English 430: Literature & the Visual Arts

Eddie Campbell

Excerpts from a book project in progress…

Eddie Campbell interviews himself, in cartoon form (2006)

‘Graphic Novel’ – It’s a misnomer, of course, but then so is ‘comic book.’ It has lately been discarded in some circles, but it will be a thing, like the sales receipt for a shirt, that you throw out and then find you’re going to need.

– Eddie Campbell, How to be an artist (2001)

Eddie Campbell has been called a graphic novelist. Other tags fit him too: comic book artist, author-illustrator, memoirist, even scholar and critic: But I think the word that best represents him, the word that gets closest to his interests, to what he does, to the union of text and image found in his work, and probably the word he would be most proud of, is simply cartoonist.

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The cartoonist label seems diminutive or insulting to some, but it’s not so. Cartooning implies at its heart a tradition of caricature, social commentary, and humorous illustration that Campbell belongs to, and denotes a discipline combining text and narrative drawing that he certainly practices. So, ladies and gentlemen…Eddie Campbell, cartoonist.

Campbell signing at Page 45 (from Disraeli)

Campbell reading at the comics shop Page 45, in Nottingham, UK (from the blog of Matt Brooker, alias D'Israeli). Hayley Campbell appears in the background.

Campbell, Scots-born (Glasgow, 1955) but long since relocated to Australia, has been a major participant in British, Australian, and American comics communities and scenes. (I’m using the word scene here the way pop music scholars do when they talk about music “scenes,” a scene being a cultural space for interaction and cross-fertilization, as per the work of Will Straw and others in cultural studies.) Over the past thirty years, Campbell’s work has epitomized the emerging graphic novel genre even as he has taken up critical positions that challenge the taste and beliefs of the comic book and graphic novel readership. In short, he’s is one of the key players in the rise and international spread of the Anglophone literary comic and graphic novel.

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Eddie Campbell on the idea of the "graphic novel." HOW TO BE AN ARTIST, Chapter Fourteen, page 1. Click on the image to get a better view.

The globetrotting Campbell is a pivotal figure in the recent history of comics. He was a mover in the UK’s small press scene during the 1980s, which was an important nexus of innovative comics production. As part of that movement, he pioneered comics as memoir, creating a rich autobiography in serialized form that drew on influences as diverse as (who’d have thought?) Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, and the Marvel comics of the sixties. He developed a style of graphic storytelling that combined the intimacy of handwriting and doodling with a rare sophistication in subject matter, structure, and voice. Not only did he know comics’ past, he also knew a lot about the histories of art and literature, and was interested in history more generally. What was most obvious was that he was shameless about telling his own life story in comics, and good at it: even his earliest autobiographical comics (c. 1981-83) were acutely, sometimes embarrassingly, personal (though he hid himself, sort of, behind an alter ego named “Alec MacGarry”), and they were also very, very smart. So, his work was just different.

Campbell went on to pioneer the transatlantic graphic novel genre, both on his own and in collaboration with the most respected comics scriptwriter of this generation, Alan Moore. On his own, Campbell became known for the “Alec” stories and for his darkly humorous mythology-cum-superheroes series Bacchus, about dying Greek gods wandering around the modern world. Here is Campbell’s version of Bacchus, god of wine and revels:

Campbell's Bacchus, the once-immortal, contemplates mortality, with nods to Shakespeare and perhaps Pratt

With Moore, Campbell spent about a decade (c. 1989-98) producing the Victorian mystery/horror/historical/mystical/esoteric novel From Hell (an account of the infamous Whitechapel or “Jack the Ripper” murders). Campbell proved to be one of the few artists who could actually keep pace with Moore’s historical knowledge, and in fact corrected a number of historical errors in Moore’s script. It’s a very intelligent, very intense, and scary comic (forget the bad film based on it), in tone unlike anything Campbell has done on his own:

From Hell by Moore & Campbell

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FROM HELL, Chapter Ten, page 1, by Moore & Campbell. Click for a better view.

Besides this, Campbell has engaged in many collaborative projects for both British and American comics, run a publishing company of his own, nurtured an independent comics scene in his adoptive home of Australia, written extensively about comics (including some stinging criticism of the comic book culture), and, most recently, produced works that test the very artistic boundaries of the graphic novel, incorporating illustrated prose, personal essay, collage, and photography. He’s been uniquely positioned to observe the challenges that come with bringing comics to, as Moore has said, the main street of literary culture.

For decades Campbell’s work, which has often been serialized in periodicals and later collected into books, has struck a balance between the comic book’s entrenched commerciality and higher artistic aspirations. As a result, he’s left behind a trail of projects in diverse genres and styles, everything from his autobiographies to his recent historical fantasy The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard (with Dan Best) to the odd issue of mainstream comic books like Captain America and Hellblazer. Along the way, he has helped form scenes and markets that ushered in the graphic novel genre and radically changed English-language comics.

Cartoonist fits Campbell because the term describes artists who do a lot of different things, and from my POV Campbell is just such an artist. He is:

  1. A storyteller, a yarnspinner
  2. A memoirist
  3. A historian, antiquarian, and mythographer
  4. A collaborator, not only with Alan Moore (From Hell; A Disease of Language) but with many others
  5. An entrepreneur, a sometime self-publisher, and a participant in multiple artistic scenes in multiple countries
  6. A critic and commentator, reviewing comics, writing about the history of humor, and taking part debates over the definition and canonization of comics

So, for me, his work raises a lot of interesting questions and overlaps with many interesting areas.

One aspect of Campbell’s work that I find especially interesting is the development of his style, or rather styles:

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"I'm the most important guy in this bestiary." GRAFFITI KITCHEN (1993), page 1. Campbell has called this book his personal favorite. Click for a better view.

Hayley in fate

Hayley Campbell (Eddie's daughter) appears in fumetti (photocomic) sequences in THE FATE OF THE ARTIST (2006). Click for a better view.

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Juxaposition of styles and graphic elements: THE FATE OF THE ARTIST. Click, already!

 


Campbell links:

 

http://eddiecampbell.blogspot.com/

http://www.readyourselfraw.com/profiles/campbell/profile_campbell.htm

http://www.weisshahn.de/bacchus/

http://www.lambiek.net/artists/c/campbell.htm

http://www.topshelfcomix.com/creators.php?artist=9

http://en.allexperts.com/e/e/ed/eddie_campbell.htm

http://www.powells.com/ink/campbell.html

http://firstsecondbooks.typepad.com/mainblog/eddie_campbell_guest_blogger/index.html

 


Bibliography:

 

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