January 25th, 2013
PART 1: PENNY FOR YOUR THOUGHTS
For Christmas this year I was given the prospect of impending joblessness, a gift that has a fine Dickensian heritage, though unfortunately it’s not Dickens but Shakespeare who has a cameo in the comic at hand:
You don’t need a Shakespearean imagination to understand that redundancy is not the sort of gift I’ve always dreamed of receiving, or to appreciate that it’s not the sort of unwanted gift that you can easily pass on to an unsuspecting relative…
Not that I’m so lacking in compassion for others that I’d *want* to inflict that on anyone else. Even in this post-Monneygeddon age, there’s a limit to what I’m willing to admit in public!
A few weeks ago an alternative version of this present drifted into view, a hot air balloon that looked like it might be capable of taking me somewhere:
For fourteen hazy days it seemed like there might be the chance of me getting an “enhanced” redundancy package out of all of this, the sort of parting gift that could potentially see me right for the most part of a year, testing out Campbell’s replacement for the old TIME=MONEY theory in the process:
This sort of thought is doubly appealing for an insubstantial character like me. After all, what better basis could there be for a future in fiction than a speculative surplus of something that only has value because we agree that it does?
In the end it turned out that there was no “enhanced” package, and that my redundancy pay-off, if it comes, is unlikely to last me until the kettle boils on my first day of unemployment…
I’m only capable of laughing at this right now because it’s all still a story that can be framed in the future tense. I can try to make a point out of “if it comes”, but I’d be a lot less sure of my ability to do the same with “when it came”. It might seem daft and exciting to think that the hot currents of finance can lift you up so far, but the thought of the fall back down is far less amusing. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, “Miss a few mortgage payments, then see who really owns your house”.
And so what am I left with that I can be sure of in this scenario? A head full of stories about how this could be my moment, stories that go down smooth but which threaten to leave a bitter aftertaste…
In truth, my throat’s already starting to burn right now. The atmosphere in my workplace is curdling, alliances are being formed, and all around me people are delivering monologues to an unseen audience like it’s eviction night in the Big Brother house. I’m trying to position myself as an observer here, but I can feel the camera crew circling round, trying to spot the next corpse, and the words “I’m not here to make friends” are minutes away from my lips.
It’s okay though! In my dreams, I have a plan – a grand artistic adventure in which I shed this story like a suit and sell it on eBay…
Life becomes story becomes money becomes time. It’s a nice theory, but would you want to risk your livelihood on your ability to turn a panic about money into a fresh supply of the same?
Let’s just hope it doesn’t come down to that, eh?
PART 2: ADVENTURES IN THE UNCANNY VALLEY
If I start by saying that Eddie Campbell‘s The Lovely Horrible Stuff is a worthy follow up to The Fate of the Artist, I hope you’ll understand that it requires a long and thoughtful critique. Like Fate, this is the sort of comic that it’s easy to get carried away by, until you’re floating off like Campbell does from the cover image onwards.
Unfortunately for you, dear readers, the most likely destination for me to arrive at is – as always – right up my own backside. I’ll try to keep this short and to the point – ALWAYS BE CLOSING – but please forgive me if I start to drift, and if you end up feeling like you’re still in the dark remember that I warned you about this possible outcome at the beginning.
That’s enough about my arse for now though! My objective here is to chart out a very different sort of landscape, the “uncanny valley” that some observers have evoked while describing the mix of painted art and photography that Campbell deploys in The Lovely Horrible Stuff. The combination of these elements – both present in the artist’s work since his adaptation of The Birth Caul but never so frequently and thoroughly integrated as they are here – is disconcerting throughout the book, with Campbell’s vivid, scribbly evocations of people and places…
…blurring into pictures of the same subjects ripped from real life, and vice versa:
My eyes find the artist’s renditions of the people in this book to be pretty much perfect, in their own rough way. So perfect, in fact that the appearance of actual people and villages and living rooms somehow pushes the whole thing over the edge into unreality.
Please try to bear in mind that I’m not criticising Campbell’s technique here – quite the opposite, in fact! If Campbell’s use of photographic elements didn’t feel so in keeping with the seemingly effortless arrangement of organic moments into lyrical form that characterised his Alec strips, then the results wouldn’t be even half as unsettling.
Like Campbell’s previous autobiographical works, The Lovely Horrible Stuff seems to suggest a certain porousness in the borders between life and fiction. You might find yourself describing Campbell’s narrative style as conversational, as I have before, but there’s a reason why Campbell is one of Alan Moore’s finest collaborators – few comics creators are as mindful of the big literary picture as these two, and the fearsome symmetry of The Lovely Horrible Stuff is yet another example of Campbell’s eye for a pattern.
Actually, The Lovely Horrible Stuff might be the place where Campbell finally tips his hand in this regard. The first half of the book is built around various financial anecdotes from Campbell’s work and family life, and as such it has the reassuring familiarity of After the Snooter and The Fate of the Artist working in its favour, as well as a setting that will have points of intersection with the daily lives of most of those who are likely to find themselves reading it. The back half of the book, in which Campbell takes a trip to the Micronesian island of Yap in order to discuss the strange stone circles the islands inhabitants use as currency (or rather, as stores of wealth), is left feeling strangely exposed in comparison.
The Yapese provide Campbell with a convenient Other, a mirror in which to reflect the first half of his tale by way of a series of abstracted expressions of and contrasts with his (our?) concept of money. Which is to say, with our values:
And so both the grand folly of the business of art and Campbell’s shipwrecked relationship with his father-in-law find themselves literalised in the grand adventures of the Yapese and their tongue-in-cheek mythology, and Campbell’s dependence on unseeables is paralleled with the overpoweringly physical presence of the Yapese currency. As if this textual neatness wasn’t enough, the territory won’t stop breaking through the map. The woman in the panel above is hardly alone in being framed against a reassuring background of real leaves, which has the paradoxical effect of making Campbell’s narrative cartography seem like an elaborate fabrication. After all, why else would the map-maker leave those tears in the fabric, if not to insist a little bit too thoroughly that the place they’ve described definitely exists?
That’s when it occurred to me: there is no Island of Yap. The photographs in the book and on the internet? Mocked up. The various tentacles that reach out from the wikipedia article? No need to worry, we’ll fix it when we get home.
Once the illusion of Yap fell away from eyes, I started to see everything else more clearly. You see, there’s no “Eddie Campbell” either, that’s just a pseudoname Alan Moore uses when he wants to get a way from ideaspace for a while, a secondary life he pretends to have lived, inky li(n)es trailing off into nothing like the hair on his face. The people you see in the book, claiming to be Campbell’s friends and family? Actors, all actors, and as such there’s no reason to worry about their drama being traded in for the cold taste of coins.
Me? I don’t exist either. All of my financial worries are fake – did you really think it possible that I could propose to live off my thoughts alone if I lose my job? Thankfully, Illogical Volume is just a work-in-progress, a computer programme designed to vent words and neurosis on an irregular basis. This blog is a dry run for deliberately useless AI; thank you for participating in the beta test.
And as for money, well, don’t be ridiculous – of course that exists! It’s one of the few “real” things in The Lovely Horrible Stuff, a terrifying fantasy in which family breakdowns and human sacrifice are shown to be just another type of currency, put to the service of a strangely unconvincing story that somehow manages to keep the world going round…