Amazing, Remarkable? Eddie Campbell’s Monsieur Leotard is all that and more.
by Eddie Campbell & Dan Best.
Published by First Second.
This latest book from Eddie Campbell is a collaborative affair, although you’d be hard pressed to tell that from reading it, as to all intents and purposes it’s an Eddie Campbell book. But, like every other Eddie Campbell book, it’s nothing like the one’s that have gone before. That’s perhaps one of Campbell’s greatest skills; to continually push himself to do it differently. Of course, doing it differently each time is okay, but Campbell does it differently and brilliantly each time. He’s one of the most interesting cartoonists alive.
The actual tale of Leotard follows the varied and eventful career of the nephew of Jules Leotard, the original daring young man on the flying trapeze. Jules dies within the first few pages and it’s his dying words to his nephew “may nothing occur ……..” that will shape the entire book. Because the nephew; Etienne, whilst attempting to live his life to this credo, proceeds to live a life as far from it as possible.
(“May Nothing Occur”. The final words of the Great Leotard, the acrobat, to his nephew. Etienne singularly fails to live his life to this advice. From The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best. Published First Second.)
Taking on the mantle of his uncle and travelling the world with his uncle’s circus troupe as they stumble haphazardly through various pivotal moments in turn of the century history, from the siege of Paris to the sinking of the Titanic. There’s even one very self-referential moment when the troupe turn up in London at the time of Jack The Ripper and find themselves under investigation by a very familiar looking Inspector Abberline, making this possibly the most unexpected tie in to Moore and Campbell’s epic Ripper tale, From Hell.
Like much of Campbell’s work, there is a self-depreciating humour here, with Campbell’s wonderfully comic timing coming to the fore. Take for example the moment of the troupe’s rescue of one of their member from Devil’s Island. Needing passage to the Americas, they manage to book themselves onto the Titanic with the oft repeated phrase of “and in the next episode may nothing occur”. Nothing, patently does not occur. (To mangle the language terribly).
That phrase “In the next episode may nothing occur” highlights another classic Campbell-ism; his remarkable ability to play around with the comic medium. At various points in the tale, his characters make reference to the nature of their lives as episodes, with Etienne particularly aware of the need to present his own tale for publication.
And then there’s the point about halfway through when Campbell and Best pull off a master-stroke, having Etienne take to his bed with the thoughts: “Let the next episode be the episode of sleeping”. Etienne then dreams a conversation with his dead uncle, wondering what his life has become. His uncle calmly retorts that Etienne’s future “is the world of ideas”. At which point Campbell and Best appear as themselves, strolling through the white space at the edge of their own pages discussing the direction the book has taken while Etienne ponders just the same about his life:
Campbell: “What next, any ideas?”
Best: “The book’s only half done”
Cambell: “But this is one of those characters that writes his own story, you can’t force it”
Best: “Maybe we should just move onto another book”
Etienne: “But my book’s only half finished. Did I lose interest in the story of my own life? Or has God abandoned me? Is my creator too busy attending to some other person’s story? The next episode will count for everything”
And it does, but perhaps not in the way Etienne imagines. For he wakes from his sleep, perhaps not exactly a different man, but certainly changed. The way Campbell and Best set it all up and then deliver the pay-off is clever and daring and beautifully executed. I’m not going to give it away any more than I have, since it’s a great moment in the book and, if you haven’t read it, I believe you deserve the surprise for yourselves.
The life and eventual death of Etienne is a delightful comedic adventure reminiscent of a Gilliam tale. The comedy is never overplayed, likewise the tragedies that dog Etienne and the troupe throughout his life are simply told, and made all the more effective in their simple telling. And all the while, Campbell plays with our expectations of the story and the conventions of the medium brilliantly.
Of course, throughout it all, Campbell’s artwork is simply wonderful. He’s an artist whose work gets better and better with age. I’m sat here with the book by the side of the keyboard and at one point found myself just staring at the beautiful cover for a minute or two, lost in the image. His artwork is that rarest of things, beautiful to look at and incredibly inventive. The tricks and flourishes are never wasted and it’s a book that requires, even demands, repeated reading just to fully pick out everything that Campbell puts on his lovely pages.
The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard is not quite the best work of Eddie Campbell’s career, but his consistent quality and remarkable innovation means that even when not quite at his best, his work still dazzles and amazes with each new direction it takes. He’s truly a master of the comic medium with an incredible body of work, to which Leotard is a very welcome addition.
Richard Bruton is currently wearing a snug leotard and looking at the clothesline in the back garden.