A cartoonist’s memoir as graphic novel

By Stephen Weiner
Globe Correspondent / January 11, 2010

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The graphic novel has grown in popularity in recent years, owing in part to the influence of Hollywood movies based on them and our growing predilection for visual storytelling.

The graphic novels that have really grabbed the public imagination have tended to be biographies and autobiographies. Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,’’ a study of the life of Spiegelman’s father in German concentration camps published in two volumes, lifted the graphic novel form out of the cultural gutter almost single-handedly by winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1992.

“Maus’’ was followed by such acclaimed works as Harvey Pekar’s “American Splendor: The Life and Times of Harvey Pekar,’’ Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis’’ books about growing up during the revolution in the late 1970s in Iran, and Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.’’

To this list we now can add “Alec,’’ Eddie Campbell’s graphic memoir starring his surrogate, the young cartoonist Alec MacGarry. The book collects Campbell’s autobiographical comics published piecemeal over more than two decades. Of the previous books mentioned, “Alec’’ most clearly resembles “American Splendor’’ because it doesn’t articulate a defining moment in the hero’s life; it notes several of them. However, where “American Splendor’’ chronicled Harvey Pekar’s everyday life in Cleveland, “Alec’’ describes the life of a burgeoning artist.

We are introduced to MacGarry as a young man pulled by two forces, a life as an artist and a boozy desire for romance. Alcohol, in fact, becomes a kind of metaphor of maturity as we trace MacGarry’s development from beer guzzler to wine connoisseur.

His earliest days follow the typical trajectory of a young man: He sets out to make his mark and find his life partner. He first becomes a freelance cartoonist and after a few short affairs he marries a young woman and moves with her to Australia. They have children, and MacGarry starts his own small publishing house while being a stay-at-home Dad.

MacGarry wants it all and is determined to get it. Success is possible he tells us and himself if one is dedicated enough to craft. Through MacGarry, Campbell describes the exhilaration and loneliness of a life devoted to art.

As we follow Campbell’s fictional hero from youth into middle age, we are treated to the rewards of Campbell’s development as a cartoonist. The early drawings are illustrative and often reiterate the writing in the comic panels; the more mature work becomes a partnership of the writing and art, with each commenting on the other and offering additional layers of information.

Because the pieces that make up the book were created over time, there are some formal inconsistencies: Some of the story is told in the third person while other parts are told in the second person. While this can be jarring, it doesn’t get in the way of the reader developing a clear sense of the main character’s development.

Because Campbell’s work dates back to the “birth’’ of the graphic novel form, readers get treated to unsentimental portraits of several of the pioneers of the genre who Campbell came to know, among them Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman, and Alan Moore (with whom Campbell collaborated on his most famous work, “From Hell,’’ a portrait of Jack the Ripper).

While Campbell’s relationships with famous graphic novelists is important to his life and work, what becomes clear is that equally important are the artist’s ties to his family and close friends. Those most intimate relationships, in fact, are the real pools of artistic inspiration. “Alec’’ is a life in pictures and should be treated like the wines that Campbell comes to appreciate: slowly sipped and savored.

Stephen Weiner’s books include “The 101 Best Graphic Novels’’ and “Faster Than a Speeding Bullet: the Rise of the Graphic Novel.’’

ALEC: The Years Have Pants (A Life-Size Omnibus)
By Eddie Campbell
Top Shelf, 640 pp., illustrated, $35