Eddie Campbell is one of my favorite cartoonists. His work has been a delight to me since I discovered it, even before he illustrated the sublime From Hell. So every new Campbell book is a real treat for me.
Bizarre Romance, released through Abrams ComicArts, represents a new phase in Campbell’s life. It’s a collaboration with his new wife Audrey Niffenegger, perhaps best known for her best-selling novels The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry. As Niffenegger discusses in her introduction, this book has thirteen of stories created before the couple met, during the time they were dating, and while the couple worked in adjoining rooms in the same Chicago house.
What’s most striking about this book to me is how well it captures Campbell’s new joy while echoing some of his favorite comics storytelling tricks. It’s as if he’s newly charged up again after his marriage, playing with the comics page and simply having a delightful time learning how he and his new love work together. It also captures the fact that this is a new couple who are continually learning more about each other. The rough edges of this work add to its complexity.
There’s a playfulness to scenes like the one shown above, a silly moment with a word balloon that resonates with earlier Campbell work, or the almost George Herriman style use of white space in the panel below. His best work has a shaggy dog quality to it that meanders towards points that are as elusive and complicated as his own emotions. Niffenegger’s stories, however, tend to be more tightly focused, more in search of that elusive perfect moment to be captured in amber. The friction between these two approaches gives Bizarre Romance an off-kilter sort of energy, as if the couple were slowly getting to know each other better through their art.
Campbell’s best work has always betrayed a busy, anarchic line that builds a scene as much from its emotions as from its actual actions. As you also see from the images accompanying this review, that style is sometimes so loose in Bizarre Romance that it feels awkward and amateurish. That is a strong contrast to the precision with which Niffenegger composes her stories. Even at their most playful, she is creating full worlds with precise words.
For instance, the art above is from “Backwards in Seville”, the story of a middle aged woman on a cruise with her elderly father. Though the story centers around the protagonist’s emotions, Campbell’s blurry style cuts us off from those emotions. Instead of empathizing with Helene, I found her a cipher.
Bizarre Romance nominally contains thirteen stories, but in effect it also has a secret fourteenth story as well: the story of the new and bizarre romance between Campbell and Niffenegger. Based on what we see on the pages of this charming book, the couple seem to be infatuated with each other. Hopefully their next collaboration will show that infatuation turn into deeper love and a graphic novel that feels more in sync between the two.