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.