More about this “truth” nonsense in part two of our interview with Eddie Campbell. It’s fitting, I suppose, being that the big T-word does, in fact, play a big role in the recently released Alec omnibus–though, perhaps, not precisely the role one might assume. After all, while the book is rather thinly-veiled with regards to its autobiography, the artist has a rather more abstract notion of “truth” than something that strictly pertains to historical “fact.”
The whole matter is helped along by the fact that the artist slips into a third-person explanation of his own choices a couple of times during this section of the conversation. “If there’s anything interesting about ‘Graffiti Kitchen’ at all,” he tells me, “it’s the way that Campbell has mythologized his own life.”
Campbell chalks the temporary illeism up to a book he’s currently working on, though I’d like to think of it as further blurring of the sometimes artificial line between fact and fiction.
Now that Alec has been compiled into a gigantic volume, do you feel that there are pieces to be connected in the text that you didn’t necessarily connect yourself?
Originally it was just going to be the four books—one, two, three, four—and round up a lot of odds and ends at the end. There were about 80 pages of odds and ends. I started adding in things. At one point it was seven pages of new material. The new stuff just expanded and expanded, until it had become a new book, at which point, somewhere in the process I realized that everything had to run in chronological order. “Duh.” I hadn’t thought of that.
When I say “chronological,” I mean the chronology of things happening. I always thought of it as the chronology in which I had drawn it, which was completely different.
I’m surprised to hear that. I assumed the chronology of your drawing would have matched up with the course of the character’s life.
Not so. “Graffiti Kitchen” was drawn 10 years after the event. In the meantime I’d done “Little Italy,” “Dead Muse,” and started “The Dance of Lifey Death.” Chronologically, if I had put them in the order I’d drawn them, I have put “Graffiti Kitchen” after all of those. But I decided in the book to place them in the order that they had actually happened—if in fact these events had actually happened, that is. I don’t like to talk about it as if it were a document of things that have actually happened.
To me it’s still a work of fiction, by which I mean it’s an organized story, not that it did or didn’t happen. Fact and fiction are not opposing poles. Fact and falsehood are opposing poles. Fiction and non-fiction are opposites. Alec is fiction. If I wrote a biography of Winston Churchill, it would be non-fiction—in which I strove to be the servant of facts. In Alec, I feel free to give myself over to flights of poetry or dream or whatever.
Not everything in the book happened, though I’d like to think everything in it represents a truth of some sort. When I say “truth,” my personal truths may not match up with somebody else’s. The way I see the world might be different than the way my father-in-law sees the world. He’s a staunch catholic. He believes that God’s running the show, so his view of why things happen in the world is going to be completely different from mine.
Getting back to the idea of chronology—as more years have elapsed between an actual event and your writing about it, does the fiction increase?
Not necessarily. One of my studies over the years has been mythology, and when you’re examining two different versions of an ancient myth, the one that is older is not necessarily the one that is more authentic. The same applies here. somebody may be writing about the things he believes in, in BC 600. He may be a much more inventive writer than someone who writes 600 years later, who may be a more pedantic recorder of myths as they still exist in parts of his world to which he travels.
Another example of that is folk music. When Robert Burns in the 1790s, tried to save the folk tunes of Scotland, what he did was write verses to existing fragmentary folk melodies. But 200 years later, he was excoriated for damaging the material, rather than recording it exactly as he found it and not tampering in any way. He is sometimes regarded as a vandal. So, 200 years later, we have a much more rigorous view of how that folk material should have been treated. We have a more of a museum attitude toward it, whereas he felt it was still a living culture, and he was entitled to alter it and add to it. My point is, in answer to the question, that ant earlier version, closer to the source, is not necessarily more authentic.
But there’s a difference between folk music and mythology and your writing about your own life, in terms of authenticity.
Yes, there is. There is, but the interesting point there is that, in my head, I start to see to see these things almost as myths. If there’s anything interesting about “Graffiti Kitchen” at all, it’s the way that Campbell has mythologized his own life. Whereas, on some of the pieces where I’m writing about something funny my kids said yesterday, which would be completely forgotten had I not got it down in print immediately, there’s less of that mythologizing and more of that simple recording of events, exactly as they happen. The book is made up of two disparate modes of dealing with the material of everyday life. That probably creates something of a tension within the book that makes it work as a narrative. It has moments which are captured that could have only been captured by someone paying attention at the time and writing it down immediately. An it has these other kinds of narrative, in which the author starts to see himself as a mythical creature, striding abroad in the world [laughs].
Looking at the book, is it easy to point to panels and pages that are example of each, or is there a lot of overlap between the two?
Um, there’s bound to be a lot of overlap, but there’s a sense that when Campbell— I’m referring to myself as “Campbell” in a new book I’m playing around with. I’ve just slipped into that. There’s a sense in “Graffiti Kitchen,” or, let’s say, “How to be an Artist,” when I introduced my wife to the King Canute crowd, there’s a sense that they’ve become a myth in my head. It’s like Hercules cleaning out the stables—it’s a moment in myth where a few words carry a huge significance. I can simply evoke this grand moment with a few words.
“After the Snooter” is full of moments, like pulling the grass out of
the cat’s arse, for instance [laughs]. it’s something funny you write down before you forget. If you leave something like that too long, you never get around to it.
Does this idea of mythology allow you to play more with the form, in terms of the panels and the aesthetics and such?
If I play around with stuff, it’s only to try to find a better of way of expressing something. One of the things I don’t do in the Alec book is mess around with formal devices like I do, say, in Leotard. I regard that almost as bogus. There’s stuff in The “Fate of the Artist,” but not very much in the big Alec book. Where I do that kind of thing in my work, I do that because I’ve got a very complicated thing that I want to say, and I’m thinking, ‘how am I going to put this difficult idea across?’
The whole idea behind “Fate of the Artist” is that I felt missing in my own life. I was walking around in a daze. I was a cardboard person. How to express that in a book? It became missing person crime mystery, with a detective is trying to trace my whereabouts. The whole thing is a metaphor for a state of mind. Reading it here, this may sound somwhat cerebral, but once I get it into a comic, It’s also, hopefully, very funny.
[Continued in Part Three.]