What is Alec: How to be an Artist? Autobiography? Fiction? Essay? History? Criticism? All of the above?
Campbell has been drawing his semi-autobiographical "Alec" strips for about two decades now. Uncomfortable with referring directly to himself, he uses the character of Alec MacGarry to tell a slightly fictionalized version of his life. These stories have followed Campbell from the British small-press comics scene of the eighties to the completion of his better-known books like "Bacchus" and "From Hell" in the nineties. The latter, drawn by Campbell and written by Alan Moore, was the basis for the recent Jack the Ripper movie.
The narrative of this book follows much the same path as Campbell's comics career. It's written in a bizarre future tense, as an unnamed narrator tells a young Alec MacGarry what the future will hold for him, and "How to successfully be an artist (not to be confused with 'becoming a successful artist')." It's an effective voice, showing wisdom, personal reflection, and a hint of regret over events and days gone by. We see Campbell (or, MacGarry) struggling in boring day jobs while he works to create his comics art, moving from place to place, and interacting with the British comics scene. We see the growing relationship with his wife-to-be Annie, and how he leaves the life he knows to live in her native Australia. We see what the fates bring to the life of an artist, and how the author will handle them with a combination of humor, self-doubt, drama and creativity.
As much as this time will be a crossroads for cartoonist MacGarry, Campbell also depicts it as a crossroads for comics in general and the development of the graphic novel. At some point the book becomes as much a history lesson and a literary criticism of the still-emerging graphic novel field as it is autobiography. He looks at the major works of the eighties, their critical and commercial success, and wonders where the field has gone from there. And he isn't very happy with the results.
Ultimately this is one of the more effective of Campbell's autobiographical strips, but perhaps the least resonant to anyone who is not already familiar with the comics market . The pages depicting his early life and his relationship with Annie sparkle with universal emotion, but the other relationships discussed have a professional distance that makes it difficult to understand their importance.
The book also suffers from an unwillingness to discuss Campbell's own work. We know that the character of Alec is struggling to be an artist, and we see some early submissions and much discussion of "From Hell," but huge chunks of his career and output are omitted. It's impossible to judge his success as an artist if we can't see what he is trying to accomplish.
On the art side, some may find Campbell's scratchy line drawings off-putting. I loved his artwork, though. His style in this book is loose as loose can be, conveying more in less lines than the work of many of the artists whose work he excerpts in his discussions of the comics medium.
Why should we care about the semi-autobiography of an artist? The book is more than just an artist looking at himself. He's looking at the process of becoming an artist, and of growing up. The book sparkles with wit and passion, and it depicts a journey of self-discovery that we can all understand.
Eddie Campbell Comics, 2001, $13.95