There’s a theme running through Eddie Campbell and Dan Best’s The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard, which sees the characters hoping that nothing bad will happen to them. It’s something of a joke really, since this Victorian circus troop of outsiders and freaks are never far from death and destruction, travelling from trouble-spot to trouble-spot. But while carnage erupts all around them, Campbell keeps it mostly out of the book, revealing it as anecdote or newspaper report after the dust has settled. So while nothing does happen, at least as far as the general content of the book is concerned, there’s actually quite a lot going on. This is the central pillar of the book’s absurdist but gentle and charming humour.
Eddie Campbell’s work has a tendency to be a bit like this. Like any good piece of art it’s thought-provoking, and the more provoking you allow the book to do the more interesting it becomes. Which isn’t to argue that it’s particularly deep or layered with meaning, but it certainly isn’t a throw-away entertainment that you might read and forget.
The Leotard of the title dies in the first few pages, leaving his nephew Etienne to fill his shoes as one of the most accomplished trapeze artists of his time. Etienne, who had previously been shovelling dung from the animals’ cages, doesn’t quite have his uncle’s craft, but what he lacks in skill he makes up for in enthusiasm and ideas for bettering the circus.
Campbell’s illustration is scratchy and raw in typical Campbell style, but there’s a softness to his watercolour-based painting that softens it all up nicely. The design is worthy of mention too – most pages only have four square panels on them, themselves arranged in a square. The surrounding space is given over to marginal notes and illustrations, which accentuate the story and even provide the characters with an opportunity for an aside.
It all makes for an interesting book, though you have to be prepared for Campbell to take you on a journey into the unknown. The story is pedestrian, gentle and human, despite the catastrophic occurrences in the background and the unusual collection of characters. If you like a bit more action in your comics, try Campbell’s The Black Diamond Detective Agency instead, but this is a thought-provoking comedy for those in search of a classy but unusual break from the norm.
Other titles by Eddie Campbell: