Form and Content, Again

For the longest time, I was saddened that the mammoth Alec: The Years Have Pants omnibus didn’t include Eddie Campbell’s The Fate of The Artist in addition to all of his other autobiographical work; it’s not as if the book — which runs over 600 pages as-is — is too short without it, or that it wasn’t included out of a fit of pique that I disagreed with; I just felt as if there was a hole in the book left by it’s absence, even if there were complicated publishing deal reasons for it. (Short version: Campbell didn’t own it outright, as it was still under his First Second deal at the time The Years Have Pants was released.)

After having just finished an accidental re-read of Campbell’s autobio work, including The Fate of The Artist, though, I now feel that it’s a good thing it’s not in there. I don’t say that because I’ve changed my mind and now dislike the book; if anything, my empathy and understanding of what Campbell’s doing with his later period autobiographical material has only increased as I’ve gotten older and built a family unit around myself. Instead, I’m glad it’s not in there because The Fate of The Artist isn’t really an Alec strip in any appreciable form.

Even though Campbell dropped his pseudonym of Alec McGarry midway through the earlier After The Snooter, there’s a visual and textual language to the Alec stories that is all their own: they’re drawn in black and white, with a purposefully scratchy, unfinished line, and in a nine panel grid, with a wry, yet kind, omniscient narrator who is clearly Campbell, but sometimes pretending not to be, telling the story in captions that hover outside and above the images. As much as there’s a “feel” to the Alec work, there’s a look to it, as well.

The Fate of The Artist has none of that, by design; it’s a more removed investigation into Campbell’s life at the time and his obsessions and his relationships that is intended to be more clinical and removed, though no less wry — this is Campbell after all — and, importantly, it’s not necessarily a comic, per se. It switches between prose and comics, and fumetti, and fake-found-material, and more. It is, in the truest sense, a graphic novel… yet, at the same time, it’s very much separate from what Campbell did with the Alec material even if the subject matter is shared between them.

Re-reading all of this now, I realize that I failed to see the importance of the differing approaches and formats earlier, or credit the differing intents between projects. I was blinded by the completist impulse of, “but it’s by the same guy and about the same thing!” as opposed to, you know, actually paying attention to what was on the page in front of me. Alec: The Years Have Pants is, in fact, the complete Alec cycle, just as was intended, and remains as perfect a collection of comics as can be imagined. The Fate of The Artist is something else, and a wonderful something else, entirely.

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