Alec: The Years Have Pants

Reviewed by 09-Nov-10

Alec: The Years Have Pants collects virtually all of Eddie Campbell’s autobiographical Alec MacGarry strips in a single volume (the most recent, ‘The Fate of the Artist’ is the only one excluded).

Alec: The Years Have Pants collects virtually all of Eddie Campbell’s autobiographical Alec MacGarry strips in a single volume (the most recent, ‘The Fate of the Artist’ is the only one excluded).

It’s a sizeable work, in more ways than one. There aren’t many comics out there that you feel ought to come supplied with a pair of wrist supports, but this is one of them. At the same time you have to appreciate that it represents quarter of a century of sustained work, so its bulk isn’t surprising. In its pages you can follow the progress of the strips, from the early comics that appeared in self-published, photocopied small press publications, to later works that were published by larger, more mainstream companies (though they’ve never quite penetrated to the core publishers: Marvel, DC. And you suspect that he wouldn’t want them to).

Many of the strips here are familiar from previous publications, in particular the early ones that caught the wave of trendiness that hit comics during the 1980s, and which have been reprinted many times. Some are more much obscure. Seeing them gathered together in this way makes you appreciate not only Campbell’s development as an artist but also makes apparent themes that weren’t quite so evident when they appeared piecemeal. Take the parallels with the real-time ageing process in Gasoline Alley, for example. How obvious it is with hindsight.

So you have the early zip-a-toned strips, covering the early, wilder days of Campbell’s life when he worked in a sheet metal factory, creating and publishing his own comics and spending what seems like an inordinate amount of time pleasurably passing the evenings getting drunk in the company of friends in pubs, upping on a whim to travel places, or chase after girls. He and his friend Danny Grey form a double act, egging each other on, and compensating for each others deficiencies, as couples do.

Those early strips have lost none of their insight and vitality. What’s become clear though are the darker undercurrents that ripple around the events that take place and which sometimes surface unexpectedly. Friendships dissolve. Alec’s actions can be stupid and rash and selfish. This darkening mood becomes ever more evident until, in the final pieces, you have Campbell contemplating not only life but death, which begins to hover off and in frame as a constant presence.

Along the way, Campbell’s development as a writer and artist makes several important and noticeable leaps. The first of these, ‘Blues’, contains the moment when you know that you’re not just dealing with a good comics creator, but a great one. “Me, I’m just sharpening my claws” writes Campbell, and the panel is nothing more than a scrawl, an unravelling spiral, but it’s done in such a way that you get the same shiver of delight and admiration that you get when you’re listening to a particularly resonant piece of music. Later on, you have the particularly loopy ‘Graffiti Kitchen’, when the style of drawing and writing becomes more impressionistic and again you have the feeling that you’re entering unchartered territory. And finally there’s ‘After the Snooter’, where the boundaries of just what exactly constitutes an autographical strip get pushed, with the introduction of the strange, insect-like figure of the Snood, who represents all that Campbell fears – death, decay, disorder.

The ‘Snooter’ stories are important too because they make evident the sleight of hand that’s always been present in Campbell’s work. Even his name, for example. It’s Eddie Campbell that’s credited as the author, but that’s a pseudonym. It’s Alec MacGarry that’s writing and drawing the comics. And don’t the comics themselves tell us this? It’s not Eddie who’s the central character – it’s Alec.

When Campbell begins to become wore widely known, it’s not only a biography of his life, it’s a tracing of the development of the comics medium at the same time. Alan Moore makes several appearances. Dave Sim and Hugo Pratt make their entrances and exits. The development of the small press movement is faithfully recorded. With the publication of From Hell and its subsequent film adaption, he becomes famous, and the proceeds pay for the purchase of a house. Comics begin into intrude into real life, which in turn feeds back into the comics. It becomes a sort of metatext.

Throughout, Campbell’s apparently unflinchingly honest about himself, detailing his conviviality, his eccentricities and his parsimony, and in time he begins to draw up a picture of not only himself, but his family too. You feel that you know these people, though the medium of words, and those loose, scratchy pen-and-ink drawings.

It’s not all perfect. Towards the end there are too many one-page throwaway observations, and the volume concludes with a series of rarely seen pieces that don’t really fit into the main body of the book. They’re a bit like those bonus tracks that you get on the reissue of classic records – they’re interesting, but on the whole you wouldn’t miss them too much if they weren’t there.

These are small quibbles. There aren’t many comics that are both comprehensive and essential, but this is one of them. It’s a volume you’ll read and reread, and you’ll read it with just as much pleasure as you did the first time around. Every home should have a copy.

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7 responses to “Alec: The Years Have Pants”

  1. I don’t remember writing this.

  2. Martin Skidmore says:

    OMG, I’ve credited this to the wrong person, haven’t I? I’m really sorry, to you and the rightful author – I’ll have to correct that this evening.

  3. We could have some sort of competition to guess who did write it?

    “Along the way, Campbell’s development as a writer and artist makes several important and noticeable leaps.”

    Picking a note of discord with a review I largely responded positively to, I’m not sure about this. To me, Campbell hit his peak early, during the King Canute days. What’s more, that book had such a natural and fitting conclusion that I’m not sure it makes much narrative sense to include the later stuff in with it. (Good tho’ it is…)

  4. Martin Skidmore says:

    Credit corrected, with grovelling apologies to both parties!

  5. Martin Skidmore says:

    I just finished reading my copy. I do think he gets better in technical ways as it goes on. Yes, it loses the familiarity as it goes – when he moves to Australia and works on From Hell and other things alien to my life, unlike hanging out with pals in pubs – but I found the steady accretion of both info about Eddie’s life and the growing iconography more than balanced that less familiar (and for me, convivial) life. This will be high among my most treasured comic volumes, one that belongs on a shelf with the two mammoth Hernandez Brothers books – I think that’s the kind of class he belongs in.

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