By Eddie Campbell
Top Shelf / Knockabout
Money makes the world go round, as they say. And around. And around.
Eddie Campbell is an award-winning graphic novelist (Alec, From Hell) whose work defies categorization. His latest book is a dizzying autobiographical investigation into MONEY. It’s a voyage that takes him all the way from the imaginary wealth of Ponzi schemes to the real hard stuff on an obscure South Sea tropical island where he investigates the history of the stone money. This is no dry and dusty treatise on finance; any complexities are pleasingly reduced to the level of bubblegum trading cards. In here you will hear about the corporation that Campbell keeps under his bed; you will meet colorful historical characters and be taken on dangerous shark-infested sea adventures; and after that, we will all plunge to the depths to retrieve our loose change.
This latest work from Campbell is described as a “whimsical graphic essay” on the PR sheet I got, and that pretty much covers it, although strictly speaking it’s two connected essays all about the money.
The first is vintage Campbell, full of the musings of comics’ best exponent of the anecdote, as Campbell hilariously spends time delivering his ongoing stand-up routine in comic form that he’s become so adept at, this time dealing with personal experiences of The Lovely Horrible Stuff in so many forms.
The second is not so great. It has flashes of the brilliance of the first, yet never really fires on all cylinders, never really nails it like the first 50 pages. To be honest, once we get to Campbell’s interesting enough tale of the Micronesian Island of Yap with its stone currency it simply dragged a little too much, flashes of Campbell-esque wonder coming too infrequently. So, let’s concentrate on the great first half, and then decide whether it’s enough to carry the whole thing.
Frankly, at this point I could just litter the review with panels/ quotes / gags and have done with it. Trust me, you’ll guffaw your way through the first 50 pages.
In quick succession, we see Campbell’s faltering and funny dealings with the world of money; the necessity to form a limited company just so Campbell could write AND draw a Batman book, the ridiculous naming and Campbell’s insistence in keeping Antelope Pineapple Ltd in a box under the bed, a potential TV thing based on Campbell’s After The Snooter crashing and burning against financial global meltdown, his father-in-law’s dogged pursuit of a legal case that sees the Campbell’s family loan flushed down the toilet of the legal system, family arguments spinning out of Campbell’s possibly put on for the comic camera grumpy old git persona, and against it all a sense of Campbell’s continued weariness with the world of cold hard cash.
What makes such meanderings work, what makes it all gel together, is Campbell’s somewhat fanciful attempts to become the modern entertainer, the chat show guest comics have never produced (except, as Mark Kardwell points out in the comments, and I should have damn well realised as I typed, for Harvey Pekar!), always there with a quip and a mildly humorous anecdote, not, as he’s at great pains to point out, merely there to discuss the subject “what is a graphic novel”. That the humour of the situation, and Campbell’s position as supreme entertainer sometimes exists merely in his own head is immaterial, as it’s his head that controls what appears on the page, so imagined or not – Campbell’s word is the law, much to the bemusement and frequent annoyance of his nearest and dearest.
This persona is something he’s skilfully constructed over the years, and it’s delivered knowingly and effectively in The Lovely Horrible Stuff. There’s so much in here, so many clever switches, Campbell effortlessly moves between narratives, working them all in with a conversational beauty. Seriously how many authors would have the creativity, the sheer audacity to pull of some of the things Campbell does here?
Like this grand imagined conversation ….
“The one in my head has run out of beer.”
And then to segue into a couple of pages of chatting to Will followed by a discussion with the TV people about the complexities of Campbell’s imagination? That’s not just meta-fictional, that’s comedy brilliance:
“Perhaps he only imagines he’s leaving the house.”
The one slightly difficult part in this first half concerns this After The Snooter TV series. No, really, this isn’t something Campbell’s making up. At least I don’t think he is. Somone in Oz had the great idea of doing some sort of weird reality series meets weird drama with animation and effects thrown in thing. And Campbell was going to play himself. Strangely though, more and more as I read/see them both, I can see Larry David falling into the role of Campbell perfectly. He wrote about it on his now sadly dormant blog here.
Being Campbell, there’s very little explanation of this proposed TV series in here though, which does set the head wondering what the hell is going on at times. But the thing is, Campbell’s so easy to read, so freewheeling with the narrative, that you honestly can’t help but get drawn along with it all anyway. Weird stuff happens, Campbell tells me about it, I have some idea of what it is, and a damn fine time reading it. That’s how he sets it out, that’s how it delivers.
Comedy, as Campbell points out a few pages on – it’s all in the timing. And bloody hell, Campbell’s timing has never been sharper or better. At least until the halfway stage. The second half, concerning the stone currency of the island of Yap is nowhere near as quick, incisive, or plain funny as part one. On it’s own, it may have worked, but here it just feels like something rather tacked on to the book. So, it’s half a brilliant book. Or it’s a brilliant series of comedy sketches on the comic page with an interesting geographical travelogue essay tacked on. You choose. But personally, it’s worth it just for the laughs of that beautifully done first half.
Interestingly for someone you could make a fine argument for being one of the best comic makers of the modern age, Campbell’s style over the last few books, culminating with The Lovely Horrible Stuff, is actually something more along the lines of illustrated panels, something rather like Rupert books of old, something Kyle Baker does/did an awful lot, and many others before him. But it’s also fascinating to see Campbell’s style develop, and here he takes it further still, mixing photo montage in with the artwork as he goes along, to stunning effect.
What Lovely Horrible Stuff does so well is let Campbell’s voice come through, loud and clear, with all the humour and wonderful quirks the man has. This is Campbell at his prickly, difficult, contrary, obstinate, troubled, frustrated best. That it’s only half the book it wants to be may well be my personal taste at play, yet that first part works so well that I’ll gladly accept it anyway.