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Drawing on experience

For the best part of 30 years now, Eddie Campbell has been cutting up his life and rearranging it to fit into tiny panels.

He’s worked various day jobs over the years -- writing and drawing for DC Comics now and then, a long-ago strip for the long-lost music mag Sounds, spending years and years providing visuals for From Hell, Alan Moore’s wild, dark, slightly deranged take on the Jack the Ripper story (later to be turned into an inevitably disappointing Hollywood movie starring Johnny Depp).

But over and above that he has been eking out a continuous scribble of scratchy autobiographical drawings. So, if for nothing else, the 621 pages gathered together for the first time in The Years Have Pants -- 30 years of cartoons collected and collated into a loose baggy monster of a book -- deserve recognition for the stubborn, spiky dedication (verging on monomania) on display.

More than that, though, it’s also a chance to recognise how blazingly good the result of that dedication is. The first third of this book at the very least deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and David B’s Epileptic as an example of just how artful the humble cartoon can be as a vehicle for autobiography.

Campbell, a Glaswegian expat, first started “publishing” (if photocopying can be called publishing) the adventures of his alter ego Alec McGarry in the early 1980s. At the time he was living in England, working in a dead-end job, spending his nights in the pub, talking about the books he was reading and the girls he was seeing.

“I had no ambition beyond life’s daily round and the weekend celebration of it,” he writes. His early strips recall a litany of late nights, fist fights, parties attended, and the people slept with; a tipsy recollection of youth from someone a year or two beyond it.

The tone darkens by the time he gets to Graffiti Kitchen, his account of an affair he had with two women, a mother and a daughter, that’s told via a mix of myth, Henry Miller and a very British miserabilist romanticism: “And sometimes I remember grey English weather when the rain beat on the bus shelter and you leaned against me.”

Nothing in the rest of the book can quite match the headachey neuralgic intensity of these early efforts. Campbell gets married, emigrates to Australia, starts a family and eventually even starts making some money from his chosen profession. Happiness doesn’t exactly write white but the good-humoured ease of the last half of the book is never quite as compelling as the drunken drift of the first. And yet there are wonderful things here. Memories of a Glasgow childhood; news of deaths and divorces among the people we met in the early pages; a sense of a life changing pace and pattern; a notion that you can stretch the comic strip form as far as you desire.

Something of the same impulse can be found in Locas II, the latest compilation of stories from Love and Rockets cartoonist Jaime Hernandez. Whereas Campbell deals in autobiography, Hernandez deals in fiction. Locas II charts the ongoing adventures of Hopey and Maggie, two post-punk latinas in California as they edge into late youth while worrying if they can still be cool in the process.

Like Campbell, Hernandez has been working on these stories for the best part of 30 years. As a result, if you haven’t encountered its two heroines before, you might find yourself a little lost in the ongoing magic realist soap opera that is Hernandez’s stock-in-trade. It would be a bit like dropping in on Coronation Street for the first time -- albeit a Corrie soundtracked by The Germs and Big Black.

It’s certainly much easier to navigate the pages of David Small’s memoir Stitches, the story of the cartoonist’s childhood -- a kind of arthouse take on the misery memoir (a loveless mother, a cancer diagnosis). Stitches has a beginning, a middle and an end. You know where you are. And yet reading it after Locas II and The Years Have Pants, it felt too clean, too controlled. It’s a fine piece of work but in the end I found myself missing the mess of Campbell and Hernandez, the chance to become fully immersed in their worlds.

And even if you find yourself lost somewhere in the middle of Locas II, the lostness makes a kind of sense. The lives Hernandez chronicles are a little lost. The story is a barrio version of La Ronde; will Maggie and Hopey become an item again? Will Ray ever manage to get with Maggie? Who’s going to end up with “Frogmouth” (a Russ Meyer vision of womanhood with a voice like nails sliding down a blackboard)? Or will her psycho ex cut off that option (possibly literally)?

Best of all, there’s the creamy out-and-out gorgeousness of Hernandez’s cartooning, with its echoes of Peanuts, the old Archie comics and “good girl” art (never, outwith Mr Meyer’s movies, have so many worn so little so often). Can you fancy a drawing? Look at the portrait of Frogmouth on page 405 and tell me it’s not possible.

There’s a neat line on the back cover of The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics. It reads “Comics: Not Just for Grown-Ups Anymore!” It’s a cheeky inversion of the PR hype surrounding graphic novels over the last two decades. Knowing too, given that The Toon Treasury is edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly who, as editors of high-brow avant garde magazine Raw back in the 1980s, were prime movers in suggesting that comics could be for grown-ups in the first place.

In The Toon Treasury they have gone back to the comics of American childhood: Sheldon Meyer’s Sugar and Spike, Carl Barks’s Donald Duck, Al Wiseman and Fred Toole’s Dennis the Menace (a blonde, Gnasherless Dennis), a four-coloured compilation of comic strips gathered up from the 1930s to the 1960s.

It’s kids stuff obviously, and the all-American nature of the book means it can’t really benefit from any nostalgia-induced warm feelings for those of us on this side of the Atlantic. But I can’t think of a British comic strip that was ever -- in graphic terms -- as pitch-perfect as John Stanley’s work on Little Lulu and Tubby (apart maybe from Leo Baxendale’s Bash Street Kids).

In the end, what all four of these books have in common -- despite the wide variety of tone, approach and subject matter -- is production values. They are all beautiful things in and of themselves. Perhaps that says more than anything about the fact that the “graphic novel” has been totally embraced by the mainstream.

What was once the stuff of cheap paper and gaudy colours has now been recognised as worthy of hardback covers. What better symptom of the acceptability of the humble comic book than the fact that they now grace coffee tables? An appearance under the Penguin Modern Classics imprint for Campbell and Hernandez perhaps? They wouldn’t look out of place.

 

Alec: The Years Have Pants, by Eddie Campbell, Top Shelf, £25.99.

Locas II, by Jaime Hernandez, Fantagraphics Books, £29.99.

Stitches: A Memoir, by David Small, W W Norton, £17.99.

The Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly, Abrams, £24.99.

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