Alec: How to Be an Artist
Eddie Campbell has been cartooning for a long time, and in Alec: How to Be an Artist, he shares his wisdom about the field in an autobiographical ramble through his career.
Campbell constructs his pages around a nine-panel grid, only without borders. His art is spare, as though dashed off in a pen-and-ink sketch, but such apparent carelessness only comes with decades of experience. The narration sounds as though it’s slightly removed from events, as suits a jaded look back, but it’s real history, albeit opinionated and subject to the errors that come with memories. Inserts of panels of other people’s work show directly what he’s referencing and fit nicely into his overall pictures.
As with many lives, there’s a thread apparent only in hindsight, and not even much of one sometimes. Art and life intertwine, with each feeding the other. Various famous names wander through: Alan Moore, obviously, but also Bryan Talbot and the unnamed Man at the Crossroads (who’s actually Paul Gravett, most recently a writer of excellent comic-related coffee table books). Campbell ponders the early days, when making comics seemed easy, attends a high-living festival in Switzerland, has a child, and considers the first graphic novel boom in 1986, where there wasn’t enough depth of material available to support the early attention in the long term.
Campbell raises big questions, like “what is art?” or the history of humor, but those topics are interspersed with and grounded by more prosaic needs, like making a living and where to sleep. He’s always seemed, through his work, as too nice and normal a guy to be such a great artist, but that’s the appeal of reading these stories. He doesn’t take any of it too seriously, not the gallery shows or press coverage or name-dropping or all the other trappings of the art world.
The image, of an art rebel or a young up-and-comer or a famous name, contrasts with the reality of getting by on not very much money. The art world is as subject to trends as anything else, and Campbell’s work stands up to today’s eyes much better than the contemporaries he discusses. Of course, he picked the pictures, so that might have something to do with it as well.
History can be boring, especially if the undercurrent is “you should learn from this”. Campbell seems to feel the latter, but he avoids the former problem by keeping it personal. This fascinating journey through the mind of a widely read thinker ends with his list of the best graphic novels, for further reading.