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Comics College is a monthly feature where we provide an introductory guide to some of the comics medium’s most important auteurs and offer our best educated suggestions on how to become familiar with their body of work.
Welcome to this month’s edition of Comics College. Today we’ll be looking at the body of work of one of the medium’s most unique creators, Eddie Campbell.
Because there’s no one else like him. In a medium where one’s influences are frequently writ large (when they’re not outright plagiarized) and often look no further back than a generation or so, Campbell draws upon centuries of history — both artistic and otherwise — to infuse both his comics’ content and style. His wonderfully rough, ragged line, for example, is influenced as much by 19th century illustrators as Jack Kirby. While he’s largely acclaimed for his autobiographical work (and he was one of the first cartoonists attempt it), he stands apart from most of his peers in said genre by eschewing simple navel-gazing in favor of a more relaxed, philosophical, raconteur approach. Though playful, he delves into serious issues — most frequently the pursuit of art (both personal and abstract) and the individual’s cost of that pursuit. In his comics, Campbell broaches topics others would prefer to avoid, examines life in all its largess and agony, and gives you a sense not only of life as lived, but life as it has been lived and perhaps should be lived, through the ages. And he does it all with a smile.
Campbell’s autobiographical “Alec” stories contain some of his best and most memorable comics, but newcomers might balk at trying to consume such a lengthy body of work (most recently compiled by Top Shelf into one 640-page omnibus). With that in mind, I’m going to instead suggest starting off with The Fate of the Artist, his first book for the then nascent First Second. It’s the autobiographical (sort of) about the author’s (i.e. Campbell) mysterious disappeareance and the attempt by family and other interested parties to figure out what exactly happened to him.
It’s also something of a tour de force, combining comics, prose, photos and more, along with a good deal of fourth-wall breaking and stylistic switch-ups. It’s one of the best things Campbell’s ever done, with a laser-like focus on many of the author’s preferred themes (the inevitability of death, the fragility of life and the ineffectiveness of art in attempting to deal with either). As experimental as it is compared to some of his earlier works, it’s a good starting point nevertheless.
Once you’ve devoured that, the next logical step is Alec: The Years Have Pants, the afore-mentioned omnibus. If the thought of reading such a brick of a book sends shivers up your spine, then I’d try to locate one of the single volume books Campbell self-published years before. My initial recommendations would be The King Canute Crowd and Three Piece Suit, which contains the masterful Graffiti Kitchen. But really, you should just break down and buy some Pants.
From there I’d move on to Campbell’s other major work, Bacchus, a wry and rather epic look at both Greek mythology and modern social and political mores from the perspective of an elderly, cranky Dionysus, who has numerous, somewhat unwanted adventures with the hero Theseus and the lightning-singing Eyeball Kid. Campbell published the series in nine volumes: Immortality Isn’t Forever, The Gods of Business, Doing the Islands With Bacchus, The Eyball Kid: One Man Show, Earth Water Air and Fire, The Eyeball Kid: Double Bill, 1,001 Nights of Bacchus, King Bacchus and Banged Up. You could try tracking down all nine books, but I’d recommend holding out for Top-Shelf’s two-volume omnibus which is scheduled to come out next year. If you have to confine yourself to one book though (or want to start with a sample), I’d go with Doing the Islands.
Despite the acclaim his Alec tales have won, Campbell’s most famous work is probably From Hell, the Jack the Ripper conspiracy tale he did with Alan Moore. I’ll deal with that book in more detail when I get around to discussing Moore in this feature (whenever that will be) but suffice it to say that this remains one of Moore’s best collaborations and a shining star in both men’s bibliographies.
Equally stellar (and in some ways exhibiting more of Campbell’s own personal voice than Hell does) is A Disease of Language, in which Campbell adapted two of Moore’s performance art pieces into comics, rather successfully I might add.
Moving on, The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, written with Dan Best, is a comical look at the life of a trapeze artist who, despite a number of notable attempts and some rather fantastic bad luck, fails to achieve much in the way of success or notoriety. The book exhibits the same sort of formal playfulness found in Fate of the Artist, with the characters (and at one point the author) running around in the margins. It’s one of his lightest (if still somewhat melancholy) books.
Campbell’s newest book, The Playwright (done with Daren White) examines some of the same themes as Leotard and Fate, namely the inverse relationship between happiness and the creative life, but follows a much more rigid structure and format. Dealing with “the sex life of a celibate, middle-aged author,” it hews to a third-person, landscape format that nevertheless displays a good deal of warmth and sharp, observational humor. Certainly it’s one of the best character studies you’re likely to find in comics these days.
In addition to his more personal work, Campbell has done a number of projects for DC and Marvel. His most notable entry is probably Batman: The Order of Beasts, though he also wrote issues #85-88 of Hellblazer (with Sean Phillips as artist) and drew the two-issue Captain America: Homeland story, among others. None of these comics should be too hard to track down, though none of them would merit the label “essential.”
Campbell hasn’t really done any work that’s so bad it should be avoided (at least none that’s currently in print). Newcomers, however should probably save The Black Diamond Detective Agency for the end of their tour. While it has some stellar moments, especially in terms of design, this somewhat off-kilter thriller about a man accused of blowing up a train and inadvertently joining the detective agency hired to track him down, falls under the weight of its large cast of characters and knotty plot. Great opening sequence though.