By: Eddie Campbell
Context: written and published across over 30 years by Tundra, Dark Horse, and more; collected by Top Shelf
This huge book comprises a number of older books along with shorter works and scraps that were never completed. I probably should have reviewed it in smaller chunks. It feels weird trying to analyze 30 years of a guy’s life.
I should start off by saying that I don’t like many autobio comics. I’m not sure why, and that’s maybe a topic for another post. Due to my inexperience with the genre, I may not be properly equipped to analyze this particular book. Why do I dislike most autobiographical books but consistently enjoy Eddie Campbell’s work?
The secret, for me, came unlocked when he began talking about the history of the comic strip. Instead of looking at the same bygone sources as others (Mayan columns, the Bayeux Tapestry, etc.), Campbell says that the artform that the comic is descended from is the graffiti that Romans scribbled on statues and walls.
This seems demeaning. It seems to say that comics can’t exist without larger works of arts. It makes comics seem reactive instead of novel. It’s something that I might disagree with. However, in the context of understanding Campbell’s work, it’s key.
Campbell will often say, “This volume is about [x event],” where that event is his relationship with a woman or his decision to be an artist or so on. However, the books don’t really follow a traditional narrative arc. They stagger here and there, putting a fist through a wall or stepping on tumbled knick-knacks. If you’re reading this book for rising action and a climax, you’re in the wrong book.
Campbell doesn’t try to make himself the hero of any story; he doesn’t even try to make himself the flawed but lovable antihero. Instead, he knows that he (and, by extension, most of humanity) is resigned to trying to get by and, when the spirit takes him, scribbling a little joke on the monoliths of culture.
I hope that doesn’t sound misanthropic. A key theme in Campbell’s work is the memento mori. Change and failure and death are always near. With that in mind, Campbell willfully espouses any moment of quiet repose or celebratory joy that passes his way. No rowdy song, transcendent bottle of wine, or bizarre kid joke goes undocumented.
In almost every element, Campbell walks that careful line. He is not too dour, but not overly saccharine. He allows for plots and patterns to emerge, but he’s faithful to life’s lack of those things. Tipping too far towards any of these options is what puts me off autobiographies. It might seem like dumb luck that Campbell has, over 30 years, managed to remain both entertaining and realistic. Don’t be fooled. The whole thing is an amazing sprezzatura, captured by someone who has truly lived life.