Sunday, January 02, 2011

Book-A-Day 2010 # 333 (1/2) -- Alec: "The Years Have Pants" by Eddie Campbell

All lives are worth living; all lives are worth celebrating; all lives are worth turning into art. Not all lives will become art, of course -- but they all could be, if the circumstances were right. The person living the life doesn't have to be the one to do it, either -- though that certainly helps.

Comics have been leading the drive into autobiographical realms for two generations of cartoonists now, from the unfettered id of R. Crumb to the sublimated family sagas of Will Eisner, from the exquisitely transformed historical drama of Art Spiegelman to the quotidian life of Harvey Pekar. That would be surprising to many people, even now -- since comics are still often seen as a genre, and an obvious, debased one at that, instead of a medium -- but it is true: comics have a stronger tradition of real autobiography than nearly any other form. Even the prose memoir, though a far larger area, is much more in thrall to sensationalism and shock than the supposedly "comic-booky" comics.

Eddie Campbell has been turning his life into art for thirty years now -- alongside other comics projects, such as the monumental Alan Moore-written graphic novel From Hell, and a long sequence called Bacchus that started off to bring the Greek gods into the '80s superhero idiom, but became a collection of stories about storytelling and the varieties of human experience along the way -- starting with a group of stories called Alec, then The Complete Alec, and then Alec: The King Canute Crowd. Those stories are all collected here again -- along with the later related graphic novels [1] How to Be an Artist, After the Snooter, Graffiti Kitchen, Little Italy, and The Dance of Lifey Death, plus a few smaller bits and a new thirty-page story, "The Years Have Pants."

In fact, Alec: "The Years Have Pants" is "The Complete Alec," or nearly so -- the most recent autobiographical book, 2006's The Fate of the Artist, remains separate -- much more so than the book of that name from twenty years ago. The stories here take Campbell -- usually thinly veiled as "Alec MacGarry" -- from a young man deliberately working a dead-end job (bending sheet metal for ducts) through early small-press success in London, off to Australia with a wife and (eventually) three children, in and out of various projects (such as the ones I mentioned above), and just getting on with life as he turns, step by step, into a man in his fifties. Or, as Campbell has put it, it's about the journey from beer to wine: from drinking in pubs and sleeping on random floors in search of even-more-random adventures to that Australian family life and a bottle of interest to finish the day.

But, much more importantly, Campbell has done it brilliantly. Even more than From Hell, even more than the best of the Bacchus stories, these are his masterworks: stories of life in all its complexities, with odd digressions and sidebars, stories that aren't content to just tell what happened to Eddie Campbell (or Alec MacGarry), but that open up to encompass the whole world, with all of the things Eddie/Alec has cared about, the people he has known and the places he's been. Alec isn't a whole life between covers -- Campbell isn't that old, and is going on living, and telling stories about that life -- but it has the depth and warmth and joy of a great life, told in a thousand smaller pieces in a thousand different ways.

This book is one of the towering achievements of modern comics, almost certainly the best of the autobiographical comics of the past generation -- and it's a delight to read. You'll wish you were Eddie Campbell as you read it, both the callow hero-worshipping 1977 Eddie who knew he could be an artist someday and the thoughtful homebody 1995 Eddie running a publishing company out of his front room and contemplating the spectre of his own mortality. This is a life as it can be, and should be -- with joys and sorrows, but many more of the former than the latter.

[1] Campbell now doesn't like to use this term himself, for various reasons, but it's a handy one, and I hope he won't mind others using it to describe his book-length comics.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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