The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell (coupled with) The Fate of the Artist

The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell (coupled with) The Fate of the Artist

Eddie Campbell

Top Shelf


192 pages

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I consider myself to be a reasonable person. In hindsight, reasonable people can chuckle at the boob shouting “Judas!” at Bob Dylan from the cheap seats at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall on 17 May 1966. “I don’t believe you,” Dylan scowls from the stage, calling the bluff of every aesthete committed enough to care too much about a popular musician plugging in an electric guitar. It’s difficult perhaps to inhabit anew a moment already so thoroughly masticated, but dear reader, I promise, I have now felt that same shock of utter betrayal. I have cracked the spine on Eddie Campbell’s latest and found computer lettering staring back.

Ack, I say, ack and thbbft.

From The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell.

What goes on here? Why, it’s none other than The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell, new from Top Shelf. The first fake death of Eddie Campbell was in The Fate of the Artist, from 2006. That lovely volume was originally published by First Second, but it’s been appended here in its entirety, at slightly larger proportions, on the flip side of The Second Fake Death, presumably to obviate the need to put out a 20th anniversary edition in a few years. Killing multiple birds with one stone, don’t ya know.

2006 was a long time ago! How long ago was it? It was long enough ago that I was still blogging regularly when The Fate of the Artist dropped. I wrote quite a bit about the book, back in the day, and no, we’re not linking to any of that old claptrap. But it quite entranced me the first time around, and I can’t say I enjoyed it any less this time. The Fate of the Artist is a book about writer’s block - which is, I know, about as played a subject as can be. It’s about a lot of things besides writers’ block. What stuck out at me most this time through was the degree to which Campbell seemed to be roasting himself. Here, now, Campbell seems to have acknowledged, I have become quite the old boor, haven’t I?

From The Fate of the Artist.

Seventeen years have passed and, wouldn’t you know it, Campbell is still in the process of roasting himself. Any trepidation I felt over the appearance of garish computer lettering faded like dew in the misty dawn upon the realization that The Second Fake Death was actually a very funny book. The Fate of the Artist is supposed to be funny too, but there’s an undercurrent of tension and sadness throughout. The tension and sadness in The Second Fake Death is right there on the surface with the humor. Maybe one reason the book itself feels a bit looser and freer.

That tension and sadness cuts to the heart of what’s going on here, as The Second Fake Death isn’t merely a sequel to a 17-year old metafictional artist’s memoir. It’s also a story of the last few years of all our lives together, inasmuch as we’ve all lived the last few years together. You know, thanks to the whole pandemic thing. Our narrative begins in the middle of the lockdown - or rather, the internal stay-at-home exile many Americans experienced in lieu of an actual lockdown such as those experienced by the citizens of many other countries. The days on end stuck inside melted into a smear of eternal present. Campbell has decamped to the United States--

From The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell.

--and then I had to go check Google to see, ah yes, he’s married to a different woman than he was in 2006. Worse still, an American. Living in the midwest, even. No shit, dawg? No shit! I missed it completely. They even did a book together in 2018, him and writer Audrey Niffenegger, called Bizarre Romance. Completely passed me by. In my defense, I’ve had a wracked half-decade!

But there’s continuity here in the premises, despite every other conceivable change. Campbell is clearly trying to draw lines between diagrams. He was wracked in 2006 because he couldn’t quite figure out what he wanted to write about. Without any ideas, he was left to ransack his home life like a hungry vampire looking for #content, a process not without danger in the form of pissing off everyone else around him. The marital squabbling in the earlier volume, at least, hits different with the understanding of what follows. The Fate of the Artist settled on the conceit of faking a death for the purpose of conducting a fake investigation, splitting all the aspects of Campbell's life into little cubes that could be dissected with forensic clarity. Imagine yourself the detective piecing together bits and pieces of a man based on his family’s recollections of his least flattering habits.

From The Fate of the Artist.

That sense of bricolage that joined together the pieces of The Fate of the Artist persists here, technique as motif intended to communicate the sensation of discrete attenuation. Things are being stretched thin - be it by circumstances, by temperament, or by politics. Yes, this is at times an explicitly political story: an expression of endless gnawing frustration at the present moment. One of the projects on which Campbell is puttering around, during the long internal exile of sitting at home, is a comics-format screed on the subject of the various political failures and malfeasance of the COVID era. We know this story. The samples of the project Campbell shows off—entitled, I shit you not, “COVID’s Nineteen”—are didactic yawps at the expense of the former president’s coterie of knaves and fools. Wet kindling for a cartoonist of his caliber. But the samples nevertheless showcase an important aspect of the present moment: the degree to which so many of us are left spinning our wheels, completely unmanned in the face of such puckish organized intransigence. What would be the point of such a book? There’s no great narrative waiting to be strung together on these very simple facts and Campbell knows it. Merely the background noise for every day.

It’s easy to get distracted by the act of living our lives, but Campbell’s narrative is quite clear-eyed on the subject of the last few years; clear-eyed as only a foreigner living among the heathens could be. We, by which I mean Americans, have accepted a lout’s veto over all manner of public policy. The borders of acceptability are measured by those least willing to concede a jot of personal dudgeon. People have shorter tempers. So, of course the problem hasn’t gone away, people are still dying, everyone suddenly has mysterious long-term health problems, but we’re not allowed to talk about anything but “the summer flu” because a vocal minority has browbeaten (and sometimes literally beaten) the rest of the country into pretending there’s no problem. Meanwhile, those of us who still endeavor to inhabit the real world haven’t left the house without a mask in over three years. I haven’t caught it yet, motherfuckers.

From The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell.

Anyway. One of the questions that undergirds both books, separated by almost two decades of water flowing under many and varied bridges, is how precisely to dramatize the realm of the domestic. Conversations between spouses is an established genre, with significant entries from the likes of Campbell, Harvey Pekar, and Robert Crumb & Aline Kominsky-Crumb. Both of Campbell’s entries here attempt to surmount the mediated domestic with fanciful injections. For instance: Audrey Niffenegger goes to a private detective named Royler Boom for help after she comes to suspect her husband has been replaced with a doppelgänger, whom she believes may be actor Richard Siegrist. Siegrist served the same function in The Fate of the Artist, inserted into Campbell’s various historical dramas. Royler Boom and his assistant, the plucky Fizzy, track the man down through his associates. Damned by testimony of his friends.

You notice, incidentally, that everyone is wearing a mask. Not necessarily an unfamiliar sight, but certainly one most artists seem to have been going out of their way to avoid depicting. Seeing two people sit down for a serious conversation hits different when one of them has the lower half of the Hulk’s face. Changes the temperature ever so slightly.

From The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell.

Another commonality between the two books: they are both multimedia pieces. The Fate of the Artist incorporated extended passages of prose as well as photo comic sequences, such as in extended conversations with Campbell's daughter Hayley - who has since become a writer of no small esteem herself, and appears in The Second Fake Death mainly as a voice on the phone for Eddie to call when he’s in over his head and trapped on the wrong side of Trump’s border wall. The Second Fake Death is a purely digital creation. It’s worse than just using digital lettering, I fear - the whole damn kit and caboodle seems to be native digital. He even comes right out and admits it in the afterword: “on casting my eyes over the aforegoing pages, I see the laptop everywhere in them. I make all my pictures on it. I’m not sure by how many increments it got that way, but the pictures I see in my head require it.”

The bass drum thumps and the Hawks kick into gear, ending the second set of the evening with “Like a Rolling Stone”. Now, of course, as the critic, I’m allowed to be huffy at the fact that everyone is going digital these days, even as you, the reader, and especially you the artist, have no obligation to treat my own intransigence in the matter as anything but comedy. I like seeing the ink smear onto the page. I like hearing the little scratchy noises of a pen nib scraping across Bristol board. But Eddie Campbell’s beyond that now.

From The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell.

Interspersed with the Royler Boom investigation into Campbell's alleged replacement and Campbell’s quote-unquote “real” life are brief snippets of dreams in the mold of Winsor McCay: similar interjections to the many faux comic strips that dotted Fate. (Nothing in the newer volume reaches the sublime heights of Hayley Campbell as the Angry Cook, however. I’d buy a whole book of that, but alas.) Chris Ware wanders on set during a dream sequence, during which Campbell imagines perhaps the most mortifying act possible: tearing out a personal dedication in another man’s book. That’s a bit of a callback, I believe, to Fate, and the rather horrifying description of Campbell’s habits of eviscerating books for “useful” content, filling his files with random dismembered pages from even expensive books. The kind of weird shit that gets you slapped in mixed company.

In hindsight, Fate was a statement about the inertia of early middle age. Campbell the practiced family man had ever so subtly transformed into Campbell the boorish autodidact, a passage that had become extraordinarily pronounced once, as he detailed at length, his children were grown and no one else around him was obligated to listen to his endless phantom colloquies with dead artists and scholars. So much time spent with dead thinkers had given Campbell’s own thoughts a grey pall. There’s another world where that Campbell congealed further, became further conservative in his thoughts and habits, and continued to further alienate the people around him. Whatever else the subsequent 17 years have wrought, he hasn’t remained swimming in place.

From The Second Fake Death of Eddie Campbell.

The Second Fake Death isn’t about inertia so much as uncertainty. Nothing really seems to be sticking anymore, we’re all left to muddle through for ourselves. The world in which Campbell catalogued his classic music collection with eccentric precision has been well and truly dismantled, for better or for worse. No more stomping around the house like a dining room Chesterton. Seventeen years is a long time! As Heraclitus tells us, we cannot step twice into the same river, and so too with books: The Fate of the Artist is revealed in the fullness of time to be sheer and simple, perpetual restlessness. As I wrote in 2006: “perhaps the only grace open to Campbell at this late stage is to be relieved of the necessity to define his existence.... The creative ennui is still palpable, but there is at least the understanding that further inaction would be fatal.”

It would have been, but it wasn’t, and for proof I offer the present volume, produced on a laptop and filled with all sorts of gloriously garish photo effects and cheery colors. It ain’t your mother’s Eddie Campbell comics, that’s for certain.

Nor my mother’s, for that matter. She was a bit of a Ripperologist, so I gave her From Hell for Christmas one year. She absolutely adored it, considered it the last word on the subject. Her affection for Campbell’s work simplified holiday shopping for many years, especially the years when he dropped a brick like his Alec or Bacchus omnibi. Guaranteed hit every time I could give my mother a fat stack of Eddie Campbell comics for her to leaf through for the holiday. She died last year, and is spared my rant about the digital lettering in The Second Fake Death. How it’s purposefully ugly and utilitarian, awkwardly perched atop his bleary digital rendering. Ugly as sin, yes, but so is a great deal of Chris Onstad and Jerry Moriarty. Which is sort of where I’d place Campbell right now: halfway between Jack Survives and Achewood, as far away as possible from the meticulous penmanship of From Hell. Never sitting still, our boy.

My mom would probably tell me I was being too precious about hand lettering, and I probably am - she was always more open minded about digital effects than me, believe it or not. She’d just be happy to still be getting new comics from one of her favorite artists, and there’s a lesson there.