In a previous sycophantic post, I mentioned that I think Eddie Campbell is the single smartest person, both as an artist and a writer, to have ever worked in comics. Bacchus (under its 200 different titles of publication) was possibly the only character based series of the go-go B&W era that managed to achieve profundity, however fleeting, and the Alec books, individually and as a whole, are my favorite comics, period.
Whenever I feel like I’m throwing my life away, which is at least once a day, I think about How To Be An Artist. Read a certain way, the book tells the impressionable reader (me) that it’s OK to go ahead and bury that bastard in the dustbin. Thankfully, Campbell also published what I consider a companion volume, After the Snooter, demonstrating that once you have done, things work out all right. As long as you know Alan Moore. Which I don’t. You’re so going to Hell, Campbell.
Which says nothing about either of the two books’ artistry. Simply put, they’re masterpieces. Buy them while you can. More recently, Campbell released The Fate of The Artist, which everyone loved. Except me. Usually I’m all for pretentious gobeshit and Examinations of Art and Its Role but for whatever reason I couldn’t get into it. Anyway, I’m probably wrong, and I certainly recognize the book’s intrinsic merit. Just not for me.
Now Campbell’s got a new book out, The Black Diamond Detective Agency. I’ve only read one or two things about its genesis but I gather that it was a previously existing screenplay which Campbell was asked to adapt. If I’m correct, this is the thinking behind such a move: movie executives, being exceptionally stupid, are much more likely to buy a film if they get a package of pretty pictures and dialogue balloons instead of a bunch of INT. EXT. DAY. EVENING. printed across a page. This may well be true!
Campbell’s art is top notch and entirely on the ball: lots of experimentation with form and content but never so much as to distract. This leaves the reader’s focus on the story. Ah, yes, the story. Therein lies the rub. It’s by the numbers detective investigation set in the fin-de-siecle (one before last) American midwest. Whatever else may be said, from the characterization and plot development, it’s rather clear that this tale began life as a screenplay.
This point is important– screenplays, even detailed shooting scripts, are weird beasts. The format is designed for the intense collaboration of film making. A line of dialogue on the page allows for the impact (negative or positive) of the actors, the cinematographer, the foley artists, the scoring, and finally, the director. While not every screenplay is bereft of, say, characterization, it’s also much, much less necessary than in other storytelling mediums.
To put it another way, think of a film like the overrated Goodfellas. Think of any one of Joe Pesci’s hilariously psycho monologues. Now imagine them delivered by Bill Pullman. Directed by Uwe Boll.
Either way, it’s the same screenplay.
Campbell has taken on the unenviable task of filling each major (and minor) role himself: he’s the gaffer, the director, the actors, the DP, and the caterer. It’s Eddie Campbell’s personal vision of someone else’s post-Watergate detective story set in a random historical milieu.
The most bizarre aspect of this book is Campbell’s status as possibly the least cinematic major artist in comics. Under every other imaginable circumstance, I’d count this as a truly great thing. But presently it compounds the problem, and we are left with the barebones of a screenplay developed into a visual medium sans any of the technique for which it was intended. It’s not bad, per se. It’s just strange.
I’ve never bought into the idea of Comics as Incubator for Cinema, but at least Marvel and DC provide existing product envisioned first as comics and then adapted. Black Diamond’s reverse-engineered approach has only made me more suspicious about the perceived relationship between the two mediums. (It’ll be interesting to see if Marvel’s bet the farm on the wrong horse.)
But before you think it’s all crying & boo-hoo and Campbell what have you done, let me hit the positives.
As I’ve mentioned, the art. It’s great. The colors, the figures, the landscapes– all wonderful. Generally, when I think of Campbell’s work, what comes to mind are scraggly drawings of the artist playing fetch with his dog or a murder victim being pulled from a dodgy London gutter. Don’t get me wrong: these are always lovely. But in Black Diamond, there’s a real grace to much of the figures and coloring that I don’t remember seeing previously. Secondly, for what the story is, Campbell’s handled it as admirably as he could. Third, huzzah for the choice of full-bleed! It works well. (A minor complaint is the gutter: I feel like I’ve lost about 1/20th of most pages to the binding.)
So. All reservations aside– I enjoyed the book, it’s an affable way to spend a few hours, Campbell is a master, and if I weren’t embarrassed to recommend comics, I’d tell people to buy it.
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