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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Sunday Comics

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Three pages from Will Eisner’s “Izzy the Cockroach and the Meaning of Life,” part of A Life Force, collected in Eisner’s The Contract with God Trilogy, Norton, 2006.

Don Quixote — Will Eisner

(Via Hey Oscar Wilde!)

Book Shelves #18, 4.29.2012

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Book shelves series #18, eighteenth Sunday of 2012.

Lots of issues of McSweeney’s on this shelf. I abandoned The InstructionsSome Tintin omnibuses. Crumb-illustrated Kafka bio. Bookended by Will Eisner’s masterwork A Contract with God:

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A Chris Ware comic from McSweeney’s #13:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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):

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

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Sunday Reading, 10.02.2011

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Will Eisner’s Adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick

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Will Eisner’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was one of his last works, completed in 2001 just four years before his death. While no comic book adaptation can match Ishmael’s expansive voice, Eisner’s work here does capture the spirit of adventure and the wish for communion that underpins Melville’s tome. We think it would make a great introduction for younger readers to Melville’s massive book, and will surely interest older readers apprehensive of Moby-Dick. Great stuff.

Eisner Moby-DickMore here.