The Eddie Campbell Interview (part four of four)

Posted by on June 25th, 2010 at 12:11 AM


(Click image to read longer excerpt.) A 1994 page by Hayley and Eddie Campbell and Pete Mullins; from “The Picture of Doreen Grey,” as collected in Eyeball Kid: Double Bill, ©1994 Eddie Campbell.


Narrative Responsibility

DEPPEY: But it’s very high concept, it’s very “I’m going to explain this to you in 30 words, and those 30 words will give you the idea of the potential for it.” I was reading the weblog of a screenwriter named Josh Friedman, and he was talking about a film where the pitch is basically in the title, Snakes on a Plane. [Campbell laughs.] And it’s actually being made into a film. Samuel Jackson is going to be in a film called Snakes on a Plane. And there will be snakes and they will be on a plane.

CAMPBELL: I think the Image thing, you know the whole style that was going on then, owed something to that whole kind of thinking. Here’s our character, let’s give him cool things to wear and cool things to do.

DEPPEY: And now things will explode.

CAMPBELL: That’s right. I think McFarlane’s problem was that he really couldn’t think beyond that, which is why he started hiring Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman to inject some actual narrative meaning into the thing. I think that’s what happened. Because I read some of those things, and I thought, “There’s no narrative responsibility in any of this.” Actually, in a way I kind of admired some of their cheek. At the time I thought it was audacity; I realize now it was just that they didn’t know any better, but I admired their narrative audacity in not having a… I called it at the time a “narrative irresponsibility.” It’s like writing a piece of music: You set it up in a certain key, you introduce themes and so on. That’s what you have to work with; you have to be creative with that. You resolve all the tensions in the home key and finish with a tonic cadence. (I hope nobody who actually understands symphonic composition is reading this blather.) To wildly introduce new themes and remote keys without modulation in the middle of it is to risk incoherence. Like embedding a chocolate almond in the middle of a steak and kidney pie — actually, that might work better than my music analogy. But this crowd seemed to be totally irresponsible with regard to such considerations. I thought, “It’d be interesting to actually try and write that way.” And I did a story called “The Picture of Doreen Gray,” which I think is one of the most barmy things I’ve ever done. But I was doing it under the influence of having looked at these Image guys. I said to myself, “You guys are mad, you can’t write stories. I’m going to do one myself, just like you idiots.” So I started at point A, and I thought, “I have no responsibility whatsoever to return to the theme established in the first 10 bars. I will just keep writing new ideas and take it off on my way to Mars, or the other direction if a whim takes my fancy.” Eventually, I’d gone so far that my hero had to be killed. Joe Theseus dies. What am I going to do, now that he’s dead? He becomes God. He goes to heaven and God says, “I’m glad you’re here, you’re taking over.”

DEPPEY: Having your daughter Hayley draw God was a masterstroke.

CAMPBELL: How do you depict God? How about a child’s crayon drawing? Yes! I’ve actually brought God back in The Fate of the Artist.

DEPPEY: I saw that. I was going to ask you about that.

CAMPBELL: The challenge with God as a child’s crayon drawing is that it had to be completely naïve. That is, I can’t have it even looking like the same being in two panels running. The drawing has to completely look like a different God in every appearance.

DEPPEY: Right. So did you draw God in Fate of the Artist?

CAMPBELL: I did, yes. She’s 19 now; it’s 10 years later. She wouldn’t know how to do that any more. [Deppey laughs.] But I’ve got her in the book, in an unusual photographic sequence, or fumetti, saying: “In our house, God’s a child’s crayon drawing.” She’s explaining it for the reader who didn’t read “The Picture of Doreen Gray.” Eddie Campbell’s some old crank with these old books, and things keep invading our lives from his books. I could have said I was a fiction and it would have worked. You don’t have to know that there is actually an Eddie Campbell with books with that stuff in them. I could have created a fictional author, but why not just use the real thing? Which is what I wish Will Eisner would have done in The Dreamer. Give us the real names, for God’s sake. Why turn Victor Fox into Julius Renard?

DEPPEY: Of course, by the same token, it took you 25 years to come to that conclusion?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, I did arrive at it, I did at the end think “Why call myself Alec McGarry?” One of the reasons for doing it that way, though, is that Danny Grey had a couple of infringements behind him that were close to criminological. I was trying to cover tracks for all concerned. [Laughter.]


(Click image to see larger version.) A 1994 page by Hayley and Eddie Campbell and Pete Mullins; from “The Picture of Doreen Grey,” as collected in Eyeball Kid: Double Bill, ©1994 Eddie Campbell.


The Fate of the Artist

DEPPEY: In Fate of the Artist, you paint your family as being totally exasperated with you.

CAMPBELL: I don’t know if that’s true. Although my wife did hit me in the head with a glass tumbler so hard she had to drive me to the hospital.

DEPPEY: Did she?

CAMPBELL: Yeah, that actually happened. I learned this: If a wife comes in with a bleeding noggin they report it to the social services. If it’s a bloke they’re happy to write it off as a “frying pan incident.” [Deppey laughs.] There’s a murder currently under investigation here in Australia. Two women appear to have entered into a suicide pact and shot each other in the back of the head with shotguns. Apart from the obvious logistical problems, a woman in the paper wrote the sound observation that two women would be unlikely to use a male hunting weapon in such an agreement. I guess they’d more likely have a bath and cut their wrists, or curl up in bed full of sleeping pills. The frying pan would only be used against an errant husband. As for me, it was one of my own whisky tumblers I was wearing that day. The lesson of this ramble is that everything in a story is symbolic, and if it isn’t, it tends to discredit the story.

DEPPEY: I was about to ask if your family wrote any of their own dialogue, or if you were just sitting there putting words in their mouths.

CAMPBELL: I’m putting words in their mouths. I thought I was putting real ones, but then I’m hearing, “Dad, I would never say that.” [Deppey laughs.] Denying it. So for dramatic purposes I’ve had to admit — did you get the cover where I wrote the blurb, where it’s all in the future tense? “Eddie Campbell will audaciously put words in the mouths of…” I thought I’d better cover myself. It wasn’t the intention, I’d intended to get the dialogue sounding right.

DEPPEY: [Reading from the title page] “In wildly comic reencactments of incidents from his curious life, his part will be played by an actor. By an audacious literary sleight of hand, he will put words in the mouths of those who knew him.”

CAMPBELL: I’m just covering myself because I wasn’t up to the task of getting the voices right. I’m told I don’t do that very well. I wrote that in the 12th hour, as a kind of… what is it? “The Hendersons Will Dance and Sing.” It’s a kind of old-fashioned theater handbill.

DEPPEY: And of course you mention on the title page, “in which the author does not appear as himself.” You actually do appear at the end, but you play somebody else.

CAMPBELL: Yeah. Faced with the challenge, I thought, “I’ve tried it in a couple of different ways. How do I…?” It was a matter of finding a formal procedure, because it’s not a linear story. In fact, in terms of time, you can’t say the events of this story took a week to enfold. I don’t know that any time was involved at all, but there are anecdotes that take a few minutes or half an hour. They’re not even arranged chronologically; there’s no stepping into a narrative and coming out a month later with a resolution. It’s all taking place in an abstract space.

DEPPEY: At one point there’s what looks like a child’s drawing of God knocking a plane down into the water. [Campbell laughs.] And it’s followed by a picture of you washed on shore, although that looks nothing like you.

CAMPBELL: Is that the actor?

DEPPEY: I guess.

CAMPBELL: Because I don’t appear. The author is washed ashore on a desert island.

DEPPEY: After that, it’s never referred to again, and yet it conveys the overall mood of the story beautifully. It’s like you’re approaching the subject from as many different angles as you can. And they all don’t match up.

CAMPBELL: They don’t link up like a daisy chain. But everything in there refers to something else in there.

DEPPEY: It’s actually a fairly ingenious construction.

CAMPBELL: Why, thank you. I wondered at first if, because when First Second… they weren’t called First Second. Roaring Books, I think. The words in the original contact they made stuck out too obviously, they were aiming books at young readers. The first thing I said to Mark Siegel was “I think this might be too complicated for your plan.” Already this was a book I was halfway through. Although I offered him a couple of other things that are on the back burner. But at the same time, all of the elements themselves are approachable. You know, the gags or jokes or funny situations. It’s just taken as a whole, everything in it relates to everything else in an extremely complicated way. You know, you notice the guy who signs the Honeybee strips, for instance.

DEPPEY: Right, it’s A. Humorist.

CAMPBELL: And the title of the O. Henry story, “Confessions of a Humorist.”

DEPPEY: Yes. Did you have this mapped out from the beginning, or…?

CAMPBELL: No. I pieced it together bit by bit. The last thing I drew in this was page 34, 35, 36. Out of a 96-page book. And the first thing I drew was the O. Henry thing at the end. [Laughs.] It’s like doing a big sculpture. You don’t necessarily start at the head and work your way down. You’re going to be working on the whole thing all the time.


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