Miles Fielder talks to comics artist and writer Eddie Campbell about his latest work, a semi-autobiographical opus filtered through an outlandish but real lens.
Glasgow-born, Brisbane-based Eddie Campbell is best known for illustrating From Hell, his and writer Alan Moore’s exhaustive graphic novel investigation of the Jack the Ripper murders.
It’s the Oz-based ex-pat’s autobiographical comics, however, that have secured the 54-year-old a place in his chosen field’s hall of fame. Campbell’s new book Alec: The Years Have Pants (A Life-Sized Omnibus) collects, as the subtitle suggests, his lifetime’s work, 30 years of comics plus previously unpublished material and a brand new story in a mammoth 640-page coffee table tome. Shot through with absurdist humour and metafictional tricks, these astute autobiographical musings broke new ground in a medium now filled with confessional comics. Of the book, Neil Gaiman says, ‘Alec is the best comic about art and wine and mid-life crisis and family and friends and love there is.’ Moore says simply, ‘Alec is magic.’
‘I wanted to do comics about real life,’ Campbell says, ‘ and the autobiographical idea came later. I love the cartoons from the early years of last century, like Gasoline Alley. They used the rich humour of day-to-day life, married couples, kids. There seemed to be nothing real enough in comics in the 70s. I wanted to do something ordinary, but at the same time wonderful. At first, I didn’t know to what degree it would be about me and to what degree it would wander off into fiction. Eventually, the work became my companion, as over the years I recorded what I saw.’
The eight comics collected in the book present a version of Campbell’s life as filtered through his alter ego Alec MacGarry. Some of the stories are outlandish fantasies (imagining the patronising doctor at a clap clinic self-asphyxiating with a giant condom, for one example), but they’re all grounded in real life. And aiming for a sense of immediacy, Campbell keeps his illustrations deceptively simple. Reading the stories altogether, what’s striking is how homogenous his life’s work is.
‘When you work on a painting you don’t work on the top left hand corner and paint down to the bottom right,’ Campbell says. ‘Painters paint the whole thing at the same time. This book was done that way. I was moving backwards and forwards in time assembling the various stories. It’s not linear, as a diary would be. It’s much more cunningly constructed. It helps that I’ve always looked back at my work, gone back to the well to draw nourishment as it were. It’s very useful being able to go back to an earlier stage in your life and remind yourself of the problems you were having then that you overcame, just as you’ll overcome the ones you’re having now. There’s wisdom in having the past and the future in your head all at the same time.’
Campbell’s been busy with other publishing projects, most recently his adaptation of an unpublished screenplay, The Black Diamond Detective Agency, his portrait of circus life, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, and the forthcoming anthology of his saga about the Greek god of wine and revelry, Bacchus. Meanwhile, Alec remains an ongoing project. ‘I’ve got another book starting to cook in the mind,’ Campbell says. ‘I think there’s plenty more material to come.’
Alec: The Years Have Pants (A Life-Sized Omnibus) is due out in October and published by Top Shelf Productions.