Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell – ‘Thursdays, Six to Eight p.m.’

Back at the end of April the Guardian ran an experiment to see what would happen if real writers were involved with comics, and the results were pretty much what you’d expect, ranging as they did from the mediocre (Dave “David” Eggers’ ponderous buffalo comic) to the merely gorgeous (Frazer Irving’s whatever the hell it was that Frazer Irving drew) by way of the profoundly functional (Dave Gibbons and Gillian Flynn’s clockwork deconstruction of vigilantism).

As a showcase for a variety of semi-respectable comics art styles it was a success, but as a pop culture moment it lacked a sense of novelty or excitement.

The exception was Thursdays, Six to Eight pm, a modern romance comic with a faint hint of the gothic to it.  A man and woman are in love and they get married, but she can’t stop worrying about why he wants two hours to himself every Thursday night.  For his part, he keeps quiet about the details, so Ellen does what we all do unless we’re sinister enough to work for the NSA already: she calls in some spies.

The result of a long-distance collaboration between Audrey Niffinegger (The Time Traveller’s Wife) and Eddie Campbell (all the best comics), this strip stood out from the others by virtue of the fact that both of the involved parties contributed to the art. Well, according to the contents page Dave “Dave” Eggers was “collaborating with himself” but this does no damage to my argument: the lines on Eggers’ pages were the work of only one artist, while the Campbell/Niffenegger strip bears the mark of two “primary” artists.

According to Niffeneger’s write-up, she drew the Charles – the guy doing the proposal in the above panel – and the two spies his wife hires to investigate him, while Campbell drew Ellen, the suspicious wife and protagonist on the right hand side of the same frame.

Even though Campbell apparently modified Niffenegger’s line work to make it look of a piece with his own, my eyes mostly confirms that these characters are not made out of the same materials.  This plays into a classic romantic conceit, suggesting as it does that while these two characters may share their lives with each other they’ll always be fundamentally distant.  Charles’ thin, defiantly two-dimensional features provide an impermeable barrier between the contents of his mind and the blown out, fuzzy world he lives in with Ellen – being an Eddie Campbell character, she is made out of the same fuzz and clutter as everything else.

The fact that Campbell was also responsible for the lettering and page layouts will be immediately obvious to anyone who is familiar with his autobiographical comics.

This comment from Niffenegger struck me so forcefully that it left me with a mental scar I’d now swear I was born with:

Eddie always begins with the lettering, so there was an early stage of panels and lettering but no images, which I found intriguing. He letters by hand, and already the pages looked like a true Eddie Campbell comic.

More than any other comics artist I can think of, Campbell makes a casual mockery of the idea that the manner in which comics combine words and pictures needs to be policed to maintain the purity of the form.  While works such as Bacchus and From Hell shows that Campbell is perfectly comfortable telling a story visually, in a comic like Alec – how to be an artist the continuity of the narrative can be found in the prose, with the visuals reacting to and reiterating the words in exactly the way we’re told they shouldn’t.

Like many Campbell works before it, Thursdays, Six to Eight p.m. mixes both modes, with both words and pictures taking turns to pace the story.  The trick is that this is never “mere” illustration, and that any repetition here is never mistakable for redundancy.  

The images and texts in Campbell’s comics work together, bringing different tones to the page even when they overlap:

If you removed the narration from this run of panels then the pictures would communicate the same story to you; likewise, having been pared down from a short story by Niffenegger, the words themselves would stand as a fine, evocative summary of the narrative.

Together these aspects tell a third story, necessarily similar to both of the other versions but nonetheless achieving an entirely different series of effects through combination.

Taking the panels in order, then:

There’s nothing in the first frame here to suggest that Ellen’s mum is “bullying” her, but the fact that she’s standing in front of her daughter while talking to the (unmentioned, but distinctly drawn and cheerfully squandered) wedding planner provides us with the sense that for this panel alone we are reading a story in which Ellen’s mother is the star.  This doesn’t disrupt the narration, but it does provide a slightly more sympathetic gloss on her actions.

After all, who doesn’t want to occupy the foreground in the story of their own life, if only for a moment every now and then?

Having won an Oscar for performing the part of the patient daughter, Ellen breezes on into her own story in the second panel here, tossing her bouquet into the sunny absence behind her.  From the fact that her eyes are pointing a smooth 180 degrees away from the flowers, it seems she’s spectacularly disinterested in who picks it up after her – she’s moving forward towards that third panel, the story forming around her, thoughts already in the world yet to come.

The distinctions between the caption and the image underneath are small but important here: the text has the feel of third hand commentary or recollection, while the picture of the happy couple moving in perfect unison has the unfiltered joy of the moment itself to it.

If it wasn’t clear whether the bride or groom was leading the show in the second panel (perhaps they really were moving together; wouldn’t that be nice?), Ellen takes charge of the panel here, reversing gender clichés with an enthusiasm that seems to have taken Charles off guard in the process.

The text maintains a communal focus here (“they”/”their”) while the art reveals itself to have been expressing the story as experienced by Ellen all along.  Taken individually, the three stages of the text story are Anticipation of Life Together –> Commitment to Life Together — > Commencement of Life Together.  The three stages of the picture story, meanwhile, are Ellen’s Mum’s Story –> Ellen and Charles’ Story — > Ellen’s Story.

The story told by the comic is more subtle in its movement, the togetherness Ellen and Charles share in the centre frame being extended in the text over the third panel while the image subtly suggests that something different is going on.

Looking more closely at the second and third panels here, it occurs that the versions of Charles provided here are the only ones that bear no sign Niffenegger’s pen.  The version in panel three has nothing in common with the clear, aloof figure shown elsewhere, being as he is equal parts stiff, flailing limbs and crumpled surprise:

In this moment, Charles is a pure Eddie Campbell character, having been totally subsumed in Ellen’s world. Perhaps it’s a fear of permanently losing his distinctive features that drives Charles to request two hours of perfect isolation on a Thursday night, or perhaps there’s something different going on here altogether.

After all, while Charles and Ellen originally appeared facing each other, with Charles looking right from the left hand of the page and Ellen looking left from the right, this final flourish of panels on page one flips Ellen’s position around so she’s facing the same way as he is.  If this initially suggests a shared purpose (as in the second frame in the sequence above) it quickly takes on a different tonality as Ellen gets caught up in a two page stretch of paranoid fantasy about Charles’ Thursday alone time that has previous little room for the man himself.

Ellen keeps facing to the right on these pages, just as she did in the trio of panels above, her hair flailing behind her as she breezes past Charles, slumped out on the couch with his book, seemingly oblivious to his wife’s concerns.  There’s one exception to this rule, a panel in which Ellen explains herself to the spies that stands as a blunt warning against my tendency to read too much into my own little schemes:

Speaking of which, the spies in question soon figure out what Ellen wants to read into her own little scheme and they fabricate a suitably grisly (but yet still sympathetic) secret for her to uncover.

That this scheme consists of an overlay of pure modern Campbellia onto Charles’ reality, and is revealed on a series of screens that look a lot like comic book panels, which Ellen confronts while facing left from the right hand side of the frame, is almost enough to convince me to trust in my own interpretations after all!

Likewise, the fact that the spies Ellen hires are both male and both drawn by Niffenegger becomes quietly important to the way the story plays out.  Sympathetic as they are to Ellen’s need to discover something, they end up working as the Charles chorus, repeatedly sounding their appreciation of his need for quiet time: “I like that guy!”

In contrast to so many modern romantic plots, there are no unworthy goons, shrill harridans or smug villains in this piece.  Niffenegger and Campbell present us with a scenario in which togetherness can only be sustained by obliviousness, what with Charles apparently unaware or unconcerned as to how much distress his time alone causes his wife, and Ellen unaware that what she thinks is Charles’ big Bluebeard secret is really just a clever fabrication.  The spies, for their part, are blokishly in tune with Charles’ real secret but not to the extent that they neglect Ellen’s needs.

Like the art on the page itself, the story is a jumble of incongruous elements, including two different artistic worldviews and little clippings from reality; like so many romances it works despite its many un-ignorable differences.

When I claimed that Thursdays, Six to Eight p.m. was the one comic in this Guardian special to truly create its own moment, this is what I meant: it’s loose, funny, adult, aware of the potential of the form without being overly beholden to it.

In short, it’s a suggestion as to what a modern newspaper strip could look like.

Would that there were more like it.


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