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The Fate of the Artist

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The Fate of the Artist back

Eddie Campbell


Page 45 Review by Stephen


"I knew it! All of existence is held together with paper clips and sticky tape. It's glorious! The majesty of God's humour! All our systems, all our art forms, our categories, our futile attempts to make order out of it!!! Ha ha ha ha. What a bunch of saps we all are."

Yes indeed. Futility ranks high here as I try to convey to you just how brilliant this self-lacerating hilarity is. It seems absurd to begin a review of a masterpiece already riddled with sly ironies by pointing out yet another: that Eddie Campbell, whilst chronicling the events which led him to flee in terror from being a comicbook creator, produces the finest work of his already extraordinary career. And here's another: that although part of that terror was induced by sentiments such as the above - when the mask of order slips to reveal the underlying chaos - the contrary result is a meticulously composed, interconnected collage of form and content. The weave is seamless.

I think I'm going to have to explain myself, and that isn't easy when I have little of Campbell's skill and only the medium of prose to play with, whilst Eddie is employing every full-colour toy you can imagine other than sound, methodically blurring the boundaries between the authorial and non-authorial voice, characters and commentary, fiction and autobiography, in what at first appears to be a deliberate assault on the reader's ability to tell truth from fabrication. It's not the first time, of course (in KING BACCHUS Campbell inserted a fictional comicbook creator to appear alongside Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Dave Sim, even going so far as to use his friends and family to stage a photograph of the man's funeral!), and I half-suspect it's Eddie's revenge on what he's called the "definers" - those (like myself) who insist on defining what is and isn't comics, and, in this instance, what is and isn't autobiography. This isn’t.

Although if I recall correctly, Eddie sent me an email a couple of years ago, in which he referred to this work using the title "The Disappearance of Eddie Campbell". Following the success of the film of FROM HELL, Eddie, as the original book's artist, found his international profile raised to the point where he was being contacted by people he'd not heard from in years and, having depicted himself and his family in his thinly-disguised autobiographical ALEC strips without really thinking about who would see them, he suddenly felt very exposed, very vulnerable, and - if the epilogue to this book is to be believed - more than a little guilty. At which point he packed up his work, closed down his website and abandoned his P.O. box - he hid, basically.

"Then Dad started a war against his computer. He stomped all over the mouse one night. And the telephone answering machine went out the window. It was like Kochalka's MONKEY VERSUS ROBOT."

So as this book opens, Eddie Campbell has apparently gone missing - he might even have committed suicide - and it's up to a detective to find out what happened to him and why he left, learning what he can from Campbell's wife and daughter, and any clues left behind. Amongst these clues is a simplistic crayon drawing of God:

"Most people would leave a note."
"Yes, well, he left a picture."
"You say he made his living as an artist? I only ask because it's not much of a picture."
"What are you: a detective or a critic?"

Other evidence for what happened comes from snippets of a supposedly unpublished interview with Eddie's daughter Hayley Campbell, delivered directly to camera (she's photographed giving the interview in a real bar wearing an old Joy Division t-shirt), and here she talks about the drawing the detective found, and its origin:

"Yeah, in our house God's a crayon drawing... Dad once put God in an EYEBALL KID story and had me draw it. To get the right effect of God being a kid's drawing. I was eight at the time. Dad used to say that he thought God was his best creation and he liked to think the feeling was mutual. You've no idea how boring that sounds after the twentieth time."

It's so convincingly done that you forget for a moment that the whole graphic novel is written by Eddie himself, as are the other family anecdotes showing Eddie making half-arsed attempts to be a family man by vacuuming the floorboards then sticking freshly shed dog hair back on the dog before dashing off to the pub, or using a spoon as a make-shift door handle instead of simple replacing the handle. My favourite was his elaborate attempt to create contextual order from chaos in his classical music CD collection.

Also created by Campbell are the various faded old newspaper strips, sprinkled throughout the work, even though they may be attributed to other people. At first their connection to the whole is unapparent, but soon you begin to realise that some of them star the same Campbell circle of friends and family that appear in the central narrative. "Honeybee" is the most interesting. Created by A. Humorist Esq., it starts out whimsically enough as a cartoon about marital relationships, the husband and wife affectionately calling each other "Honeybee" just like Eddie and his missus, but it culminates in a marital breakdown in which the protagonists offer two tellingly dissimilar priorities:

Wife: "It's because of you our children are boobs!"
Husband:"It's because of you that we're no longer on the full colour page."

Then there's a final clue, right at the end, in an eight-page story called "The Confessions of A Humorist". It's a tale in which a newspaper comic strip cartoonist mines his wife's quips for his professional career. "I began to market these pearls of wisdom and humor that should have enriched only the sacred precincts of home," he confides. "A literary Judas, I kissed her and betrayed her."

Under the title of the story is written the following: "The leading role is played by Mr. Eddie Campbell".

This is a book you're going to want to read over and over again as the connections between all the different pieces become clearer and clearer: why the picture of God is a clue, what's definitely made up (enjoy all the areas, though!) and why, if society often loses art, scholarship re-edits it, then historians report the resultant mish-mash as fact (the tale of the Greek statues here being an eloquent example), Eddie shouldn't do the same. Because it doesn't matter what this is (fiction, autobiography, graphic novel, mixed media collage), what matters is whether it's a great tale, well told. Quite frankly it's an astonishing tale, improbably well told, that will have you astounded at its craft and guile.
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