There are some creators who create work that is so personal, so unique, so completely their work, that it's impossible to define it as being anything other than that person's work. This may be truer in comics than any other artform. A Jack Kirby comic may be many things, after all, but it is first and foremost a Jack Kirby comic.
Eddie Campbell's graphic novels are always, first and foremost, Eddie Campbell's graphic novels. Whether he's creating exhilarating fiction, as in The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, or introspective work, as in The Playwright, or breathtakingly intense horror, as in From Hell, or soul-baring autobiography, as in The Curse of the Artist, Campbell's work always has an intelligence, a looseness and a rambling, wonderful spirit to it. His comics always have an energy that is uniquely his.
The newest graphic novel from Eddie Campbell, The Lovely Horrible Stuff, is a rambling autobiographical piece that works as a very loose meditation on money; making money, not having money, being cheated out of money, family squabbles about money, the ways that aboriginal people worked with money in a remote Pacific island, and many more stray thoughts and themes all centered around money.
In other words, it's a graphic novel by Eddie Campbell. With all that comes from that.
Those readers who read just for straight plot will have trouble with this book. Lovely Horrible meanders like a conversation at a bar over a good bottle of wine with a good friend. (I wonder if Campbell is tired off that analogy after all those years of chronicling the life of Bacchus, the god of wine.) This story wanders through a set of interesting anecdotes and tales about money as it relates to Campbell and his family, full of digressions that often cast the artist in a bad light.
For instance there's a scene in this book that shows a battle that Eddie and his daughter Erin about her taking more responsibility in the Campbell household. Erin is out of school and working while she lives at home — wearing a Tiffany bracelet and carrying a Louis Vuitton handbag — so Eddie declares to Erin one day that she should pay a bit of rent to help pay for stuff in the house. Erin and Eddie get in a big fight and Eddie basically freaks out. He wanders out to the garage and impotently searches for a way to punish Erin. We see him scramble around the garage, desperate to think of something, and then finally ends up tying Erin's car up with rope. It's a completely pointless thing to do, and would have no effect on Erin at all, but Eddie is too angry to think rationally. His anger is on the surface, and we get to watch him explode completely irrationally. Any parent can relate to the story, but it's always a surprise to see a creator who allows himself to be so naked in his comic. No wonder he claims that other people call his family dysfunctional (but then isn't pretty much every family dysfunctional in its own way?)
That's one short discursive piece in this book that is full of similar short discursive pieces. There are heartbreaking stores in this story, like the painful and difficult story of how the stubbornness of Eddie's father-in-law almost cost the family tens of thousands of dollars on a supposedly safe investment. There are silly philosophical stories, like the story of Campbell's abortive TV venture, which includes a cameo appearance from William Shakespeare.
The longest section of this book occurs on the exotic Pacific island of Yap. We learn how the people of Yap used giant stone tablets as a means of currency as Campbell engages in a thoughtful philosophical exploration of their complex economic system. It's a wonderfully Campbell-esque series of digressions and explorations, a heady mix of fascinating philosophy and wonderfully observational storytelling. I keep coming back to this section to read and reread it because of Campbell's wonderful way of telling complex stories in simple ways.
As much as anything, this is a book about getting older and the way that priorities shift as the years go on. As Campbell states so wonderfully, "I recall that life with the dear girl used to be like this all the time. When we talked about sex instead of money at the dinner table." It's about Campbell fighting his inner dysfunctionality and getting along in his life as best he can. Eddie Campbell always is relentless in his policy telling the truth about himself; warts and all. And that approach makes his work thoroughly disarming and wonderful.
This book isn't quite as great as some of Campbell's books. It rambles a bit more than some of his other books, and the first half of the book loses a bit of momentum from being diffuse. But complaining that an Eddie Campbell comic is too discursive is kind of missing the point, isn't it?