Little Big Numbers

November 16th, 2010

OR: Alec – How to be an Artist, and why some stories are just too fucking massive not to be told

Another thing I remembered, and I don’t think I ever mentioned it to Alan, but I always felt a certain resentment that Billy the Sink got Big Numbers and blew it while i was stuck drawing Jack the bloody Ripper for ten years (I once described it as a penny dreadful that costs thirty five bucks). I stand by my opinion that Big Numbers was the superior idea and would have been Alan’s masterpiece. Of course it is also true that Sienkiewicz is a world class illustrator and there’s no way I could have done a job that complicated in 1992. I could have taken a crack at it later (post-Birth Caul/Snakes and Ladders), and offered, but Alan wasn’t up for that. I love the ease with which Bill shifts from photographic mode to outright loony tunes. The separated Gathercoles remembering their courtship and early marriage is a masterstroke (pages 19-21). That’s an odd note at the bottom of page 29 where he slips back into his Moon Knight style.

(Eddie Campbell on Alan Moore and Bill Sinkiewicz’s Big Numbers)

The first time you read Eddie Campbell’s Alec – How to be an Artist, you might find yourself wondering why Campbell spends so much time on the story of how Alan Moore and Bill Sinkiewicz’s proposed masterpiece, Big Numbers, never added up to much in the end.

I mean sure, it’s a good story – the fact that a project so well conceived with so much talent behind it could not come together for more than three issues (only two of which were published!) is just plain baffling.  More than that, it’s good gossip!

Here’s Moore himself, talking about some of the problems that overwhelmed the series:

…we kept saying “Look, Bill, if you don’t want to do this work, just tell us and we’ll think about something else, get a replacement in or something but just tell us so that we’re not just having all of our money pouring down a drain” and Bill still didn’t get up the nerve to tell us that he didn’t want to do it for another few months, by which time our situation was desperate. Then Kevin Eastman, of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fame, he stepped in with his brave but doomed publishing venture Tundra and he was trying to produce Big Numbers. We tried to get Al Columbia, who’d been Bill Sienkiewicz’s assistant, to continue with the strip. Now, I heard that Al did an issue of it but then, depending on which story to believe, either he destroyed the artwork or took it away or I don’t know what happened but it meant that we’d had two artists sort of back out on the project.

Oooh, juicy!  Campbell’s version is even juicier, since it includes a few details about how Billy the Sink actually tried to poison Tundra comics against Al Columbia, plus a knowingly controversial  tangent on the percieved artistic inactivity of cartoonist and publisher Steve Bissette.

Still, does it really merit it’s placement at the end of the book, when everything’s coming to its climax?

A second, more careful reading will show that this section actually serves a larger thematic purpose.  By the time Campbell gets round to the story of Big Numbers, his take on the romance of the artistic life has been forever changed by experience:

Long ago you imagined the adventure of art was Monet in his houseboat. Now it’s Odysseus all at sea for ten years. Strapped to the mast so he can’t get where the action is.

What better example of the scuppered ambitions of the graphic novel movement is there than Big Numbers?  It’s a killer idea: a low-key drama set in Moore’s hometown of Northampton, to be presented in twelve parts, in which events that happen on the micro scale (the return of a daughter to her hometown and her family) and the macro scale (the plans to build a massive shopping centre in the centre of the town) would be shown to be part of the same recurring pattern.  This big, beardy high concept  was borrowed from, amongst other sources, the theories of Benoit Mandelbrot, from whom the comic took its original title…

As always, Campbell's looser drawings can seem like marginal scribbles when taken out of context, but trust me - when seen as part of a whole page, the cleverness of their design becomes obvious!

As Campbell noted, Billy the Sink is an imposing talent, and the art he created for the first three issues of the series is simply stunning, grayed-out photorealism giving way to something scratchier and more impressionistic when the script calls for it.  On any given page you can find whole worlds of complexity in every cup of coffee:


As a writer of some of the best autobiographical fiction around, Campbell’s talent for using the right story at the right time has been carefully honed over the years, so it’s  no surprise that account of the story of Big Numbers adds to the totality of How to be an Artist.  The factors that prevented the series’ completion have just the right mixture of the predictable and the arbitrary, the personal and the financial, to bring Campbell’s narrative home, and you find yourself truly appreciating the depth of Campbell’s craft when you figure this out.

On a third, even more careful reading, however, you realised that How to be an Artist doesn’t just contain the story of the unmaking of Big Numbers, but that it actually is Big Numbers. Or at least, it’s Campbell’s version of it – let’s call it Little Big Numbers, for silliness’s sake.

Campbell’s clever conceit is to adapt Moore and Sienkiewicz’s symbols and metaphors to fit his purposes.  Some of these adaptations are fairly direct — for example, the smashed window that introduce us to Northampton in Big Numbers #1 becomes the constantly fragmenting fireplace in Alan Moore’s house, and the map of Northampton becomes the ever changeable “map of the history of Art” that exists only in our collective imagination.  This would just be a beautiful frame around a broken window if all Campbell had done was borrow a few ideas, but in How to be an Artist as in so many of my favourite works of art, these techniques are the story.  And so How to be an Artist zooms into the lives of various artists to show the big, messy picture of the life of The Artist, and to use Campbell’s experiences as part of what might be thought of as the graphic novel movement to illustrate the broader story of the medium.

The grand old men of the newspaper comics! Well, a couple of them - this bit goes on for a full three pages!

More than this, by referring to, sampling and recontextualising the work and lives of his fellow artists, Campbell manages to show how the same stories repeat in a variety of different places and historical contexts.  So when Campbell starts to talk about Big Numbers, he’s lost at sea like Odysseus, Alan Moore’s fireplace is as broken as his marriage and Harvey Kurtzmanis suffering from Parkinson’s disease and worrying about starting something.  Taken individually, they’re as disconnected as the occupants of Moore’s Northampton, but Campbell’s narrativemakes the cumulative importance of the story they’re involved in obvious.

This seems to have been where Big Numbers was heading, as Robert Martin outlined in his review of the recently recovered third issue of the series:

The chapter’s most memorable scene depicts a teenage boy explaining the chaos-theory concept of two-and-a-half dimensions to his depressed father. A piece of paper is two dimensions, and a ball is three. However, if one crumples the paper into a ball, it’s no longer a two-dimensional object, but it’s not quite a three-dimensional one, either. The father is intrigued, and the boy describes the second-and-a half dimension as “like a new planet” and a place to go on holiday. The crumpled paper–the image of which is used for the chapter’s splash page–is a metaphor for a new way of thinking about the way we relate to others; it illustrates the possibility of a middle ground between the overwhelming input of human interaction and the reductionist approach people rely on to manage it. Judging from this scene, happiness in dealing with others may be found in a synthesis between the facile stereotyping perspective people rely on and an impossible all-encompassing one. Moore’s metaphor suggests that there may be a way beyond the alienation that defines contemporary life.

In its original collected edition, How to be an Artist ends with a list of graphic novels that suggest that all of this has been worthwhile – something of a half-way point between a facile reduction and an all-encompassing overview.  It’s a great list, of course, a neat mix of the eccentric (When the Wind Blows, The New Adventures of Hitler), the inevitable (Watchmen, Maus) and the undeniable (Jimmy Corrigan, Poison River).  It also works as a precise counterpoint to the downer ending of the penultimate chapter, and when you factor in the cute joke at the end…

A young Eddie Campbell is none-too-impressed by one of his future masterpieces...

…well, it’s hard not to feel charmed by the whole experience.  But what does this mean to any of the participants of the story?  What’s the point of making the making a new planet if only observers of this planet can appreciate it?

In the Alec – The Years Have Pants collection, the triumphant ending is replaced with a bitter postscript drawn in Campbell’s current style. This new two-page conclusion focuses on a Comics Journal obituary for artist Stan Drake, which reprinted a panel from an old Billy the Sink Moon Knight comic as an example of his work. The change in emphasis here is harsh and obvious: instead of a list of inspiring art, you’ve got a testament to the fact that the artistic adventures of Campbell and co. will be rendered pointless, with alleged experts unable to distinguish their works in the final analysis.

To be honest, I felt a little crushed by this new ending the first time I read it.  For all its many well-elucidated gripes and frustrations, How to be an Artist had always previously left me with a sense of possibility – probably because I first read it when I had started to get back into comics in a big way, and had decided that I might just be some sort of artist after all. Read in this context, the fourteenth chapter of How to be an Artist was full of promise, especially since it tacitly acknowledges the fact that a lot of good work was done after the book the book’s chronological end point.

If this new ending seems unduly harsh, Alec – the Years Have Pants eventually redresses the balance by making the reader aware of the bigger picture of Campbell’s life. And so while Alec/Campbell might go from the bitter ending of How to be an Artist to the physical dislocation and artistic poverty of the Little Italy/Dead Muse era, there’s always the upswing of the latter material, which shows Campbell’s more recent life as a successful artist, professional solipsist and bewildered parent in all of its complexity:

made in giner

Eddie Campbell has always had a knack making his stories seem easygoing and natural when they’re actually heavily structured, so maybe this all comes back to Mandelbrot and Big Numbers again.  Hell, you could even claim, after Warren Ellis, that Campbell’s autobiographical comics have all been part of an attempt to describe “the shape of a cloud, a mountain, a coastline, or a tree“.  You can see this in the ever-shifting registers of Campbell’s artwork, which is flexible enough to move from the cartoony to the realistic to the impressionistic as the story demands it.

Indeed, the “organic” roughness of his line can convey wildly different emotions even within the same mode.  At his most romantic, Campbell’s is capable of making even a dull street scene bend to the significance of the moment, with all of life’s possibility narrowing down to what’s right in front of you…

'Heathrow goodbyes are never complete.  The departing one goes around a corner and disappears into a bureaucratic labyrinth. That's it. No planes. You'll wake up next morning and picture her still in there being quarantined, debriefed and debunked. Then that will be replaced by an image of her back on her tropical beach while you trudge the grey East End.'

Contrast this with the images of Campbell as a settled family man that populate the most recent Alec material. It looks like the work of an artist who’s struggling to impose his view on the world, his line almost drifting away…

Stolen from Eddie Campbells blog because I dinnae want to wreck my big own copy of the book!

…but then again maybe he’s just seeing the the same pattern from a different perspective, eh?

Of course, having worked all of this out, you then find that Campbell hasn’t been waiting for you to catch up, and has already made the points you’ve struggled to make far more succinctly in an interview given in late 2009:

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.

And why didn’t you notice that on your first read through, eh?  After all, it’s not like Campbell was shy about what he was doing, not with great hints like this just waiting for an attentive reader to find them:

Controlled chaos

Still, not to worry — we’re all still out at sea, so perhaps it’s best to appreciate the philosophy of art that Campbell embeds in every line of his work, knowing fine well that it’ll reveal more to you on the next go round.  It’s a philosophy of life too, albeit one that’s careful not to get too precious, lest it end up sounding like some American Beauty bullshit.   Because hey, for all that we might need to find meaning and poetry in the world (in fact, this process might just be the only thing that makes it inhabitable!) you’ve got be be careful about getting too invested in the stories you find there.   After a while, these things have a habit of cycling back through, the clear patterns breaking up, seeming harsh and random again, and the shock of these shifts can be hard to take, let alone to make sense of

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