Readers of The Lost Art

The Fate of the Artist

March 4th, 2009

Writer and Artist: Eddie Campbell.
Reviewer: Jean Rogers


It’s over twenty years since Escape Publishing brought out the first collection of Eddie Campbell’s autobiographical strips, in which he appears thinly disguised as Alec MacGarry. Since then he has married, moved to Australia, collaborated with Alan Moore on the monumental “From Hell”, gone into self-publishing, moved out of self-publishing, and continued to chronicle his own life. Volume followed volume, until narrative caught up with history, and “How to be an Artist” included an account of how the first Alec collections came to be published.

So it’s no surprise that he has finally vanished up his own autobiography: Eddie Campbell barely appears in this book, and his alter ego Alec MacGarry appears not at all. But this is the man who once published a magazine called “Egomania” – the artist may have gone missing, but that’s all the more reason why the whole book is about him.

“The Fate of the Artist” is presented as a detective story: Eddie Campbell has mysteriously vanished, and a detective has been called in to find him. To do so, he scrutinises the artist’s papers, cross-examines his family and discusses him with an art historian. There are the usual scenes from daily life, but with a twist: where once Campbell’s anecdotes were performed by himself and his friends, under false names, now the names used are real, but the parts are (allegedly) played by actors.

Except, of course, that this is not a play or a film, but a comic: these are not actors, but drawings, and they have been drawn (and coloured, and lettered) by Eddie Campbell. The painstaking pastiches of newspaper strips are by Eddie Campbell. The photographs are by Eddie Campbell, and so is the eccentric typesetting. Far from having vanished, he is omnipresent. Every page of the book underlines that the whole book is a very elaborate joke: funny stories about Eddie Campbell are told in a variety of humorous ways, and the whole structure of the book is just one more joke.

It’s beautifully done: the book itself is a very satisfying object, the alternation of wonky typesetting and hand-lettering is a pleasure to read, every detail is consistent, down to the author photo on the inside back flap (the relationship between front and back cover is possibly my favourite joke in the whole book).

Yet, at the same time as being very funny, “The Fate of the Artist” is entirely serious about art, and the effect it has on the artist’s life (or perhaps about the life of the artist, and the effect it has on his art). The closest this comes to the surface is in the final section, an adaptation of O. Henry’s story “The Confessions of a Humorist”, in which Eddie Campbell plays ventriloquist once more, casting himself in the role of the narrator.
This is just one more twist in a book that’s all turns and reversals, never entirely serious and never entirely a joke. If there’s slightly less to it than meets the eye, what meets the eye is entirely entertaining. One last word of advice, though: new readers, don’t start here. There’s a lot to be said for chronological order.
Paperback: 96 pages
Publisher: Roaring Brook P. (2 May 2006)
Language English
ISBN: 1596431334

(First published 26/09/2006.)

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