When we launched our Eddie Campbell series, I observed that Campbell "approaches cartooning as handwriting” and praised 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 [...], 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 [...]. 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.
I stand by the above (hell, I just quoted myself), but the problem of pronouncements like this is that artists like Eddie Campbell don’t sit still.
At his recent CCI spotlight panel (Thursday, July 24), Campbell talked about this, about the fact that his style keeps changing, and about how creating new material for his forthcoming Alec omnibus (slated for 2009 by Top Shelf) nudged him into the position of revisiting, or trying to reinvoke, the style of his earliest stories. This was, he indicated, a challenge, because of course he hasn’t sat still as an artist in the years since. During the ensuing Q&A, someone else asked the question I wish I had asked: how is it that he has taken up painting in his latest works? Campbell replied that he has always preferred painting but adopted his signature B&W style in response to what was available to him, printing-wise.
Huh. Knock me right over, why don’t you?
That signature style is something I take for granted in Campbell now: it’s become so familiar that it’s been naturalized in my mind. It’s a wonder, that style: gestural, offhand, and intimate: black ink on white paper, scraping, scoring, blotting. That’s the style I’ve been following for some time and that, until recently, distinguished Campbell’s most personal work. It’s a style with the diaristic quality of handwriting at its most inspired (the better to break us readers down, to get at the tender spots?). That’s why I too have been surprised to see Campbell take up, in his most recent works, a new, full-color, painterly technique. This approach is announced and assertively explored in his most recent autobiographical novel, The Fate of the Artist, which is restlessly varied in media, palette, and layout and in its unpredictable inclusion of found materials, artistic parodies, and mock-strips of Campbell's own devising. It’s antic.
This new approach is not something I had expected in Campbell’s autobiographical stories, though I had come to expect such experimentation in his collaborative and his assembly-line works. Fate in some ways recalls the digitally-enabled collages of The Birth Caul and Snakes and Ladders, Campbell’s graphic adaptations of performance pieces written and originally enacted by Alan Moore (and now collected in A Disease of Language). If, thematically, Fate turns a midlife corner marked out by the earlier After the Snooter (see Craig’s take!), then, graphically, it bespeaks the liberating effect of Campbell’s hard work on those Moore pieces, work that so unmade the conventional comic book page and so departed from Campbell’s previous as to take him to a new place artistically. Campbell’s painted foray into the Batman mythos, the clever but affectless The Order of Beasts (with Daren White and Michael Evans, 2004), also seems to have helped pave the way, gearing up Campbell for deliberate use of color and wash.
Coming after these varied projects, Fate departs from Campbell's familiar autographic style -- that style we’ve been praising in this series -- in favor of something layered and complicated. Technique-wise, it looks like practice for Campbell’s subsequent books, the lavish adaptation The Black Diamond Detective Agency (2007) and, stronger by a long stride, his mischievous new collaboration with Dan Best, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard (which we expect to review in this space shortly). In Fate’s pages, typeset text, photocomics, and mock newspaper clippings, tumbling through at odd intervals, are not simply interruptions but in fact the building blocks of the narrative. What Craig and I have called the “tiny fragments” approach to narrative is very much in play here, as in After the Snooter but taken a step further, toward a radical fragmentation on the very level of style and medium.
All this adds up to a feisty, nose-thumbing rejection of traditional comic-book aesthetics. In fact Campbell's low-flying critical campaign against McCloudian formalism (at times visible in the pages of The Comics Journal or in his blog) works its way into the book, making Fate an autocritical novel on par with his previous How to be an Artist. An impatience with defining and categorizing marks the book as a whole, and the term graphic novel itself gets held up, reflexively, for spirited questioning. "Bloody definers," the author is quoted as saying, "fuck 'em all."
What makes this interesting is the novel's sly, circling treatment of a larger issue, namely, the way all of us attempt to build order from chaos, or, rather, to ward off chaos with artfulness. "All our systems," says the author, "all our art forms, our categories," these are futile if necessary defenses against the randomness of a universe "held together with paper clips and sticky tape," a thought that seems to inspire Campbell with both humor and terror. The book suggests various bulwarks against chaos: art, storytelling, history, domestic routine and obsessive personal rituals, systems of filing and sorting, and (of course) critical terminology. In one droll episode (click the thumbnail for a better view), Campbell has himself erecting a "monument to chaos" by marking with a brick an uncut tuft of grass in an otherwise-mown lawn,
a gesture that at once acknowledges disorder and tries to delimit it within acceptable borders. Campbell’s known penchant for dividing up clippings into notebooks and files -- his way of reorganizing received histories and forging his own connections between disparate objects -- comes up for comic needling throughout. Several passages concern his CD collection, labeled and sequenced according to his own idiosyncratic yet highly developed sense of history. These bits become more than simply amusing, as Campbell attacks the greater question of how our fussing over such systems helps to stave off the frightful randomness and indifference of the universe. (As Craig notes, existential terror is a theme in much of Campbell’s work, and Fate dials this terror up to the highest pitch.)
All of this emerges by the way. The book’s driving conceit is that the author has disappeared, leaving behind a suspiciously Campbell-like detective to investigate his whereabouts. Through substantial passages of text (ostensibly typeset by the author himself), said detective questions Campbell’s wife, daughter, and associates, and pores over Campbell’s carefully-sorted personal effects, discovering what he can about the artist’s habits, preoccupations, and anxieties. In the process he pieces together a psychological portrait, in Hockney-esque mosaic mode, of a restive, ambitious artist sharply at odds with his profession and achingly aware of how little control he has over the reception and understanding of his work. Reigning themes include the obscurity and ephemerality of most art, the cruel neglect of prosperity, and the artist’s powerlessness to determine how his work is seen, interpreted, and folded into history by definers and critics. Underscoring these themes, a parade of comparatively obscure artists and authors runs through the novel, from composers Eckard and Schobert (not Schubert) to artist-engraver Karl Schütz to lexicographer H. W. Fowler. Schobert, here depicted as one of the many in Mozart’s considerable shadow, died of eating poisonous mushrooms (an absurd anecdote played out early in the novel); likewise, Campbell reminds us, playwrights Thomas Kyd and Thomas Nashe were stricken by disasters and died in relative obscurity, whereas their contemporary Shakespeare retired in comfort. Aptly, The Fate of the Artist worries the question of how an artist’s worldly fate is decided, that is, how success is meted out and how histories are written and certain figures included or excluded.
One tart passage concerns the way scholars call history into being, patching together disparate scraps and survivals of bygone times in the attempt to impose order on disorder. Conjuring up archaeologists and art historians, Campbell observes that “the scholarship of an art becomes the history of that art,” and watches as these experts fashion their own wish-fulfilling versions of such hopelessly, irrecoverably, lost figures as Pheidias and Kresilas (artists of the classical world). Just beneath, at the bottom of the page,
a dozing image of Campbell dreams of these scholars dusting ancient marble “with their tender, feathery brushes,” the artist’s supine figure evoking what Campbell calls his own “mental isolation.” Campbell’s irony at the expense of feather-dusting scholars is obvious, but not without sympathy: there’s an unforced yet pointed analogy between the cul-de-sacs of scholarship and Campbell’s own obsessive shoring of his fragments against the ruins of time.
Of course this sequence comes just before the text quotes John Gay’s mocking epitaph, Life’s a jest and all things show it, I thought so once, and now I know it. Clearly, it has occurred to Campbell that his shoring up of fragments may be simply another part of this cosmic joke: a haunting thought that bubbles under the novel, teasing and tormenting.
This is smart stuff, of course, but also emotionally fraught. There is terror under the surface, and not so very far under. (Lynda Barry, in her wonderful CCI performance, noted that genuine play always has some darkness in it; she could have been talking about Eddie.) Not for nothing does Campbell refer to this book as “his domestic apocalypse”: Fate plays out, albeit in fragmented, indirect form, a vocational and personal crisis of confidence that, if we’re to believe the fiction at all, drew everyone in his family into its undertow. The book’s fractured, nonlinear presentation allows us disquieting fictive glimpses into, presumably, the author’s home life, often in the form of a make-believe comic strip titled Honeybee (a pet name used by husband and wife throughout). These glimpses, though quite funny, are also offhandedly shocking. Part of what’s going on in the book, it seems, is Campbell’s continued struggle to know what the ethical limits of autobiography, if any, are: the question echoes through his various depictions of day-to-day familial strife, including, especially, one contretemps with his wife in which Campbell takes a lacerating blow to the head.
Campbell serves up such moments with puckish humor and an evenhanded willingness to make himself look bad, but that doesn’t much soften their impact. Again, his idling, unassuming manner allows him to sidle up to the harsher stuff. With an air of casualness -- a willed air, I’m tempted to say -- The Fate of the Artist shows what a rutted psychological landscape family life can be, and what gnawing darkness can lurk under simple domestic travails. (Ah, so this IS the same Campbell who did Graffiti Kitchen, after all.)
Of course these autobiographical gleanings by no means make up an immediate or literally accurate record of the author’s daily life. Campbell’s artistic tweaking of life-material, never ever straightforward, is here at its most complicated: the autobiographical elements, at times doubly or triply mediated by this or that set of distancing devices, are teasingly fictive (and vice versa). They are certainly not to be mistaken for the sort of naïvely truthful confidences one might find in a private diary. Most obvious among the mediating devices is Campbell’s opening insistence that, familiar likenesses to the contrary, he does not appear in the novel “as himself.” This inability to get quite at the “real” Campbell is a structuring principle that holds the disparate pieces of the novel together. The detective investigating Campbell’s disappearance never appears in comics form, but instead operates as a typeset narrator’s voice bobbing and weaving among the book’s various graphic sequences, snaking in and out of (and stitching together) the patchwork narrative. His job is to do the impossible, that is, to find the real Campbell or at least discover where he has run off to. Despite having dropped his longtime persona Alec MacGarry, Campbell here feints and dodges from behind the screen of various other persons, including even members of his own family. An embedded photocomic in which Campbell’s daughter Hayley discusses her father’s mental state is a tour de force:
Another one of the novel’s working conceits is that Campbell himself is most often personated by “Richard Siegrist, the actor.” Along these lines, certain scenes are knowingly pitched as reenactments or fictionalizations for the benefit of a camera (this applies even to the marital donnybrook alluded to above). In a crowning irony, “Mr. Eddie Campbell” appears only as an actor, namely the lead in the novel’s climactic dramatization of O. Henry’s story, “The Confessions of a Humorist,” adapted faithfully and yet so in tune with the novel’s larger concerns that you would swear O. Henry wrote the piece specifically to fit Campbell’s purposes. The story concerns a bookkeeper-turned-bestselling-author who preys on his own family to provide the raw material for popular anecdotes and tales, to the point that he comes to consider himself a “vampire” feeding off his family’s confidences and bartering their privacy for sales:
Only the abandonment of his writing career can salvage the man’s natural good humor. The delicate, ironic problem at the heart of this story seems to be tailor-made for Campbell, and echoes throughout the novel. Though most unexpected (O. Henry? Who’da thunk?), this gemlike adaptation is perfectly interpolated into Campbell’s larger design and serves to bring the book to a smart, reverberating close.
If The Fate of the Artist doesn’t “look like” an Alec/Eddie book, it finally reads like one, though one that has had to wend its way to us through a maze of misdirection and formal gamesmanship. I’ve read the book several times now, and it proves as hard to forget as it is to summarize. It keeps sounding in my head. Twisty and over-generous, the book is, like How to Be an Artist, impossible to pigeonhole: a “nonfiction” novel in which autobiographical, humorous, and even didactic elements shake and clatter against other like marbles in a box. It’s partly true, surely, yet also transparently fictive and happy to blur such putatively distinct genres as essay, history, even theory. Autofiction might be the aptest term. Campbell's tumultuous mixing of real life and obvious fiction calls to mind Barry’s waggish phrase autobiofictionalography, and of course there’s something oblique and Philip Roth-like about the oscillating distance/closeness between Campbell and his paper selves. So it might be wisest to read the book as fiction. More important to me, though, is that Fate is a resounding pleasure to read and even more to reread.
I’m not sure how The Fate of the Artist has touched or will touch readers from outside the orbit of alternative comics, that is, readers unacquainted with the larger context of Campbell's accumulated work. When the book came out, I wondered at the publisher, First Second, picking this as one of their inaugural releases, which, commercially, struck me at first as some kind of grand, doomed quixotic gesture. I don’t know how it’s “done” in the marketplace. No matter. To those already entrained by Campbell’s rhythms the book is an openhanded, full-to-bursting gift, the culmination of a long, long process whose every step has been absorbing. Some may be lured into taking up the book under the aegis of postmodernism; indeed “postmodern” is a tag that could easily be applied, the better to pitch the book to certain readers. But, like a lot of books so labeled, it’s really a historically-minded work whose quirky erudition harks back to a bygone era of shared learning and sharp-tongued, satiric sense: Campbell could be one of those great Scriblerians of the Augustan age who managed to combine an outer dedication to civility with a willingness to say the most awful, penetrating things in print, smartly and memorably. I don’t know of anyone in comic books who can compete with Campbell's graciousness and smarts, his devastatingly personal, sometimes harrowing and yet eminently civilized way of putting into order the jagged shards of experience and, in the process, fashioning a self that so many of us want to spend time with.
It’s been two years since I first Fate. As I said, it keeps echoing round my brain. I decided early on, and still believe, that the book was wrung out of anger and, as Campbell half-acknowledges, a tormenting case of creative block.
Anger and desperation are the book’s arterial qualities, threading through and sustaining the thing, giving it a certain battery-on-the-tongue bitterness. How odd, then, that the end result should be so pleasurable, so inventive, and so extravagantly, profoundly, comic.