Portrait of the Artist as an Eddie Campbell

Whether it's film, books, comics, music or any form of art/entertainment, as my anticipation builds expectations follow suit. What inevitably follows is disappointment, either in the quality of the work itself or in my decision to learn as much as possible about the work before seeing/reading/listening to is myself. Generally I manage to spoil an otherwise perfectly decent bit of art by expecting too much of it. There are those rare cases, though, when expectations are exceeded or, as in the case of Eddie Campbell's Fate of the Artist, shattered to bits.

I've had the chance to read three of the four "Alec" books so far, which are essentially Campbell's fictionalized version of his own life (unfortunately I've been unable to get hold of How To Be An Artist, which based on the first page of Fate of the Artist and my own luck is likely the most relevant to the new book). By the fourth volume, After the Snooter, Campbell dropped Alec MacGarry as a stand in and the walls between fiction and reality became more like windows. Here those windows seem to have been opened, allowing everyone to cross back and forth at will. The best part, though, is that as intelligent and meta-textual as this makes it, I wasn't quite ready for how funny and engrossing Fate of the Artist is. Based on what little I had seen of it, I feared that this book would be too intellectual to really enjoy. Appreciate maybe, but I suspected it would be something I would read once and put away. Instead, I've already read it twice.

Artists, writer in particular, talk about creating the world in which the work exists, often down to the minute details most of which will never come into play in the work itself as a means of creating authenticity. Actors often apply a similar concept in the creation and portrayal of a character, developing a history and backstory that allows them to connect more fully to the material, despite the fact that the details of that backstory will never exist outside of their mind. Fate of the Artist succeeds most brilliantly in the creation of four distinct yet thematically linked worlds in which nearly the same story takes place, each commenting on the others without violating their own idiosyncrasies. "Honeybee" has its own lifespan as as comic strip over the course of the book, evolving from a fairly crude beginning into a a full color, full page strip with quite a bit of complexity. And while the strip's relationship to the other stories is always present, it succeeds in its own right by being funnier than many newspapers strips without any context beyond its own panels. Meanwhile, "the film" segments are very much a direct descendant of the Alec stories, though with an additional layer of metatext I wouldn't have thought possible. Sharing the spine of the story with the film is the detective novel which dominates much of the first part before disappearing into the background in part two. While adhering to the tropes of the genre, it manages an interplay with the film that provides the details for the creation of the fourth and most impressive story. This is the world that seems closest to reality, yet is created through a single interview and the interplay between the other three worlds. That interview (ostensibly with Campbell's daughter), combined with clues from the film and the detective novel, allow the reader to create a story that answers the question I was constantly asking myself, "what's really going on." The complexity seems daunting, yet Campbell manages it all so well that there's no difficulty becoming immersed in these worlds.

While one could read this as Campbell's finale (including an author's photo of him walking away), First Second already has plans to publish another of his books, The Black Diamond Detective Agency. Rather, Fate of the Artist feels much more like the last of the Alec series. The final segment indicates that drawing so heavily on his life as inspiration for his work has left Campbell unable to enjoy that life (and metaphorically deceased as a result). Yet is this the "real" Campbell or the Alec MacGarry/Eddie Campbell creation that shares his life? Fortunately, there's more than enough packed into these slim 96 pages to speculate on to no end. Enough of that for now, though, before I turn into a pseudo-academic, reconstructing a fictional artist to take the place of the real one.

At this point I feel like I've turned into a shill for First Second (which technically I pretty much am), so next week I'm going to review their catalog (pretty impressive unto itself) and maybe offer one or two negative thoughts. In the meantime, check out Graeme McMillan's thoughts. And Jog's insights, which make me simultaneously jealous and physically ill.



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