February 1st, 2011
Being: the first of two short posts building up to a third, hopefully more substantial one.
This series of posts is supposed to be all about mirrors and vanity, so what better way to start than by quoting something I said in the comments to this Phonogram review? Cast your mind all the way back… to December 2009!
I like The Phonogram – it shows me something I like to recognise, namely, me!
I hate The Phonogram – it shows me how stupid that bit of me really is.
Which is why it’s good, and why I love it, and why this review gets to the core of The Singles Club better than any other (though Nina’s review was also very good, if far harsher). I’ll be happy to see more issues, and sorry to see it end.
Still, it’s a bit of a prick at times, The Phonogram.
Sometimes, I don’t think it likes me as much as I like it…
How does the song go? Oh yeah: “I taught myself the only way to vaguely get along in love/ Is to like the other slightly less than you get in return/ I keep feeling like I’m being undercut…”
Of course, much as I admire these tricky qualities in Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen‘s Phonogram, and much as I’ll always be grateful to them for dedicating an issue of their fanzine-as-fantasy-comic to a defiantly minor group like The Long Blondes, I’ve always known where to find the best example of this trick in all of comics.
Indeed, even back in December 2009, when I was young and naive and actually pretty cowardly about these things, I was still careful to give tribute to The King:
But then I thought of Alec – The King Canute Crowd: “yeah, all these books were written about you!” That Eddie Campbell’s a clever bastard, you know – I don’t think there’s a better laid trap in all of comics than that page.
And yeah, I’ll stand by that statement!
If you aren’t familiar with the pages in question then you owe it to yourself to check out The King Canute Crowd pronto. This sequence comes in the final quarter of the book, and it sees Campbell addressing the reader while working his day job, cutting sheet metal in a factory:
Contrast this excerpt with Phonogram’s Kill Yr Boyfriend-derived snappy, in your face delivery – one need not have a mind of metal to read these pages and be carefully manipulated by Campbell…
…wrapped up in his neat little squares, caught up in the fantasy he overlays onto the everyday. And it is a fantasy that we get here, one that’s every bit as forcefully constructed as the ones we’re presented with in Kill Your Boyfriend and Phonogram, but Campbell’s measured tone is sneakily effective here. He’s just explaining how he finds the story of his relationship in every book he reads, that’s all! Aye right.
The difference between Alec and Phonogram is like the difference between a bit of chat you’d hear from a friend down the pub and a speech given by a pop star on TV. Both could be well practiced monologues, but if your mate in the pub’s a crafty bastard you might not quite get what he’s doing at the time:
We read this and we see ourselves in it – we think, “Oh shit, I do this too! ” But by doing so, you’re falling into the exact same trap that Danny Gray catches Campbell in.
Because why are we reading, really?
Why do we bother with any of this?
Is is because we want to see ourselves in the pages of a comic book? Do we want to see a thought we know we’ve had, but have been unable to ever quite put into words, laid out in stark black and white? I’m paraphrasing an Alan Moore/Eddie Campbell collaboration here, of course – this is part of the theme of Snakes and Ladders, which Campbell adapted to the page from one of Moore’s spoken word performances. Snakes and Ladders is all about what we use art for and why, and it takes Our Heroes from from the heights of imaginative ecstasy to the filthy street gutters, the idea being that we live in both of these seemingly disparate states every day of our lives:
Clay looks on clay, and understands that it is beautiful.
Through us the cosmos gazes on itself, adores itself, breaks its own heart.
Through us, matter stares slack-jawed at its own star-dusted countenance and knows, incredulously, that it knows.
And knows that it is universe.
Moore’s rhetoric is dazzling here, but this still sounds a little narcissistic to me. I mean, what if you’re actually looking for the opposite of this experience? What if you read these stories in the hope that they catch you out, or force you to rethink your assumptions? The King Canute Crowd certainly can, and great as it is, it’s not anywhere near as crafty as Campbell’s mature work.
Still, look at those last two panels again. Pay attention to the way that Campbell draws himself — sorry, draws Alec – leaning in, all casual like, as the background fades away to handful of bunched lines and some abstract zipatone fragments:
And… this all comes back to the stealthy similarities between Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell in the end. This was one of the themes of my Academy Award nominated essay on Eddie Campbell and Big Numbers – and what’s the internet for if not for taking every possible chance to pimp your wares, eh? - but it’s a “counter-intuitive” point, so it probably bears repeating.
Moore’s grand plans and Campbell’s attention to the minutiae of things his friends have said and done… these are both just different zooms on the same raggedly intricate pattern. We see our romantic triumphs and failures reflected in every book we read and every song we hear, the big picture reveals itself in every fragmented conversation and every unlikely street name.
“This is all great fun,” you find yourself thinking, “but can it ever be enough?”
I love these stories, really I do, but sometimes I still get the feeling that I’m being undercut…