The Eddie Campbell Interview (part four of four)

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


(Click image to read longer excerpt.) From The Fate of the Artist, ©2005 Eddie Campbell.


Despising His Art, His Self and His Readers

DEPPEY: You also insert the stories of, I guess for lack of a better term, artistic also-rans, people who created interesting work but never quite got remembered for it. [Campbell laughs.] Everyone from the archeological reconstruction expert Walther Amelung to Tad Dorgan.

CAMPBELL: Johann Schobert, who died painfully from eating poisonous mushrooms. Mozart adapted one of his sonatas. [Laughs.] One of the great forgotten composers; I’ve got a CD of his works. They’re secondary figures in the history of art, and those are the figures who always interest me the most. For instance, I’ve not mentioned Van Gogh anywhere in this book. There would have been obvious choices, you know: Beethoven going deaf, Van Gogh going mad. These characters are too big and almost caricatural now to tell us anything fresh about the fate of the artist.

Because, as we know, the world is teeming with small men, little guys who make their livings as artists: draw their last, put their pencils down and are never heard of by the world again. We know many; our lives are full of such acquaintances. Those are the real artists in the world. The world likes to glorify so-called geniuses, but the world of music is made up of ordinary people playing their part. Play first violin in some orchestra, writing a few tunes in spare moments — that is the world of art. We’ve created this idea of some pantheon of genius, but that’s not the true picture.

DEPPEY: The Fate of the Artist gets darker with successive readings. The first time I went through it, I was interested in the anecdotes and the funny little cartoons that are inserted and things like that. It’s only when I started connecting them on a second read-through that I got the full importance of the message. The whole work is dedicated to expressing the artist disappearing. It was only in the second reading that it really started to connect for me, making some of the connections between this and yourself. And not just professionally, but personally; the way that everybody in your own life is sort of depicting you in a dismissive fashion, or seeing you primarily for your faults. [Campbell laughs.] The piles of stuff that you leave behind that are an interesting library unto themselves, but just seen as crap that you left behind. Then I hit the line, where you have Hayley say, “But he only really started going mad when his imaginary friends stopped calling.”

CAMPBELL: One of my favorite lines.

DEPPEY: Implying that when your artistic life died, you finally just went off the bend.

CAMPBELL: The inner life of the imagination can sustain us, until one day perhaps when we stop believing in it.

DEPPEY: Did you have a period where that happened?

CAMPBELL: I had a meltdown for some reason when I closed down my publishing thing. I crashed. As I said, many things contributed to it, but it was a genuine feeling of terror. I suddenly became Steve Bissette. [Laughter.] Steve Bissette dropped his pencil some time in, when was it, ’95? He wasn’t going to be a comic artist any more. I don’t think he decided so much as fled in terror. And when I depicted him in How to Be an Artist, for six or seven panels with a blank page in front of him and the years passing and still this blank page he’s sitting in front of, he was very upset by that. He actually e-mailed me to tell me so. He’s the only person in the book who complained. I thought the complaint might come from somebody else. No names here, just in case they go and look for themselves. [Deppey chuckles.]

But Steve was upset. I was cruel. But six, seven years later, I believe I understand what went on in his head. It’s an inexplicable terror, the fear of having to take something personal out from inside you onto the page for everybody to dissect. That actually does take a degree of courage. There are more courageous things out there in the world, of course, it goes without saying. There are people out there in Africa saving people, or trying to find a cure to AIDS, being jailed for fighting political injustice, pulling victims out of blazing buildings, etc. But anyway, I was trying to express the wee plight of the artist in a funny way. I think it succeeds, but when you start looking behind the humor there is something darker going on there.

DEPPEY: You’d mentioned in your interview for Milo in Graphic Novel Review that people from The King Canute Crowd and Ace Rock’n’Roll Club had begun finding themselves and your work over the Internet; they discovered you because of From Hell. Did that contribute at all to it?

CAMPBELL: That vulnerability is perhaps what started it. It’s easy to convince yourself you’re not visible. When you’re working at home in a room by yourself, with just the dog and the cat around you, it’s very easy to forget that this then goes out there and everybody in the world gets to look at it and is entitled to say what they like about and so on and so forth. You can bolster yourself up and get along with that year after year. And then one day, as it says on the opening page of the book, “One day the artist wakes up with the disquieting feeling that it has all gone wrong. The man in the street supposes the problem to be something called ‘writer’s block.’ In fact, the artist has come to despise his art, his self and his readers. It is difficult to obtain sympathy for this condition.”

I lifted the phrase “despising his art and himself and his audience” from the notes from a CD for a 20th century composer and I couldn’t remember who it was, it may have been quoting Olivier Messaien. I think he experienced an existential crisis in the years following the Second World War, where he couldn’t see any sense in doing it any more; he’d come to despise the whole thing and himself. I lifted those words magpie-like: “That’s it, that expresses it perfectly. That’s what I’m looking for. I’ll cut and paste that into my text here.”

I think discovering things like that led me to the conviction that, what I was talking about, and Steve Bissette, for instance, was actually a widespread problem: the idea that built into art and the artistic life is this time bomb which one day goes off and the artist lives in a state of self-hatred. Why does Van Gogh kill himself — or even in the business of comics, Jack Cole, why the hell did Jack Cole shoot himself? He was the top of his game, he was successful.

I’m not saying that the artist is a special case, that ordinary people don’t fall out with themselves and stick their heads in the gas oven. The idea of being an artist isn’t reserved for the great geniuses of history. There are a lot of perfectly ordinary folk out there, a lot of people who just dabbled in art a little. Maybe they did one thing. For research purposes, I was reading an essay on writer’s block for instance, there’s an American novelist who put out one novel… Ralph Ellison. Invisible Man. It won all kinds of awards, and he spent 50 years not writing another one. On the other hand, I mentioned my terrors to Neil Gaiman and he didn’t seem to identify with what I was talking about. So I guess not all artists go this route. Or, not yet anyway.


(Click image to read longer excerpt.) From The Fate of the Artist, ©2005 Eddie Campbell.


DEPPEY: He’s still churning out ideas.

CAMPBELL: He hasn’t fallen out with himself yet.

DEPPEY: So how did you work yourself out of this state?

CAMPBELL: That presumes I am out of it.

DEPPEY: Oh. [Campbell laughs.] Well, you’ve produced one book, you’re in the middle of a second; if you’re still in this state, you’re doing a damn good job of pretending otherwise.

CAMPBELL: Let’s say you observed as a young person, as young persons of worth often do, that the culture around you is vacuous, so you invested your faith in some imaginary “posterity.” Some 30 years later you start to notice that posterity is really just as stupid as the here and now. You might see it in an encyclopedia entry for an 18th century composer like Schobert, to use an example from my book. The entry is five lines long but spends two and a half of those telling you he died from eating poison mushrooms and took his whole family with him. He wrote half his life story in the last minute of it. Or another virtuoso violinist composer, Guillemain; what I know about him is less than a paragraph, but it includes that he self-inflicted 14 stab wounds upon himself whilst on route from Paris to Versailles on October 1st 1770, a mere three years after our dear friend Schobert kicked the bucket, and they hastily buried him the same day in the fear that they might have to try to explain it. The promised land that the artist imagined when he started has failed to materialize. The power of imagination, that enabled him to imagine himself into becoming the thing of his dream, now fails him. the clichés are all undressed and appear flabby and ugly; Van Gogh only selling one picture in his lifetime, Salieri out of jealousy poisoning Mozart, etc. This crashing realization that High Art is an illusion was equivalent to the moment in my youth when I first realized there is no god. In studying ancient mythologies I saw that gods always serve such a useful psychological function so that if they didn’t exist then they’d have to be invented for that purpose. Ipso facto, we probably invented ours too. So it’s a queasy smothering terror that creeps up the torso and then descends in a cold sweat from the armpits. After this bout with cold turkey, you’ll be feeling fine.


(Click image to read longer excerpt.) From The Fate of the Artist, ©2005 Eddie Campbell.


DEPPEY: To what extent was it the business side of the whole thing that made you give up self-publishing, and to what extent was it just that feeling of dread?

CAMPBELL: It got too complex. Publishing for the Direct Market is a thing that runs itself. But suddenly I was having to think about other things and make decisions. Dealing with the book market, you’re now dealing with returns.

Chris Staros at Top Shelf does that stuff better than me. Chris contacted me shortly after I started Eddie Campbell Comics; before, in fact. He offered to help in any way he could, which turned out to be exactly what I needed. It’s interesting how the solutions to problems present themselves almost at the same time as the problem. It’s just that you don’t see it at first. My design problems got solved the same way when Evans popped up out of nowhere and told me my typesetting was crap. Up to then I’d never thought about it. Within a couple of months it dawned on me that warehousing the overprints of the issues was going to grow into a significant logistical difficulty; I had a pal in Brooklyn keeping them under his bed at first. And I hadn’t even thought about doing collections at that stage. Chris took it on after around the fifth issue, if memory serves. In due course, we did From Hell together and did really well out of it. But publishing falls into two parts. The first is making the books and the second is shifting them. Chris took on the second part of that for me. And it would probably be true to say that was the foundation of Top Shelf publishing. Perhaps he had that in mind from the start. Empire-building. At some point, anyway, the backstock goes mad on you and you realize you’ve got to move it all out of here to make room for the stuff coming in. So now you have to find a remaindering operation. Directing all this traffic becomes quite complicated and you need somebody that’s just doing that and nothing else. With the Direct Sales market, you just do your book and stick it in the pipeline. Because it’s issues, you know. I got up to issue 60, and it’s a very long, slow, descending curve. Eventually it got to the stage where, well, that’s it, it’s not making any money any more, it’s time to stop it.

DEPPEY: It’s an impressive run. Am I correct in assuming that Egomania just never managed to get off the ground financially?

CAMPBELL: That wasn’t really important. The thing was a huge self-indulgence. But the orders we were getting were the same as they were for the last issue of Bacchus. The idea had been, “I’ll start a new title at number one, and the orders will start higher,” but the market wasn’t interested in that. It was almost as though, in taking that long, slow, descending curve, I had devalued my imprint. Eddie Campbell Comics really wasn’t worth anything any more, and whatever I put out was going to sell the same number, so it was logical to just stop. I didn’t throw my arms up in despair or anything. Then, other things started. A creeping terror that it was all going wrong. Everybody could find me, I was on view, I was naked. I went a bit paranoid. I even canceled my P.O. box so that people couldn’t get me. I think I lost some checks in the process. What a wanker.


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