’s tone, which
seems poised somewhere between love and irritation. As an account of the origins and limitations of the literary comics movement,
from the point of view of someone who has “paid his dues,” How to Be an Artist is jaundiced though not hopeless, or, to put it another way, satirical yet not lacking in affection. Its ambiguous
tone and sense of telling secrets out of school appealed (appeals) to
me on multiple levels.
But now what I’m most interested in is something else.
It’s the little notes of humanity, so carefully observed, so characteristic of Campbell’s
work in general, that really get to me. Take for instance this image at the
start of Chapter Eleven:
At this point Alec, alias Eddie, has come “down off the mountain,” that is, back from a comics festival in Switzerland (the BD-Sierre festival of 1986, at which British cartoonists were honored). He has returned to daily life with his budding family: his wife Annie and infant daughter (whose birth is the climax of Chapter Nine, just a bit before this). This image tops a chapter that has to do with the eruption of the “new comics”/graphic novel media hype in 1986, including the British publication of Maus Vol. 1, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns, and the attendant ballyhoo. Yet what Campbell chooses to show us here is the human counterpoint to all that noise, in the form of an image that suggests both his closeness with his family and the distance imposed by his preoccupation with his work. I love images like these, images of unassuming, sometimes bare-naked day-to-day humanness that dot the narrative, anchoring (and fighting for attention among) Campbell’s minute account of changes in the comics scene. On some level, How to Be an Artist is the story, or a story, peeking out, of Campbell’s courtship with and marriage to Annie and the beginnings of their family life together.
Take for instance this wonderfully revealing page, which suggests something of the surprise, terror, drudgery, and joy that goes into new parenting (click the thumbnail for a larger, readable version):
“You’ll lie awake at night listening to her breathing.” Huh. I can certainly empathize with that; I’ve lived it. Ditto the sense that parenting was a job for which I was not qualified (I’ve had plenty of practice since, but the feeling of being in over your head never leaves you). The images of Alec leaning over the crib, and of his wife’s nipple spritzing in the middle of the night, are the sort of unpretentious, well-observed, fearless and comic images that make Campbell’s memoirs such a treasure.
Chapter Ten, based on Campbell ’s memories of BD-Sierre, constitutes the high point of the book, both in terms of good feeling and in terms of Campbell’s ironic, wickedly-observed takes on his fellow cartoonists. Describing his several days at the festival with “the Man at the Crossroads” (in real life, editor/scholar Paul Gravett) and a gaggle of UK cartoonists, the chapter paints a picture of a scene on the cusp of emergence and not yet harried and overloaded with hype and expectation. BD-Sierre becomes a sort of idyll immediately preceding the PR blitz of Chapter Eleven, and, though Campbell humorously reveals tensions beneath the idyllic surface, what we get in the end is indeed an account of a mountaintop experience, a charming sort of utopian working holiday. In hindsight, it’s a last moment of blooming health before tumescence and disappointment set in.
The climax of this chapter is Alec’s meeting with the “majestic” (Campbell’s word) Hugo Pratt. As Campbell describes it, he was summoned to meet the Italian master for reasons unknown. What was supposed to have been an informal solo chat with Pratt became instead a group gathering when several UK comics stalwarts -- Dennis Gifford, Gravett, and (I think) Hunt Emerson -- asked to tag along. Campbell recalls the meeting fondly, describing Pratt as “one of the few famous people you’ll meet who won’t fail to impress.” Though the conversation with Pratt was supposed to have been taped for posterity (Gravett’s doing), apparently it has never been published, and Campbell, rather than trying to recall Pratt’s own words on the occasion, admits to filling in Pratt’s word balloons with comments from another published interview with the artist. Here are the words he gives, or gives back, to Pratt, words that, in Campbell’s hands, are clearly self-reflexive:
I once wrote a kind of an autobiography where I talked about people, and through them, about myself. Everyone said it was a wonderfully funny autobiography. Whereas I thought I’d written a very SAD book. Scary, in fact. It was the evocation of people who have died, who have disappeared. No one noticed the poetic touches. (86)
By way of framing this moment, Campbell notes that Pratt himself is gone, that “he will no longer be with us when this
document goes public” (Pratt died in 1995, two years before Campbell began
serializing this story in the anthology comic Dee Vee). How to Be an Artist
carries on its shoulders this same burden of evoking and memorializing a bygone
scene: a moment in history when comics artists, or at least some of them,
learned to dream of comic books as a true vocation, an artistic calling. That it is not a triumphant book may come as a surprise to today''s readers.
In a way, How to Be an Artist IS sad, and shot through with poetic touches that
lend it a melancholy humor, by turns pensive and razor-edged.
Ironically, one of the things that makes it so wistful,
and already so dated, is that it is so pessimistic about the possibilities of
the graphic novel and comics in general (recall that the book was authored
between 1997 and 2000). This adds to an implicit sense of loss that dogs the
book (as indeed a looming sense of mortality hovers over much of Campbell’s
work). That the years since 2001 have been auspicious ones for literary graphic
novels gives the book, with its ambivalent conclusions, a bit of a time-capsule
quality, but does not lessen its power as memoir, as a record of life observed
from the ground. As the years go by, the autobiographical foundations of the
story will hold up even as its critical perspective on comics becomes, perhaps,
At the bottom of the page with Pratt, Campbell suggests that what the master wanted to see him about was simply his use of zipatone (“how does he do that with the little dots?”). This leads to a full-page image of reverie if not stasis (again, click the thumbnail):
This image resonates with the idea, recurrent in the
text, of Alec/Eddie sleeping “at the turnpike,” as if opportunity and the world
are slipping by him. In fact much of How to Be an Artist consists of Campbell,
who, historically, was at the center of the British small-press movement,
wondering why it is that he is so often on the periphery when opportunity comes
knocking. The “sleeping” image gets to that frustration, but also, more
affirmatively, to Campbell’s introversion, his way of getting lost in the life
of the mind (even sometimes at the expense of practical living). If How to Be an Artist laments Campbell’s losses and missteps (hell, even the creation of
his popular Bacchus character is treated here as a misstep), it also finds
comfort in the inner life, the kind of dreamlife that, as Campbell sees it, is
conjured up and shared by his cartooning heroes: “Tad” Dorgan, Caniff, Frank
King, Herriman, et al. That same “sleeping” image comes back, as a beautiful
culmination, at the climax of Chapter Twelve, wedded to a Herriman nightscape:
On some level, I almost wished the book had stopped here. But it couldn’t, of course. Chapter Thirteen, of necessity, takes up the collapse of the “new comics” hype in the 1990s, with special focus on the contrasting stories of Alan Moore (himself a major character in the book and in Campbell’s life) and “Little Wee Al” Columbia, the artist dragooned into continuing the doomed Moore/Bill Sienkiewicz project Big Numbers (1990) during the spectacularly absurd rise and fall of publisher Tundra Press. Campbell's treatment of Moore is circumspect, nuanced, sympathetic, and humorous, whereas his treatment of Columbia is lancingly satiric, not so much at Columbia’s expense as to expose the elephantine folly of Tundra during that heady, over-inflated period. Campbell treats the rush of capital into independent comics publishing, and the rise of the Dave Sim-inspired, direct-market self-publishing movement (in which he himself became a participant), as objects of insinuating irony. This penultimate chapter, coming just before Campbell ’s critical roundup of graphic novels (which serves as a coda), is the last chapter to consist of pure storytelling, and it’s one of the tartest in his career. No wonder Campbell sounds this warning note in the book’s foreword:
I carefully weighed up the question of whether to name names and decided that the work would be a much lesser thing if I didn’t.
He made the right choice. As a result, though, the end of this book is one of the more acrid things Campbell has published. It’s a good thing that Campbell ’s own life story buoys up the comics industry-related material, giving it an emotional resonance that will last long after the business dust-ups of the 1990s have been forgotten by all but the most determined of comic-book scholars.
There is much more that could be said about How to Be an Artist. The book reveals quite a bit: Campbell’s
aesthetic, his attitudes towards his artistic forebears, his sense of how
comics, as popular art, fit into the “map of the history of Art,” and his
attitude toward commercial compromise (Failure and Compromise are depicted as,
literally, a Scylla and Charybdis between which the artist must sail). The book
is a unique testament, one that, if it doesn’t come together emotionally in as
satisfying a way as some of Campbell’s
other memoirs, nonetheless is a great gift. It should be essential
reading for those who are tempted to vacuum out of the history of comics all
its social particulars and its messy, intractable, pitiful/glorious, and finally
Now read Craig's take -- and stay tuned in weeks to come for our reviews of Campbell's After the Snooter, The Fate of the Artist, and The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard!