The Fate of the Artist, by Eddie Campbell
Warning: this post contains spoilers for The Fate of the Artist and Citizen Kane. (Just see the damn movie already.)
You'll never pin Eddie Campbell down. He constructs his latest graphic novel through four distinct styles: a parodic hard-boiled detective story, narrated mostly in prose, about the disappearance of Eddie Campbell; a comics journalism-style interview with Campbell's daughter Hayley, illustrated as a fumetti; traditional Campbellian comics, albeit with an "actor" standing in for the missing Campbell; and a set of fake classic newspaper comics, daily and Sunday, about an unhappily married couple. The novel also interweaves some of Campbell's favorite subject matter from over the years: the autobiographical stories of his Alec work, the essayistic historical investigations of his abortive History of Humor, and the manifesto-making of his comics criticism. (Of course, Campbell has combined all of these before to great effect, as in his classic How to Be an Artist.) And there's an illustrated retelling of an O. Henry short story to tie it all together.
All of which is to say, The Fate of the Artist should be a mess but it isn't. That's the beauty of this comic, that it continually extracts connections and meaning from its narrative jumble even as Campbell tells us that trying to project any system of order upon the chaos of life is impossible.
An example? There's a lovely passage tracing the lives and deaths of a pair of obscure 18th-century composers where Campbell lavishes inexplicable detail on a pair of prints, a Viennese scene teeming with people and a deserted panorama of the Pont Neuf. The differences between the two prints, which bracket the scene, parallel Campbell's narration of the lives of these forgotten composers; as they progress from fame to anonymity, the prints move from vibrant street life to desolation and remind us of Campbell's own supposed disappearance. But given that the last words before the Pont Neuf reproduction are "The rest disappeared during the French Revolution," the absence of human subjects seems more sinister than a mere loss of reputation; all of Paris looks to have been put to the guillotine, which Campbell has dutifully depicted for us.
So his lingering attention to these seemingly irrelevant prints is perfectly consistent with the sequence's subject and tone. The next page, though, leads to a breathtaking discovery: the prints are also reproduced on the labels in Campbell's classical music collection, which is the origin of their presence in his narrative. With the turn of a page (and a shift from traditional Campbell narration to the mock private eye) we realize that for the three previous pages we've been dwelling in Campbell's shambolic imagination, retracing his circuitous route from one CD cover to the next.
The entire graphic novel follows this pattern, with throwaway details in one mode of the narrative setting up future gags or explaining past mysteries in another. The aggregate effect is greater than the sum of its parts, making The Fate of the Artist a hyperlinked, cross-referenced pleasure.
One part in particular stands out in offering a possible clue to Campbell's purpose. It's almost the first image we see, the last picture drawn by the missing Campbell, and as such it's the Rosebud that both sparks the investigation and holds the key to the novel's mysteries:
Prose-Hayley says no words came with the picture, but we can make out a few:
not an art and a tradition but a process
removes the sense of coming from somewhere -
that sense [for?] Spiegelman expresses in [???]
Fumetti-Hayley will explain the picture for us later, in her interview; it's God, as drawn by a much younger Hayley for Bacchus. She'll also explain the mysterious words scrawled across His face, although she won't identify that explanation so conclusively as an interpretation of the picture. (Nevertheless, her extended interview sequence is the most direct and accessible gloss on the rest of the graphic novel, offering a clear starting point for interpretation--even as she and Campbell mock the idea of reading too much into the picture.) Instead she talks about Campbell's increasingly trivial arguments with those who would seek to define the graphic novel:
'Bloody definers,' he'd say, 'fuck 'em all.' He reserved the right to draw a comic with only one picture if he felt like it.
Or he'd say he was going to make his 'graphic novel' just a lot of text with a couple of illustrations, as though there was a graphic novel police about to give him a ticket for an imaginary infringement. 'It's all just illustrated stories,' he'd say, 'And an illustration is just a typographical anomaly.'
This is exactly what Campbell has produced in The Fate of the Artist, a work that rambles across a wide range of modes of visual storytelling. In fact, if we set aside the typographical anomalies that intermittently illustrate the detective narrative we could argue that his narrative is that comic with only one picture, revolving as it does around the mysterious image of God.
But what about those words? They read suspiciously like working notes for Campbell's "Graphic Novelist's Manifesto," especially these items:
3. Graphic novel signifies a movement rather than a form. Thus we may refer to "antecedents" of the graphic novel, such as Lynd Ward's woodcut novels, but we are not interested in applying the name retroactively.
4. While the graphic novelist regards his various antecedents as geniuses and prophets without whose work he could not have envisioned his own, he does not want to be obliged to stand in line behind William Hogarth's Rake's Progress every time he obtains a piece of publicity for himself or the art in general.
5. Since the term signifies a movement, or an ongoing event, rather than a form, there is nothing to be gained by defining it or "measuring" it.
Worrying about who created the first graphic novel or who first coined the phrase or whether "Family Circus" is a comic is a game for fools, Campbell says; fuck 'em all. The graphic novel is not a page count or a publication format, not a particular number of images or a "verbal/visual blending" or a proud tradition extending back to Trajan's Column, just a way of approaching the creation of comics. Not an art or a tradition, but a process.
Is that all The Fate of the Artist boils down to--yet another goddamn self-conscious comic about comics? Well, yes and no. Like the original Rosebud, the point of this mystery is not the destination but the journey (I mean the sled here, not Marion Davies' clitoris--although that works too...), as Campbell assembles a wider range techniques for telling stories through comics than even his eclectic body of work would have previously indicated. Although Campbell's kind enough to explain his manifesto for us--and sly enough to explain it through skeptical, irritated Hayley--the intersecting narratives demonstrate his credo with humor and pathos rather than didacticism. It's a kind of antithesis to the Scott McCloud approach; even though both artists graphically embody their ideas in comics form, Campbell operates through a profusion of narratives that create a space for emotional affect and withering self-examination while forcing the reader to take an active role in piecing them together. Needless to say, his vision of comics is considerably more inclusive than McCloud's as well.
Even the most finely made piece of self-explicating practitioner criticism would still be yet another comic about comics, but fortunately Campbell's Rosebud isn't just notes for a manifesto. It's also our first glimpse of God, who will later appear in all His glory to show Eddie Campbell The Universe in the last and greatest of the novel's dizzying leaps out in narrative perspective. The scene is played for laughs, and beautifully telegraphed by some of the novel's most nonsensical, disposable gags. And that seems to be part of Campbell's larger point, that all of life's little complications--the domestic misunderstandings and household mishaps and career reversals, the inexplicable old prints and mystery ailments and sudden senseless deaths, all the cruel jokes at our expense--fit together somehow, but only in some inscrutable pattern that resists every attempt to categorize, order, or define it--not unlike the graphic novel. Not unlike every other system of organizing the universe, come to think of it, but if laughter is the only appropriate response to all this chaos then maybe a form so long associated with the ludic is the perfect choice for representing it. In fact, maybe the term comics isn't so wrong after all.
So that's it, life the universe and everything Eddie Campbell style. But don't take my word for it; trying to isolate and capture Campbell's point (as if he could ever have only one) is an act of folly. Setting his ideas down in cold print like this strips them of their context, the graphic novel that turns a manifesto into a performance. Happily, The Fate of the Artist is not a thesis, but a process.