guttergeek the discontinuous review of graphic narrative

May/June 2006

Eddie Campbell, The Fate of the Artist (First Second, 2006). 96 pp. (paper) $15.95

by Frenchy Lunning

A big fan of Eddie Campbell, I feel like I have watched him grow up. In addition to Campbell’s other work, he has always maintained a book that is a sort of autobiographical commentary from the different periods of his life. His wonderful Scottish humor and wry eye on life in addition to his wonderful drawing style have, through the years, made him my favorite comic artist. I have been interested in his other works, but it is his wonderful memoirs that have distinguished his work for me. With The Fate of the Artist, however, he transfers his work to a philosophical level yet manages to keep his droll humor and expert storytelling.

This new book, whose entire title reads like a Restoration comedy (
Eddie Campbell: His Domestic Apocalypse: The Fate of the Artist: An Autobiographical Novel, with Typographical Anomalies, In Which The Author Does Not Appear as Himself), seems to cover a moment in his life in which he has found himself at the top of a rollercoaster looking down the track at his eventual demise. The premise of the book is that Eddie Campbell has “disappeared” due to writer’s block, and in his stead are a number of historical and familial actors who aide the detective/readers in our search for Eddie Campbell by enacting parts as players and interviewees gathering clues to his disappearance. The narrative is a very smart, humorous and complex “masque” wherein Campbell’s presence is constant yet absent: a textual, graphic and photographic tour de force which yanks us around with a constant swiveling and swerving contradiction of presence and absence, tactic and voice.

The book is constructed as a intertextual investigation comprised of “plays” of photographs, text, comicstrip pastiches, and childlike crayon drawings (always of God) combined with his usual comic book narrative style. It has a handcrafted sensibility, but the book is also has a clear graphic design. It refers to many historical characters but also Campbell’s own contemporary condition through (as usual) his fabricated actor—this time referred to as Richard Siegrist. The story is autobiographical, yet the “scenes” of these plays allude to larger historical discussions about being an artist. In fact, that is clearly also what the book is about: the fate of the artist, and maybe of art itself. Though this book seems to be about an multitude of things that range and rage about in Campbell’s head, it becomes clear that it is less a memoir than a meditation on the condition of art in the time of the Postmodern doldrums.

The “masque” begins on the cover with a visual pun. Campbell’s self-portrait is superimposed with quadrants of the different media employed inside the book and juxtaposed with an image on the back resembling a painting by Magritte called “The Empty Mask” (1928). Magritte’s painting presents the back of a canvas or theatrical flat with a wood structure, also divided into quadrants on which are written words describing a scene: curtain, house front, human body (“or drill” for which I have no explanation…) and sky. All are elements of traditional theatrical scenery. His title (“The Empty Mask”), the actual image on Campbell’s book (which is a profile of the front portrait in wood with structure), and the title flipped and in wood texture, all point to allusion. Roland Barthes postulated a postmodern theory about the “death of the author” stating that a text cannot be seen as the pure and unique contents of the author’s imagination and intent, since authors and artists are the subjects of culture and language. Instead, texts are “multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from then innumerable centres of culture” (Barthes 146). That describes this graphic novel perfectly.

I think that Campbell is both acknowledging this postmodern condition of culture and also revealing what a rich and delicious direction in which this condition can move art, artist and culture. But he also acknowledges death itself and its implication of change and transformation. Campbell alludes to his domesticity, his demotion to the “other end” of the dining room table, his inability to perform his comic art at his previous level, and most particularly, his mysterious illnesses. All of these little “plays” refer to a position of diminishing agency (the true postmodern condition!) and death. Yet the plays all intersect in a larger historical context for Campbell. In history, death loses its mask as the end of things and, in the greater scale of the stage, reveals itself as a marker for transformation and change. As Campbell carves each little play from the historical cultures of the past and the present, he positions the reader to view the malleability of knowledge and culture as they have both changed dramatically and remained the same. In one of the final plays, he gets a job from a 19th century funeral director and concludes with his insight about the nature of this moment in history and its transformative potential:

In his back room I felt a sense of beautiful calm stealing over me. Here, on the brink of life, was a little niche pervaded by the spirit of eternal rest. A quarter of an hour ago I was an abandoned humorist. Now I was a philosopher, full of serenity and ease. (91)

Because this comes at the end of the book, we must read this as his notion of the ‘fate of the artist.’ And for him and his fascinating book, this is certainly true.
Work Cited Barthes, Roland. Image – Text – Music.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.