We got a couple of really thoughtful comments on the Years Have Pants roundtable, so I thought I’d highlight them.
First Jason Mitchelitch: responding to my cranky pants review.
I am a little bothered that you zeroed in on the part of the book that is explicitly about comics, and while I don’t wish to malign your intentions, I can’t help but notice that it fits most comfortably into your practiced rhetoric on your pointed disinterest in comics qua comics. “How to Be an Artist” is one of five books collected in the omnibus volume, and yes, it deals directly with the author becoming a successful comics artist and is also a history of the brief “graphic novel movement” that he was a part of in the ’80s. It seems that since Campbell’s task at hand is the recording of his own life, it wouldn’t really do to not address his personal history of comics, and I don’t see it at all being out of proportion to the other material that makes up the vast majority of the book (youth, travels, family, etc.)
I also happen to think that all that stuff is pretty entertaining to read about, and also fits into Campbell’s larger, growing theme of himself as a solipsistic, short-tempered fool slowly acquiescing to the absurdity of life and growing more gently accustomed to it.
There’s quite a lot going on in that Comics Journal page you cite — there’s the heart-sinking neglect that a publication seeing fit to run an obituary of an artist doesn’t actually know enough to run the right art with the obit; there’s the inevitability of all artists eventually sliding out of view, some faster than others, but none of it lasts; there’s Campbell the author realizing that inevitability but Alec the character (and a representation of Campbell in the moment) being too much of the short-tempered fool who is too solipsistically close to the subject matter to see that it’s absurd to get as fired and angry as he gets; there’s a duality in that Campbell doubtless still feels upset (as I do) that better care isn’t taken with the memory of artists who we personally find important, and while we may recognize that it may only be nostalgia that motivates us it’s sad nonetheless; there’s also the neat tying together of the previously mentioned “history of the graphic novel movement” with the inevitable transience of art that’s achieved by ending on Billy the Sink.
Your reading feels woefully rushed and fit to your pre-ground axe rather than a result of a careful or critical look at “How to be an Artist” either on its own or as part of “The Years Have Pants,” an even more expansive and multifaceted work that the roundtable is nominally supposed to be about, yes?
First, last, and always, “How To Be an Artist” is about the anxieties of career. And there’s no way Campbell could tackle that subject in an autobiographical context without engaging in name-dropping—the names he drops, almost without exception, are his peers and professional associates! Is name-dropping such a heinous aesthetic sin that if an artistic project essentially demands that you do it, you shouldn’t pursue the project?
Beyond that, Campbell’s references to others in the comics field go far beyond simple name-dropping. As I note in my review of The Years Have Pants in the forthcoming TCJ #301, his discussions of others in the comics field are invariably metaphors for his worries about himself. The closing section about Stan Drake’s obituary is extraordinarily poignant in this regard. The notion that an ambitious artist sees his or her work as a bid for immortality is a storied one—it dates back at least to Dante, and Dante attributes it to one of his mentors—and Campbell clearly shows himself to be in its grip. The panel you deride of Campbell imagining “seeing [his] confreres grinning back at [him] from glossy magazines” is an illustration of this attitude. What the screw-up with the Drake obituary highlights is how tenuous that grasp on immortality can be. Drake was a successful artist, a fairly notable one within the comics field, and someone whose work Campbell admires. Yet in his first moment of life and glory beyond death—his obituary—he’s effectively mistaken for someone else. So much for immortality, you know? So much for the whole point of an artistic career. It’s a darkly ironic and anticlimactic ending for the overall story, and the irony is only heightened by that someone else turning out to be Sienkiewicz, who is portrayed quite negatively throughout the piece, and is the closest thing it has to a villain. He is, in the context of his and Campbell’s relationships with Alan Moore, Campbell’s prodigal brother and opposite number—the flashy bad boy to Campbell’s more modest good one. Moore gave them both a ship to voyage to immortality with—and Billy the Sink (Campbell’s nickname for him) sank his.
This view of the Moore collaboration on From Hell as a voyage to glory—which it certainly was—is also what’s behind the analogy Campbell draws between himself and Odysseus, which is also a metaphor for anxiety, in particular the anxiety over whether From Hell would ever see completion. Campbell had several insecurities with regard to that: the Billy the Sink Big Numbers debacle certainly didn’t help with his view of his own abilities, and the threat of the rug being pulled out from under him wasn’t a boon, either. Two of the project’s publishers went toes-up before it was finished, and the third collapsed shortly thereafter. The fear of being (figurative speaking) lost at sea before claiming his crown and throne is quite justified by the events. And if you feel the Odysseus analogy is pompous, well, I think the pomposity is justified, too, as both a commentary on Campbell’s ambitions and in terms of From Hell’s stature in the field.
As for the Campbell’s treatment of becoming a father, that also ties in with the anxieties over career—the vignettes from Campbell’s personal life take “How To Be an Artist” from the anxieties of career to the anxieties of being an adult. It’s all of a piece thematically with the larger story.
As for your complaint about his embracing his pretensions and belittling those who don’t share them, it’s the flip side of his mocking those pretensions that you say you enjoy. He’s highlighting his contradictions, and the juxtaposition makes both views more vivid and effective.
Both Jason and Robert are going to write posts themselves later in the week, so check back!