Friday, July 13, 2018

Jack Slingsby

It was Friday, September 26, 2008, almost ten years ago. That day I wrote my second post on this blog. The sites I linked to that time are long gone (I recently updated the post erasing those links because they're useless now, as, I'm sure, most of the links I posted over the years are). If you followed those links at the time you could have read the magnificent "Carol Day" story arcs for free. Now you can't anymore, but almost... You can't say that paying $3.68 for an absolute masterpiece of the comics form isn't a bargain.


David Wright, "[Jack Slingsby]," Daily Mail, 1964.

You may also want to visit http://carol-day.com/.

Monday, July 9, 2018

The Expanded Field of Comics And Other Pet Peeves



Ana Hatherly, The Writer (1975).

Still in shock after seeing that the comics’ subculture continues as deaf and insular in its aesthetic criteria as ten years ago (since the infamous The Comics Journal’s list) not having moved one iota, I remembered Dwight Macdonald who, in Politics Vol. 2, No. 4 (Whole No. 15), April 1945, wrote:
It would be interesting to know how many of the ten million comic books sold every month are read by adults.[…] We do know that comics are the favorite reading matter of men in the armed forces, and that movie Westerns and radio programs like “The Lone Ranger” and “Captain Midnight” are by no means only enjoyed by children. […] This merging of the child and grown-up audience means [an] infantile regression of the latter unable to cope with the complexities of modern society.
I certainly don’t agree that an infantilization of grown-ups’ cultural habits means that people can’t cope with the complexities of modern society, it may simply mean that comics readers want (for a while) to escape those complexities. Hell, I suppose that they want to escape life itself, or, at least, those parts of life that can’t be depicted by kitsch… Did you notice how death and exploitation are almost completely absent from this top ten’s list (and I don’t mean death of a Daffy Duck kind; Maus and the death of Speedy are an exception)? Have you noticed how lifeless these comics are? (And I mean “lifeless” in the sense of not related to life in any way – Dwight Macdonald also helped me to realize this when he said to Pauline Kael, when they were discussing North-American films: “How did vitality get in there? I mean, crudeness I give you, but vitality? It’s possible to be crude and not vital, you know?”)
I couldn’t agree more with David T. Bazelon, who, also writing in Politics (Vol. 1, No. 4, May 1944), wrote:
"Superman" gives vicarious satisfaction to explicit social frustrations. It cannot be tragic or displeasing, nor can it contain that essential realism which is a quality of all good art. For it has a purpose: this is art in the service of social neuroses. And that service is the meaning of most comic strips... Pearls are produced not by serving but by opposing disease.
Only now did I understand the true meaning of the phrase “comics are not just for kids anymore.” What it really means is that popular comics, even if they continue to be children’s comics, are also enjoyed by adults. With the above phrase and other similar ones people from inside the ghetto of the comics subculture want to sell a false image to the laymen and laywomen (it was now definitely proven to me that the above reading is the right one or they’re lying).



Francisco de Goya, The Disasters of War (published in 1863).

I’m not saying that The Hooded Utilitarian’s top ten list (and beyond) is completely devoid of value. As I put it last May 10 on this very blog: I have nothing against popular entertainment. I also think that a good art vs. bad art kind of black & white view of things isn’t exactly clever or productive. I enjoy a lot of pop pap (Gasoline Alley, for instance) it’s just that I don’t think that it fares well alongside Tsuge’s work or Fabrice Neaud’s work. That’s my whole point, while the pap is canonized meatier work is forgotten.
I suppose that one could say that even meatier work (if that’s possible) is also not included, but there, the infantilization of the reading public is not the only barrier. Essentialism is frontier number two (an even more powerful one this time).
Rosalind Krauss wrote an important essay about how perplexing the concept of sculpture had become at the end of the seventies: Sculpture in the Expanded Field (October, Vol. 8, Spring, 1979). I borrowed her concept of an extended field and applied it to comics.
Rosalind Krauss criticized historicism in her essay. Historicism is also a problem in comics’ expanded field's case for two reasons: (1) because my field expansion is in great part ahistorical; (2) because some critics view comics as an unchanging art (Alan Gowans) or a posthistorical art (David Carrier).

  
Frans Masereel, From Black to White (1939).

Arriving here I can only go on after an analysis of what I called, the origin’s myth and the problem of a comics definition.
There are, at least, five cultural fields which can help to expand comics as an art form: (1) Medieval (or older art) painting and book illustration; (2) the wordless engraving cycle; (3) Modern and Post-Modern painting; (4) Concrete and Visual Poetry; (5) the cartoon. None of these fields are linked to comics on the gentiles' heads. For a variety of reasons they all have problems to be accepted by the comics milieu as well. Let's briefly examine some of these objections:
1. Medieval comics (let's call them that way) weren't produced for the enjoyment of the people: they weren't reproduced, they were highly expensive items, they were owned by aristocrats. Since the beginning of fandom comics have been viewed as popular art: a child of the Industrial Revolution and modern visual mass communications (hence: comics were born in America with the publication of a Yellow Kid page in the New York Journal: "The Yellow Kid and His New Phonograph," October 25, 1896; this is a position that American scholar Bill Blackbeard always defended). Besides this sociological criterion we must add two formal ones in this particular case: the existence of juxtaposed panels and the existence of speech balloons. Denying the latter some European scholars (Thierry Groensteen and Benoît Peeters, for instance) argued that comics started with Rodolphe Töpffer's first "Histoires en estampes" (Histoire de M. Vieux Bois was drawn in 1827 - Histoire de M. Jabot was published in 1833; Töpfferians who are also print fundamentalists must say that Jabot was the first comic, other Töpfferians will say that Vieux Bois is the real McCoy). In his book The Early Comic Strip (1973) historian David Kunzle argued that the first comics were created shortly after the invention of the mechanical printing press by Johann Gutenberg (Hans Holbein's Les Simulacres et historiées faces de la mort is among the first books that he cites, but his most famous example is Francis Barlow's A True Narrative of the Horrid Hellish Popish Plot, c. 1682). David Kunzle later converted to Töpfferism (More recently he published a book titled Father of the Comic Strip: Rodolphe Töpffer (2007). Barlow's two pages fulfill Bill Blackbeard's criteria, by the way: they were printed, they have a grid, they even have speech balloons or something similar (Robert S. Petersen called them "emanata scrolls").


 Anon., Canticles of Saint Mary by Alfonso X the Sage (c. 1270).

2. Engraving cycles, from Jacques Callot to Eric Drooker, aren't as difficult to accept (in the comics corpus) by the comics milieu as Medieval illustrations. This happens because they were born from an idea that art should be more democratic: engravings are cheaper than paintings and sculptures. Even so the high / low divide may be a serious objection here. Even if Frans Masereel had a leftist sensibility and his cycles were (are) published in book form, he was a serious painter, he was in the wrong side of this sociological fence. If I defend Picasso as a comics artist the comics milieu calls me a snob and an elitist (doing their usual mind reading they say that I want to include highly regarded gallery artists in the comics canon just to elevate comics' status). Formal features are a problem also: engraving cycles have no speech balloons or page grids.


 Jacques Callot, The Miseries and Misfortunes of War (1633).

3. To the comics milieu paintings and poems (visual or otherwise) are not comics, period. Original comic art has been exposed in galleries, museums, and comics conventions (a strong tradition in Europe's comics conventions gives original art an important role as an attraction factor), but I don't mean that. What I mean is comic art meant to be exposed as unique objects on gallery walls. Most people would call these objects paintings inspired by comics. Don't take my word for it though, the artists themselves call "gallery comics" to what they're doing. Sorry to indulge in name-dropping, but I mean: Christian Hill, Mark Staff Brandl, Howie Shia. Andrei Molotiu could also be part of this list; ditto Paper Rad: they all have strong links with the comics milieu. As for Brazilian painter Rivane Neuenschwander, American painter Laylah Ali and Swiss painter Niklaus Rüegg, I have no idea, but both Ali and Rüegg are interesting examples because, not only did they paint, their paintings were also original art (in the comics sense) for the publication of comic books (by the MOMA and Fink Editions, respectively).


 Niklaus Rüegg, Spuk (2004); a Carl Barks comic without the characters.

4. During the fifties Brazil was at the avant garde of poetry. Inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé's Coup de dés, Guillaume Apollinaire's calligrammes, Dadaism, Ezra Pound's Imagism, Haroldo and Augusto de Campos, Decio Pignatari, Pedro Xisto and others created Concrete poetry. In a Concrete poem typography and the pages' space is as important as words. Sounds are more important than meaning (or new meanings are born when words are reorganized on the space of the page and reinvented). Concrete and visual poetry viewed as comics may prove that comics without images may exist in the same way as comics without words.

 
 
Álvaro de Sá,  Process-Poem (c. 1967).

If we consider stained glass windows as comics (something that is not as far-fetched as it seems) Medieval comics were also meant to be viewed by "the masses" even if they weren't printed (David Kunzle opines differently though: "A mass medium is mobile; it travels to man, and does not require man to travel to it.") As for grids and speech balloons it's possible to find said features in Medieval comics, believe it or not. Here's what Thierry Groensteen wrote on the Platinum List (Jan 18, 2000):
Danielle Alexandre-Bidon, a specialist of the Middle-Age, has given a lot of evidence of the fact that comics existed in the medieval manuscripts, during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries. Hundreds, if not thousands of pages, with speed lines, word balloons, sound effects, etc. The language of comics had already been invented, but these books were not printed. After Gutenberg, text and image were not so intimately linked anymore, and one could say that the secret of comics was lost, until Töpffer rediscovered it.
This is revealing: even the most fervent defender of Töpffer as the "father of the comic strip" says here that he "rediscovered it." This is something like saying that Columbus rediscovered America (he couldn't discover it simply because he found people already living there when he arrived).
The comics origin's myth is essentialist: it's an arbitrary choice that's based on an equally arbitrary definition (the latter precedes the former). (And I'm sure that I'm not the first one to say this, elsewhere or around here.) The two more common (or so it seems to me) kinds of definitions are based on social (comics must be reproduced and distributed to the masses) and formal premises (essential characteristics of comics are sequentiality, word and image relations, the word balloons, the juxtaposition of the panels, etc...). Social definitions of comics have two problems: (1) The sorites paradox applied to the concept of "masses." If one grain of wheat doesn't make a heap two grains of wheat do not; [...] if three thousand grains of wheat don't make a heap three thousand and one grains of wheat do not; etc... When do we stop not having a heap to finally have one? This paradox can be applied to print runs. (2) Social definitions of comics are usually used to deny that Medieval comics are comics (they aren't reproduced). What I say is that they must have been reproduced at some point because I've seen them and I have never seen any original drawings. There's a third point: how come an original comics page is not a comic, but an exact repro is? Leonardo de Sá cleverly argued this point saying: the original art is not a comic the same way as the repro of a painting is not a painting. Not bad, I would say... but… using Nelson Goodman’s theories about fakeable and not fakeable arts, painting is one-stage autographic while comics are n-stage (my theory) autographic. That’s why a repro of a painting is not a painting while the original art of a comics page is a comic. Formal definitions of comics have problems also; I'll mention two: (1) Any formal definition arbitrarily chooses some features and forgets others. This means that, if I chose to say something like "the speech balloon is essential to comics" (oops, there goes Prince Valiant) or "word and image relations define comics" (oops there go "mute" comics out the window) no comics exist at all. Why? Because all comics have panels without speech balloons, without words, etc... A comics reading experience would be something like this: now it's a comic, oops, now it isn't, etc... (2) All art is based on experiment. More inventive artists are always pushing the limits of their art forms. Comics are no exception, but if we put a formal corset around them what happens is that: (1) we lose some very important artistic achievements (some who defend comics exactly because they're mass art couldn't care less, obviously, but I, for one, do) and (2) we seriously limit the creativity of the artists who chose to create comics. Another problem is that we can't look back to, let's say, Charlotte Salomon, and view her work as comics (again: some who defend comics...). It seems that all comics have sequentiality, but even this point was argued by Eddie Campbell in a discussion with yours truly many moons ago: he included one panel cartoons in the comics concept. Me?, I have no definition of comics whatsoever. I prefer to say with Saint Augustine: If no one asks me, I know what they are; If I wish to explain them to him who asks, I do not know.


 Charlotte Salomon, Life? or Theater, CD-Rom (2002 [1940 - 42]).

So, denying essentialism we can look back or look around and find great comics. I have no solution for the ahistoricity of the expansion in time or social space. Picasso didn’t view himself as a comics artist (even if he liked comics) and the art world around him didn’t either. However… if older art historians say that Picasso’s Songe et mensonge de Franco (Dream and Lie of Franco) are engravings (which they are, of course) more recent ones (Juan Antonio Ramirez, for one) say that it is a comic. This means that we (even if part of this “we” doesn’t belong to the comics milieu) may look in unexpected places and notice multiple instances that can be considered comics (Frans Masereel is a no brainer by now, for instance; I’m sure that Paleolithic painters didn’t call “painting” in the modern sense to what they were doing). As for comics as an unchanging or posthistorical art it may be true (I have my doubts) if we consider it as low mass art, but aren’t we excluding heaps of alternative artists, then? I’m trying to be reasonable, but, to talk frankly, I’m tempted to say that this is utter nonsense.
I didn’t vote for any artists and work on the expanded field (maybe Martin Vaughn-James’ The Cage counts as part of it; Robert tells me that there were indeed some votes in said field: Cy Twombly, Max Ernst, and a few others), but if I did almost all my ten choices would be in that category, I’m afraid... Who, in the comics’ restrict field can rival Callot, Goya, Hokusai, Picasso? No one, I’m sure… Not even George Herriman and Charles Schulz.


Pablo Picasso, Dream and Lie of Franco (1937).

Note: huge chunks of the above text were previously posted on my blog The Crib Sheet.

[And now, exactly seven years, one month and two days after it was first published, this, one of my most beloved texts, returns home, to its crib. Unfortunately it reminds me of my old me, and how passionate he was.]

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

De Gustibus Non Est Disputandum

Jul 1
Top 15 de los mejores cómics ever: 
15. No 
14. puedes 
13. hacer 
12. un 
11. top 
10. así 
9. porque 
8. depende 
7. de 
6. los 
5. gustos 
4. de 
3. cada 
2. uno 
1. Calvin y Hobbes

[The above is a twit that reads: Top 15 of the best comics ever: you can't do it because there is no accounting for taste; #1: Calvin and Hobbes]

This, translated into Latin is "de gustibus non est disputandum," but #1 is a punchline and, let's admit it, it's quite funny. In the end what this means is that our ego is stronger than our beliefs. 

Let us go back to the "de gustibus" part though: if it is true for comics, why isn't it true for painting, or literature, or music? Why can we safely say that Leonardo da Vinci or Shakespeare or Mozart are indisputably in a 15 best painters or writers or musicians list while no one dares to say something similar about a comics artist like, say, Yoshiharu Tsuge?

I have no answer (I just have an opinion), but this simply means that the "de gustibus" proposition is both right and wrong: 1) it's right for anyone of us individually; 2) it isn't right for our culture because we, as a society, accept aesthetic criteria and choose accordingly.

 

Monday, July 2, 2018

Smart Cardboard?

David Mazzucchelli’s formal innovations in Asterios Polyp are almost sixty years old.


The image above shows two 1953 "Pogo" newspaper comic strips by Walt Kelly (as published in Pogo, volume 10 – Fantagraphics Books). Sarcophagus Macabre, the vulture, “talks” in courier font (June 10) while the Deacon Mushrat speaks in Gothic Blackletter (June 11). Plus: Sarcophagus’ speech balloons have the format of a condolence envelope.
 

As we can see above David Mazzucchelli also used different speech balloons formats and fonts as characterization (see also Derik’s post).
Sarcophagus Macabre’s name, species, and ascribed balloon format are enough to know what he is, but the courier font needs an explanation: he’s an hypocrite because he expresses condolences sending form letters written with a (cold, of course) machine. The Deacon talks in Gothic fonts because he’s a cleric (he reads the Bible and he’s a conservative, not because he's a Christian, but because he's defined by Middle Age writing).
In Mazzucchelli’s case Asterios'  mother "talks" in D'Nealian cursive script (an anachronism) indicating candor and childishness while the father talks in pseudo Greek fonts. He was indeed Greek, but since ancient Greece is known, among other things, for its Mathematicians and Philosophers, the fonts also connote a rational man. Notice also the wavy line that defines the mother's speech balloon and the father's rectangle (with no edges; he's a mild-mannered man). 
Saul Steinberg drew the two couples below (as published in The Passport, 1954). Do we start to see a pattern... and a problem? Men are "square," rational beings, women are vague, intuitive, entities.




As we can see above (in a panel from Asterios Polyp), adding magenta (hot) for Hana and cyan (cold) for Asterios it's the same view of men and women, the same stereotyping... Ooops! I used the "s" word!...
In a famous essay art historian E. H. Gombrich mentioned "wit" to describe Saul Steinberg's drawings. Here's what he said:
In many of his drawings it is the line of the graphic medium which seems 'an echo to the sense.' His 'Family' [...] shows us the father firmly modelled, the mother with undulating lines, the grandmother all but fading away between hesitant pen strokes, and, of course, the child drawn in the style of children's scribbles.
From here it is but one step to the representation of what are called our synaesthetic reactions, the depiction of one sense modality by another.
The ekphrasis sounds familiar by now... The synaesthesia I frankly don't see (it lacks that "one step," I suppose). I will not deny the wit and creativity of Saul Steinberg's visual solutions (some would say visual writing), but drawing attention (pun intended) to just a singular personality trait is a simplification. It has great applications in political satire, no doubt, but it's not so great a device in a serious (graphic) novel.   



David Mazzucchelli agrees with me (or, his character does, as seen above), but he risked the blunt approach nonetheless as seen below (with a pint of self-irony: comic books, really?!)...


Comics are sequences, so, David Mazzucchelli could explore Saul Steinberg's ideas in a more complex way: showing mood transformations, for instance (see below).


Hana goes from undefined (painterly, as Heinrich Wölfflin put it) to defined (linear; ditto). Wölfflin's opposition (inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche's Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy) was one of Asterios' favorite aesthetic theories; the other two being essentialism and Louis Sullivan's famous diktat "form follows function." She goes from magenta (irrational, life) to cyan (rational, thinking).
The procedure is welcomed, but were the googly eyes and the Utamaro mouth really necessary?...
If you read 'til here you must be saying by now that I hate Asterios Polyp. Well, I don't, I like the tour de force, but I must plead guilty of double standard. I’m not the only guilty one though: many critics forgive a cliché and a stereotype (calling it “an archetype”) in adolescent and YA genre comics while vigorously attacking the same flaws in art comics. I did the opposite and I still think that Asterios Polyp is one of the best comics published in 2009. I'm sure that I'm misguided though because I failed to read all those marvels published by the big two...

Monday, June 25, 2018

Writing Like Monet

I start with a disclaimer. I’ve been following Eddie Campbell’s career for two decades now. We've never met in person, but, since he does an autobiographical series (among other things), I feel I know him well. Apart from that we’ve discussed Scott McCloud’s definition of comics in the now defunct The Comics Journal Messboard and I appear, sort of, in page 454 of the massive book I’m now reviewing: Alec “The Years Have Pants” (A Life Sized Omnibus), 2009 (originally in Bacchus # 50, January 2000). That said, I’m not going to say that what follows is unbiased (it never is), but rest assured that I’m not deluding myself into thinking that I’m at a very polite tea party (no political pun intended).

Explaining the concept of the “graphic novel” to Dirk Deppey in The Comics Journal # 273 (page 83) Eddie Campbell said:
the graphic novel doesn’t exist. “Graphic novel” is an abstract idea. It’s a sensibility, it’s an advanced attitude toward comics. […][T]he culture of the graphic novel respects this, respects that, admires that and venerates this other thing. The graphic-novel sensibility is more interested in Frank King than it is in Jim Steranko, whereas comic-book culture is more interested in Jim Steranko than it is in Frank King.

    Alec: How To Be An Artist (March 2001). Published for the first time in Deevee # 12 (October 1999).

The above quote may be correct and I agree with it up to a point... What baffles me is the overrating of Frank King's "Gasoline Alley" by the supposedly "advanced attitude toward comics."  In spite of some wonderful Sunday pages the aforementioned  newspaper strip is a toothless, bourgeois, kitschy, idealized, and bowdlerized view of suburban life (not forgetting the usual racism that we can find in many comics published during the first half of the 20th century). Taking "Gasoline Alley" as a role model ("graphic-novel culture") to oppose it to Jim Steranko ("comic-book" culture) is a bit like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.

Eddie had other role models though:
I did an enormous amount of painting when I was 14 and 15. […] I wanted to be an Impressionist: sit with Monet and Renoir on the banks of the Seine.” (interview with Sam Yang, The Comics Journal # 145, 1991, page 60).

After the Snooter (June 2002). Published for the first time uin Bacchus #45 (July 1999).

The Impressionists are known for their technical innovations related to scientific discoveries about light and color. They are usually referred to as an optical art movement because they were more interested in visual perception than in any other aspect of the human experience. They also helped to establish a taste for the sketchy and unfinished, for exploration and experimentation. Monet, in particular, is a painter that should be more associated with comics than he has been until now because he painted in series. Japonism, an interest in photography and painting en plein air could also be cited as the most interesting aspects of the Impressionists, but, being figurative painters, they had to paint some themes. What they chose were, going against the grandiloquence of academic history painting, the old 17th century Dutch genre painting themes: bourgeois portraits, genre views, landscapes, still lifes. Pierre-Auguste Renoir in particular, is famous for showing a new leisure and joie de vivre (deliberately forgetting the difficult lives of his models or the executions of the Communards in the same place where he painted, five years later, the Dance at the Moulin de la Galette). He is definitely associated with Eddie Campbell’s genre scenes at the King Canute and elsewhere.


Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880 - 1881.

In the above painting, for instance, we can see the same sense of bohemian lightheartedness that characterizes the King Canute crowd.

Taking into account these two references all sorts of positive feelings among the characters are conveyed to the reader: good-fellowship, tenderness, joyfulness. Which isn't bad, of course, but is just part of the whole picture and risks superficiality. Whenever a group of humans get together for a length of time, rivalries erupt, people quarrel, stop talking to each other, there are misunderstandings, etc... etc...


"The King Canute Crowd" in The Complete Alec (1990). Collected for the first time in Alec: Love and Beerglasses (June 1985).

The panel above conveys the same idea: "no big story need come of it." The problem, of course, is the attack of a monster called "banality." Eddie Campbell is always on the edge between pointlessness and the profound, deeply felt touch. Let me just tell you, for now, that the former isn't always the winner. Sometimes a story with drunk people in it is just that: a story with drunk people in it. I don't mean the first story in the book though because in the repetition of the nine panel grid, the repetition of the point of view and the repetition of the framing, combined with the smooth dialogue, we know that we are witnessing the birth of a new friendship (forgive the corniness).

And yet... Alec "The years Have Pants" (A Life-Sized Omnibus) (which isn't really an omnibus because there are a few Alec stories that weren't reprinted) is very far from "Gasoline Alley." For starters it's full of sex and booze. Sexism rears its ugly head a couple of times in The King Canute Crowd, but I don't want to be an essentialist and say that Alec's sexual partners entered the game with different expectations than he did and were hence deceived.


"The King Canute Crowd" in The Complete Alec. Collected for the first time in Alec: Love and Beerglasses.

For the above travesty of marriage (and I mean the caption more than the image) there's no excuse. Let me just remind you a very basic rule of narratology though: even if the author depicts her/himself in the work of art s/he's not the character.

In the last panel we can find a distinctive trait of Eddie Campbell's graphic style: the more or less chaotic use of zip-a-tone (better reproduced in the so-called omnibus). It's another inheritance of Impressionism even if the latter is a bit absurd in black and white. It adds to the overall feeling of sketchiness, unfinishedness, of rapidly stealing an instant to the constant flow of living.  A vivid memory of a slice of life that's always fragile because it's always on the verge of disappearance...



One of the endpapers of the hardcover edition of Alec "The Years Have Pants" (A Life Sized Omnibus).

 I don't know who chose the endpapers design reproduced above (Erik Skillman, Eddie Campbell?), but I do know it is perfect:  it's akin to a close view of a Monet or an abstract expressionist painting. It's also a modernistic device that shows the readers beforehand the secrets of the trade: Eddie's high contrasts of mechanical regular and handmade irregular textures, Eddie's contrasts of black and white.

Giving the notion of a fast, lively, and yet precise drawing (and I mean things like composition and proportion, for instance) isn't an easy task. From Eddie Campbell's first efforts in the book (which he regrets not having redrawn) until his best pages (see below), there's a huge step forward that, I suspect, was tremendously indebted to his participation in From Hell (written by Alan Moore).


 Detail of "The Complicated Demise of Robert Johnstone" in Alec "The Years Have Pants” 
(A Life Sized Omnibus).

Even if most of Eddie Campbell's books are filled with innocuous humor he usually ends them in a high note. The chaff is put aside and the wheat comes to the foreground. That's what happens in The King Canute Crowd (when everything ends in mayhem), How to Be An Artist (with a fascinating account of the Big Numbers affair), The Dance of Lifey Death (with, well, the dance of lifey death and an adaptation to the comics form of Edward Lear's poem "The Jumblies"), After the Snooter (which is mixed throughout - Eddie's reminiscences of his childhood are great -, but ends with a strong critique of Hollywood's vacuousness and the insight that with age "everything reminds [us] of something else" - see below - I won't comment the Freudian overtones). All the others, for better or for worse, aren't part of this bunch.


After the Snooter (June 2002).

Graffiti Kitchen, whose original cover I present to you below, is an absolute masterpiece of the comics art form.


Graffiti Kitchen, 1993.

This is the real deal, there's no flat material here. Eddie Campbell used an almost gridless nine panel grid as usual. The drawings are reduced to very simple, but very effective dynamic "nervous wrecks." Visual metaphor is used to good effect (see below how depression is seen as a dark cloud chasing Alec). The topic is mainly passion (with a bit of Lolita thrown in too) which demands a very cold and careful approach to avoid sentimentality. That's what Eddie does even if he can't avoid depicting Alec bursting into tears once (see also below).


One of my favorite pages in Graffiti Kitchen is the one in which Alec falls for Georgette. The way her hair involves him is absolutely masterful. The wavy lines convey a feeling of abandonment  and formless involvement with her (it's like being inside a warm bath, see below again).


In his great book Journal (III) Fabrice Neaud used three devices to convey the exact same situation. The second one is similar to what Eddie did above (...er... you know, see below).

 Journal (III) by Fabrice Neaud, 1999.

I guess that...



"Alec" in Bacchus # 8, December 1995.

But seriously though, Fabrice Neaud got a lot of trouble from Dominique and his friends for depicting him in Journal (III). Chester Brown said:
The stuff people are reluctant to talk about is often the stuff that’s most important, I think. (Inkstuds, page 41.)
I totally agree, but that's a big problem for autobiographical writers and artists. Eddie Campbell talking about Steve Bissette: 
It's an inexplicable terror, the fear of having to take something personal out from inside you onto the page for everybody to dissect. That actually does take a degree of courage. (The Comics Journal # 273, page 109.) 
In autobiography that problem exists, but it's more complicated than that because the creative process also implies those who socially interact with the artist. Changing the names of the characters may not be enough to guarantee the peace of mind of all who are involved. That's why Alec's wife, Annie, for instance, isn't developed enough as a character (we know very little about their relationship). We may see her drawn body in more or less private situations, but we can only witness her public self. It's more than understandable, but there's a price to pay: being defensive lame autobio is what we get... As a result Graffiti Kitchen remains an anomaly in Eddie Campbell's body of work.

To end this post where I started it, look at the two following images:


"Life for Beginners" in The Complete Alec. First collected in Alec: Episodes From the Life of Alec MacGarry, June, 1984 (dated September, 1981).


After the Snooter. Published for the first time in Bacchus #54 (August 2000).

"Betty Boop" (in 1981) is now (2000) called "Sharon." I don't know what you think, but I prefer the second version by far. The postcard aesthetic is no more. I'm not saying the first version was false and the second one is the truth. What I'm saying is that the second version goes deeper in the exploration of what it means to be human. Of one thing I'm certain though: the second version hints at the fact that Alec's sexism was a posture. He  behaved according to what his male peer group, and especially his pal Danny Grey, expected of him. It also seems to me that the shadow cast over Sharon is a nice touch of melancholia.