Eddie Campbell has lost his bag. He looks agitated, all the valuables are in it. The audience is worried: How could this happen? What can we do? He’s telling us that he just told his wife that the bag is gone. She replied that he gave her the bag 10 minutes ago. Proceedings aren’t even under-way yet and we’re already being treated to a story from Campbell, one that touches upon family life, ageing and failing memory, and perhaps the reluctance of the artist to be fully engaged with the mundane reality of bag location. Neatly encapsulating many of the topics tonight’s conversation will touch upon. And he delivered it in far less time than it’s taken me to describe it.
He’s a storyteller, we know that, but he’s a natural storyteller. He can’t seem to stop. Every statement he makes during the evening seems to effortlessly hit an engaging arc of beginning, middle, end. The end frequently being a punchline. He’s got some competition tonight though, because he’s in conversation with Arnold Brown, the “comedians’ comedian”, and another great storyteller. Both from Glasgow, listening to the two of them talk about the creative process, I start to consider the importance of ‘patter’ to the Glaswegian. Both Brown and Campbell acknowledge that everyone in Glasgow is a storyteller, Brown asserting that the observational style of alternative comedy of the 1980s was already well established in Scotland. When you get a whole city, a whole country, vying to tell better stories, to have better patter, the competition to excel is fierce, and that inexorable evolutionary pressure produces glittering diamond-hard talents. Ready to be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. I’m not even going to list some of those talents, make one yourself, it’s not that hard.
But Eddie Campbell is definitely on that list.
He’s an imposing figure, presumably a product of his tall Scottish frame and the sunny climes of Queensland where he now resides. He has a fine head of white hair, of which I’m not ashamed to admit I’m envious of, and immediately reminds me of Ted Danson, although one who is unburdened by the dark complications of dealing with a Larry David. In fact, because of that white hair, several times during the evening I felt that this Campbell/Brown team-up was a sort of benign version of Curb Your Enthusiasm. One from some alternate Platonic comedy universe.
I’m not far off. We learn that Campbell’s book The Fate of the Artist attracted a TV production company to try to adapt it into a sitcom. Sadly, it remains in development and seems likely to remain so due to the current world recession. However, a two and a half minute teaser featuring his character the Snooter has been produced.
Initially, I wonder how these two men know each other, as they do seem to be on very familiar terms. It turns out Campbell was unknown to Brown until he’d been asked to chair tonight’s talk. Touchingly, I get the impression that he’s genuinely delighted to have been introduced to the man and his work. He’s read the just published, massive omnibus The Years Have Pants, that collects all Campbell’s Alec material in one volume (with the exception of Fate of the Artist, but with the inclusion of much new and previously unseen material). His questions are interested and engaged, a performer exploring the new, and perhaps sympathetic, territory of Campbell’s visual storytelling.
Campbell attended a year’s foundation at the Central School of Art and Design in London, and then spent 5 years cutting steel in a factory. The factory management were mystified as to why he didn’t want to “get on” in the company. His artistic ambitions drove him to choose such a position because, as he says, “If you took a serious job you’d be in danger of jeopardising the whole enterprise”.
On the subject of his working space on the kitchen table amongst the orderly chaos of family life he explained that if you’re working in a creative field having that constant stream of alien information being thrown at you actually helps.
He tells the story of their travel agent absconding with the money they’d paid for a trip to Rome (not as unusual as you might think, it appears). And even while he sits in the bank, filling out the forms to get their money back, he’s trying to figure out what the story angle on this is, for the next book.
From the Q&A session someone asks, who he is reading now, and who does he recommend? Craig Thompson is a favourite, particularly Carnet de Voyage, although he wishes Thompson had ignored the advice of a critic and would return to the way he originally drew his characters feet large. Robert Crumb’s Genesis gets the nod, as does Polyp’s world history without words Speechless.
Earlier, he offers us a touchstone for producing autobiographical comics, but I think it’s advice for living too: “It’s all right writing about your own life, but it’s got to be of use to someone else”.
By Paul Tierney. ComICA continues at the ICA. The Years Have Pants is now available.