04 January 2011

Comics Memoirs about Comics History

Late last year I read both Eddie Campbell’s How to Be an Artist and Will Eisner’s The Dreamer. Both are lightly fictionalized memoirs about being part of a momentous scene in the history of comics.

Both were originally published on their own, but have been collected in thick volumes: Eisner’s Life, in Pictures and Campbell’s Alec: The Years Have Pants.

In Eisner’s case, the scene is about 1937-42, what was later called “the Golden Age of Comic Books.” It involved cramped offices, unreliable publishers, and both Depression and World War. Though the stories that Eisner and his colleagues produced were mostly about heroism, his own story is mostly about money, or lack of it.

Campbell’s topic is the British graphic novels movement of the late 1980s. It’s a picture of what Brian Eno has dubbed “scenius,” when people and circumstances come together to produce a flowering of innovation. I was pleased to read in this Comics Worth Reading review that Campbell’s never-named but vital “Man at the Crossroads” is Paul Gravett, recognized for his Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know. (I read that last year, too.)

Both Eisner and Campbell depict themselves as well-meaning, befuddled strivers, just trying to make enough money to live off this art thing they like doing. Their colleagues are more colorful; their women mysterious; their successes serendipitous, surprising, and often short-lived.

While Campbell and his crowd have no more money than Eisner’s, they’re focused on art. The stories they tell tend not to be heroic, unless they’re working just for the (American) money. Instead, the heroism in How to Be an Artist comes in pushing against the conventions of the comics business as it had been set up back in the “Golden Age.”

Here’s Campbell’s own review of Life, in Pictures, which focuses on Eisner’s late artistic development rather than his early experiences.

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