The Eddie Campbell Interview (part one of four)

Posted by on June 22nd, 2010 at 12:05 AM


Part One   ♦   Part Two   ♦   Part Three   ♦   Part Four


(Click image to read longer excerpt.) From “Money” in After the Snooter, ©2002 Eddie Campbell.


I’ve written of Eddie Campbell’s works elsewhere, so instead I’ll merely note how much I enjoyed conducting this interview. My admiration for him as an artist aside, Campbell has a well-deserved reputation as an engaging, opinionated conversationalist. He’s experienced the modern world of comics from very nearly every angle possible, and isn’t at all shy about discussing what he’s learned. Very few people see comics from the intimate, nuanced vantage point that Campbell has cultivated over the years, and fewer still can articulate it in as engaging a fashion.

The following conversation was conducted by telephone on September 14 and 15, 2005: late afternoon in Seattle for me, early morning in Brisbane, Australia for Campbell. It was copyedited by the participants.

— Dirk Deppey


EDDIE CAMPBELL: One thing I’ve learned is, there’s always a really interesting exchange before the interviewer thinks to put the tape on.

DIRK DEPPEY: [Chuckles.] Yeah, that actually happened in an interview with another cartoonist, where I wound up talking to him for 15 minutes about the various comics publishers, how much they paid and their percentages and whatnot, and then I realized I hadn’t taped it. Which is the sort of thing I very voyeuristically want to know.

CAMPBELL: It’s always very difficult to get information like that out of Americans, I’ve discovered. I don’t know what it is. Nobody will talk about page rates over there. They think that, “I tell him what I’m getting, he’ll want that too.” Because coming in from another country, I was putting out feelers, trying to figure out just what the going rate was, and it was very hard to do that.

In England, we’re always pretty good at exchanging information. I think that’s why an English style came about. There’s a kind of galvanizing of potential. You know, that whole thing that came out of Britain. Perhaps we have a prevailing sense of working-class solidarity.

DEPPEY: You know, I’ve gone through The Fate of the Artist three times now, and I’m still getting a grasp on it. [Campbell laughs.] It’s wildly different from your previous books.

CAMPBELL: Everything in it refers to something else in it. There’s a tight weave.

DEPPEY: It seems to me that you took some of the techniques that you were experimenting with in Snakes and Ladders and ground them down for your own purposes. With Snakes and Ladders, you were trying to illustrate Alan Moore’s mad prose, and so it was just all over the place, but The Fate of the Artist uses some of the same techniques in a very tightly controlled way.

CAMPBELL: Yeah. I’ll mention here, just in case we forget later, I’m putting out a book with Knockabout, which is gathering together The Birth Caul, Snakes and Ladders and the interview I did with Alan in Egomania #2, plus a whole section of sketchbook stuff for Snakes and Ladders, mostly my figure sketches for the woman dancing with the snake sequence. That should be out around January or February. That’s going to come out as a case-bound book from Knockabout. Make a note. We can come back to that. Sorry, what was your question again?

DEPPEY: I’m not entirely sure I had a question, I was just making an observation that Snakes and Ladders seemed to be the step away from your previous cartooning sensibility and toward Fate of the Artist.

CAMPBELL: The challenge with doing that Alan Moore stuff was, see, when I first spoke to him, he thought it wasn’t illustratable. That was the challenge. The Birth Caul was the first one. I said, “I’d really like to do an illustrated book of this; let me send you a few sample pages,” and it worked. There’s no linear narrative there. It’s not even a stream of consciousness, because that’s a different kind of thing, automatic writing. It was very carefully constructed in the way that poetry is constructed. Resonances placed against resonances. Suggestion and allusion are juxtaposed. So there was no linear narrative in those things. On the other hand, that did give me the opportunity to combine images in strange ways and pull images out of nowhere and pit them against each other. And there is a tight, measured structure to the work, so I played with the idea of things reappearing in different forms, with lurking surprises, because time is moving in reverse in The Birth Caul.


A figure sketch for Snakes and Ladders, ©2001 Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.


DEPPEY: Can I assume that this was the first time you’d really used a computer on a basic level to put your comics together?

CAMPBELL: Well, we did it a little bit on The Birth Caul. But even there, I was still doing old-fashioned tracing-paper overlays, which we then brought together on the computer. With Snakes and Ladders we started bending things and twisting things. I should say that was done by Mick Evans, who’s done the design work on all my books of late. I rely on him a lot for the technical side of things.

I’m starting to venture into Photoshop a little on my own merits. There’s a big picture of Humpty Dumpty in The Fate of the Artist, the egg. I wanted to put Humpty in the book. I was originally going to copy John Tenniel’s engraving from Alice in Wonderland, but I thought, “Let’s get fancier.” I got an egg out of the fridge and photographed it with my new digital camera. Because it’s so hot here, the egg was immediately covered in condensation, which created an interesting effect. So I put the picture straight into Photoshop and twisted it around. I forgot to mention, I drew the face on it based on Tenniel’s Humpty Dumpty. This is perhaps the first time I’ve really tried to mess around on Photoshop. So there’s been a gradual taking it on board since The Birth Caul, back in 1998. For instance, take the difference between the digital file on The Birth Caul and Snakes and Ladders. I can picture Evans laughing at me trying to talk with authority about this shit. Snakes I think was four times as big, or something like that, to indicate just how much more we used the computer.

DEPPEY: Oh yeah, it looks it.

CAMPBELL: And then Fate was bigger still. Evans had the damn thing for months, pulling it all together and making it work. Same thing with Egomania magazine — I think he was making more money from it than I was; it was such a design-heavy magazine.

I’m not sure I liked having gone that far into using the computer, because before that I was strictly old-school. The reason that I stuck with the printer in Canada was that he’s the only printer I know that still has the old process camera, which I needed for From Hell, because it’s done in that old 1890s pen style. To this day, there isn’t a digital version of From Hell. I’m busily scanning it at the moment. This is the first time we’ll have digital files of From Hell. Prior to that, it’s all done the old-fashioned way, from process camera to full-size negative to plate.

DEPPEY: Is this for a reprinting of the book, or are you just doing this now to make sure the files are there?

CAMPBELL: The problem is that because it was done the old-fashioned way, we had nothing to give our foreign licensees. What I had to do was give them an unbound copy of the hardcover innards. That was my solution to the problem.

When we did the Graphitti hardcover, I got Bob Chapman to run me off an extra 30 copies for the purpose of sending out materials to make the foreign-language versions. But now that we’re getting Japan, and we’re still selling foreign editions of From Hell, I figured here I am in the 21st century; it’s time I scanned it from my master file of high-quality Xeroxes, since I’ve sold the artwork. It’ll work; nobody will know the difference. But it’s an enormous task. It fills a dozen CDs.

DEPPEY: We’re pretty much completely digital at the Fantagraphics office at this point.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, I think I’m the last publisher in the world to go digital.


From The Birth Caul, ©1999 Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.


DEPPEY: On the other hand, you’re the only English-language, non-newspaper cartoonist other than Jim Woodring that I know of that has actually sold a full book in Japan.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, it took us ages to get From Hell into Japan. For some reason we thought it would be easier because when you do the Jack the Ripper tour in London, I’m told, there’s always a lot of Japanese tourists. There’s something that attracts them there, to the dark side of human nature. You know, those game shows they have, those torture game shows or whatever. [Deppey laughs.] We thought From Hell might go down well in Japan, but it’s taken us all this time to sell it there. We have tried a few times. We’ve had nibbles that have ended up going nowhere. I may even be speaking too soon with this one. It ain’t happened till it’s out there on the shelf.

DEPPEY: I would imagine that for some Japanese readers, this may very well be the first time they’ve seen nine panels on a page.

CAMPBELL: [Laughs.] I’ve been thinking about that recently, the whole what do they call it, that uncondensed…

DEPPEY: The superhero set calls it “decompressed.”

CAMPBELL: Decompressed, I was trying to remember… that decompressed style, I noticed that it started coming into American comics with a generation comprising Kochalka, Tom Hart and others… There’s a whole school there, there’s others I’m forgetting. I was reading the interview with [Gary] Groth and [Kim] Thompson in that academic journal [International Journal of Comic Art, Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 2003] recently that the lovely Ana Merino conducted, where both of them seemed to think that the door had closed on quality in American comics just after Tony Millionaire. They were unwilling to recognize that this subsequent generation had merit, which I thought was a very dangerously conservative attitude.

DEPPEY: [Laughs.] I think they’ve been learning since then. The thing is, it’s like the art-comics side of American comics got really small for a while. Everyone was doing minicomics and going to SPX. I don’t know; business-wise, I can see how they would get that attitude because the Direct Market has just become so… These days, if you aren’t doing Batman or Wolverine, you’re not going to appear in three out of four comic shops.

CAMPBELL: I think that, in fact, what I was trying to say there a minute ago is that the SPX generation, I think that has an importance, which dates from what, ’96, ’97?

DEPPEY: Something like that, yeah.

CAMPBELL: In the last seven or eight years, that generation’s work has revitalized things, comics were getting a bit stodgy and needed that.

DEPPEY: Oh, absolutely. And the thing is — we’re talking about decompression — it was a very unconscious thing on their part, it wasn’t someone formally deciding, “We’re going to start a movement centered around spreading time against a whole bunch of panels and a whole bunch of pages.”

CAMPBELL: I think one of the key factors here is that they didn’t have a very deep sense of the history of comics. They seem to be a blank slate — which is a good thing here — and they weren’t concerned with making references and paying dues to some previous generation. It was as though comics had begun with the ’80s minicomics and manga. “Let’s get even simpler than that.”

DEPPEY: Some of them. I mean, it really depends on the cartoonist you’re talking about. To the extent that some members of the “minicomics generation” are familiar with the history of comics, I think it’s more likely that they’re familiar with old newspaper strips and things like that. I mean, they’re basically the first generation of cartoonists that really had big reprints of all kinds of classic comics available to them from the beginning.

CAMPBELL: There is that. I never thought of it that way. Herriman and Segar were no longer some mysterious artists, heard of but never seen. With the ’90s, there were even newspaper comics that showed a knowledge of that stuff, like Calvin and Hobbes and Mutts.

DEPPEY: It seems to me that decompression was really more of a conscious thing for the superhero crowd, because the readers were used to having their comics big and fast, pressed into these 22-page pamphlets, whereas the companies that were making them have been starting to eye the bookstore market more. And so they’ve been asking their artists to retool the works for that.

CAMPBELL: Yeah. The superhero comics these days have so much less story in 22 pages compared to the 1960s.


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One Response to “The Eddie Campbell Interview (part one of four)”

  1. […] Case in point, there’s a 2006 interview between Dirk Deppey and Eddie Campbell and part 1 (of 4) is up on the site right now. […]