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'ALEC': A Life In Drawings, Compiled At Last

Long, long ago, in the dark days before The New York Times started keeping a best-seller list for comics — er, "Graphic Books"; long before the bookstore shelves teemed with autobiographical comics; back before works like Maus and Persepolis helped transform the nonfiction comic into a genre all its own; way back in the time of the "alternative" comics scene, there was Eddie Campbell.

Campbell began publishing his "Alec" stories in U.K. comics magazines in the early 1980s, contemporaneous;y with Harvey Pekar's American Splendor and Art Speigelman's Raw. Like Pekar, Campbell devoted himself to long-form autobiography, envisioning a series that would capture the life and times of Alec McGarry, Campbell's alter ego, over the course of many years. But Campbell's Alec stories did not share Pekar's famously irascible tone and mordant outlook; instead, they exuded a sort of beery, convivial charm.

Since those early days, the prolific author and artist has kept busy with other projects, achieving mainstream success with From Hell, an exhaustively researched comic book meditation on the legend of Jack the Ripper that teamed Campbell's images with a script by Watchmen writer Alan Moore(read an excerpt in which Alec muses about some of his comics' contemporaries). But Campbell has returned to his Alec stories often over the course of his career; the massive new collection ALEC: The Years Have Pants, which weighs in at a doorstopping 640 pages, chronicles nearly 30 years of Alec/Eddie's life between its covers.

"Chronicles" being the operative word, here. As originally published, the Alec stories jumped around in time — in one volume Campbell might depict his contemporary self, an accomplished comics artist and family man, grappling with the running of his own publishing company; the next might see Campbell reaching back 20 years to recount a bleary-eyed misadventure from his days as a young and very single denizen of his local pub.

In this omnibus edition, Campbell has arranged the stories according to the chronology of the events they depict. Given that an awareness of his own mortality is one of Campbell's central themes (the collection's subtitle refers to the change from knee-pants to long pants to baggy pants that occurs with age), the fact that we are finally able to watch young Alec slowly evolve, page by page, from a cheeky wastrel into a mature artist deeply committed to his work and his family is nothing less than a revelation.

Seeing Alex growing steadily older deepens the experience of reading these stories, as it allows the notes of sadness that have always lurked beneath Campbell's genial humor to emerge more keenly. And as the years steadily accrete, it becomes impossible to ignore the staggering scope of what Campbell has accomplished here.

Reading Alec's lifelong struggles with the business of art and the nature of comics, you're reminded of another, similarly massive autobiographical comic published last year, manga master Yoshihiro Tatsumi's A Drifting Life.

But while the true subject of A Drifting Life was how Tatsumi's monomaniacal drive to create comics kept him at a distance from those around him (the "drifting" of the book's title), ALEC: The Years Have Pants reveals an artist who manages to find a workable balance between making his art and living a full, day-to-day life with family and friends.

Campbell captures it all in a deliberately unpolished style. His rough, often scribbly line work lends a you-are-there quality to people and places, imbuing them with the immediacy of the courtroom sketch. But instead of seeming unfinished, Campbell's pages are clearly the product of a discerning draftsman who enjoys playing with the reader's perspective and expectations.

Comics have come a long way in the years since Campbell wrote his first Alec tale, but one thing hasn't changed: Many prospective readers who only associate comics with superheroes and Sunday funnies won't be able to see past the book's format. They will be missing out. ALEC is much more than simply a gimlet-eyed Gasoline Alley –- the three decades of mature, complex and emotionally compelling work compiled here represent a major accomplishment in comics storytelling, and in storytelling, period. It's nothing less than a modern epic of the everyday.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.