By Darryl Ayo
Frank Santoro writes a regular column for The Comics Journal titled “Riff Raff.” This past weekend, Santoro revisited Eddie Campbell’s 2001 memoir ALEC: How To Be An Artist in the format of a drawn review. The interesting thing about How To Be An Artist is that it concludes with a long list of books which Campbell considers to be the best graphic novels created thus far (again, the year was 2001–only the beginning of the “Graphic Novel Boom”). Santoro, in his review, wonders how well this list holds up, over a decade later.
Below is my email to Santoro, reprinted here at his suggestion.
Good morning Frank,
I like Eddie Campbell, but I believe that some people/many people hold him up in reverence that I do not share. In 2001, I was new to this world of “alternative” comics and “graphic novels,” but even then I felt uncomfortable with how self-serving Campbell’s list was. Campbell, Moore, Gaiman and Eisner were all represented heavily but one doesn’t get the sense that Campbell is looking at anything even approaching a comprehensive view, despite his emotionally detached authorial tone.
It’s odd, to say the very least. It’s nice to know that he touched base on the men who comprise the elite luminaries of the North American “alternative” comics world, the Seth, Chester Brown, Craig Thompson, Ware, Clowes and both Hernandez Brothers. But their inclusion seems almost obligatory when put on a shelf with relatively minor work like Morrison’s New Adventures of Hitler, which gives a clearer scope on where Campbell’s perspective and emotional alliances likely lie. The North American books that Campbell selected are the peaks–the ones that he’d have to be crazy to deny (with the exception of Eisner, from whom Campbell selects far too many), while the English/British selections include comics which were even forgotten by 2001 such as Mr. Punch.
It’s a curious list and its nature unfairly eclipsed the better parts of How to be an Artist, such as the story of Big Numbers. Even in 2001, Campbell’s list (which reads like a manifesto) was the talk of the comic town. With such a fragile critical discourse in the sequential arts medium, anything easy to identify and grasp such as a list becomes highly important when in other fields, a single author’s list would not only be a footnote in history, but it would literally be a footnote–not left in the primary body of the book’s text.
While the previous paragraphs of this message are critical of Campbell’s list, I do think there’s a value in it. I would be more interested in his list if I had a similar list from other comic scholars, intellectuals, cartoonists and writers. Reading one person’s list makes it seem like a prescription. Seeing many people’s lists casts a wider net. On the other hand, the recent Hooded Utilitarian Top 115 Comics list has generated much less discussion, probably due to the fact that so many people had a hand in it and also because it lacks that self-directed audacity of Campbell’s 2001 list. I don’t know.
Anyway, I hope that you are well. Take care and enjoy your Sunday,