I’d hoped to put this post later in the week and run more positive assessments first. But bumps occurred, and here we are. For Campbell fans, I’d urge you to read Suat’s preamble for a more loving assessment, or check out Robert Stanley Martin or Charles Hatfield for discussions of the Playwright. And of course the roundtable here runs all week.
Eddie Campbell’s “How To Be An Artist” ends with Campbell writing an angry letter to the Comics Journal excoriating them for mistaking a Bill Sienkiewicz drawing for a Stan Drake drawing in the latter’s obituary.
As a former writer for the Comics Journal, I have to say that reading that page above filled me with something like despair at the milieu in which I’ve found myself. Not because the Comics Journal couldn’t tell Stan Drake from Bill Sienkiewicz; frankly, I like Sienkiewicz, know nothing about Stan Drake, and find the righteous rage for professionalized connoisseurship really uninteresting.
For many people this disqualifies me from having an opinion. Which is okay, because after reading that page, I don’t know that I want to have an opinion about comics ever again. Campbell’s one of the most lauded autobiographical graphic novelists of our day, “How To Be An Artist” is a well-respected work, and how does it end? With a tedious, penny-ante, in-group anecdote, hermetically spiraling into its own self-satisfied nerd knowledge. It’s like Campbell looked deep into the soul of the comics Internet and said, “here! juvenile comics knowledge score-settling — but it is art! Rejoice!”
I wish I could say that this page was an aberration. But it isn’t. This is what much of “How to Be An Artist” is like; a brutal slog through endless name-dropping and industry gossip, an exercise in self-satisfied self-reference as Campbell casts a nostalgic glamour on himself for being in the room and on the room for having him.
Campbell does seem to have some sense that this is wretchedly boring and inconsequential. Or at least he does his best to tart it up, writing the entire book in the second person future tense, as if in hopes that grammatical shenanigans can turn bland and familiar careerist pseudo-revelations into a universal lyric.
I guess you could argue that that image is supposed to be self-aware and self-mocking; Campbell puncturing his own ambitions. The thing is though…denigrating your own success isn’t exactly not boasting, just as turning down a Nobel Prize isn’t exactly an act of humility. Campbell’s deflations suggest pretty strongly there’s something to be deflated. Whether he’s undermining them or not, he’s talking and talking and talking about his own career path as if that career path is intrinsically interesting. And I would contend strongly that it is not.
The universal elegaic also works particularly badly for the moments when Campbell switches from career to family.
I like the drawing here, especially in the first line; Campbell’s scratchy sketches, barely struggling out of the white space, seem almost to suggest that they were drawn during the birth — the sketch of his daughter’s little head points to the emergence of the little head itself. Life and art come together in the act of creation.
The problem is…the analogizing of art and birth seems too patly insistent. The second person narration castigates Alec for thinking only of himself…but self-flagellation is about the self too, and even moreso. Tellingly, we see the baby first in the arms of Alec, not of his wife, as if the sketch is more important than the person.
All of which might be okay if we didn’t immediately descend into the worst kind of sensitive new-age dad, parenting-magazine-ready clichés: listening to the child breathing, worrying that you’re not really a parent and you’ll be found out…the banality. It burns.
But the banality is the point, I think. As Campbell says, the page is not about his wife or child, but about himself…and specifically, it’s about validating his creation of the image of the baby by deploying his wife’s creation of the actual baby. The clichéd SNAG tropes are referents; they demonstrate that this is a serious artistic endeavor, linking Campbell’s comic to the familiar cultural sussurant mutter of emotional depth. I think it’s significant that the question, “what if you’re found out?” comes just before an illustration of Campbell drawing a picture on his child’s crib. The juxtaposition crystalizes the anxieties, both spoken and un-. In response to the worry that he’s not cut out for the child care (for which his wife, with her spurting breasts, is more naturally equipped), Alec moves to his own process of creation; his art is a sign of his competence as a father. But by the same token, the fatherhood — the mundanity of feeling all the things everybody else has told you that sensitive fathers feel — is the sign of competence as an artist. Comics are art because they’re about the real stuff that real art is about.
Campbell also makes the case for comics as art (or at least, for his work as art) more directly. For example, he reproduces many panels from his heroes and predecessors, situating himself in a history and tradition. He also spends some ink musing on the arbitrariness of artistic reputation — an arbitrariness which has obvious implications for the oft-but-perhaps-not-forever-denigrated medium in which he works. Perhaps the most enjoyable part of the discussion is his brief history of humor. “The true history of humour may never be written,” he says. “It defies that kind of organisation.” So instead of organization, he supplies an impressionistic view — a marginal history of marginalia, culminating in a one panel fart gag.
All of this is relatively engaging; kind of like a brief version of “Understanding Comics” who actually understands comics. Campbell’s insights never really rise above smart-guy-bullshitting-at-the-bar — but he is a smart guy, and his bullshit is often entertaining, if not revelatory.
Still, as with the career and family, so with the arts commentary — beneath the quick economy of the sketches and the confident declamations (“No, the fine things speak across physical and temporal distances. A song, a tale, a cartoon, a chair,”) there lurks a ponderous anxiety and an anxious ponderousness. Whether it’s positioning himself as a connoisseur and belittling those who aren’t:
or imagining Alan Moore as the wolf of art among the philistine lambs or comparing his wait for career success to the trials of Odysseus, it all reeks of a strained, half-disavowed-but-always-reclaimed pomposity. If you’ve really got such a firm grasp on the torch of culture, surely you don’t need to keep beating us about the head with it?
In comments on this blog a little while back, critic Bert Stabler argued that:
autobio comics and art photography try to imbue a popular medium with gravitas and end up only escaping their navel by referencing the rather non-magnificent history of the medium.
That seems a painfully apt one sentence takedown of “How to Be An Artist”. The story trods back and forth from navel to history of the medium to career where navel and history of the medium meet, trying to embody gravitas through the very laboriousness of the trod. The central question of How to Be an Artist does not so much recur as curdle. To be an artist, follow these steps: say what other people have said about the quotidian vicissitudes of everyday life; hang out with other artists; look at enough other art that you can sneer at those who aren’t in the club. Repeat, I guess, until comics shuffles off enough of its status panic that ritual mimetic self/medium-trumpeting is no longer necessary to keep the entire endeavor from imploding under its own aggressive irrelevance. In other words, forever.
I wrote this after I’d finished the “How to Be an Artist” section of Alec, figuring it was best to quit before everybody became further irritated. I subsequently did read the rest of the book…and while I think I could probably find something to say about the way that fetishization of working class heroes slides inevitably into suburban sit-com, I don’t really have the heart for it. Eddie Campbell has appeared a few times in comments on this blog, and has always been extremely gracious. I wish I liked his book more. I look forward to hearing other folks in the roundtable tell me why I should.