Wednesday, December 06, 2023

The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell & The Fate of the Artist

First of all: this volume contains two things, which it does say pretty clearly: the title is The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell & The Fate of the Artist, after all. There's one new book - Campbell dislikes the term "graphic novel," so I'm going to see if I can consistently avoid it here - and one old book, with somewhat convergent concerns.

The old one is The Fate of the Artist, originally published in 2006, in which "Eddie Campbell" disappears, or maybe is replaced by the actor playing him in this comic. I'm shocked to realize that came out more than a decade and a half ago; time refuses to stand still until I can catch up with it.

The new one is The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell, and that comes first here.

Well, let me back up: I read this digitally, so the two books were run together, with Second Fake first and Fate second, each with their own covers and titles and other accoutrements. As I understand it, the physical book is in flip-book format, with the two titles bound back-to-back. (Should I drag out a random half-remembered bit of publishing slang and call that a dos-á-dos? Sounds super-pretentious when I do so.)

I read Fate when it came out, but that was so long ago that it was just before the Days of This Blog, so I have no record of my opinions to which to link you. (How did we live in the Before Times, when opinions disappeared like puffs of smoke and we had to try to reconstruct them in memory, instead of keeping them perfectly still and fixed forevermore?)

Fate is mildly mixed-media, with photos standing in for comics panels and pages of type sitting alongside conventional comics pages - and, as you might guess from the title and subject, pretty post-modern and self-referential. This is a book about itself, about being a book by Eddie Campbell about Eddie Campbell in which Eddie Campbell is missing and so, logically, it is not actually by Eddie Campbell after all. It's also the kind of book that comments on itself - Campbell also includes throughout a pseudo-gag-a-day comic called "The Empty Nesters," looking like it's from the early 1900s, which is not exactly about his and his wife's life, but clearly was at least a jokey version of that life.

One reason I enjoy Fate - and this is pretty idiosyncratic - is that it's clearly the last of the Campbell autobiographical comics of the Australia period. He'd been telling stories about himself, both as comics and in the text features and interstices of his monthly Bacchus comics throughout the '90s and the beginning of the Aughts, showcasing his life as a Scottish guy living Down Under, giving glimpses of his three children growing up, and presenting his life as a guy who drank wine and "ran a business (the Bacchus comics) out of the front room." The kids are nearly grown in Fate, and I don't think we see them again in Campbell's work: they moved out, got their own lives. (And, as Second Life mentions in passing, that wife divorced Campbell somewhere in the meantime, so Second Life sees Campbell and his now-wife, the novelist Audrey Niffenegger, living in the USA, which feels like the wrong milieu after so long elsewhere.)

Second Fake is just as post-modern, but slightly less collage-y - it has lots of pieces, but the pieces are all more centrally comics. There's the autobio narrative, with a be-masked Campbell and Niffenegger navigating the weird world of late lockdown - that odd era when we all thought we couldn't get haircuts and maybe would never interact with other people ever again. Interspersed are single panels of "Life in Lockdown," repurposed hundred-year-old gag comics that Campbell is mostly retextualizing rather than reworking. There's also a private detective, Royler Boom, who is hired by Niffenegger to find the missing Campbell, in a plotline that deliberately fizzes, as the "real" Niffenegger complains that she wouldn't do any of that.

There are also "strips" titled "Life's Too Complicated" and "Dreams of the <foo> Fiend," to tease out other themes of the story, and some ideas for books (the supervillain group/heist caper Covid's Nineteen! the screaming adventures of Karen!) that Campbell abandoned either before or while working on this. Second Fake is partially a record of a time of uncertainty and confusion - both societal and personal, as Campbell started and gave up on multiple ideas before pulling together...well, the book we have now.

Both pieces of this book are kaleidoscopic, both try to center Campbell as a creator and manipulator while (inconsistently) shoving him as a person away from the center of the story. Fate is cleaner and better organized; Second Fake is one of those pandemic creations where just the act of making something new out of chaos was a big win. They work well together, but I'd recommend reading them in chronological order, which isn't what I did.

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