Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Alec: How to be an artist

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, October 16, 2001

We’ve written and drawn the comic. We’ve helped design the badges and approved the wristwatches. We’ve discussed the film and role-playing game and given a nod to the t-shirt. We’ve done the photo session where they asked us to pose as Adam West and Burt Ward walking sideways up a wall on our bat-rope. We’ve signed so many books that we’re thinking of swapping names just to relieve the tedium. And every time we see that stupid, jaundiced face with the red blood splash we get a crippling migraine.

Another in Eddie Campbell’s wonderful series of semi-autobiographical “Alec” books, this one is more autobiographical than semi.

RecommendationPossible Purchase
AuthorEddie Campbell
Year2001
Length128 pages
Book Rating6

He even has a note to that effect in the forward: he’s gotten so used to drawing himself as Alec that even when it’s really absolutely about himself, he still finds it easier to write about Alec than about himself. Even more autobiographical than the other Alec books I’ve read, every time an Alec work is shown, the author or signature is Eddie Campbell.

The tale starts with the subtitle “How to successfully be an Artist (not to be confused with ‘becoming a successful artist’)”, which pretty much tells you how things are going to turn out. But it doesn’t, really, because the ending glosses over just how unsuccessful (or successful) the movie deal for “From Hell” was.

Other comics names weave in and out of the story. “Big Hairy Alan Moore” comes in and out every couple of pages. About halfway through, some guy named “Bill the Sink” comes in, and only after Campbell hands it to me on a silver platter do I realize it’s Bill Sinkiewitch. This whole thing reminds me, scarily, of Will Eisner’s “The Dreamer”, which Campbell reviews with “With these Eisner will venture into autobiographical country. He’ll be ill at ease here but you’ll wish he’d gone further.” I agree. “The Dreamer” is a fascinating, well-written book that leaves me thinking that the author held back, and leaves me wishing he had not only not held back, but had written more.

“How to be an artist” is told as advice to Alec MacGarry, what Alec may expect on his journey to becoming an artist. From the bargain with Fate at the beginning, to the lapses throughout as Alec/Campbell journeys from photocopies to published, from bi-monthly comics marts in Westminster with no apparent purpose:

You will undoubtedly ask what he gets out of it. Such cynicism should be considered a lapse of faith in the bargain you made with Fate. You will only be permitted three such lapses.

...to co-authoring with Alan Moore.The tone of the story changes from specific advice (“But meanwhile you’ll prepare a set of samples and go up to Sounds”) to general philosophizing about art disguised as specific advice (“For a shining moment you’ll be a novelty and you can only be that once”) through specific advice disguised as general philosophizing (“The cycle of renewal in Art is pedalled by the periodic influx of stuff from somewhere else. That’s why you need a Man at the Crossroads”).

Throughout, the story is permeated by the lack of money that goes with being on the cutting edge of anything artistic. Alec MacGarry is the proverbial lily of the field, never worrying but always provided for--except that he does worry, occasionally. (And that’s a lapse of the bargain made with Fate.)

You may notice that your appearance is getting a bit dull. You’re wearing a faded old jacket your mother bought for you when you were fourteen.

Art runs through life, and life runs through art. Perhaps my ‘favorite’ scene, if I am allowed one, is Alan Moore, who has been reading Campbell’s semi-autobiographical ‘Alec’ pieces, meeting Danny Grey. I expect Danny Grey to enthuse about meeting Alan Moore, and instead we see Moore’s thought balloons: “Good grief, it’s Danny Grey. Just for an instant I have the sense of panel borders looming on the periphery of my vision, framing me, the lorry, the handshake, the sainsbury’s carrier bag in my other hand, the infants school over the road...”

Towards the end of the book, he writes that “Long ago you imagined the adventure of art was Monet in his houseboat. Now it’s Odysseus all at sea for ten years.”

If you’re an Eddie Campbell fan, or if you’re interested in the recent history of the art in Britain (he calls it “the rise and fall of what became known as the graphic novel”, and that’s pretty close), you’ll love this book. If you haven’t read Eddie Campbell before, you might find it a bit dense. I’d recommend starting with the wonderful “Graffiti Kitchen”.

Alec: How to be an artist

Eddie Campbell

Recommendation: Possible Purchase

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If you enjoy comics history, you might also be interested in An Unlikely Prophet and Understanding Comics.