You can tell I’m not the real me from the fact that I didn’t know this book existed until I tripped over Tegan O’Neil’s review in The Comics Journal. As a lifelong Eddie Campbell enthusiast and someone who enjoys Tegan’s criticism, I would have been anticipating the book’s publication and would have read Tegan’s review the day it went up.

The fact that it took almost two weeks to catch up can only mean one thing: I’m not me. The author of this blogpost has been replaced.

The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell comes packaged together with 2006’s The Fate of The Artist, another autobiographical comic in which the author has gone missing. Back when it came out The Fate of the Artist felt like a big development in Campbell’s artistic style, with its watercolour textures and shifting art styles. Here’s Dirk Deppey writing for The Comics Journal at the time:

Campbell’s latest work, The Fate of the Artist, is a logical step forward. Using a moment of artistic doubt suffered by Campbell as a springboard, Fate weaves the lives of forgotten artists and artisans, autobiographical anecdotes in which the author is portrayed by an actor, faux comic strips, fumetti, and concludes with a faithfully adapted O. Henry short story starring Campbell himself. The work is as collage-like as Snakes and Ladders, but here the juxtapositions are between scenes rather than images. None of the individual parts ever fully connect to their surroundings; instead, each segment slyly comments on the implied message of others, building thematic inferences rather than a narrative storyline. Graphically The Fate of the Artist is more subdued than Snakes and Ladders, yet its conceptual underpinnings are more daring than anything its creator has ever before attempted.

In 2023, The Fate of the Artist looks like a work from the traditional side of Campbell’s career. An artist with a classically appealing style, all hand-scratched lines and careful depictions of light and posture, Campbell has spent the past couple of decades restlessly experimenting, often with the aid of his computer. In the past ten years he’s added digital colouring to the immaculate Victorian picture making of From Hell, written a book about sports cartoonists, and put together an anthology of odd romance stories with his wife Audrey Niffenegger.

The autobiographical work that followed Fate, 2012’s The Lovely Horrible Stuff, saw Campbell integrating photography into his hand drawn and painted art to uncanny effect. In keeping with Campbell’s experimental impulses, the book’s style wasn’t always as pleasant to look at as the artist’s earlier work, but none of that discomfort was wasted. The Lovely Horrible Stuff‘s subjects – the bonds of cash, the bonds of family, the power of abstraction – demanded an approach that constantly disturbed the reader’s sense of what was familiar and what was strange.

High on this sense of uncertainty, in my review of the book I speculated that nothing in the story was true:

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 pseudonym Alan Moore uses when he wants to get away 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.

If you think that seems a little too giddy you might be on to something. In the end, this feeling was so intoxicating that I started to doubt my own existence along the way:

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.

Which brings us to Campbell’s most recent autobiographical novel, which I would have known about in advance if I was really here. The qualities that were uncanny in The Lovely Horrible Stuff are now the baseline of Campbell’s reality, worn proudly on the artist’s face in one sequence:

Campbell has Niffenegger comment on this shift in style in the body of the comic (“It’s like he’s trying to find a way of faking it. He’s even sneaking photos into his drawings, hoping no one will notice”), and discusses it in his afterword in the dazed tones of a man who has only just remembered his crimes (“But on casting my eyes over aforegoing pages, I see the laptop everywhere in them”). The absence of Campbell’s hand-scratched letters provides an opening note of dismay in O’Neil’s TCJ review (“I have now felt that same shock of utter betrayal. I have cracked the spine on Eddie Campbell’s latest and found computer lettering staring back”), but her later comment on where she places the book is more revealing:

Ugly as sin, yes, but so is a great deal of Chris Onstad and Jerry Moriarty. Which is sort of where I’d place Campbell right now: halfway between Jack Survives and Achewood, as far away as possible from the meticulous penmanship of From Hell. Never sitting still, our boy.

Like O’Neil, I suspect, I’d rather be frustrated by a favourite artist than bored, so while I find myself missing certain effects of light that Campbell used to conjure from a haze of ink, there are moments where I find new pleasure in his work. Like this bit of business with a cat:

Or this sleepy fantasia, the first in a series of dream sequences that punctuate the story, and the first in a series of scenes depicting some sort of covert skulduggery:

This second image is a bridge back to Campbell’s past: its looseness is new, but in conception it winks at the “Honeybee” newspaper strips that cut through The Fate of The Artist. The sequence where Campbell wrestles the cat has a different feel to it, or rather, it gives fresh form to something Campbell’s long been after. It doesn’t have the sense of the air he’s traditionally sought through painterly effects, but it conveys the same sense of life in the moment as some of his earliest work in The King Canute Crowd. I’m thinking of the way Campbell catches the soft bends of the body in this bar scene:

If that seems too restrained in comparison to what the cat’s doing in the new book, consider those moments in the earlier work where Campbell tried to catch the movement of a pub brawl:

Of course, the world in which Campbell made his earlier works no longer exists, so maybe a shift of technique was required. The Second Fake Death is, as its subtitle points out, “a pandemic graphic novel”, and when I read the new book for a second time down the pub, a comics artist of my acquaintance expressed equal surprise at the change in art style (“It’s like looking at David Hockney’s iPhone drawings!”) as he did at the way Campbell was drawing himself (“Does he look like that now?”). He does, as this video interview will attest!

This shift in technique isn’t limited to line, lettering and colour, any more than the new haircut represents the limits of how much “Eddie Campbell” has changed in this story. From The King Canute Crowd to The Lovely Horrible Stuff, Campbell’s autobiographical work has shown a tendency to the poetic and the anecdotal. Chapters that trace the way people move around in moment-to-moment detail have tended to be matched to sequences where the text provides the through-line of a tall tale, with the images highlighting key moments or providing literary or humorous counterpoints. The hand lettering Tegan O’Neil mentions is one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of Campbell’s work, and the accompanying narrative voice is right there with it, from “Alec MacGarry never forgets things said” to “And then he’ll replace the old maxim with a new one: MONEY is TIME”.

The Second Fake Death is unbothered by such narration. Its dreamtime fantasies, trouser-related misadventures, pop art detective stories and tales of pandemic life are all drawn in their own unique way and dominated by different voices, but they share the same real time rhythm. There’s a sense of shrinking scope here, the ultimate expression of which comes in scenes where characters sit and talk to each other through carefully individualised masks:

The above example is particularly extreme, but the overall effect is to create “real world” discussions that feel a lot like blether between social media avatars. “I see the laptop everywhere,” you might say. I worry that my description risks making it sound like the book is an anti-lockdown rant, when part of Campbell’s technique here is to track the way that physical constraints of lockdown living are matched by an increased sense of futility, a sense that railing against the forces that allow the pandemic to thrive is a hopeless task.

Campbell’s skill for arrangement is a clear point of continuity between The Second Fake Death and his earlier work – as O’Neil puts it in her review, “Campbell is clearly trying to draw lines between diagrams” – and it’s in the way the different layers of the story interact that 2023’s Eddie Campbell can be found. The Fate of the Artist was constructed as a paradox, mocking Campbell’s tendency to search for some grand unifying principle while also fulfilling it through grand, playful collage. If its many detours often seemed to lead the reader down the garden path, the digressions in The Second Fake Death hit roadblocks from the get go. The story about the wife commissioning an investigation of her husband – an echo of an earlier Campbell/Niffenegger collaboration – is presented as being one of Campbell’s stories within the text, and even then it’s called off halfway through the book. The dream comics are entertaining diversions, but we see Campbell declaring that “the idea of a book of them isn’t going to work” a mere two panels after they’re introduced. As for the “Covid’s-19” strips, the Eddie Campbell of the main plot is even more scathing about those, calling it “another one of my failures”.

In the end, it all adds up to something though. The light never quite goes out on the “Royler Boom” detective strip, and its hunt for a missing artist (the real Eddie Campbell) and climactic chase through traffic have their corresponding parts in the top level of the story. There’s also a punchline in there about what happens when the years no longer have pants, heavily trailed throughout the book, but it’s better to let you trip over that one yourself. The bit of real world detective work, in which Campbell, Niffenegger and @BarnaclePress work out the identity of the artist behind “Lucy and Sophie Say Goodbye”, reminded me of the way Campbell changed the ending of How to be an Artist for the Alec omnibus. In the updated version of that story, The Comics Journal printing another artist’s work in its obituary of Stan Drake is used to suggest that posterity might not have much interest in your grand artistic journeys. The Second Fake Death is less depressing: despite ending with the “real” Campbell meeting death after he’s been uncovered, there’s more weight to the idea of another artist being uncovered after his death.

Which brings me to a question: given that it’s the story of creative and social life that has been scunnered by circumstance, why does The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell by Eddie Campbell end up feeling more cheerful than the book it’s coupled with? Well, to get there, we’ll need to get lost on another of our wild tangents.

One thing that stuck me while rereading The Fate of the Artist is that the photograph of Campbell walking Monty is no longer waiting for you at the end of the book.

If memory serves – and it rarely does – Campbell once claimed that this author photo was the last panel of The Fate of the Artist. In this light, the book had a happy ending. Campbell was home and happy, out walking the dog, perhaps even cured of his need to turn life into story. Of course, given that we read this in the form of a story… well, perhaps it wasn’t quite as settled as all that, even with that lovely picture of Monty at the end. This note of disharmony brings me to Chloe Maveal’s typically excellent interview with Campbell for Gutter Review, during which the artist looked back on his earlier work:

But you know, sometimes I look through some of my older books, or like The Lovely Horrible Stuff or Cul-de-Sac, which I did for a Humanoids anthology, and I think “This is monstrous! Is that really who I was? Who I used to be?”

That’s a pretty intense way of describing it! Monstrous? What’s monstrous to you about it?

The acceptance of— well…hm…I guess the anger. There’s an anger there almost all of the time. Usually it’s an anger about money. Looking back now, now that I’m out of that, I managed to — for two decades — I managed to bring up a family as the breadwinner, somehow. We were never delinquent. Everything came out right and everyone came up right. There was never any embarrassment about the car being repossessed. The bills were paid on time. And I think…why was I so angry all the time? Everything was pretty good. Everything came out alright in the end. I don’t know why I was so angry. I would have been a much happier individual if I had just taken a second to notice that everything was working out. Or as my wife had said — “I don’t know why you worry about this stuff all the time! It always comes right in the end!”

Somehow it all comes right in The Second Fake Death in a way it doesn’t in either version of The Fate of the Artist. To quote a recent “anti-memoir”, M. John Harrison’s Wish I Was Here, “All anxieties contain their own mirrors, and you’re always looking for some space to inhabit between the two.” The Second Fake Death exists between anxieties: that Eddie Campbell is still here but in a reduced form, or that he has been replaced. This sounds like a downer but by playfully tracing the flux between these possibilities, Campbell finds a strange freedom. His hybrid aesthetic creates a space where jokes, daft ideas and family members can all breathe easily. If there’s a better description of a comfort in the current moment I’ve yet to hear it, and it’s as good an argument for Campbell’s ever-shifting style as you could ask for.

I would say that though. After all, I’m just another digital phantom.

Comments are closed.