Reviewed by John Pistelli
Cartoonist Eddie Campbell lacks the biographical advantages -- or disadvantages -- that make for a compelling memoir, graphic or otherwise. He is not a war correspondent, a survivor of a socially relevant calamity, or a defector from a repressive regime. "I am the only element of continuity in my own life," muses his alter ego, Alec MacGarry, early in this omnibus collection of Campbell's graphic memoirs. When Alec shares this insight with a lover, she levels a charge at the young artist that may apply to the entire genre of memoir. "What a selfish attitude!" she declares. "You only ever think of yourself!" Campbell is too humble a humorist not to mine his own occasional bouts of egotism for laughs, but his vast book also amply demonstrates how much of the outside world a sensitive, attentive consciousness can register and record -- even when it sees little of that world beyond the daily round of work, leisure, family, and love.
ALEC: The Years Have Pants is as much an artistic autobiography as a personal one. The collection begins with "The King Canute Crowd," an account of Campbell's early twenties, when the Scottish-born art school dropout spent five years working in a sheet-cutting factory in southern England and formed a lifelong friendship with his slightly older fellow worker, Danny Grey -- a confident autodidact whose adventuresome ways and independent mind attract a young Alec in flight from bourgeois respectability. "Loneliness, he remembered reading, is not so much a longing for company as a longing for kind," the third-person narrator intones of Alec after his first night out with Danny, thus sounding one of the collection's key themes: the humane necessity of shared pleasures, from a round in the pub to the imaginative transaction between artist and audience. Campbell's quest for conviviality and community -- often in the unpromising circumstances of the mercantile comics industry or the suburbs of Australia (where Alec moves midway through the book) -- serves as the emotional core to the disparate styles that make up his autobiography.
As ALEC prints the individual Alec comics in the chronological order of the experiences they narrate rather than the order of their creation, the reader has to track Campbell's artistic growth separately from his life story. Biographically speaking, Campbell's journey goes from freedom to responsibility. After leaving art school, he works with Danny Grey, hangs out with his friends in the King Canute pub, and pursues fraught relationships with several women. Then he tries to break into comics in 1980s London, where he meets his wife, Anne, and releases his first books of memoir. Finally, he emigrates to Anne's homeland of Australia, raises a family, and runs a publishing company out of a crowded room in his house while finding artistic success as Alan Moore's collaborator on the celebrated graphic novel From Hell.
In artistic terms, however, Campbell travels toward a liberated style. As the third-person captions that narrate "The King Canute Crowd" indicate, the early volume has an overt formality that late entries in the ALEC saga will abandon. The ruled panels, Zip-a-Tone shading, and clean lines give way, in the middle of Campbell's career, to a controlled wildness, a seeming delirium of drawing that always coalesces into representational precision. Campbell's art develops into a heroism of the freed line: like the blade of a skater, his pen achieves a precarious and delicate grace that should be recognized as a landmark in the history of comics. Take 1994's "Graffiti Kitchen" for instance, Campbell's favorite among his own books and the second Alec tale collected in The Years Have Pants. As Alec's youthful affairs, first with a bohemian activist and then with her college-aged daughter, take him from sexual farce to chastened wisdom, the unruled or borderless panels and informally hand-lettered first-person captions wander across the page with all the seeming randomness of a diary. They have, however, a narrative and lyric rhythm that could only come from the hand of an artist whose chosen form has become second nature as an expressive mode.
Fittingly, then, ALEC concerns art as much as life, or rather, art as a part of life -- Campbell sees no hard division between art and the stuff of the everyday. Consequently, he pours scorn on those who demand that life or art be idealized, as shown by all the eating, drinking, pissing, farting, masturbating, money counting, and lovemaking that Campbell refuses to exclude from his own history. Alec's remarks on art, scattered across the entire collection, constitute an almost accidental treatise on aesthetics. Without the polemicist's vitriol or the theorist's systematizing, Campbell nevertheless insists firmly on his thesis that art is a diverse and multifarious world, encompassing sublimity and slapstick, visionary inspiration and dutiful craftsmanship. At several times he voices contempt for the Romantic myths of the artist as lone genius and art as sacred preserve: "This guy's doing pictures, that guy's doing stained pine chairs, that guy's making sandals," Alec observes admiringly to his skeptical girlfriend at one point, before asking her, "Why do you expect the spirit of Art to always dwell in painting and poetry?"
Campbell's appreciation of art as a manifold of material craftsmanship brings us to ALEC's last theme: the specter of death. Death, perhaps surprisingly, haunts the entire book, beginning when the young Alec studies his teeth in a mirror and imagines how they'll look in the flesh-shorn skull that will eventually be his face. A later Alec story is even called "The Dance of Lifey Death" and takes for its emblem the medieval danse macabre, concluding with a morose reflection on end-of-the-millennium headline horrors ("They're killing each other in Bosnia. Nature's killing them in Somalia. They're killing themselves in Waco") before an almost plangent adaptation of Edward Lear's "The Jumblies," drawn poignantly as Campbell's own children. The book's longest entry, "After the Snooter," features a ridiculously long-snouted, anthropomorphized tropical fly -- the snooter of the title -- who confronts Campbell with visions of his own mortality. The artist lies awake all night with mid-life hypochondria, tormented by such thoughts as, "Sex gives you AIDS. Everything else gives you cancer. Just take me now, Gods."
Death is an appropriate antagonist for Campbell; after all, the closest thing to religious terror that a materialist, humorist, and epicurean like him can feel is an appalling awareness that he will eventually lose this world -- the only world he expects to enjoy. The attentive reader will recognize, however, that Campbell is not primarily interested in himself. Instead, earthly life appears in all its hilarious grotesqueness and heartbreaking beauty as the true subject of his work.
Books mentioned in this post