Thursday, March 25, 2010

Alec: The Years Have Pants

This giant omnibus collects seven previously published autobiographical graphic novels by the great cartoonist Eddie Campbell, perhaps best known as the artist of the Alan Moore-written From Hell. The "Alec" stories, though, are his life's work, essentially a diary comic featuring Alec MacGarry, a thinly veiled stand-in for the author, created over the course of several years.

The earliest books collected here, "The King Canute Crowd" and "Graffiti Kitchen" comprise the Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man segment of this massive autobiographical project, a series of anecdotal tales of Campbell's and his friends' barhopping misadventures and romantic escapades in and around Scotland, and abroad. Although Campbell employs a variety of artistic styles and narrative techniques throughout the book, these early efforts essentially set the tone for what is to follow: a scratchy, black and white art style vaguely reminiscent of Jules Feiffer. A somewhat detached, bemused, and highly witty tone. The stories are keenly observed and highly intelligent. Campbell and his friends seem like a swell bunch of blokes to spend time with.

The best book is the third collected here, "How to be an Artist," wherein Campbell details both his career as a cartoonist and the ways in which it intersects with his colleagues, as well as expounding on his philosophies on the life of an artist in general. He makes a special point of this section's title: "How to be an Artist", as opposed to "How to become an Artist." Less a how-to career guide, then, and more a philosophical approach not just to art but to life itself. I also enjoyed this book for its glimpse of the small-press scene in the U.K. in the 1980s, and it reminded me in some ways of Yoshihiro Tatsumi's very good A Drifting Life, in that both works examine important eras in their respective nation's developing comics cultures, although Campbell's work has a more refined and literary approach.

"Little Italy," "The Dead Muse," and "The Dance of Lifey Death" explore Campbell's time with his wife living in her native Australia, and other events in Campbell's life. The work grows more ruminative and introspective as Campbell grows older, without losing any of its wit. If I haven't made it clear already, and I fear I haven't, The Years Have Pants is frequently laugh-out-loud funny.

The final full graphic novel collected here, "After the Snooter," is quite strong. The Snooter is the manifestation of Alec/Eddie's fears, doubts, and insecurities, pictured by Campbell as a sometimes human-sized beetle with an elongated, curled proboscis. Following Snooter are the first chapters in an unfinished graphic novel in which Campbell attempts to chart the "History of Humor," followed by several short, anecdotal tales as epilogue.

Between the covers of this 638 page tome you will find the bulk of the life's work of one of our most talented working cartoonists. Still, there was something vaguely unsatisfying to me about this book. I'm not sure that this omnibus volume is the best way to experience this material for the first time. It can be both overwhelming (due to its sheer length), and underwhelming (not all of the pieces cohere into the kind of finished narrative in the way I had expected. The unfinished work and short anecdotes that close the volume felt like something of an anticlimax). It was also really hard to comfortably hold while reading. Of course, all of these gripes are relatively minor, especially when measured against Campbell's considerable craft and ambition, his extraordinary skills as a cartoonist and storyteller, and his staggering commitment to this project in particular and his art in general. There is a lot of wisdom to be found here, and a lot of laughs. Perfectly observed moments of both tragedy and triumph. Despair and Hope. Something very much like a life, well-lived.


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