Eddie Campbell’s canon of great graphic novels, 1977-2001

Eddie Campbell’s book Alec: How to Be an Artist (Eddie Campbell Comics, 2001) covers the “rise and fall of the graphic” over the course of a few decades. Alec combines memoir with art history and art criticism, all told through scratchy inks and spidery lettering (and plenty of pastiche–Campbell literally pastes the work of other comic artists of the last century throughout the book, along with “serious” artwork  ). While Campbell’s autobiographical stand-in “Alec MacGarry” is obviously central to the story, other figures loom here, including Bill Sienkiewicz (“Billy the Sink”), Art Spiegelman, Stephen Bissette, Dave Sim, Eastman and Laird—and especially Campbell’s From Hell partner, Alan Moore.

How to Be an Artist offers a fascinating and personal look at the time before (and immediately after) comic books reached a tipping point into (gasp!) serious artistic respectability. Witty, warm, and occasionally cruel, Campbell’s book explores the intersection of commerce and art in a very particular place and a very particular time.

The book was especially revelatory for me, I suppose: I transitioned from super hero comics to, like comix in the early nineties, a transition helped by works championed in How to Be an Artist, like Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Sandman books and Dave Sim’s Cerebus. Indeed, the backpages of Cerebus in the late eighties and early nineties operated like a long messy ranty meditation on the theme of “How to be an (independent, successful, self-publishing) artist”—and it was also in the backpages of an issue of Cerebus that I first saw Campbell’s work (the prologue of From Hell was published in Cerebus #124).

How to Be an Artist’s final chapter sees Campbell offer up a canon of “graphic novels” from 1977 to 2001 (I’ve typed out the full list at the bottom of this post). Campbell (or, properly, Campbell’s persona Alec) begins the chapter by dwelling on the problematic term “graphic novel”:

img_8424

After resolving to use the term, despite whatever problems might be attached to it, Campbell goes on to point out that, after the success of works like Watchmen and Maus, a glut of so-called “graphic novels” flooded the market place. He then goes about naming the best, those works that represent a “worthwhile phase in the human cultural continuum”:

img_8424-1

The list is organized semi-chronologically; Campbell groups works in a series together, as with Will Eisner’s Dropsie Ave books. Here’s the first page of the canon, to give you an idea of its form and layout (note that the list, like the entire book, is written in the future tense):

img_8425

I’ve never read When the Wind Blows.

I’ve also never read, to my shame, the unfinished project Big Numbers (by Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz). Campbell details the drama surrounding why the project was never finished in How to Be an Artist. I’ll have to track it down.

img_8427-2

Campbell includes a trio of Love & Rockets novels. Poison River is the first one I read. I was a junior in high school; I checked it out from the public library. Somehow my mother saw it, flicked through it, and was mortified.

img_8427-1

Campbell seems to split the difference on Dave Sim’s Cerebus, including critical favorite Jaka’s Story along with the later novel Going Home (which sees Sim trying to reign in the project and steer it toward a conclusion). (Nobody asked me but I would’ve included Church & State and Church & State II).

img_8430

Joe Sacco’s comix-journalism is excellent, and Campbell includes both Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde. These “graphic novels” (they aren’t really graphic novels, except that they are) expanded what was possible not just in comics, but also in journalism.

img_8430-1

From Hell isn’t the only one of his own works that Campbell includes on his list—he also includes another Alec novel, The King of Canute Crowd. I love the gesture—an artist fully assured of the qualities in his best work. For the record, if pressed to name “the best graphic novel” I would probably immediately say, “Oh, it’s From Hell of course” (and then hem and haw and hedge, bringing up Chris Ware’s Building Stories, the first half of Sim’s Cerebus project, David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios PolypLove & Rockets, etc.).

img_8431

Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan shows up on the list, of course. I’m sure Building Stories would be on here too—along with dozens of others—if the list were updated. Indeed, Campbell’s canon (my term, not his), ends with this disclaimer:

img_8431-1


Here’s the full list:

 

A Contract with God, Will Eisner, 1977

A Life Force, Will Eisner, 1985

The Dreamer, Will Eisner, 1986/1991

Dropsie Avenue, Will Eisner, 1995

Tantrum, Jules Feiffer, 1979

When the Wind Blows, Raymond Briggs, 1982

Maus, Art Spiegleman, 1991

V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd, 1988

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, 1988

Big Numbers, Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz, 1990

The Death of Speedy, Jaime Hernandez, 1989

Blood of Palomar, Gilbert Hernandez, 1989

Poison River, Gilbert Hernandez, 1994

Jaka’s Story, Dave Sim and Gerhard, 1990

Going Home, Dave Sim and Gerhard, 1999

Alec: The King Canute Crowd, 1990

The New Adventures of Hitler, Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell, 1990

The Cowboy Wally Show, Kyle Baker, 1987

Why I Hate Saturn, Kyle Baker, 1990

Violent Cases, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1987

Signal to Noise, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1992

Mr. Punch, Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, 1995

Casanova’s Last Stand, Hunt Emerson, 1993

Tale of One Bad Rat, Bryan Talbot, 1995

City of Glass, Paul Auster/David Mazzucchelli, 1994

The Playboy/I Never Liked You, Chester Brown, 1991/1994

Stuck Rubber Baby, Howard Cruse, 1995

Palestine, Joe Sacco, 1996

Safe Area Gorazde, Joe Sacco, 2000

Ghost World, Daniel Clowes, 1997/2000

It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken, Seth, 1997

Ethel and Ernest, Raymond Briggs, 1998

Gemma Bovery, Posy Simmonds, 1999

Cages, Dave McKean, 1998

Uncle Sam, Steve Darnall and Alex Ross, 1998

From Hell, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, 1999

Hicksville, Dylan Horrocks, 1998

The Jew of New York, Ben Katchor, 1998

Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Chris Ware, 2001

Goodbye, Chunky Rice, Craig Thompson, 1999

Dear Julia, Brian Biggs, 2000

Berlin, Jason Lutes, 2001

 

 

Advertisements

Sunday Comics 

Cerebus #166, January, 1993 by Dave Sim and Gerhard; published by Aardvark-Vanaheim. This issue is Chapter 16 of the Mothers & Daughters storyline, Sim’s imagining of a tyrannical matriarchal state (sort of like The Handmaid’s Tale in reverse, sort of). This issue is one of my favorite chapters in the novel, a riff on Sim’s earlier “Mind Games” issues, wherein Cerebus’s dream-state shapes events in the real world. Mothers & Daughters is pretty much the last good Cerebus novel, before Sim took things completely off the rails in Reads.

Sunday Comics 

 

Cerebus #85, April 1986 (Aardvark Vanaheim), by Dave Sim and Gerhard. This was the first Cerebus back issue I bought (in like ’91 or ’92). It’s near the beginning of Church & State II (which is to say, in the middle of Church & State, which is to say, in the middle of the best parts of Cerebus). The issue introduces Sim’s parodies of Mick and Keith (um, Mick n’ Keef); Prince Mick shares codeine-laced whiskey with Cerebus. Vomiting, hallucination, and friendship ensue.

(Last) Three Books (Sunday Comics)

This is the last Three Books post.

I had fun doing this every Sunday but a year seems like long enough. I do, however, like to do a themed post of some kind on Sundays, so I’ll do something with comics each Sunday for a year. Not just cover scans—panels, strips, etc. But this Sunday, three covers/three books:

img_3465

The New Mutants Vol. 1, #22, December 1984. Marvel Comics. Issue by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz. Cover painting by Sienkiewicz.

I got rid of most of my Marvel Comics collection when I was 13 but could never bear to part with Sienkiewicz’s run on The New Mutants, my favorite comic book. (I wish I had kept more of Claremont’s 1980s run on The Uncanny X-Men).

img_3467

Cerebus #164, November 1992. Aardvark-Vanaheim. Issue (and cover) by Dave Sim and Gerhard. This is the second issue of Cerebus that I bought (issue #163’s cover is not nearly so good, so…not featured today). I had no idea what was going on but loved it. I caught up fairly quickly through Sim’s so-called “phonebooks” of the earlier books. I eventually quit reading Cerebus monthly, but still picked up the big collections, albeit more and more intermittently, until I almost forgot about it altogether. A few years ago I realized that Sim must’ve finished the damn thing (he’d always said it would be 300 issues long and conclude with Cerebus’s death), and I got the final volumes and read them. Let’s just say the first half of Cerebus is much, much better than the second half.

img_3468

Ronin Vol. 1, #2, September 1983. DC Comics. Issue and cover by Frank Miller (colors by Lynne Varley).

Before Frank Miller became a cranky old fascist hack, he made some pretty good comic books. I’m pretty sure The Dark Knight Returns was the last really good thing he did, and that was thirty years ago, but my favorite Miller will likely always be Ronin.

Malcolm X — Dave Sim

sim_malcolm_x

Cerebus — Ramon Villalobos

cerebus

Kafka/Cerebus (Books Acquired, 1.31.2014 + Bonus Circumcision Anecdote)

20140207-154015.jpg

Picked up books last week, not needing them, but hey.

A digest of Kafka’s diaries; good stuff, great random reading.

This is a great little anecdote:

20140207-154023.jpg

Austerlitz is of course the name of a W.G. Sebald novel. From that novel:

20140207-154029.jpg

I also picked up the sixth issue of Swords of Cerebus by Dave Sim. It’s a second printing and in terrible shape and I already have the issues in other forms (reprint and graphic novel) but it’s still a pretty rare find. And I am a nerd.

20140207-154036.jpg

The book also includes a short little excellent wordless comic, “A Night on the Town,” where Cerebus parties with a corpse. I have the reprint somewhere else, but still:

20140207-154043.jpg

Cerebus vs. Superheroes — Dave Sim

bonfire-redux

(Via).

RIP Kim Thompson

clowes

 

RIP Kim Thompson, 1956-2013.

I probably first got to know Kim Thompson’s name through the editorial and letters pages of Dave Sim’s long-running black and white comic Cerebus. Sim had this marvelous agon with Thompson and partner Gary Groth, who were, like, the voice of comix (as opposed to, y’know, comics). Their outlet for that voice was The Comics Journal, the often ornery (and often-sued) magazine that maintained the critical and artistic traditions of cartooning against the venal backdrop of superhero comics.  Thompson was also instrumental in the vision and quality of Fantagraphics Books, where he edited books by Chris Ware, Peter Bagge, and Joe Sacco, among, many many others. I still have all my issues of his anthology comic Zero Zero, which was instrumental in warping my young mind. I think I’ll dig them out now.

 

Pope Cerebus (Dave Sim)

11

Cyclops — Dave Sim

cyclops dave sim

(Via).

Iron Man — Dave Sim

iron man sim

(Via).

Book Shelves #24, 6.10.2012

20120610-104319.jpg

Book shelves series #24, twenty-fourth Sunday of 2012: In which we glance at canonical comics.

So we’ve hit the last shelf in a series of triplets; next week: new room.

This shelf holds graphic novels, including stuff by Alan Moore, Marjane Satrapi, David Mazzucchelli, Jeff Smith, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware. There’s also most of Dave Sim’s epic series Cerebus here.

20120610-104325.jpg

I wrote about Dave Sim and Cerebus back in week 6 of this project, when I looked at the actual comic books I owned in the series. From that post:

 I bought issues of Cerebus intermittently for years at a time, usually getting frustrated and then waiting for the “phone book” graphic novel editions of the series. Sim, along with background artist Gerhard, produced 300 issues of Cerebus over 25 years. The issues from the early ’80s to the early ’90s are brilliant; eventually Sim cracked though and went on an insane, reactionary (and arguably deeply misogynistic) bent. He created his own religion, a mix of hardline Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and the later books in the series suffered greatly, as the book detoured to chronicle projects that seemed far outside its original scope (including strange, long satires of Hemingway and Fitzgerald).

These are the phone books I referenced. Looking over them again, I keep reminding myself to try and reread the last two books to see if I missed anything.

Somewhat at random, I opened Reads, the novel that signaled the beginning of Sim’s estrangement from sanity. It opened to this page, part of a climactic scene between Cerebus and Cirin, leader of the matriarchy that will rule Iest (don’t ask):

20120610-104334.jpg

Book Shelves #6, 2.05.2012

Book shelves series #6, sixth Sunday of 2012: In which we dig into the comix inside the book shelf we looked at last week.

20120205-102013.jpg

When I was 13, I sold a fairly large collection of superhero comic books and earned enough money to buy an electric guitar—a weird mutant by Fender called the Bullet—and a small practice amp. It was the early nineties, and Marvel was about to burst the comic book bubble big time by flooding the market with gimmicky covers, hologram cards, and other nonsense.

I continued to buy comics (or comix, if you prefer) over the years, although eventually economic concerns led me to just wait for graphic novel editions. Anyway, the book shelf above now contains most of the “underground” comix that I own. A few samples:

20120205-102552.jpg

20120205-102601.jpg

20120205-102611.jpg

Most of the comix in this unit though are issues of Dave Sim’s epic (and insane) series Cerebus. I bought issues of Cerebus intermittently for years at a time, usually getting frustrated and then waiting for the “phone book” graphic novel editions of the series. Sim, along with background artist Gerhard, produced 300 issues of Cerebus over 25 years. The issues from the early ’80s to the early ’90s are brilliant; eventually Sim cracked though and went on an insane, reactionary (and arguably deeply misogynistic) bent. He created his own religion, a mix of hardline Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, and the later books in the series suffered greatly, as the book detoured to chronicle projects that seemed far outside its original scope (including strange, long satires of Hemingway and Fitzgerald). Anyway, some issues:

20120205-102641.jpg

Cerebus Jam, a one-off collaboration with a cover by one of my favorite artists Bill Sienkiewicz (I still have his entire run on Marvel’s The New Mutants in a box somewhere):

20120205-102651.jpg

A panel from the issue’s collaboration with comic book legend Will Eisner, featuring his seminal character The Spirit:

20120205-102658.jpg

High Society–Dave Sim

If you’re at all interested in reading any of Dave Sim’s epic 300-issue comic book Cerebus, a book chronicling the life–and death–of a misanthropic mystical barbarian aardvark, High Society is the best (and possibly only) starting point. High Society tells the story of Cerebus’s political adventures in Iest, the largest cosmopolitan city-state of Estarcion. Guided (or perhaps manipulated) by Machiavellian Astoria, Cerebus undertakes a strange, comic odyssey of political ascendancy, culminating in an election for Prime Minister (against Groucho Marx stand-in Lord Julius’s goat, of all things). Sim has a deft ear for political satire and the volume holds up particularly well to a rereading against the backdrop of the current American electoral process. While High Society conveys a certain cynical contempt for the cronyism, deal-making, and the general nasty malfeasance that underwrites politics, there’s also a reconciling of democracy, liberty, and art here that you could never find from a CNN analyst or a Fox News hack. By this point, the crude art and flubbed pacing that hampered the first few years of Cerebus are nowhere to be found. High Society is tightly-plotted, full of smart gags expressed in Sim’s keen lines, without an over-reliance on bubbles overstuffed with exposition.

The book is funny without ever being light, and rereading it again, I was surprised at how moved–and exhilarated–I was by the conclusion. Although the parody of Marvel’s forgotten Batman ripoff Moon Knight doesn’t hold up very well, and the “sideways” issues at the end are an annoying (but interesting) experiment, High Society continues to deliver both laughs and insight about the political process over twenty years after its single-volume publication. Very good stuff, and highly recommended (read it along with/against the 2008 election).

(Strange aside that I couldn’t work into the piece–remember Ken Jennings? That guy who won Jeopardy! like, a year straight? According to his blog he’s a huge Cerebus fan).

Cerebus — Dave Sim

Quick disclaimer:

What follows is a review of the first Cerebus graphic novel, not a review of the series as a whole. I initially contemplated such a feat, but handling Dave Sim’s (and Gerhard’s) 300-issue-long magnum opus in one post would result in either a really, really long post or a really, really inadequate handling of such fine (and troubled) material. Instead, I’ll review the series chronologically, covering one volume a month.

I suppose, also, that a quick primer or introduction may be necessary, so here goes–

Cerebus is a 300 issue black and white comic book, conceived, written, and drawn by Dave Sim (with stunning background art by Gerhard in issues 66-300). Sim published the book himself via his Aardvark-Vanaheim imprint. The book follows the adventures (and non-adventures) of Cerebus the Aardvark, a surly barbarian who, as one of only three existing aardvarks in Estarcion, has a sort of catalytic power to influence major world events. It’s satire, it’s drama, it’s action, it’s art. The series contemplates politics, religion, literature, economics, and just about everything else under the sun. Only this is really not an adequate summary at all, so I’ll stop here, and get to the actual review. You can google “Cerebus” and “Dave Sim,” of course, and read all about Sim’s rise and fall (it gets spectacularly crazy, folks!); or, you can just wait until we get to the Reads book to learn all about Dave Sim, misogynist. But I’ve digressed before I’ve even begun. (The Cerebus Wikipedia page is pretty good; and this 2004 AV Club interview is also insightful).

Let’s start the review with yet another non-start: another disclaimer:

If you’re at all interested in Cerebus, Cerebus, the first graphic novel in the series, collecting issues
1-25, is not the place to start. If you really are interested in Sim’s work, start with the next collection, High Society. It’s much funnier, tighter, and Sim comes into his own as a draftsman by these issues (although there’s no denying that the art only gets better and better as the story progresses). Sim claims that he knew more or less from the beginning that Cerebus would have a scope of 300 issues (taking 27 years to complete), but the first 15 or so issues don’t really reveal anything that promising. Very early Cerebus is a silly funny animal Conan-Red Sophia parody. However, with issue 20, “Mind Games”–a comic Sim composed in interlocking images that when reconstituted created a new image (all right, that’s not a great description)–the book starts to get really interesting. By this point, Sim has already introduced my favorite character, Lord Julius, the anarchic Groucho Marx parody who wreaks havoc throughout the series; Sim further stirs things up by injecting the matriarchialist Cirinists into the chaos. The emerging Cirinists’ political/martial power becomes the conflict that will dominate the first half of the Cerebus series, and the larger issue of female power can rightly be named the Sim’s thematic obsession throughout the entire comic’s run. Before these themes come into their own, issues 1-17 or so of the book are stock fantasy tropes poked at with a stoner’s sense of humor. Like I said before, Cerebus–volume 1 of Cerebus–will be most enjoyed by those who’ve already had a taste of the good stuff–High Society and Church & State. Good stuff. More to come.