Conducted by Rob Vollmar
Eddie Campbell, as writer, artist, and publisher, is an entity unlike any other you are likely to find in the annals of comics history. There is nothing simple, really, to say about Eddie, except that he is one of the most literate and sophisticated comics creators alive today and is generally adored by those who know him. After getting his start in the now hallowed New Wave comics scene in Britain in the late 70s and 80s, Campbell made a career out of the road not taken and wound himself up as the publisher of perhaps the most ambitious graphic novel ever completed in English, From Hell, a collaborative effort with longtime friend and co-conspirator, Alan Moore.
Eddie's own work, whether the autobiographical Alec stories or the more visceral Bacchus, sometimes takes a backseat in discussions of Campbell in the glare of From Hell's vast influence, buoyed by his own meticulous visual research and the utterly mind-blowing implications of Moore's story. I came to Campbell's work honestly in 1998 with the release of another collaboration with Northampton's Darkest, The Birth Caul, that changed forever my notion of what a comic is capable of, what it can do to a receptive reader. Intrigued by what I saw, I followed Campbell's trail first into the surreal and challenging, Bacchus and later into his intensely personal and riveting autobiographical Alec.
The more of Eddie Campbell's work that one reads, the more you feel as if you know him personally. Upon meeting him last November, Eddie put me immediately at ease with his charm, poise, and that badass accent of his that nearly defies explanation. Though I was standing next to one of the authors of what is probably the most important graphic novels yet conceived, I was made to believe that my opinion and experience was essential as well to the conversation. There on the floor of the Uncommon Con in Dallas, Eddie took me on an extensive visual journey through the pages of the Birth Caul, an experience that will forever augment my appreciation of this work I consider divine in the most sincere and solemn way imaginable.
If you have never read an Eddie Campbell comic that he himself wrote, you are, in my estimation, missing out on one of the finest experiences that comics, indeed, even has to offer. He is one of the pioneers that brought autobiography to comics in the first place. He is the man who has self-published now 58 issues of his monthly anthology in unarguably the worst comics market in the history of the medium. He is the one who scooped up the pieces of From Hell, draped across eight years and more companies than Rob Liefeld has even owned, and compelled it with his will into the form of one of the best-selling collections in recent memory. He was also the one gracious enough to agree to this interview. Check it out.
ROB VOLLMAR: Eddie, your new collection on the horizon is Alec: How to Be an Artist. How would you describe the function of this volume in relation to The King Canute Crowd.
EDDIE CAMPBELL: Chris Breach, the webmaster at eddiecampbellcomics.com has written a long piece explaining how the various Alec books fit together. It's a very good essay, a kind of biography of Alec, as opposed to one of Eddie Campbell, which is what Alec is anyway. I hope it will be up on the site to coincide with the release of the new book. But I want to get away from the idea of thinking of these books as being a series, in the way that Sandman is a series and Cerebus is a series, and indeed our good friend Bacchus is one too.
For this reason I've deliberately made the new one a slightly different size and shape from Alec: The King Canute Crowd. From selling the Bacchus trades at conventions I have arrived at the observation that the series form there is too much like the old model, the old model being the comic book series. We shouldn't be replacing it with the Graphic novel 'series' but rather a new concept wherein each book is separate and unique.
What I'm getting at here is not a marketing idea, wherein the graphic novel is seen as no more than a packaging procedure, but a concept of form. Maus is complete and unique. There will be no more in the series Its original release as two volumes was an expedient by which it could presented to the public earlier. The complete edition supercedes that, so that is no longer relevant or useful to refer to Maus volume 1 and Maus volume 2 as though they are separate works, except for the biographical purposes.) Safe Area Gorazde is complete and unique, even if an appendix may be added, but there will be no book two. Same with Jimmy Corrigan, Mr Punch etc. etcÂ…
Sandman, no matter how you wrap it up, is comic books, so is Bacchus, although there is room to argue, I believe, that Jaka's story succeeds in separating itself from the Cerebus comic and standing alone. Definitions must be flexible. I have somebody here arguing that Watchmen cannot be accepted as a true Graphic Novel because it's about superheroes, but that's just being pretentious and silly.
All of this sounds like I have wandered off the subject, But How to Be an Artist is in fact about the history of the graphic novel and the final chapter attempts to list what I believe are those graphic novels which make the form an exciting cultural event of our times.
The book has been put together with its own unique form and can be read without any knowledge of any of my other books. It stands alone and it is unique. There is no other book quite like it, particularly in the way it is a comic but is also a history of a phase in the life of comics and it quotes other comics liberally by showing panels as excerpts. The way it does this is also very particular in that the panels chosen from other works are chosen to comment on the ongoing narrative in sly and ironic ways. It is thus a very complex book that could withstand a great deal of study without fully giving up its secrets.
RV: The narrative voice that you chose for How to Be an Artist, second-person future-tense, feels very deliberate. What was it about that approach that intrigued you as a creator?
EC: Once you will have understood the uniqueness of the story that you have to communicate...oops, I've slipped into it , haven't I? Your task then is to find a way to communicate it . If your story is unique as you think, then the best way to fashion it will also have a uniqueness. In my own case, I came up with the notion of presenting the whole book as a prophecy (in high terms) or as a 'how to' manual (in low terms). Right up to the last minute I still had people trying to talk me out of the 'how to' title, but try as I would, the material itself just wouldn't let it go. The whole book is formulated around this conceit, that I'm telling the reader how to be an artist. Thus, I'm telling them in the future tense, addressed to the second person, 'you', nominally Alec MacGarry, but also by inference the person reading the book, who is asked to be Alec for the duration. I got into some very complicated stuff with those tenses. I had to change a few things in the final edit, just because it's difficult to remember to think that way all through when I'm really talking about the past.
RV: In many ways, How to Be Artist seems to a temporal telegram from Campbell the Elder to Alec the younger to keep his head about him and have faith in the choices that he's making. Do you recall hearing any of this sage wisdom rolling around in the ether when it happened the first time?
EC: No, but I had a bit of fun with that idea in a recent Alec chapter in the Bacchus comic, and I'll bet that's where you picked up the notion.
RV: It's literally staggering now for the modern comic fan to consider all of the luminaries that burst from the UK underground school of the late 1970s/early 1980s. What was it about that time and place, do you think, that made people so receptive to comics as an experimental form?
EC: One of the new sections that I've inserted into the book addresses that very point. Incidentally, there are about 25 new pages that the reader who followed the serial in DeeVee won't have seen. I'm sorry if this gives you something else you have to buy, but I'm just an artist who had a huge work in progress, has so far not made a penny from it, and certainly wasn't going to miss a chance to go back and insert things that got overlooked the first time around. And this is one of those. In conversations with people like Alan Moore and Hunt Emerson I found that we had all been picking up on the same half hidden clues at the same time in the early seventies. The same books for instance, like the Penguin Book of Comics, which was a British book by George Perry and Alan Aldridge that first introduced us to George Herriman and Milton Caniff and the whole history of comics. There was another book released in connection with an exhibition at the Louvre about comics, by Pierre Couperie and Maurice Horn, and one from Germany, The Anatomy of a Mass Medium by Reitberger and Fuchs.
There were loads of others too, but the essential message in seeing the medium written about in this serious way was that it could be an Art as great as any other, if it wasn't already. By the end of the seventies, you already had Will Eisner and A Contract with God. Things were on the move and they haven't stopped yet.
In England, we were a smaller, more close knit community that were interested in the medium, and we had these centralised annual conventions in London that everybody went to. And since we had no industry to speak of at the time, there were no comic book stars the way you had in the States. The first con I ever went to, I think it was '70 boasted as guests Terry Gilliam and a guy with blooper reel from Star trek. He did a presentation first explaining what a blooper was. It was great. Now comics have always been made in England and lots of them, but nobody ever knew about the creators except for occasional artists like Frank Bellamy, so British comics thrived in this small community and big ideas perhaps were permitted to flourish because there was no hierarchy of pros saying you can't do that. Once the fanzine was given new possibilities by the punk movement, the need to make a living from comics wasn't foremost in everybody's head and exciting things proceeded to happen. Even at the mainstream level, DC has acknowledged many times that things were done very differently in Britain and in many different ways and they set about systematically looking for new talent there in the mid eighties. Before I'm accused of chauvinism, that's not to say there wasn't as much crap in Britain as anywhere else. The sight of it reduced me to tears of frustration on many occasions.
RV: Much of How to Be An Artist focuses on the graphic novel as a developing form. You indicate that at the time, you were in some ways disappointed with Eisner's first attempts at the form. What elements did you find lacking and did it effect how you approached the form when you began your first Alec graphic novel?
EC: Actually, Will's first book, Contract with God was bloody brilliant, I think, looking at it from this vantage, But at the time I was wrapped up in my own obsessions and was blinded to many other things. In my mind the only way to do it was the way I was doing it.
His second book, Life on Another Planet I still find unreadable, but then he made good with the one after that, A Life Force. Since this was a new form, there was inevitably going to a lot of trial and error.
RV: You have collaborated throughout the length of your career thus far with a varied and often celebrated batch of creators. Which of your natural strengths do you think are played to in the act of collaboration? Do you prefer to write or draw in this scenario?
EC: This kind of work is usually work that I'm invited into, and if it sounds pleasing I'll go for it, but I have turned down a great number of things over the years. A completely different matter is when I get people to help me here. I was trying to run things like an old fashioned 'workshop' for a while, with apprentices, and then specialists brought in for a particular job. In that kind of situation I'm in control of things instead of sending in my script and then it gets formed according to the vision of the company, which often means with complete randomness or even a lack of care.
RV: The Birth Caul, in particular, is quite unlike anything else in your catalog with its pages reading like a veritable encyclopedia of comics possibilities. What was it in the original recording that Alan had made that set your mind and pen in motion?
EC: Basically, the memories he was describing were ones that I shared. That text is so real it's heartbreaking. I had images bursting out of my head and I wanted to get them all down. At no stage in the work did I ever run out of things to draw and paint.
RV: You have told me before of a hidden logic to the length of the sections in The Birth Caul. Could you elaborate more on this as in how each section corresponds to the different parts of Moore's monologue?
EC: To begin with, the arithmetic is fundamental to the construction. We know this because the music came first. It was measured out with short sections between long sections. Then Alan put the words in. I mean to say that he outlined the form of the thing, where each idea would be, and then let David J compose the music, before getting down to the words. It's quite hypnotic and almost disturbing the way it keeps to the plan. Like a death march or something that we cannot escape from. A dark inevitability. I took it from there and illustrated it, laying yet more layers over what was already there. There are a myriad hidden details in the thing, as you know.
Give me five minutes with just about anyone and I'll astonish them by showing them at least half a dozen things they've missed. At least it's always worked so far. I think our society is just not accustomed to reading signs and symbols the way that ordinary people six hundred years ago would have done, even though they may have been illiterate according to our definition.
RV: Currently, you are working on a new collaborative piece with Moore called Snakes and Ladders. Are you adapting this piece sans script like The Birth Caul and will it be stylistically similar?
EC: No, I have a script this time. And the approach will be similar, which is to say that I'm finding new ways of doing things on virtually every page. I'm not sure if that makes it 'stylistically' similar.
RV: In the days of yore, you inserted a thin veneer of fiction over your autobiographical observations by changing everyone's name. Now, having returned to this type of material with the conclusion of the Deadface stories, you have chosen to remove this veil and allow yourself direct address, if you will. Considering that you were one of the pioneers of autobiographical comics, did you feel in your youth that the pretense of fiction was important to people's general acceptance of autobiographical comics as an idea? If so, what ultimately changed your mind?
EC: I don't think I consciously changed my mind. It's more that I grew out of the habit of fiction. With the passage of time I've realised that my cartoons are not going to cause anybody pain and heartache, and, in fact, if I don't show it to them, they'll probably never know I've drawn them. This may all change with How to Be an Artist because I've drawn so many people who are still attached to the industry.
RV: You made the transition in the last two years from artist to publisher. After a career of watching independent publishers crash and burn, did you feel like you had a good idea of what you were getting into and how has the reality of self-publishing differed from those expectations?
EC: I started out by self publishing, so I was returning to an older mode. With my dear friend Steve Bissette, he'd been drawing for DC for eight or nine years before getting into self publishing. I think it might have been harder for him. Also, I guess some personalities are right for it. Alan Moore was all wrong for it. A bit of a waste of human intelligence, asking Alan to be thinking about units and percentages instead of roaming in ideaspace.
RV: Besides the How to Be an Artist collection and the Bacchus Monthly Magazine, what does Eddie Campbell Comics have in store for the remainder of 2001?
EC: Really, you have covered it all thoroughly. Except of course for steering the From Hell book through the stormy seas ahead, with the movie and seven foreign editions.
RV: What kind of story are you doing with Hunt Emerson for the Bizarro HC due soon from DC? You expressed a fondness for his work in How to Be an Artist. Was this project wish fulfillment for you in some way?
EC: I have always regarded Hunt very highly, even when I have not necessarily enjoyed what he's doing (e. g. Firkin the Cat). But I've never harbored a longing to work with him or with anyone else for that matter. I still haven't seen his drawings for my script, but I am quietly confident they will be exactly right. The story is the only Batman story I've ever thought of. It first started to run around the back of my head ten years ago. It concerns my favourite batman villain of all time, the Eraser.
RV: What's in store for Eddie Campbell in the next five years of his career? EC: I'm hoping to do yet more of the magic books with Alan. I see something colossal building here. So watch for those. I think when we're done it will be another one of those unique and special bodies of work that I was describing at the beginning of this chat.
RV: Eddie, thanks so much for your time and consideration in answering the questions.
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