Friday, 21 July 2017

Happy Bacch-omnibox-day, part 3....

And so we conclude our (er, week long) Bacchus-day celebrations with a nice shiny new review of Alec: The Years Have Pants....

So here we have it, six hundred and thirty eight! 638! Six! Three! Eight! pages of Eddie Campbell's "groundbreaking autobiographical comics" collected in their (near enough) entirety. About 1/6th of this hefty collection is new or long out of print, and the compilation and readying for (re)print was undertaken by Campbell himself, organising the assorted books - the King Canute Crowdgraffiti Kitchenshortshow to be an artistLittle ItalyThe Dead MuseThe Dance of Lifey Deathafter the SnooterFRaGMENTS and 'The Years have Pants' - into an approximate chronological order, with a little reshuffling here and there to improve the overall clarity/effect.

Imagine setting yourself the challenge of drawing this?!

I'll confess that, whether it was the expectation built up by the mighty Bacchus tomes or not, I found this Alec collection surprisingly hard to get into. The first book, the King Canute Crowd, is at times a frustrating and chaotic read, the plethora of characters careening in and out of view - there's a Danny and a Dave a 'big' Jane and a 'little' Jane - make it difficult to get a good handle on who's who, who's where and just what exactly's going on. There are slight (but sudden) jumps in the narrative that can't help but upend the story's flow at times, throwing off the reader's rhythm and the tale's momentum. There's absolutely nothing wrong with the art here, it's of Eddie's usual high standard - he's always to be found attempting locations or sequences that many artists (especially writer/artists) would shy away from (for fear of either exposing their shortcomings or from a general wariness of the challenge of portraying the mundane as/with interest) - and is very accomplished. For all Campbell's skills I guess you just had to be there....

The second book, graffiti Kitchen, finds him in more cohesive voice, even if the art is pretty rough around the edges throughout - it often has that 'first draft' look and even the dreaded 'that'll do' crossed my mind.

Agreed. Why is 'the final product' always such a non-event?

However, by 'how to be an artist' things have really kicked into first gear, and Campbell guides us through the small press > UK comics boom > British invasion of the US > the coming of the 'graphic novel' with skill and aplomb, making this an essential read/record of an important bubble as it was formed, floated and popped. There's a lovely trajectory to this section and the many layers of comic 'creativedom' are slowly peeled back and revealed for all to see. The fact that this all takes place in the pre-internet age - Campbell spends a lot of time writing letters of praise to and receiving similar letters from - only adds to the interest as, beset by insecurities, he makes connection after connection whilst navigating his way through this (often) lonely and unforgiving landscape.

Beamed in from a spell in Northern Australia 'Little Italy', as Campbell states in his short introduction, "consists of brief moments captured, thoughts expressed immediately, and anecdotes illustrated the day after hearing them...". There's plenty to enjoy here in these 1-4 pages shorts, covering everything from gruesome murder ('The Pyjama Girl'), legal shenanigans ('Jack Gets Even') to the nuances and (entertaining) banalities of everyday family (and not so everyday) comic drawing life. 'The Dead Muse' picks up where 'Little Italy' leaves off and - though shorn of the other artistic contributions which rounded out the publication and which are introduced in Campbell's remaining strips - still manages to maintain a (Bacchus-esque) consistency of style and theme, carried on through 'The Dance of Lifey Death' (a similar mix of thoughtful longer pieces and single page observations) and the sizeable 'after the Snooter'. This book reads like something of a spiritual sequel (or warning) of sorts to 'how to be an artist' and deftly alternates between the struggle with mid-life/career, the fun of the family and reflections on childhood experiences without the tales ever feeling too mismatched.

'FRaGMENTS' represents some 20 or so pages, forming the 3 Chapters Campbell completed of a proposed 160 page 'The History Of Humour', an interesting enough exercise (that reads a little like a truncated companion to Bacchus, only this time the Greek god Momus looks set to be our guide). The entire collection rounds off with 'The Years Have Pants', a further smattering of new anecdotal pieces.

There's no denying 'Alec' is a considerable (artistic) achievement, but the variety of approaches to the material - not Campbell's fault really, when you consider this is various separate books latterly assembled and reordered into a chronological whole - means there is something lacking across the entire reading experience. My expectations were just too high, thinking that this book would have a far weightier central narrative that would slowly build towards an emotional pay off (continually examining The Fate Of King Canute Crowd as time slowly catches up then overtakes them, for example), but with Campbell's move abroad and the constant (understandable) devotion to his work it's not to be. There's definitely a cumulative effect, and many of the shorter strips are quite sweet, but overall I really only came away with a greater admiration of Campbell's tremendous work ethic, his exceptional skill and incredible output - it's now a wonder he did anything at all, let alone create this, the towering works of Bacchus and From Hell - than any altogether deeper feeling or vast insight into life.


When scanning the excerpts for this book, flicking through it from page to page, stopping to read a bit here and to examine a panel there a whole new world of appreciation opened up. To sit with this book, to jump forward and backward across (Alec)time - in a way no other medium really allows - to relax and simply enjoy tiny snippets of Campbell's tales, marvelling at a short sequence of panels or just enjoying the relation of the dialogue to the panel or the subtle nugget of wisdom he's flying by. What a joy it is to dip in and out of! Okay, so I've completed the groundwork, the traditional 'front to back' approach that is expected of me (or I expect of myself) and now I've conquered that I can dip in and out at my leisure. Ah, there's nothing like a good old fashioned FLICK....

Amazon Softcover -- Top Shelf Hardcover -- Top Shelf Omnibox

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