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December 28, 2008


CR Holiday Interview #6: Eddie Campbell

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imageI love talking to Eddie Campbell, one of the great cartoonists. I was particularly glad to talk to him in this brief space between 2008 and 2009. In 2008, First Second published the last of three Eddie Campbell books that anchored the first few seasons of their line. The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard is a sweetly and gracefully told meditation on life as story, loaded with some of the most exquisite imagery of Campbell's long and distinguished career. In 2009, Top Shelf plans to release the massive Alec omnibus depicted above, placing in chronological order all of the cartoonist's wonderful autobiographical and autobiographically informed work into one place with several pages of new comics and another, smaller selection of never-printed ones. It will surely become one of the most borrowed works in many a considerable comics library. If you weren't aware, Campbell is also one of comics most interesting thinkers, and I'm happy to nudge him into some talk of formal aspects and publishing tends in the conversation that unfolds below. I enjoyed this back and forth very much, and I'm appreciative of how quickly Campbell turned the whole thing around. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: I don't think it fully registered with me before, but you have a massive collection of your autobiographical work coming out in 2009. I always thought that this was a natural for a book at some point and I look forward to it with a not insignificant smile on my face. Is there a reason this seemed attractive to you right now?

EDDIE CAMPBELL: The evolution of our medium has made this the right time. If you think back, at first we'd publish serial comics because that was what the economics permitted (all those "mini" and "maxi" series). Then we would gather the material into a book. The medium developed to the stage where a publisher could pay an author an advance to take himself away and make the whole book before showing any of it. We now find ourselves at an even more advanced stage, where several of a veteran author's books are gathered into a huge compendium. Thus Will Eisner's Life in Pictures, which collected his various books that had an autobiographical element, Gaiman's Absolute Sandman, Gilbert Hernandez' Palomar, etc.

SPURGEON: How did plans for this particular format come together?

CAMPBELL: Chris Staros at Top Shelf has been wanting to do the book for several years, since those others I just mentioned started appearing. In the meantime I've been gradually making digital scans of the pages for the French editions, knowing that all the time I was building toward using these in my own big collection. It is a lot of work after all, scanning 640 pages, especially with all the zip-a-tones, trying to avoid and eliminate moiré patterns. I'm probably now the expert on doing that stuff.

imageSPURGEON: When did new comics become a part of those plans?

CAMPBELL: The funny thing is that the way I started putting it all together isn't quite the way it's ended up. I had the six books (the King Canute Crowd, Graffiti Kitchen, How to Be an Artist, Little Italy, The Dance of Lifey Death, and After the Snooter,) arranged in a chronology that follows actual time rather than the order in which the books were drawn, and then I had a large 80-page section at the end which rounded up a lot of short pieces and some unfinished works which are still worth reading as they stand. But the more I looked at the pages I started seeing an epic sweep in which characters grow older, with a real sense of time passing. It's ironic that in the comic book medium terminality has come to be seen as a holy grail, the notion of a thing being complete in itself (as in a "novel"), when the true essence of the comic strip is the very opposite, the concept of the eternal present. The greatest daily comic strips had no end. Conceptually, allowing for no interference by extramural forces, a strip may run forever (Like Gasoline Alley). Of course nowadays that quality has been usurped by the television soap opera. Given the dumbassed nature of comic books, the highest measure of commitment to quality, or terminality, that a writer can have is the determination to show characters being killed.

But I've wandered off the point. I saw this shape within the book and I shifted a few of the essential short things into their chronological positions and threw the rest out, then I saw the chance to complete the implied sequence by adding another book that brings things up to date. So we now have an all-new 35-page book at the end titled "The Years Have Pants", which has also become the title for the whole compendium, since it fits so well. But the new book is in no way a conclusion, for it introduces a bunch of new developments that point to resolution outside of the text. I'll also mention that there are half a dozen other unpublished pages included in the compendium.

imageSPURGEON: When we talked in 2006, you compared standard comics pages to a straitjacket, which I think as a value is an undercurrent to a lot of your formally audacious work of the last few years. What was it like, then, preparing new work for the Alec omnibus using a more standard grid?

CAMPBELL: I certainly wasn't thinking of the "nine-panel grid" as a straitjacket, because an artist worth his salt can compose with infinite variety in a given space. Rather I was referring almost to the opposite result, to the way the American comic book idiom creates its own limitations while appearing to be freewheeling. I was looking at a portfolio piece recently by a young artist, and fastened upon an oddly shaped picture. It was rectangular, but the dimensions of the frame had no meaningful relation to the content, with misshapen blank areas around the figures. I asked why it was thus shaped and the reason was that this was the space left on the page after the other panels had been decided, which of course I had already judged to be the case before I started in, and I probably had to put the words in the head of this poor artist. 'Why should this image receive less consideration than the ones before it?' I demanded relentlessly. In fact, every stage of comic book composition is hampered by that same absence of thinking. Characters stand in limited ways in relation to the frame around them and in relation to other characters. There is a complicated pictorial syntax that seals everything in a rigid holding pattern, including the ways that balloons must be placed and the way pages end and begin. The box of space that each panel represents is governed by gravitational laws that only exist in comic books, and in no other idiom of art let alone real life. I'm referring specifically to the American idiom here, which is why I have no hesitation in regarding comic books as a genre of popular fiction. If you look at the old newspaper adventure strips you can see they are governed by a different set of laws.

Returning to your question, the inventive elements in my new pages have got more to do with leitmotifs and narrative patterns spread over three dozen pages. The construction is quite intricate.

SPURGEON: Was it pleasurable making those comics? Was it different than it used to be?

CAMPBELL: It was a great pleasure to draw in that style again after a layoff for a few years. I'm sure you can tell from looking at the pages that I was enjoying spending a lot of time on them. I even got the old zip-a-tones out of the mothballs and went to town with them like in the old days.

imageSPURGEON: In one of the new comics -- and I swear I won't ask too many questions about them -- you end on a hysterically funny down note about how you're glad that you got a certain kind of going out and carousing out of your system as a young man. Another one consists of a verbal beat down your wife provides you one morning about things she finds aggravating about you. These seem to me significant departures in terms of tone, the way you approach similar one-pagers in the past. Was that on purpose? Was there anything different about the way you approached these comics knowing they'd be published not alone, but with all of that early work?

CAMPBELL: The first page you mention was certainly designed to act as a balance to the activities at the beginning of the compendium, all that sleeping-bag and sofa-surfing that I once found so exciting a way to live. And the wife of my bosom has a moment that, while we're not permitted to blame all angry outbursts on "the black and white menstrual show" (as Hayley Campbell's boyfriend calls it), sometimes such outbursts are too absurd to be explained any other way. And in case it all sounds a bit middle aged, there is a grand five-page adventure with my son Callum, then nine ('Their father-son day out'), which ends with us getting arrested and then judiciously deciding to keep it a secret from his beloved mother. Every phase of life reveals its engaging peculiarities. But It is probably true that a note of frustration has crept into the work that wasn't there at the end of After the Snooter, when I was traveling the world at the time the From Hell movie came out. That was a hell of a year. I turned down invites to Portugal and Berlin and canceled one to Brazil at a very late hour. I'll probably never be invited anywhere again.

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SPURGEON: When I saw you this summer when you were a guest of Comic-Con International, you seemed to be enjoying yourself -- you smiled a lot -- but you also seemed to be working through some serious questions on vocational issues. Is it fair to suggest that you were in a reflective mood earlier this year? How did that period resolve itself?

CAMPBELL: Reflective? I think it would be more correct to say that I waver between frustration and despair, with an occasional daytrip into elation. You must have caught me on a good day. It hasn't resolved itself yet. I'm hoping the possibility of our TV show getting actually produced will refresh my brain.

SPURGEON: You mention the TV project... I think the last time you wrote about it on your site was about a month ago from the time we're having this exchange of e-mails. Am I to take you're now at a wait and see point? When should we know one way or the other if the project is going to progress further?

CAMPBELL: Waiting is what I have been doing since June 2007, with a promising event happening every couple of months. In fact I only started blogging about the subject once we had made an advance significant enough that even if the whole adventure should come to nothing, I would still have something to show for it. That is a little two and a half minute demonstration movie in which I play myself, with a computer animated Snooter bug and a guy in a specially made costume for the humanoid version. It's even got its own music. It's a well-made little piece of film, which I needed at that stage because the producers have seen what I do but up till then I had not really seen what it is that they do. We had videotaped an earlier rough version back in March which is probably the first time I had acted in front of a camera, at least since I was about ten with my dad's super-8. In fact it was a completely different set-up from the finished short movie as we rejected it and wrote a new one except for a short dream segment in the middle in which I stand in a big blank white space and briefly talk to God, represented by a big child's crayon drawing, a scene which you may recall from The Fate of the Artist. So the show as you can tell from that is going to be a mix of live action and different sorts of animation. I'm hoping we should know something within the next couple of months.

SPURGEON: On your blog, you've labeled your posts on the project "Our TV Adventure" and you're written about the experience in an admirably open and engaging way, it seems to me. Has it been a creative boon as well? Does going over some of this material for a new medium make you reconsider your work on any level?

CAMPBELL: It's adding a new level to the work rather than simply being an adaptation of what already exists. I was getting into that anyway with Fate as you may recall, in which I was missing from my own story and my part was played by a fictitious actor named Richard Siegrist. It's almost like I was already striving to re-imagine my core work into film, going so far as to set up a whole seven page sequence in Fate in photographs ("fumetti" style as we call it in English, or "fotonovelas" as they call them where "fumetti" just means comics) which is the interview scene in which Hayley Campbell plays herself. So if our most ambitious version of the TV show gets to be made, there would be some of that complexity. Campbell would be played by an actor, but real Campbell would also be in it. I've written synopses for several episodes and I'm happy with them. So let's see how far it gets before we have to change it all. You have to deal with so many other people in the TV game.

SPURGEON: You're not someone whose work of this type might spring to mind as a natural for adaptation into another medium. How much of your work has developed out of an understanding of film techniques or approaches?

CAMPBELL: Probably none at all. I have always consciously rejected filmic analogues in comics. Indeed, I would say that composing comics in the same way as film often results in faulty technique. There's an interview with Krigstein from way back (in Squa Tront or somewhere like that) where he explained how he felt that there had been a development in comic books, and I think he blamed it on Eisner, that resulted in a corruption of the integrity of the picture. By this he meant that breaking up of images into fragments, as film editors routinely do, does not have the same legibility on a printed page. In a blog post I used the finale to Krigstein's "Master Race" as an example of his solution to the problem of creating a kinetic effect without fragmenting images. All 12 or 13 of the panels of the sequence contain both the pursuer and the pursued and the relationship between them is readable in all panels. In contrast to this I remember reading the old Batman Adventures comic books to my very young son, and those books were supposed to be aimed at the youngsters. The lad had difficulty in making sense of some of the images because of the ways in which people and objects were truncated by panel borders. The artists in there really needed some lessons in clarity, and the problem most of the time was that they were thinking in filmic terms. The best comics draw their magic from other wells.

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SPURGEON: I love the double-page spreads and bigger, splashier, single-page images in Monsieur Leotard. I thought they were some of the most beautiful instances of art you've ever made. What was it about that story that led to these more transcendent moments within the wider narrative, as opposed to merely streamlining those plot points into a panel or a single page?

CAMPBELL: I wanted to recreate the nineteenth century through its particular typography. In a good cartoon strip the optical perception of the real is supplanted by an array of graphic devices (as opposed to the regular comic book style, whose currency is visceral simulation.) If you just glance at the thing you may fail to connect with it; you have to give yourself up to it. I experienced this when I came to first revise the Alec material. At first I thought, aw this all looks like just a bunch of old ink lines and half-there drawings, but once I entered into an exchange in the graphic currency, or started reading the work in other words, I found myself receiving the communicated experience afresh, without really thinking that it was my own experience. With Leotard there was a huge swathe of time and event to be covered and the big circus posters and old news banners were made to carry a lot of that responsibility. I don't think a panel or page could have performed the function. There's a lot of condensation in one of those poster-spreads.

SPURGEON: I was intrigued by the chapter where Etienne sleeps, pushing him through much of his own life story and between that and things like the way that he's a diarist and the episodes are described as such I wonder if you intended a criticism of using one's life as the fodder for art? I apologize if that sounds overly facile; I mostly wondered if you could talk about the diary-making element to the narrative and that remarkable sleeping chapter.

CAMPBELL: I've been thinking more and more about the idea of seeing your life as a story. Once you accept the challenge you must then ask whether you are writing a good story or a bad one, or whether it started well and then you lost interest and let it ramble, or whether you gave up on it altogether. It's a matter of giving your life a shape, a journey toward a goal, and adhering to that and not wasting time. Etienne did in fact lose track of the plot of his story. Some ten years passed before he regained it. I may have been influenced a little in this sequence by Bernard Malamud's The Natural. Nineteen-year-old Roy Hobbs is just about to arrive in the baseball world and take it by storm, or so the narrative style suggests, when he is suddenly shot by a lunatic. The story then jumps ahead 15 years. It was made into a great movie starring Robert Redford and directed by Barry Levinson.
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SPURGEON: It's hard not to see the circus and traveling show as precursors to modern show business or even artistic endeavor generally, the way that Arthur Kopit used the Buffalo Bill show in Indians and Robert Altman did again when filming that play. You also seem attracted in your work to first things, antecedents to things that exist in modern culture. Why the circus this time out? What is it that you saw there, that you wanted to make use of as a storyteller?

CAMPBELL: I wasn't interested in the circus for itself, which is probably obvious. The book is short on the kind of details that would suggest I'm in love with the milieu. So certainly it was all metaphorical, though there are some daffy aspects of it that appealed to me, like the wording of circus posters and some of the characters in the freak shows. Not the icky weirdness of it, mind you, more the comical aspects of it all. I saw a poster of "Pallenberg's Wonder Bears: Bruins that dance, skate, walk tight ropes and ride bicycles like humans" so naturally I had to have one of those in the book, and I called him Pallenberg. I also picked up the way that a kind of noble class in the circus realm attracts strings of adjectives to their names, so all the significant players have bi-adjectival pre-names just like the Amazing Remarkable Leotard, and in this way they are marked as superior individuals.

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SPURGEON: I'm always fascinated in how you approach your different projects visually, Eddie. Monsieur Leotard is very complex that way: there's a grid on some pages, but the margins are frequently filled, and there are sometimes up to four competing visual throughlines on a single page. What interested you about all of the marginalia and shifts in storytelling strategies on this project? Are you cognizant of these choices going in, or do they just grow organically out of doing the work?

CAMPBELL: There was a chapter in my History of Humour in my defunct Egomania magazine (a selection from this will be in the Alec Omnibus by the way) in which I examined the old marginalia in gothic illuminated manuscripts and talked about the late Michael Camille's theories about them. I came away with the idea that there are potent regions on "the page," that things tend to happen in specific quadrants of it. Camille's main idea, with regard to the old fourteenth century psalters and bibles was that God lived at the center and evil and folly was pushed to the outer edges, which is why the modern browser may be astonished to see obscenities in holy books. The page is symbolic of the universe, with everything in its place. It struck me that a page in our own time is lacking in any kind of magic or meaning as a thing in itself. So for a couple of years there I was on the lookout for a project where I could put some of my thoughts into play. Leotard came up in my discussions with my co-author Dan Best (we've done two or three other things together) and I saw that book as the one. So right from the start it has a big generous margin in which a life outside of the physical everyday one is taking place. Characters have a life-after-death there. The authors can turn up there, as well as the more prosaic kind of footnotes that normally appear in such an environment. Once I got going it became deliciously complicated.

imageSPURGEON: A lot of your recent work seems to be done in collaboration -- you worked with Hayley's photography in Fate of the Artist, you worked with an existing script to make The Black Diamond Detective Agency and you worked with Dan Best on this latest. Even the work you showed me that's forthcoming it's almost like you're working in collaboration with your older work. You have such an obviously strong voice and so much of your early work was done without anyone else contributing I wondered if you could talk to what you've gotten out of those recent collaborations, and why, if you seek them out, you seek them out.

CAMPBELL: I may have mislead you in Fate, in that my daughter posed for the seven page "fumetti" sequence but she only took the one author photo at the end. Any other photos in there are mine, though I can only think of the letter initials off the bat, and some of those were done on the scanner, including the edible cracker (what do you call them in the US?). With Black Diamond I was offered enough cash to make the job an attractive proposition, and the fact that I was given a free hand in the adaptation sweetened it. In some ways my book was a story about the story since I didn't think it was an entirely credible one. All of these projects are ones that I'm happy about and I think I was able to express my view of the world through them even if they weren't completely my own invention. Now and then I do spend time on stuff that I really shouldn't have done, but you have to get through your life as best you can and pay all the bills. On the whole though, I don't go seeking work. It all falls in my lap, but I have been saying no more often than I used to.

SPURGEON: One reason I wanted to talk to you so badly this year, Eddie, is that I think you have a very interesting take on the New York publishing world, and how they may be slowly revamping the comics industry into an adjunct of the children's book publishing business. Can you talk a bit about what's led you to think this? What can be done?

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CAMPBELL: This is something that has been bugging me for some time. The latest news to come down is that First Second Books, the publisher of my last three books, are now under the umbrella of Macmillan's Children's Group. I'm not surprised, because the book world, by which I mean the mainstream book publishers as well as the libraries and the Library Association, has been viewing "the graphic novel" as a young reader's genre for quite some time. In part I think it's because the part of a publishing house that is likely to be interested in bright illustrated narratives is the children's books department, and in part also because those publishers, and America's libraries, see the "graphic novel" as a way of grabbing a part of the literate populace that has hitherto proved elusive. Now, I have no objection to young folks having their own literature specially designed for them, though when I was a young 'un myself I would have been highly suspicious of anything that the adult world thought I should read because it was supposed to be good for me. Let's not forget that this is one of the things that drew us to comics in the first place, the very fact that they were not approved by our adults; they were our visual rock'n'roll, the things we knew that they didn't. However, let's not get bogged down on that point. The problem with this development is that comics were supposed to have grown up and become the "graphic novel," but now we are apt to find articles telling us that the "graphic novel has grown up." In other words we're back where we started. Furthermore, as an author of work that is likely to be classified as "mature" I have been finding it more and more difficult to find a publisher for a couple of projects I have been offering recently. I might have taken the hint that I have gone out of fashion except that the same publishers who rejected these proposed books were eager to secure me as the illustrator of texts by "one of our young reader's authors" (this has happened twice, which tends to suggest a pattern… and I declined both.) The upshot of it all is that I am back in an earlier position, working with Top Shelf on the Alec Omnibus and both Top Shelf and Knockabout on a book that is now finished and should be out at the end of 2009 titled The Playwright. As to what can be done about the larger shift in the business of comics, I really wouldn't care to guess. The reorientation to a younger audience is probably apt. I find that I can read fewer and fewer comics these days. They're like celery in that the effort it takes me to read them is way out of proportion to the information they can give. In my pessimistic moments I think the idea of complicated and challenging comics will recede and become commercially problematic. The market seems to want the "young readers" stuff. Was the idea of mature comics nothing but folly all along?

[Updated a couple of days later:] Tom, when I wrote the above I hadn't noticed that you'd already commented insightfully on the MacMillan news. A relevant blog post has also just come up:
Two highly compelling book-length comics that I found in the Young Adult Graphic Novels section of my local library, though I'm still not convinced they belong anywhere near there. Clyde Fans, by Seth, because there's nothing teenagers like to read more than delicately paced studies of two brothers who tried to sell electric fans to Canadian retailers midway through the last century. From Hell, because...
The post is followed by a revealing comment from a youth services librarian.

The whole issue is particularly frustrating because we had always hoped that success in the wider universe of books (i.e. outside of the comics specialty shops) would level out the playing field and give mature comics a bigger audience. This is not happening.

SPURGEON: Finally, we were on a panel this summer where you spoke eloquently about learning to write characters in a way that they may demand to be written differently once you've been around them a while. Knowing the characters helps inform you as to how they should be written. Is that true in autobiography or autobiographically-informed comics as well?

CAMPBELL: Yes, my ability to draw a character appreciates the further I get into a project. This means that the version away back at the beginning is always annoyingly unrealized and I always have to do some reworking on the early pages when I come to gather it together. With a real life representation it would be because I recall more details from the original model as I get further along. The same thing happens in movies, except the early work is never at the start of the movie. I watched Fellini's Casanova recently after first seeing it way back in the '70s. There's a point about twenty minutes to half an hour in when Donald Sutherland suddenly seems to be playing a different version of the character and it always looked odd to me (it's on the foggy bridge in what is supposed to be London, just before he meets the circus giantess). It was revealing in Sutherland's commentary that this was the first scene they shot and they hadn't quite figured out all the aspects of the character.

In conclusion, it's no big revelation to say that Ben Grimm looked much different in Fantastic Four #20 than he did in #1. Nobody gave a thought to the possibility that many of the kids would have the whole pile on view at the same time. It's a different kind of problem when you put out a 250-page book designed to weave a singular spell upon the reader. You probably want them to see contrasts between one character and another, not between one character and himself on an earlier page.

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Editor's Note: I have a note from Mark Siegel about the issue of First Second moving away from non-children's book more into children's books that I'll run and discuss when daily news returns to this stite January 5. He vociferously denies this will happen.

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* the cover from the new Alec omnibus, due 2009
* three random panels from the new Alec omnibus
* sample from one of the many memorable visual sequences in Monsieur Leotard
* one of the full-page images I liked in Monsieur Leotard
* great circus sequence within a static image from Monsieur Leotard
* a visual complex page from Monsieur Leotard
* close-up of a tiny image of partnership from Monsieur Leotard
* Campbell's recent First Second Book
* a page I very much liked from Monsieur Leotard

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