Forgive me if this seems a little dashed off. I joined the roundtable late and have worked this up fairly quickly. I’ll stick around in the comments to flesh out or fight on any points not fully explored in the blog post proper.
As Noah has teased a bit, I come here not to bury Campbell but to praise him. I’m a hugely enthusiastic fan of the material collected in The Years Have Pants, and particularly of the book After The Snooter, the second most recent round-up of Campbell’s autobiographical comics. I believe Robert Stanley Martin, in his otherwise fine essay on The Fate of The Artist yesterday, referred to After The Snooter as a minor work in the Campbell ouevre. You’re going to hell for that, Robert, but it’s okay. We all make mistakes.
Part of my affection for Campbell’s work is a share of common interests: observational humorous anecdotes, the creative life, wine, the alternate usefulness and folly of self-mythologizing, Alan Moore’s basement — all of these are subjects I come preprogrammed to enjoy. Where others’ mileage varies on these particulars, there’s no accounting for taste, I suppose.
Having read all the old stuff collected in The Years Have Pants before, it’s an odd experience to see it all laid out in one big book. I’m actually not terribly fond of the omnibus format. I prefer to engage with the books as shorter, discrete units. Still, the massive collection redounds to the benefit of my favorite Alec book, After The Snooter. Snooter is the first book in which Campbell drops the Alec conceit, and calls himself by his own name — so it is essentially the first Alec book that is not an Alec book. By collecting them all together, Snooter becomes a turning point in the larger narrative — Alec shifts to Eddie, and Eddie’s narrative becomes smoother, more assured, more seemingly simple. As Campbell relaxes the Alec moniker, so does his entire style relax. I would argue that without this transition in Campbell’s outlook, Robert Stanley Martin’s precious The Fate of The Artist becomes an impossibility. Renounce, Robert Stanley Martin, renounce and accept The Snooter into your soul! It comes for us all, one day, anyway.
Campbell writes in his interim note at the beginning of the Snooter section of the book that unlike previous books which he conceived of and produced in a chronological fashion, the bits in After the Snooter were produced in fits and bursts, published as individual short pieces in various places as they were finished, and collected and re-ordered non-chronologically to make up the book. I think this process shows in the end result, not in Snooter seeming disjointed, but in that Snooter lacks the very present feeling of EFFORT that Campbell’s previous books carry with them. In The King Canute Crowd especially, but in the other Alec books too, you can really make out Campbell trying very hard to make something of worth. It very often works, and there are certainly passages I get caught up in, but for the most part I’m very aware of the author as an author in the early stuff. Ironically, once the author starts getting called by his own name, I lose sight of his heavy hand of creation. When Eddie is Alec, I’m constantly thinking about the fact that Alec is Eddie. When Eddie is Eddie, it’s a more natural experience — the comics function as Eddie Campbell very comfortably spinning a yarn rather than self-consciously crafting a fiction.
Certainly a part of it is that Eddie is older, and though he’s still prone to bouts of Scottish ill-temper, as an artist he’s more confident and laid back. The things he finds interesting now aren’t the snatches of poetry found in a bohemian glimpse of the world, but the embracing of the humor and delight to be found in the relentless absurdity of life. My favorite moment in all of Campbell’s work is on page 543, at the end of the “Millenium World Tour.” Pages earlier, Campbell is shown winning an Ignatz, the actual physical manifestation of which is a brick, after the brick Ignatz the mouse eternally throws at Krazy Kat in George Herriman’s seminal comic strip. On p. 543, Campbell is standing at the airport check-in counter, and is informed that his luggage is overweight. He sanguinely replies “I’ll just take out the brick, then,” and proceeds to do so, much to the surprise of the counter clerk. In the final panel, Campbell takes a bow on an imaginary stage as Ignatz the Mouse chucks a brick at him from the margins.
One of the most important things I learned in college was decidedly extracurricular. My roommate of several years had a real talent for finding ways to get astoundingly happy from little things. A cheap frozen pizza remembered in the freezer at exactly the right time, an odd rhythm in someone’s way of speaking, the aesthetics of a particularly empty street, a silly lyric in a rock song. He also had a knack for turning things into jokes or games at the drop of a hat, which is a type of self-mythologizing, or at least a type of storytelling — organizing the narrative information of your life to an entertaining purpose. It’s a way of looking at the world, and finding the humor that’s already there, and either appreciating it or emphasizing it. Learning to emulate that worldview — to become inordinately happy or amused at seemingly trivial, normally unobserved or ignored aspects of life — has been one of the most significant changes I have ever imposed on my own psychological well-being.
When you’re young and in college, it’s easy to create humor or drama by amping up your own hedonism. As you get older, that tends to be a less appealing option. Part of me certainly resonates with Campbell’s fuzzy idolizing of his days carousing around The King Canute, as I can remember the groggy romance of waking up on the floor of a sparsely furnished loft in Brooklyn, using my shoes as a pillow and my jacket for a blanket, and wandering out onto the roof to smell the cold morning air and receive the light of the sun that seemed, at the moment, to be of a different quality than the light at any other point in time in the universe. Even at that time in my life, though, I resonated far stronger with older Campbell (I first read After The Snooter approximately around my 19th birthday) and I think a lot of it has to do with the attitudes I attempted to adopt from my roommate. Being prepared to work with and enjoy the inevitable oddities in life seems like a much more sustainable and ultimately enjoyable way of living than constantly creating your own feverish reverie. As Pasteur says, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” If you’re in the right frame of mind, you’ll know what to do with the brick when the time comes.
Update by Noah: The entire Eddie Campbell roundtable is here.