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.


10 Rules

DEPPEY: I read some essays from your website, and the only reason I was able to do so was because I went to something called…

CAMPBELL: I noticed that. I thought stuff had been lost, but it’s retrievable. I’ve been getting into theorizing a great deal of late. And lecturing there for a while. They flew me out to that symposium, the Will Eisner symposium, in 2002. It was a great little event. It was me, Will Eisner, Dan Clowes, Terry Zwigoff and Joe Sacco.

DEPPEY: Oh, was that in Florida?

CAMPBELL: Yeah. Florida University symposium. I don’t know if they still do that, if they do that every year or if that was a one-off. Loved that, to sit on a panel with those guys.

I’ve forgotten where I was heading with this. [Deppey laughs.] I used to do little talks at the local college. I’d not usually bring along slides and stuff. I swiftly realized, a long time ago, that anything around me of a technical nature tends to break down. When I come into the room, technology fails. So I usually just stand and talk. Sometimes I would talk well about the technical side of comics, and then sometimes somebody would ask a question and I’d realize it had all gone completely over their heads. Well, that’s how I felt. Maybe some of them got it. Maybe there was a genius taking it all in and was too shy to speak up.

Like for instance, I once did a talk on 10 points, 10 principles toward a rhetoric of the comic-strip vocabulary. I told Scott McCloud of it. He wanted to start arguing with me about some of my points. [Deppey laughs.] He wanted to disagree with me right there on the spot, in the middle of the street as it happens. I love him. One of my points was: The entire drama of a situation must be contained in each and every panel within the sequence depicting it. The example that I gave was the final chase scene in Krigstein’s “Master Race.” I brought slides, or at least a reprint of the story, and they quickly made transparencies. There are 13 slim panels, in which both the protagonist and antagonist appear in each and every panel, and their relationship is clear in each of those images: One is chasing, one is being chased. No cutaway shots, no intercut shots of details, the entire drama of a chaser and a chased is present in each and every panel.

DEPPEY: That sounds kind of arbitrary, in terms of laying down hard fast rules.

CAMPBELL: Each and every panel except for two, one of which is a flashback to the Second World War, and one of which is there just to give the lie to my theory. [Deppey laughs.] But Scott immediately started arguing with me, he disagreed. And I said, “I don’t care if you disagree, that’s my rule. On that day, that’s my rule.” [Deppey laughs.] “The next day, you can make it another rule. I don’t care.” I think his problem may have been that there’s a similar rule in How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, but that’s neither here nor there.

DEPPEY: But you were talking about this going over students’ heads.

CAMPBELL: Well, I had 10 ideas on that level. By the end of it, the thing was far too much, too complicated. One class, on any one of them, would have been enough. To throw 10 of them out there at once was mental mayhem, too much. I should have picked one and done examples and set them tasks or whatever, and told them where they were wrong on just that one. Let me see if I can remember some of them.

  • In comics an event has not happened unless it can be seen to have happened. Thus, you can’t refer back to something that only happened in a word balloon. Technically it didn’t happen at all.
  • We talk about timing in comics, but there really is no time except in a periodical sense, i.e. “next issue.” All the pages of a comic book arrive simultaneously. If it happens that Magneto shows up surprisingly on the last page, I’ve never met a kid who didn’t already know that before he’d even got the book out of the store.
  • The page is like a map of the world. Similar kinds of events tend to happen in the same region, like say, hurricanes in the Caribbean.
  • Contrary to what you may have heard, comics is not a nested system. The eye will tend to go to the next nearest balloon irrespective of whether it has covered all those in the current panel. On the subject of this one, Richard Starkings did a book on the comic book letterer’s art that should be required reading. There is so much common sense in it. The problem is that balloon placing must first be addressed by the artist in a comic book, and it’s usually the thing he’s least interested in. He has to absorb it all into his compositional scheme at the outset. Myself, the lettering is the very first thing I put down. Everything else must get in line behind the lettering.
  • In the reduced visual scale of a comic, everything is symbolic even if you don’t mean it to be. If you part a character’s hair in the middle instead of the side, the reader will infer a meaning. If you give him a pimple on his nose, expect to have to explain it.

Anyway, the last of my rules is that you must show at least one pair of feet on every page. I remember Pete Mullins, he used to find that funny that I had these really complicated rules, but number 10 was that you had to show a pair of feet on every page, from the sublime to the ridiculous. He said to me recently, “You know, Eddie, but you’re right. I’ve gone into other fields, you know, television animation and everything, and I still remember that. It sticks in my head. It’s useful.”

Make sure you show a pair of feet. Otherwise you’re creating talking-head situations, and there’s no point of reference for the human frame, the human body, and the relative sizes of people, and the relative size of the people to their environment. And if you’ve got this business of remembering to draw one pair of feet a page, you make yourself take it all into account. This reminds you to stand back from the action and judge the balance. I’ve seen people show me stuff, portfolio things, and I think, “There’s something wrong here. What is it? Ah yes, the feet rule.” I’ll break the rule, anybody can break the rule, but the rule’s there as a reminder to take care of business more than anything else. One of the rules in any house is that you don’t go out and leave the gas burning. Don’t take the boat out in a storm. Wear a coat in the rain. Whatever. There’s a very sound reason for having rules, not just to lord it over people.


Campbell giving a speech in 2002; photo provided by Campbell.


DEPPEY: The thing about making rules for comics is that what you’re trying to do is create tools that will allow you to analyze your craft in some way. I’ve actually got a problem with a lot of the criticism that’s thrown at Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Simply because it’s one of the very few books like this out there, it’s generally assumed to be this snotty collection of ironclad rules: “I have now set the final standards, the last word in the discussion.”

CAMPBELL: Yeah, I used to get into arguments with Scott, which is healthy I suppose, over his pronouncement that a comic “… must have more than one image, because otherwise it’s not a sequence and therefore not comics.” Well, I thought, “Fuck that, I’m going to do a one-panel comic.” But Understanding Comics is one of the great graphic novels. I think it’s a great work of fiction in which he is the protagonist in a story, and he’s created this world full of graphics and symbols for this representation of himself to move around in. It’s a great piece of work.

DEPPEY: Well, for example, when he’ll sit there and break down the different kinds of transitions from panel to panel, I’ve seen people sit there and complain that McCloud was telling people, “OK, now you’ve got to chart everything you do,” which is nonsense. It’s a conceptual tool created to allow you to discuss various aspects of the work.

CAMPBELL: He’s taken the engine apart. You can still drive your car without knowing how the engine works. My wife wouldn’t have a clue how an engine works and how it all fits together. But she can drive a car. And it’s the other way around. I could draw you all the parts of an internal combustion engine laid out diagrammatically, but I can’t drive the car. [Laughs.] So you could say we make a great team, though that’s not necessarily the way she would put it. Anne is categorically the sexiest woman on Planet Earth. She does not normally read any of my work but she’s going to hear that I wrote the previous sentence while copyediting this. Since it’s in the final paragraph she will be so pissed off at having to read the whole bloody thing just to find it. What larks, Pip!



Part One   ♦   Part Two   ♦   Part Three   ♦   Part Four


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