Eddie Campbell has made no serious attempt to hide the autobiographical nature of his Alec MacGarry stories. The central figure may not share the artist's name, but, as a swift comparison of the sketch on the front and the photo on the back of the latest volume Alec: How to be an Artist makes clear, he is a portrait, if not of Eddie Campbell as he is now, then certainly of Campbell's younger self. From the first, there are hints that Alec is an artist in the making; almost the first words Danny Grey addresses to him are "They tell me you're over-educated for this", and there are recurrent references to Alec's way with words, his copy of a van Gogh self-portrait, his constant immersion in books. But in the earlier stories, this is only a minor aspect of the character, and of the narrative. The tales of The King Canute Crowd centre on Alec within a social group, of which he is both a member and a slightly detached observer, storing up incidents as if aware, even while they are happening, that soon they will be memories - as of course they will, for those memories are the material of Campbell's narrative. Sooner or later the question will have to be faced - and it is significant that in How to be an artist it is asked by Ash, the sower of discord - "What do you do when you catch up to today? Do you run out of material?"
There is no shortage of material; life goes on - and the period of Campbell's life covered by How to be an artist is defined by two changes which shift the focus of his narrative: first, he loses the "pointless job", and in effect "comes out" as an artist, and second, his personal life is re-shaped by his meeting with Annie, who becomes his wife. Alec's life can no longer be evoked by a series of anecdotes; the new book must be organised differently. The autobiography continues, as Alec marries and becomes a father, but the narrative pays more attention to his "professional" life, if the small press scene as he describes it can be called "professional"! The social group on which Alec exercises his powers of observation are no longer the regulars at his local pub, but the people who were making comics during that brief moment in the 1980s when it seemed as if the medium was about to make some sort of breakthrough; and Campbell's contemplation of the glories and follies of that period leads him into a discussion of the nature of his chosen medium.
In his Foreword, Eddie Campbell describes how "I started out to create something from my experiences in trying to make a living as an artist; to turn them into lessons...". In the previous Alec comics, he has created something from his experiences by turning them into narrative; now he wants not merely to describe, but to advise, his younger self. For the "lessons" he offers are so specific - not how to be an artist but how to make a living as an artist, not just any artist but a comics artist, not now but during the comics boom of the 80s... - that they are little more than a list of things I wish I had known. In order to pass these tips back to his younger self, Campbell begins by casting his text as instructions: "First, you must... " but soon slips into the future tense: this will happen, then that will happen... This mannerism is a bit disconcerting - I'm not accustomed to being quite so aware of the tense in which a book is written - but works well enough for most of the time. When the text slips into flashback it gets rather convoluted:
As a ten year old you could sort out all the different uncredited artists even when there was more than one fiddling about in the same pictures, which was the norm.This is a long way from the simplicity of Danny Grey never really forgave himself.. .. for leaving Alec MacGarry asleep at the turnpike, a frame from the first Alec collection which recurs like a musical motif throughout How to be an artist.
Far from it being a faceless industrial product, the comic book will have been to you a collective popular art not unlike jazz music used to be.
In general, the passages dealing with such philosophical questions as What is Art? and When is a comic not a comic? (Answer: When it's a graphic novel!) are the least successful parts of the book. They suffer from inevitable comparison with Scott McCloud's monumental Understanding Comics: McCloud's ideas on art in general and comics art in particular are pretty idiosyncratic, but at least they are formed by his taste for these abstract questions, to which he gives prolonged consideration. Whereas Eddie Campbell soon veers away from abstraction into the concrete and the personal:
Can you be an artist not connected with any 'Art World'? Can you be one if nobody ever knows it?And an excellent anecdote it is too. There is nothing wrong with this approach. Alec MacGarry ponders the nature of art, the mystery of why no-one else quite shares his vision of the world, and how to reconcile his very personal oeuvre with the need to make a living: this may not tell us much about the nature of art, but it tells us plenty about Alec MacGarry. Pages on the history of comics and the current state of the art amount to lists of recommendations, tribute to fellow comics artists - it's the work of a generous spirit, not an analytical one.
Here's one of those anecdotes:
Which is not to say that How to be an artist has no value for the student of comics. Neil Gaiman, asked, in an interview for the Brazilian website Universo HQ what comics he was currently reading, offered this recommendation:
What am I reading? The last thing that I've read, just before I left the house, which I loved, was Eddie Campbell's book How to be an artist. Which I think should be made compulsory reading to everybody. It's not only a really good comic but it's like the flip side to Understanding Comics. What it's like on the ground. I think Eddie Campbell is a genius.How to be an artist is more than just an insider's report on the British comics scene at a particularly exciting time, a kiss and tell exclusive. But it's that, too. Campbell's talent for the illuminating anecdote is ideal for evoking the atmosphere of the period, and giving glimpses of some comics greats - like his meeting with Hugo Pratt, creator of Corto Maltese, gatecrashed by all Campbell's friends who want to meet the great man, so that only later does Campbell realise that he never found out why Pratt wanted to see him. And no, I'm not going to give away the punchline: if this is the sort of thing you want to know, read the book, you'll enjoy it! The entire small press explosion is covered, with cameo appearances from everyone from Dennis Gifford to Hunt Emerson, mostly under their real names, although a major figure in Campbell's CV appears thinly veiled, as The Man at the Crossroads. Above them all towers big hairy Alan Moore, whose many groupies will cherish this book not only for the wonderful visuals of their hero, but also for the low-down on why he gave up attending conventions, what really happened to Big Numbers, how he and Campbell came to work together on From Hell, and much more. A personal favourite is the account of an early visit to Northampton by Alec MacGarry and Danny Grey:
Oh, and one other thing... Eddie came up to visit earlier this year, bumming a lift with a lorry driver of his acquaintance. I was out when they arrived and returned to find the lorry parked street-centre and Eddie quizzing neighbours as to the whereabouts of my domicile. Announcing my arrival I was introduced to Eddie's chum behind the wheel of the truck. It was Danny Grey. We shook hands awkwardly through the wound-down window and just for an instant I had a sense of panel borders looming on the periphery of my vision, framing the lorry, the handshake, the Sainsbury's carrier bag in my hand and the infants school over the road.
This not only accepts the recursive nature of the Alec stories, it makes a virtue of it. And rightly so, because for Eddie Campbell to do otherwise would be to turn away from what he does best. He has always seen his life as a source of material to be mined for as long as it continues to yield riches. For example, in the 1980s he and Dave Harwood produced a pamphlet collecting a series of cute stories, almost one-liners, starring the adolescent Georgette. More than ten years later, Campbell published Graffiti Kitchen, offering a more introspective, less sanitised version of that period of his life. And if, in another ten years time, the story of Alec MacGarry reaches the the publication of Graffiti Kitchen, no doubt Eddie Campbell will have something fresh and illuminating to say about the experience of viewing his past through his own back catalogue. Be glad, for the song has no ending...