Posted by: Graeme McMillan on February 15, 2006
So, a couple of things different about this edition of Le Critique Sauvage, neither of which involves the fact that I’m now referring to the name of this blog in its French incarnation. No, dear readers, the couple of things are about the book I’m writing about: Firstly, it’s not out yet, and secondly, I loved it to pieces. It’s the second of those that presents the most problems for me, as I’m sure you can imagine. How am I supposed to be snarky and make cheap jokes when I enjoyed the damn thing?
Anyway, THE FATE OF THE ARTIST: For those of you who took my and Jeff’s recommendations to read the last issue of The Comics Journal for the interview with Eddie Campbell, I should probably start off by telling you that his new book really is as good as it looked. There’s a book that I loved, years ago, by Michael Ondaatje (the guy who wrote The English Patient, which was the basis for the movie of the same name, but better), called The Collected Works of Billy The Kid. It was a biography of the eponymous cowboy, but not in the conventional sense – Instead, it was fictional pieces about the people and things that Henry McCarty had touched in his life, excerpts from newspapers, or people’s recollections, or poetry, all complete pieces in and of themselves that also added up into something entirely different when taken in context with each other. That’s what Campbell has done in this book, about himself. He’s following through on one of his promises/threats in the TCJ interview in a way, creating something that has the sensibility of a graphic novel without necessarily fitting into the narrow definition of what a graphic novel is supposed to be. Instead, we get a collection of prose, fumetti, fake newspaper strips (of which my favorite is easily “Angry Cook,” where Hayley Campbell fails to experience the many joys of the kitchen and swears a lot) and short comic strips that come together to tell the story of Campbell’s mysterious disappearance and suspected death. It’s a book that ties together things from his previous books. There’s the human element from The King Canute Club (and Graffitti Kitchen, which I always end up putting in with that book); not just the way that Campbell reduces emotions and events to a basicness that makes everything seem universal, but also the way that you can tell that he loves the way that people are, and act. There’s also the investigative element of something like How To Be An Artist, where the book has a framework that tries to hide the autobiographical core inside another genre, and After The Snooter gets represented as the story itself is about what happened after Campbell’s depression/midlife crisis from that book affected the one thing that he’d always had before: the ability to be creative. When I put it like that, mind you, it sounds like this terribly heavy and difficult book, and that’s entirely the opposite of what it is; despite the sleight of hands involved, this is still very much full of the humor that made his earlier work so wonderful, and even if you ignore everything beneath the surface, it’s still a very funny book. It’s just that it’s so much more complex than his earlier work, as well.
When I was reading it for the second time – it really invites multiple readings; as soon as I finished it the first time, I immediately turned back to the first page and started again – I realized that it felt like nothing to me as much as what happens when Eddie Campbell gets influenced by Chris Ware. I’m not quite sure where that came from, because it’s not as if this reads anything like anything that Ware has done. It’s more in the format of the thing, which involves recreations and pastiches of past eras and storytelling techniques (There’s also a running theme of Campbell’s continuous self-depreciation written in the third person, which now that I think about it, mirrors some of Ware’s writing. Hmm) that loop around a larger story that refuses to completely reveal itself on first sitting, just as Campbell himself refuses to do in the book itself, until the epilogue adaptation of an O. Henry essay.
None of this is very pull-quote-tastic, is it? You’ve probably all fallen asleep already, or skipped to Bri’s shipping list for the week or something. If you’re still here, I’ll try to summarize: If you’re an Eddie Campbell fan, you will love Fate of The Artist. If you’re not an Eddie Campbell fan, but want something more from your comics than Infinite Crises and Wars, Civil or Secret or whatever, then this is something that will not disappoint: A graphic novel that lives up to the “novel” part of the term, something that is vast and messy and beautiful and ambitious. Never mind Comic (or Trade) Of The Week, this is easily a contender for Comic Of The Year. Excellent and then some, and highly recommended when it comes out in April.
This Sunday, by the way? Reviews of books that will actually be on sale when I post ’em.