As I was staggering around my local comics store this afternoon, thinking obsessively about The Future as I do, Lee and Alan there put a piece of my past into my hands, remastered for the present and a long future on shelves. One of the comics that literally changed the way I thought about the medium. Eddie Campbell's ALEC stories.
As a teenager, I was involved for a while in the energetic British small press culture that grew around Paul Gravett and Peter Stanley's Fast Fiction. Fast Fiction was a distribution operation for small press publications that developed out of an anthology comic of the same name. (FAST FICTION later begat ESCAPE, an important anthology that broke ground almost on RAW's scale. If it didn't have a MAUS, then it certainly showed more and taught more.) FAST FICTION and some of its peers, like Ed Hillyer's GEN, were where Eddie Campbell was being published, when he wasn't publishing himself. Not publishing the way he is now, mind you - he was down a corner shop, paying five pence a copy to use their photocopier, punching staples into runs of two hundred comics and having to bend the staples over with his thumbs because he didn't have a long-arm stapler.
I found Eddie's comics just as I had read all the Beat writers, and Hemingway, and serious Moorcock (as opposed to bloody Elric Moorcock), and they answered the question about comics that my newly-adult reading had presented me with: why wasn't there an ON THE ROAD for comics? Even more specific and even more important for me right then: why wasn't there an ON THE ROAD for comics that travelled my roads and spoke my language and addressed directly my culture?
Alan Moore once said that what he admired about the ALEC comics is that it told him what would happen if Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady had gotten a Ford Transit and pissed off to Southend Pier for a day. And there's a whole shitload of you who won't know what a Ford Transit or a Southend Pier is. Which is my point. ALEC is romantic mainstream fiction for Britain.
And what hit me next was that it was set in the Southend area. Which is where I lived, and still live today. All you people in New York or Los Angeles or wherever are used to seeing your location in fiction. But watching these lives wend around the places I knew, watching Alec McGarry go on the road down the London Road past the turn-off to my village… that was different.
What they handed me in the shop today was ALEC: The King Canute Crowd by Eddie Campbell. It's a graphic album collecting all the early "core" ALEC stories, from 1981 to 1987. Pretty much all of this work has appeared elsewhere in different guises - the three slim ALEC albums Escape released in the Eighties and Eclipse's THE COMPLETE ALEC in 1990. This can be considered the optimum version. Eddie's self-published this book through his own Eddie Campbell Comics operation, and he's got it looking the way he wanted it, complete with the title he always wanted to use for such a collection. This book is the odd little secret of British comics (or Brit-com as we used to call it in the diseased arse-end of the Eighties. ESCAPE tried calling it UKBD a few years earlier, BD being the abbreviated French term for comics, and then tried "story-strips." Nothing stuck). ALEC was - and is - very much ahead of its time. In here are the seeds of the British comics movement that took over American comics in the Eighties. If you subtract ALEC from British comics, you don't get WATCHMEN and most of the important British work that accompanied it. The classical storytelling forms made new, the reinvention of the nine-panel-grid, naturalism in dialogue, the determinedly mature approach to the medium. Eddie Campbell once said that he imagined his narrative structures as almost without structure - just following the path of the story, letting it go where it needs to go, conjuring an organic shape like a branch. This came in welcome and searing contrast to an American-dominated medium where conventional three-act structure and two fight scenes and a chase per book appeared to be branded onto the brains of two generations of writers.
I very carefully called ALEC romantic fiction. And it is. It romanticises a man's life. Eddie Campbell the creator was a dreadful romantic. The King Canute - a profoundly ordinary pub patronised, when I used to go there, by badly ageing bikers sipping the cheapest bitter on hand-pull and scraping the motor oil out of their beards - is made golden in Eddie's pages, as is his friend and Neal Cassady stand-in, Danny Grey. I know people who have appeared in Eddie's pages who describe Danny Grey as a yob, a thug and, basically, your standard half-bright truck driver with a violent side. Eddie's a lot like Kerouac in that, who makes shining perfect snatch-of-heaven vignettes about getting pissed on in the back of a pick-up truck.
These are the stories of Eddie's life in the Southend area, drinking at the King Canute. Eddie is Alec McGarry. Danny Grey's real name is Bob Grey. It's autobiographical fiction with the names changed, which seems to allow Eddie an essential distance to do it right. And it skirts all the usual pitfalls of autobio fiction. It shows life being lived. This may have to be explained to mavens of American autobio comics. This is not the same as Chester Brown beating off, or Julie Doucet being pathetic, or the awful spectacle of Harvey Pekar just doing nothing worth looking at for years on end. And it's not the same as Dennis Eichhorn's autobio stuff, which was genuinely interesting and engaging but never really used the medium very well. This is one of the great instinctual masters of the medium taking everyday life and showing it being lived, showing people achieving and losing and changing and loving and hating, making the living of life glorious and riveting - life as we remember it when we look back on it.
I noted that Eddie was a romantic. I think the rose-coloured glasses have been knocked off him since he moved to Australia, married and settled to raise a family. Because since he's been in Australia, he's been revising the old ALEC material. Which creates a weird jamais vu in those who know it well - a sudden never saw as we come across a favourite line missing, a favourite sequence retooled. Penny Moore, one of Alec's great loves, was a sexy slender blonde woman in her thirties, midnight lashes and perfect lips. She grows harsh, here - aged, lined, showing the effects of the car crash she suffered, showing the weight of raising a kid alone and the acid etching of the bitterness that finally rises explosively in the latter quarter of the book. Smiles, with almost twenty years' distance between the line and the reconsideration, are tipped into frowns, or grim pensiveness. Here and there, in preparing the past for the present and the future, Eddie's taken the bloom from the rose a little.
You need this book. You need this book because it's one of the rare things that shows you what comics are really capable of. And it's very funny, it tells compelling stories, people get beaten up and mutilated, there's plenty of sex scenes, there's vicious abuse of beer, there's cops and people pissing in handbags.
It's life, for God's sake.
You can obtain ALEC: THE KING CANUTE CROWD through your local comics store. It's from Eddie Campbell Comics, price US$14.50. Eddie Campbell Comics' American agent is Chris Staros at Top Shelf Productions, so if your local store doesn't want to play, contact Chris direct at Top Shelf Productions, PO Box 1282, Marietta GA 30061-1282, USA. You can also fax him an order using Bankcard, Visa, AmEx, Mastercard and Discover at 770 427 6395. Finally, you can find his website at http://www.topshelfcomix.com. So now you've got no excuse. Buy it. See where comics are coming from, and where they're going, all in the same book.
INSTRUCTIONS: Read THE RINGS OF SATURN by WG Sebald (The Harville Press, 1998), listen to THE PIXIES AT THE BBC by The Pixies (4AD, 1998), and hit The Mars Society official site at http://www.marssociety.com/. Today's recommended graphic novel is THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS by Frank Miller with Lynn Varley and Klaus Janson (DC). Now begone.