Eddie Campbell: The End

*Time for a little pre-release stuff; this one will be out in early May or thereabouts, and upon its release you should all secure a copy.

The Fate of the Artist

It’s a tricky thing, evaluating the path of Eddie Campbell. Wizened seer of autobiographical comics (having released his life-derived sequential missives as far back as 1975), witness at the maturation of the British comics small press (he was part of the lineup of the seminal Escape Magazine), constant presence in the ‘90s self-publishing scene (his 60-issue Bacchus series had remarkably few release gaps in its 1995-2001 run), luminous name attached to a ten-times acclaimed work (have you heard of this thing called From Hell?) - Campbell seems to have been everywhere. He just co-wrote an issue of Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight the other month. People are still talking about his recent interview in The Comics Journal (that's issue #273). However, I always find myself coming back to that first category when I think of Eddie Campbell, the wine of art extracted from the grapes of everyday life. But just as many famed wines are created from blends of several varieties of grapes, Campbell’s autobiographical work refuses to comport to only one means of depicting his daily adventures.

This tome, an attractively designed softcover with flaps, 96 color pages for $15.95, is essentially the fifth ‘Alec’ book. Granted, the main character hasn’t actually been called Alec since book 3, but that only plays into Campbell’s ongoing delight in juggling notions of identity and fiction and creation in autobiographical comics. By way of example, the fourth book in the ‘series,’ 2002’s After the Snooter, acted as both a compilation of humorous vignettes set amidst Campbell’s home life and a sort of summarizing reflection on his life in comics, with the constant, thumping presence of From Hell (and its subsequent film adaptation) swapping page-time with no less than Bacchus himself, as well as clear-eyed reflections regarding the truth and fiction of earlier Alec works, like The King Canute Crowd (for my money, the best part of After the Snooter involved Danny Grey, whom we are informed is not really named ‘Danny Grey,’ minding animals whilst accompanied by few words). The question naturally rises as to how one follows up such a work; Campbell is not one to simply toss out anecdotes and snatches from life, generally preferring to administer some overarching theme to his books, letting his short stories accumulate a collective drive between covers. But where do you go, having considered so much of yourself?

Apparently, you go away.

The Fate of the Artist is by far the most formally ambitious of Campbell’s books, darting from style to style every few pages and concocting all manner of self-referential puzzles to solve. It’s also the most nakedly fictional of Campbell’s nonfiction oeuvre, its narrative conceits soaked in snickering obfuscation to strike at a greater, ecstatic truth. The plot, as it is, concerns comics artist Eddie Campbell, who has vanished from his home. Interviews with the Campbell family reveal a man increasingly obsessed with driving the chaos of universe into order, even though his home life often seemed jury-rigged, his artistic drive gradually decaying. “But he only really started going mad when his imaginary friends stopped calling.” So remarks his eldest daughter, Hayley, but did Campbell finally just decide to pack it in and make a run for it, or was it… murder?!

The mystery unfolds (and folds in upon itself) through a quartet of visual narrative approaches, neatly encapsulated by the cover art, each quarter adding up to the whole of Campbell’s person. There’s first-person, lightly illustrated prose, narrated by a detective investigating Campbell’s disappearance. There’s a fumetti interview with Hayley, conducted by a nameless comics journalist. There’s traditional Alec-style comics, only this time with an ‘actor,’ one Richard Siegrist, playing the Eddie Campbell role - save for a slightly more rounded character design, 'Siegrist' wittily serves the same purpose 'Alec MacGarry' did in prior books. And finally, there’s faux vintage newspaper gag strips, which often seem to present simple Campbell family scenes through the lens of historical style, maybe indicating the impossibility of transmitting real happenings to story form without some type of alteration. But sometimes the newspaper strips comment upon the making of the book itself, in the context of its own fictional universe. And often times the contemporary comics drift off to profiles of forgotten artists throughout history, with Siegrist and various folks from Campbell’s real life portraying historical personalities.

Of course, we’re later told that Campbell generally bases his characters off of people he knows, expanding the thematic scope of this work to the rest of Campbell’s bibliography - never mind the guest appearance of A Very Important Character from the pages of Bacchus, or the revised presence of Campbell’s abandoned The History of Humor project from his Egomania Magazine, or the references to everything from Campbell’s short story contribution to Dark Horse’s Autobiographix anthology to his Batman: The Order of Beasts one-shot. Truly, obsessive fans will have a field day playing spot-the-reference. But they’re not the only ones who’ll have fun; this is also a determinedly self-contained work, almost everything relating to something else in some way, from the recurrence of words like ‘vigintillion,’ to the constant presence of a child’s drawing as symbolizing something key to the mystery, to the permeating notion of art as a futile means to grasp order in the universe, as no order can be ascertained from history (which is often fiction) or posterity (which is necessarily constrained), and certainly not everyday life.

If that all seems to sound a bit downbeat, you’re right on the money - despite many great moments of levity, this is by a wide margin the darkest of the (more-or-less) Alec books, saturated with frustration and the clinging notion that maybe being an artist is not worth it after all. In evaluating his own disappearance, Campbell depicts himself as something of an obsessive, lost in his own head to the detriment of those around him, familial annoyance transforming to simple exasperation. There’s amusing stories about cleaning dog fur, yes, but there’s also bloody rows with spouses, loud arguments with guests, hypochondria - a funny scene with Campbell breaking into his own house in order to retrieve a passport needed for an outgoing flight, only to be assailed by the greetings of most of the family pets (“No, kittens, not now!”), is directly followed by a child’s drawing of an airplane being tossed into the ocean by a hand from the clouds, then an evocative painting of the agonized artist washed ashore on a desert island.

And then it’s on to the next thing, the next style and approach, the book hell-bent on burning off every idea it has in service of its ultimate goal, the revelation of the titular Fate. One of the first images in the book is that of the poet Chatterton, laying dead from suicide. The next image is that of Campbell, laying dead asleep, in exactly the same pose. Many of the artists Campbell profile tumble into obscurity, just as the book's recurring fake Honeybee strip faces cancellation and a subsequent change of venue. Honeybee is authored by one ‘A. Humorist,’ who is maybe profiled in the book’s epilogue, a comics adaptation of the O. Henry story The Confessions of a Humorist. The title character in there is played by none other than... Eddie Campbell, the old character design back again for the final pages, and suddenly all of the pieces begin to fit together, and everything this scattered, beautiful book has to offer, from the use of ‘actors’ to the scenes struck from life to one and all, coheres into a sweet and sad consideration of the toll creation takes out of the creator, and everyone the creator knows. And maybe the fate of the artist is to keep on paying.

Or disappear.

As buoyant and good-humored as it often is, this book can also seem like a decidedly rueful farewell to the comics world, and indeed the world of art creation in general - a grand concluding kiss-off, a climactic blast of residual (and formidable) creative verve, middle finger raised high to the sky. Or, I should say, that’s how it would look if Campbell didn’t already have his next comic announced - another project for First Second called The Black Diamond Detective Agency, adapted from an original screenplay by C. Gaby Mitchell.

Ah, the larks - they continue on.