A Kind of Alchemy: The Art of Eddie Campbell

Posted by on June 21st, 2010 at 3:02 AM

The following essay originally appeared in The Comics Journal #273 [January 2006].



From In the Days of the Ace Rock ‘n’ Roll Club, ©1979, 1983 Eddie Campbell.


“I will empty all the separate jars and bottles of my life into one big pot and cook them all up in a stew.”

– Eddie Campbell, Graffiti Kitchen

Eddie Campbell was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1955, and moved to Essex, England sometime after putting his adolescence to bed. He first began self-publishing minicomics in 1975, long before anyone even knew enough to call them “minicomics”; Campbell’s first publication was a 40-page comic entitled Beem — he printed 300 copies, of which 40 were sold. There simply wasn’t any kind of support network for this kind of activity, but while Campbell wouldn’t again risk printing up his work for another six years, he continued drawing comics for his own enjoyment, imagining himself to be a cartoonist even if the market hadn’t yet caught up to him.

By 1979, Campbell had set to work on a series of stories cribbed from his experiences as a young man, In the Days of the Ace Rock ‘n’ Roll Club. Abandoning the examples of comics storytelling available to him at the time — superhero comics, British adventure strips, Beano and other children’s magazines — Campbell instead began telling stories about the people around him, mostly young scenesters with a preference for rockabilly music. Readers seeking high adventure and intergalactic intrigue wouldn’t have known what to make of these comics, which instead centered around job hunting, hanging out on weekends and occasionally successful attempts at romance. Along the way, someone hits someone else with a pool cue, a handjob is given and an off-panel blowjob features prominently, but you’d hardly call these “plot-filled comics” in the Lee/Kirby sense.

This sounds like an obvious approach in hindsight, but remember that these strips were created at the end of the ’70s, before the modern art-comics movement had begun to take shape. Even the comics that had foreordained the “new school” of graphic storytelling, Arcade and American Splendor, were all but unavailable on the other side of the Atlantic. Campbell worked in a vacuum, repurposing the language of children’s comics to his own needs and refashioning a medium from the ground up. His inspiration for the new style he was developing came largely from the books he was reading and the fine art he admired: the Beat poets and the Impressionists, writers and artists who had reimagined their own creative fields and, in so doing, the inner life of the 20th century as well. To create his own comics, Campbell had to abandon Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko for Henry Miller and Claude Monet.

The careers of other first-class cartoonists often contain artistic dead-ends and abandoned attempts at aping the expectations of the marketplace: think Chris Ware’s Floyd Farland, Citizen of the Future, or Dan Clowes’ equally uninspired Lloyd Llewelyn. Even the Hernandez Brothers had to get BEM and Mechanics out of the way before they figured out what it was they wanted to do with their art. By contrast, Eddie Campbell thought deeply about what he wanted out of comics from the outset, and knew where he wanted to go before he’d really even begun his artistic journey. Ace demonstrates this from the outset: Working primarily from a six-panel grid, Campbell eschewed the art form’s tradition of exaggerated camera angles and dramatic posing in favor of a steady tableau of repeated mid-level viewpoints, allowing character interaction to take center stage. Drama comes not from melodramatic revelations but from a slow accumulation of incidents, each revealing more about the lives and aspirations of the people being documented until at last a complete and fulfilling story emerges. Campbell’s first works were premonitions, the starting point of an artistic outlook that built upon its beginnings without ever needing to repudiate them, the expression of a new philosophy of comics that seemed his and his alone.


From The King Canute Crowd, ©2000 Eddie Campbell.


The early 1980s at last saw a suitable outlet for Campbell’s work begin to take shape, when Paul Gravett began selling minicomics from a small table, dubbed “Fast Fiction,” on weekends in the London marketplace. It would eventually grow to become a veritable small-press renaissance, with communal as well as commercial implications, attracting artists like Glenn Dakin, Phil Elliott, Myra Hancock, Ed “Ilya” Hillyer, Rian Hughes, Savage Pencil, Trevor Phoenix and Hunt Emerson, among others. In his first Comics Journal interview, conducted by Sam Yang 10 years later, Campbell described the scene:

One thing leads to another but sometimes it doesn’t. But I was publishing my own little photocopied comics because in 1981 there wasn’t much else to do with the kind of work I was doing, and I guess other people were in the same situation because I found myself in the middle of a noisy little small-press scene. There was still that punk attitude around that anyone can pick up a pen and do it — which I was never in tune with because it just ended up adding to the confusion — but Paul Gravett was shouting that and getting all kinds of people involved and it was all very colorful and crazy while it lasted.

The British minicomics scene was partly documented in magazines like Escape and Knockabout, as well as a dizzying array of minis, but much of its charm centered around the network of friendships that bloomed in the scene’s midst, not to mention the inspiration it provided to a generation of cartoonists to come; comics writer Warren Ellis would later cite his experiences in hanging out with the Fast Fiction crowd as crucial to his entry into the world of comics, and there are plenty of others who shared in the enthusiasm. There was also a fair amount of cross-scene pollination; adventure cartoonists from 2000 AD mingled with the small-press gang in a London pub, the Westminster Arms, and for a time it seemed as though the London scene was the finest place in the world to be a struggling young cartoonist.

Campbell was already something of a star among the scene’s cognoscenti. By this time, his style of cartooning was firmly in place, and Campbell had begun work on what would perhaps become his most artistically important work: The King Canute Crowd. In many ways a continuation of the themes and strategies employed in Ace Rock ‘n’ Roll Club, this new work — the first of Campbell’s Alec stories — showed a palpable series of advances over the previous story cycle. The illustrations were more refined and polished: Figures were less cartoony, while still maintaining an open, somewhat dashed-off looseness, and the overall style displayed a confidence only hinted at previously. Backgrounds now ran the gamut from loose abstraction to meticulous detail, as mood and pacing required. Moreover, the design and composition of pages took something of a quantum leap, as well. Campbell still employed static, multipanel shots as the situation dictated, but in The King Canute Crowd, he also introduced a series of new techniques, jumping from aspect to aspect here, leaving space blank there, masterfully using establishing shots to accentuate a sense of place, at one point even allowing typography to turn to abstract linework to get his point across (“I’m sharpening my claws”). Panels also framed images in a more calculated fashion, as subjects appeared only partly in frame, disappearing behind the side of the panel to accentuate the aspects that remained visible.

It’s in the story, however, where Campbell demonstrated his greatest leap forward as an artist. Like Ace, The King Canute Crowd concerned itself with the day-to-day life of a circle of friends — chief among them author’s stand-in Alec MacGarry and his larger-than-life friend and muse, Danny Grey — but whereas the earlier work broke up events into discrete anecdotes, King Canute allowed time to flow in more fluid ways, letting incidents and impressions blur together to communicate not just a story but also a vivid evocation of mood and feeling. Days drifted by, friends gathered, beer and wine were imbibed, and life was sampled on a catch-as-catch-can basis. Couples fell together in an entanglement of limbs, only to rise again, flustered and exhausted, their couplehood soon forgotten or discarded as the youthful search for novelty and meaning took precedence over such old-fogey virtues as stability. The young adults of the King Canute Pub understood that life was to be lived the way spirits are to be drunk: with heads tilted back and mouths wide open. Experience would eventually teach them otherwise, but thankfully, not just yet.

Campbell was not only more confident as a writer, throwing down evocative captions drunk with their own imagery on virtually every page, but also displayed a more intuitive understanding of the way illustration choices can accentuate the written word — and vice versa. There’s a kind of alchemy at work here, in how text and image dance around and support one another. The chapter entitled “The Great Waster” began with a panel of Danny at the pub, absent-mindedly ordering a drink, followed by a panel of Alec trapped in a sleeping bag at a friend’s house, before finally settling into a scene on a train, our two friends locked in conversation. In strictly narrative terms, there’s no apparent connection between the three scenes, and no discernable reason for the story to flow this way. As a poetic evocation of days going by, however, it’s a superior display of storytelling prowess. It’s as much through isolated moments like this as anything involving traditional plot that The King Canute Crowd imparts its message.

The result is perhaps one of the finest autobiographical novels ever created in comics form. This is something of an audacious comment to make these days, especially in the presence of other works that tackle bigger, more socially relevant themes. No one survives the Holocaust, grows up in a repressive dictatorship or endures a medically challenged sibling in The King Canute Crowd, nor does Alec at any point trundle off to wartorn Bosnia with a notebook in his hand. But these subject matters, as fascinating and important as they are, mask an obvious handicap: Because they are so fascinating and so important, the artist who would work them has a leg up in keeping the reader’s interest from page to page, so long as the artist does a halfway competent job and has an interesting story to tell. This is not to denigrate the work of Spiegelman, Satrapi, et al., but merely to acknowledge the obvious: Great subjects are an easier sell as great literature.

By contrast, The King Canute Crowd‘s components are familiar to us all — we’ve made friends, gotten drunk, worked boring jobs, fallen in and out of love, and in and out of bed with one another. It’s easy to draw fascination from tales of what the ordinary person would consider an exotic life. To do the same with tales of a life similar to the reader’s own, however, and without ratcheting the fistfights and romances upward to melodramatic levels to make one’s artistic case, takes genuine artistry; to do so in as engrossing, elliptical and seemingly effortless a fashion as found in The King Canute Crowd requires an artist of the highest caliber.


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