The Fate of the Artist by Eddie Campbell
If self-portraiture is a dramatic performance, how long can the artist be expected to keep it up?
The Fate of the Artist (originally coming out with First Second Books) purports to be a book about a crisis of creation. The front cover of Eddie Campbell's latest graphic novel shows the drawn face of a thin lipped, disapproving Scot. The image, identified on the title page as a "portrait of the artist as a typographical anomaly", has been partitioned into four sections. One-fourth for the color drawing, three-fourths for three distinct styles — prose, black and white strips and fumetti — that almost completely mask the portrait. The back cover reveals that the image is secured on a wooden board: the whole thing's a theatre prop.
More directly than any of his earlier autobiographical works, The Fate of the Artist examines what can happen when life is treated as raw material for fiction. Paradoxically, Campbell does this by creating a book of tricks and conceits. As of late, so goes the central conceit, Eddie Campbell had become fed up with "his art, his self and his readers". And now he has gone and disappeared. At first reading, The Fate of the Artist comes off as exceptionally jarring and aggressive. The stories are terse and elliptic, with fitful changes between the four artistic modes. On subsequent readings, however, the aggression is put under question and the design guiding the stylistic alterations becomes palpable.
Beginning with the name of the titular character, the so-called Alec stories (collected in The King Canute Crowd, Three-Piece Suite and How to be an Artist) are full of evidence of the editing and distancing entailed by autobiographical fiction. Campbell dropped the Alec MacGarry persona in After the Snooter, but otherwise continued to refine his brand of disarmingly conversational and playful self- portraiture. The Alec vignettes, which are typically united by a loose narrative thread, mix everyday life with thoughts about art. The episodes can and do stand alone, but the real power of Campbell's storytelling derives from the way these stories relate to one another. Taken together, the Alec volumes chronicle an artistic life rich with humanity and imagination.
And this is precisely what is so alarming about the surface level of The Fate of the Artist: the Eddie Campbell character, bereft of ideas or energy, is pissed off at the world. The gap between the violent self-doubt and its sparkling representation is too wide. Throughout the book, the role of Campbell is played by one Mr Siegrist. Save for the slightly more longish face, this figure is uncannily similar to the ordinary stand-in. In the end, Eddie himself returns to the stage to play the lead in a dramatization of the O. Henry story The Confessions of a Humorist.
Mr Siegrist also takes part in the essayistic vignettes concerning the fates of various artists. He's Johann Eckard, a keyboard player and contemporary of Johann Schobert. Both composers are known for writing something young Mozart saw fit to steal. Schobert has the additional distinction of having died of mushroom poisoning: "To his delight he found a great big outburst of mushrooms in a field near Paris. He asked to have them cooked for him at a restaurant but was turned down". His own cook wasn't as wise.
The fate of Campbell remains unsolved. A gumshoe is on the case. The detective wants to know what the family can tell about the arch-lever files kept in a self-storage depot. Annie responds: "The black bags used to be in the bedroom. Occasionally I'd hear a rustling in the middle of the night and I'd know that paper was on the move." Among other things, Campbell's archives contain a horde of vintage comic strips on torn, yellowed paper. Honeybee by A. Humorist was first featured in The Daily Funnies and was later picked up for The Sunday Funnies as well. The series starts by delivering innocent setup- payoff jabs between husband and wife:
- Honeybee, I got the result for the IQ test I sent off. They say I'm a "visionary philosopher".
- You can't be much of a visionary, honeybee. You came home with some other boob's hat.
It doesn't take long for the strip to turn into a venomous account of the marriage's deterioration. The appeal of Honeybee lies in how the emotional turmoil abuses the early 20th century ethos and look of the comic. The other strips, such as Angry Cook, Our Problem Child and Monty the Dog, take place in modern times and most clearly testify to the seepage that is taking place between the different levels of representation.
The fumetti section also plays with representational expectations. A tape transcript from an unpublished interview with the artist's eldest daughter is accompanied by a series of close-up photographs. Hayley, a cutie in a Joy Division T-shirt, talks about his father's increasingly uninspired habits and eventual meltdown. After the workroom was turned into his younger daughter's bedroom, Campbell transferred his files into self-storage and set himself a small workspace at one end of the dining room table. Says Hayley: "Yeah, it's difficult to get anybody to listen sympathetically to your whining when your life consists of moving up and down the dinner table."
The lightness of Campbell's style, already extremely effective in black and white, is further enhanced by the use of color. The book is simply a pleasure to look at. Fittingly for such a hermetically sealed book, The Fate of the Artist welcomes the reader to leaf through the pages, savoring the choices of line and color. In the meanwhile, the organization of thematic and visual motifs — running the gamut from indeterminacy to paper clips — resolves into a breezy take on the persistent questions of autobiographical expression. This exquisite graphic novel boohoos the artist's hard lot and leaves the reader intensely unconvinced. It's a grand show. Take a bow, Mr. Campbell.