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”:

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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”:

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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):

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.).

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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:

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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

 

 

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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.

 

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / Disconnect

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“Disconnect,” one of the longer episodes in Chris Ware’s novel Building Stories, serves as a reminder of Ware’s strength as a prose writer. Wordiness tends to kill illustrated storytelling, at least in my estimation. Sure, there are exceptions—Joe Sacco and Harvey Pekar come to mind—but in general, I think comics are at their best when thought and word bubbles are uncluttered (or nonexistent).  Ware clearly understands the economy of his medium, and some of Building Stories’ finest moments have been wordless ones where Ware constructs the story in pure imagery. We can see so much of the plot and themes of  “Disconnect” in this full page, for instance:

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But Ware also packs plenty of storytelling into his prose in “Disconnect,” where he continues the story of Lonely Girl, who it’s probably better to now call Married Mom—I still think of her as Lonely Girl though, after first really meeting her in “September 23rd, 2000,” an episode ostensibly narrated by her diary. “Disconnect” is a second diary of sorts, her internal narration guiding us subtly through episodes in her life over a series of years. “Disconnect” focuses on LG/MM raising her young daughter against the backdrop of a strained marriage.

Lonely Girl/Married Mom’s observations ring particularly true. She points out that “When your children aren’t around, you miss them with every fiber of your being—but when they are, you just want to get them to bed so you can go read the news or something,” an observation simultaneously profound, disturbing, and banal. When our heroine recalls how her relationship to her pet cat changed after her child was born, I also saw shades of myself:  “The day we brought Lucy home, almost to the minute, all applied personality to Miss Kitty evaporated, and we saw her for what she was—an animal—and an animal who we were beholden to feed and house, with, suddenly it seemed, little to offer in return.”

Through Lonely Girl/Married Mom, Ware paints a portrait of modern disconnection and alienation, and, even as we sympathize with the heroine, Ware also allows us to see through her—or rather, to see what she can’t see, or to see what she refuses to see. The effect is an irony that tips into small, banal tragedy.

Ware’s prose is usually overshadowed by his gifts as a draftsman, an architect—he’s the builder of Building Stories, a fact that this chapter alludes to, both internally, intertextually, and metatextually. We learn, for example, that Branford the Bee is a story within a story:

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This nesting of stories emerges in the final part of “Disconnect,” wherein our aged narrator—addressing her grown daughter—relates a dream:

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The scene culminates so beautifully that it brought a little tear to my eye. Most postmodern novels contain (often more than once) their own descriptions, and Building Stories is no exception:

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And yet what we see here isn’t postmodern cleverness or empty gimmickry, but the evocation of dream and imagination and desire and creation—the spirit of the book, of what it means to build stories. Reading the final panels of “Disconnect,” I immediately recalled the epigraph to Building Stories (it’s on the interior of the box lid, by the colophon and dedication):

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The AV Club Interviews Comix Journalist Joe Sacco

The AV Club interviews Biblioklept fave Joe Sacco, whose books Palestine and Safe Area Goražde should be required reading for any thinking person. Sacco explores some of the messiest, ugliest terrains in the world, plumbing disaster and war with heart, wit, and insight (read our post on Sacco for more, including links to shorter works). From the interview—

AVC: You got out of journalism school in 1981, so in addition to the shift in public perception about comics as an adult medium, your career has also spanned a profound shift in the journalism industry. Do you think in some ways you’ve been the beneficiary of that?

JS: As many problems as I have with the mainstream media and the way it goes about its business, I’d say at least journalists were, for the most part, trained in discrimination. I have my problems, mostly with editorial decisions in bigger cities, in editorial offices as opposed to with columnists or reporters. I realize that, as time’s gone by with the new media—I’m talking about the electronic media—you could see a shift to emphasis on visuals and on shorter attention spans. I’m sorry, in a way, if my work is a beneficiary of that. I would hope my work has other attributes that have led to a success. But I can’t know for sure, you know? I think the comics market is the only growing part of the publishing industry, of the book-publishing trade. It’s increasing its share as time goes by. I think it also has to do with the sheer weight of good work that’s out there now—obviously not just my work. There are many other great cartoonists working in fiction and other fields that are just really doing work that has to be looked at, that you cannot ignore.

“Portrait of the Cartoonist as a Dog Owner” — Joe Sacco

In this week’s New York Times, cartoonist Joe Sacco is a little less serious than usual. Just a little.

“The Unwanted” — Joe Sacco

Read Joe Sacco’s comic “The Unwanted” at The Guardian. As usual, Sacco approaches a complex problem at the human level in his story about African immigration to Malta. Go here for more on Joe Sacco, his journalism, and his fantastic books, Safe Area Goražde and Palestine.

Joe Sacco

 Joe Sacco’s comic book journalism captures the human elements in disaster, bringing the world’s worst phenomena–war, political oppression, genocide–into a perspective that the average American can understand. Although I was certainly old enough to follow media coverage of the Bosnian War in the nineties, I didn’t really have any clue as to what the whole thing was about until I read Sacco’s alarmingly real Safe Area Goražde, a masterpiece of graphic journalism that puts a human face on planned extinction. Ditto for Palestine, a work detailing Sacco’s years in the Gaza Strip, exploring the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Palestine distills an ancient and ungraspable conflict into a series of frames, images, faces, and words that becomes somehow easier to confront. Palestine certainly can’t explain the incursions and the stone-throwing and the land grabs and the refugee camps and the food shortages and the torture and the kidnapping–it doesn’t even try–but it does make these abstractions thoroughly concrete. 

Sacco is by no means an impartial, objective observer–he eats and lives with the people he’s writing about, and appears in all his stories as a character. Some of the most poignant moments in Sacco’s work concern simple pleasures–like watching bad action movies on pirated VHS or sharing fresh coffee with a new friend–set against a backdrop of disaster. Like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Sacco’s comics work as an education in both politics and the humanities. Highly recommended.

Check out Sacco’s recent comics on Iraq, downloadable as pdfs–Trauma on Loan and Complacency Kills.

Also available online in-full, The Underground War in Gaza, originally published by The New York Times Magazine in 2003.