Eddie Campbell came to prominence as the creator of Alec, one of the first and most enduring autobiographical comics, in which Alec MacGarry stood in for the author. The first of these stories, published in 1981, ended up collected in The King Canute Crowd, the first of the so-called “Alec Books,” which have now all been collected, along with new material and rarities, into a massive, gorgeous career anthology called The Years Have Pants (Top Shelf). The stories follow Alec/Eddie from his days as a directionless drifter through his big move from Britain to Australia, his marriage, and the birth and growth of his three children. Campbell’s distinctive, stark pen-and-ink style can also be seen in the art for Alan Moore’s masterful Jack the Ripper story, From Hell, and in his own exploration of Greek mythology, Bacchus, as well as in other graphic novels, from the brilliant metafictional mystery Fate Of The Artist to his latest, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard. As The Years Have Pants was going to press, The A.V. Club e-mailed Campbell to discuss his influences, his storytelling techniques, and what it’s like to see your whole life laid out in a single book.
The A.V. Club: How did you feel looking at the material in The Years Have Pants all gathered together?
Eddie Campbell: When the collection was first mooted, I imagined I would just join all of my books end-to-end, and the four I published myself between 2000 and 2002, in the order they were published—add a potpourri of rarities and unpublished oddities at the end, and send the package out into the world. However, when I ran my eye through the whole thing, I thought I saw in it an epic sweep in which characters lived and aged, and that surprised me, because I hadn’t thought about it like that up until that point. Well, I suppose I must have done subconsciously, but I wanted more than anything to highlight that, and add a whole new book at the end to bring it all up to date. The Years Have Pants is the title of the new work, and I thought it would also be apt for the title of the whole thing.
AVC: Was it odd to see such a vast chunk of your life laid out like that?
EC: Mostly, I no longer think of it as my own life. In making something out of memory, my mind has relinquished any hold upon a recall of the actual events. I have given my mind permission to let it all slip away, so that the work now has the stamp of fiction for me. It could just as easily be somebody else’s life as far as I’m concerned, a wholly imaginary person’s, even. So occasionally I might feel embarrassed on that person’s behalf. But I am not making any claim that my life is more interesting than the next person’s. If anything, the book is a call to the reader to take an interest in the minutiae of life in general, to see the humor in everything.
AVC: Given that you’ve made everything from your family to the depths of your psyche the subject of your books, have you ever decided that anything is off-limits?
EC: There are many things I’ve left out, and I wouldn’t spoil that by mentioning them here. I avoid embarrassing people in print—I was going to say people I like, but I think in print, I’m even kind to people I don’t like. I’m capable of opening my big mouth in person and in public, but when I sit down to write and draw, the editor who resides in my brain is a very severe critic. I think that’s because I have an ambition to make work that will stand for some time, so I weed out the momentary and the petty and anything that will look stupid a year down the track. I work to embrace all that is human; my style of humor says that we’re all in this muddle together.
AVC: How much of your ego do you have to let go of to work on these stories?
EC: I have no illusions as to the considerable degree of egotism demanded by this enterprise. Any kind of long-term success in art makes it essential. On the other hand, I live in a perpetual state of terror that I’m going to get found out.
AVC: In the book, you can see your storytelling and visual sensibilities get stronger as the years go by. Do you feel the way your life progressed—the journey from beer to wine, as you put it—helped you become more inventive?
EC: “Beer to wine” were not my own words. I think the phrase was Chris Staros’ invention. It has never sat comfortably with me, seeing my life expressed in terms of booze. I have dared to hope it all amounts to more than that. Certainly, my own metaphors have improved over the years, making for a richer Campbellian soup. I do agree with your observation. By the late ’90s, when I imagined my midlife crisis in terms of “the Snooter,” a six-foot insectoid nag, I feel that I had found a facility for putting the pictures in my head directly onto paper.
AVC: One of the most interesting things about reading The Years Have Pants is how your approach to comics techniques seems to evolve to accommodate what you’re trying to do with each book. How did you arrive at those decisions, and were there any antecedents to guide you?
EC: Really, that’s what it’s all about. More than the subject of the work, it’s the pure aesthetic pleasure of comics. I get irritated with those who think that progressive use of the cartoon-strip syntax involves playing with the sizes and placement of panels. That’s all gimmickry, and it’s all right in its place. I played around with that kind of thing in The Black Diamond Detective Agency. But the true aesthetic of the cartoon strip is, in its simple, almost binary language, expanded to convey every possible emotion or idea, but without ever rupturing its perfect simplicity. I took most of my cues at the beginning from old-time newspaper strips like Gasoline Alley and Terry And The Pirates, in both of which, as it happens, the characters aged in real time. However, in constructing long-range works, it was necessary to conjure up all kinds of strategies out of nowhere to meet each challenge as it presented itself.
AVC: Where do you go from here? With the publication of a massive autobiographical work, is this the end of a story, or just a stopping point?
EC: I don’t know. I’ve been mulling over a big idea for a new book, all about money. It would be a new Alec book. I’m making a lot of notes for it. Thinking about money can be very middle-aged, but at the same time, money is mixed up in everything. I just have to find ways of keeping it light on its feet. Yet again, I need a new strategy, a whole new approach. Once I figure that out, I’ll get started.
AVC: One of the best bits in the book is the terrific “History Of Humour.” What made you decide what uncollected stuff to include?
EC: “History Of Humour” previously appeared in my magazine, Egomania, of which there were two issues. We had just had the success with From Hell, what with the movie and all, and I wasn’t thinking commercially, so that got abandoned after the wind changed direction in 2001 and 2002. It was a very ambitious idea, much too academic for a comic strip, and I don’t think it would have had more than half a dozen readers after a couple more issues. So I’ve edited it down a little and put the best of it into Pants. Looking at it in the cold light of day, I have to say to myself, “What were you thinking, Campbell?” But the good thing about a big collection like this is that it can accommodate fragments and unfinished work that would otherwise never again see the light of day. The huge format demands variety.
AVC: You’ve talked about how the structure of your stories is organic, almost stream-of-life, without a lot of overt formal structure. Is that difficult to achieve, to give them the loose rhythms of real life while still having them hold together as a story?
EC: Life is all pattern. In fact, one of the major themes in How To Be An Artist is chaos theory, with Alan Moore pictured rearranging the broken tiles and fragments of his fireplace. Alan was doing the Big Numbers book, which encompassed ideas about chaos theory. He never finished the book, for a bunch of unbelievable reasons, and I’ve rather cheekily told the story of that debacle while using his own grand metaphor.
AVC: There’s supposedly a big collection of Bacchus coming out next year. Though the material is very different, the tone and spirit are similar. Did the research you did into mythology while writing it make you think of the process of self-mythologizing you did for Alec?
EC: Yes, myth has always interested me—the sacred stories of a society. Knowing how myth works is going a long way toward knowing how all stories work, or ought to work, I should say. There’s always a great deal of information encoded in genuine myth. Everything means something, except, of course, that with ancient myth, the original meaning has often been laid over with contradictory later reinterpretations, usually by interpreters who were of a different culture and missed the point of the original. You can still see that happening with the Bible. The trick with Bacchus is that it dismantles ancient myth, making fun of it, but at the same time remaining true to the essential spirit of it. Bacchus is my picaresque adventuring, gadding around the globe from one situation to the next.
AVC: You moved, over the years, from portraying yourself as a sort of quiet observer of others’ behavior to the point in Fate Of The Artist where it’s a total reversal—you’ve vanished entirely from the narrative, but everyone is talking about you. How did that evolution take place?
EC: A strange act of foolhardiness inspired Fate Of The Artist. I left home. A bit like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Wakefield,” except I came back the same day. I started wondering to what extent you could actually leave your own life. Would the world allow you to do it? There would remain a you-shaped hole that would demand to be filled. But by what? And how would you go about writing this as a story? I felt there couldn’t be any resolution except a resignation and return. I only just read the Hawthorne story today, and was pleased to find that his non-resolution was much the same as mine, except that Wakefield lives secretly in a nearby street for years. I think it was Joseph Heller’s Picture This that gave me a taste for the idea of dispensing completely with plot. That book is entirely about Rembrandt painting Aristotle contemplating a bust of Homer. Heller managed to write 351 pages around that.
AVC: Having been in the business of autobiographical comics before they really existed as a genre, do you have any parental feelings for them? Are there any others that you find particularly worthwhile?
EC: I don't have parental feelings about it. Everybody should write about what they see and know, and put forth whatever wisdom and/or hilarity they’ve derived from it that might be useful to the rest of us. We don’t see that always happening, however. Chester Brown and Seth have done good work in the idiom, and [Art] Spiegelman was doing it before any of us. The generous serving of his new pages in his repackaged Breakdowns were a recent treat. And it’s good to see [Harvey] Pekar still holding on with his releases here and there from different publishers. His American Splendor movie was grand. Even Will Eisner has had a go. Actually, the more I think about it, autobiography has given us the best comics of the last decade, with Raymond Briggs’ memoir of his parents, Alison Bechdel of her father, Marjane Satrapi of her childhood in Iran. Craig Thompson’s Blankets and Carnet De Voyage; James Kochalka’s amazing daily strip of his life, which has been running for 10 years now; Jeffrey Brown. My favorite comics have all been in this vein, and I don’t see it running out. I would say that the cartoon strip is an ideal vehicle for very personal statements. At least, only half of the work needs translating.
AVC: You’ve actually portrayed yourself in stories as actively wanting to interfere with your younger self from the perspective of a few extra decades. Was there any temptation to do more of the same? Have the years made you want to self-edit more?
EC: I desperately want to make the old stuff better, but I know I’d only be making it “wiser,” which would defeat the point of the years having pants. Let the naïve young fool keep his shorts. You just have to rush through the pages where he gets a bit smarter, and then you realize life’s exactly like that, and you went through it much too fast.