The Eddie Campbell Interview (part one of four)

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


(Click image to read longer excerpt.) From Alec: The King Canute Crowd, ©2000 Eddie Campbell.


Brave New World

DEPPEY: The last interview you did with the Journal was around ’91, so I want to go back and look at some of the stuff that you’ve done since then.

CAMPBELL: Something I’ve been thinking about lately: I only just started making a living in ’89. My last Journal interview was 1991. I’d really just arrived. It took me about 20 years to arrive. I felt I’d finally made it. I was full of exuberance, full of myself and my worth, back then.

DEPPEY: The work shows it. You display a real confidence and ability to just jump right in and swim way out —

CAMPBELL: But lately I’ve come to question things much more. Like The Fate of the Artist is the flip side of How to Be an Artist. The Fate of the Artist is how to stop being an artist. When I do conventions, I still get people saying, “How do I get into comics?” I’m sure they have no time whatsoever for some old fart like myself saying, “How do you get OUT of comics, how do you STOP being an artist?” [Laughter.] When you’re a kid, you just want to know how to “get into comics.” I hate that expression because…

DEPPEY: It’s like they’re trying to get into real estate.

CAMPBELL: Yes. I feel that this is a field of creativity and imagination, not an office building. Or a rock gig: “The tickets have sold out; how am I going to get in?” The first truly creative thing you have to do is to create a way of getting in. There is no door; I can’t just give people the key and say, “Leave it on the mat when you’re done.”

Everyone has to create their own way of getting in. That’s what I used to say, but I’ve gone beyond that position now. I think you must be so imaginative and so mad that it never occurred to you that you weren’t already in there. It should never have occurred to you that you weren’t in comics in the first place. I think this was the way it was with me. I lived so much in my head that it never occurred to me that I wasn’t a comic-book artist. I self-published my first book in ’75. Looking back, what I like about it is that it’s not Eddie Campbell’s Comics #1, I actually put out a single, one-off book called Beem! A Comic Book for the End of the World. Looking back, what I like about it is that it’s a 40-page book with one self-contained story. It’s not presenting itself as a series. I think that’s a key aspect of the new sensibility — the minicomic (and later the graphic novel) — in that we’ve started thinking about comics differently.

DEPPEY: Oh, yeah.

CAMPBELL: However, I only sold 40 copies. [Deppey laughs.] I printed 500, I sold 40, and I thought to myself, “Oh shit. What am I going to do now?” I put them all in my parents’ loft, and that was the end of that, “I’m just going to have to be in comics in my head from here on.” Later on, I started bringing them out of my parents’ loft in handfuls. To this day, every time I go home, I go up there and grab a handful. There’s probably still a hundred up there. [Deppey laughs.] I think it was SPX ’98 I realized these things were saleable at $10 a pop.

The thing is that, and this is what I try to tell folks, the work you do now can be “in comics” 20 years from now. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t sell it because in the world of the graphic novel, every book has an indefinite shelf life. You could bring it out and put it back on the shelf. So you don’t have be in this month’s Batman to be in comics. You could go out there and make your own, photocopy 500 copies of your book. You may not sell them now, you may sell them 30 years from now, but in this new era of comics, there is no “now”; it’s an indefinite, ongoing “now.”


From “Graffiti Kitchen,” collected in Alec: Three-Piece Suit, ©2001 Eddie Campbell.


DEPPEY: When I talk to creators, or when I talk to other people who are in the publishing end of it, I get a real, almost terrified sense of not knowing what’s going to happen next. We’ve worked in that whole issue-one, issue-two, issue-three, issue-four aspect of comics since Max Gaines first published Famous Funnies, and so people have become used to that. Now that everything’s sort of morphing and changing, there’s a real fear of the uncertainty of it all, it seems. But that was what the people on the other side, the people who actually took comics seriously as a kind of literature, have been working toward for 25 years now. So it seems like, strangely enough, it’s you and the Chris Wares and the Craig Thompsons and the Will Eisners of the world who seem to be the only people who knew how to swim in those waters, and everybody else is now playing catch-up.

CAMPBELL: That’s a way of looking at it. I think of it also as a more advanced evolutionary model for the comic strip in the same way that the… In fact, there have been three evolutionary models, as I see it. There’s the comic strip, the newspaper comics, which still exist. But when you look at the comic strip as it exists today, it really does seem a very simple and undeveloped object, doesn’t it?

The comic book was the next step. This is not to say that every comic book is better than every newspaper strip. I think that, way into the ’50s, the best things still being done in comics were in the newspapers — you know, Walt Kelly and even Caniff until about ’52 or ’53, or probably even later, were still far ahead of anything being done in the comic books. In the same way, when I say that the graphic novel is a more advanced evolutionary model, that doesn’t mean that every graphic novel is better than every comic book. A failed graphic novel is nowhere near as worth keeping as a good comic book. When the gods sum it all up, perhaps no graphic novel will be the equal of Krigstein’s “Master Race” or the best of Kurtzman’s war comics.

DEPPEY: No. But there’s more flexiblity with graphic novels. You have much more leeway in terms of what you can make it do and what the form will take, things like that.

CAMPBELL: Yes. I think we’ve fashioned it — by “we” I mean the graphic-novel generation — we’ve fashioned it into the perfect instrument for telling the story of our times. In the hands of Chris Ware, for instance, that instrument can tell a story of unimaginable complexity, even though the subject that he’s dealing with seems to be limited and simple. But then so much of the greatest art has done that, divided and subdivided the simple human moment, turning it into into a kaleidoscope of complexity.


(Click image to see larger version.) From “Graffiti Kitchen,” collected in Alec: Three-Piece Suit, ©2001 Eddie Campbell.


DEPPEY: You used to have to defend your own work on that level for the longest time. As a teenager, I walked away from comics for a while, because I couldn’t find anything but X-Men and stuff like that. And then a comic shop opened up next to my house, and I discovered the two works that convinced me that comics could do something more than that: Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar stories and that version of Alec, The Complete Alec, that Eclipse put out.

CAMPBELL: That’s right. Which was never the title I wanted, I put it out under my own title more recently.

DEPPEY: Right. The King Canute Crowd.

CAMPBELL: The very one.

DEPPEY: But in the last Journal interview that you did, with Sam Yang, he mentioned that you had to defend your work as turning ordinary moments into something special. You actually had to come back and say, “No, ordinary moments are special.” Nowadays, that notion seems like a given in the graphic-novel movement.


DEPPEY: It’s like everyone else has finally caught up to you.

CAMPBELL: You know, by necessity, I released all that material in small segments over a long period, as though they were five-page short stories. But The King Canute Crowd was actually based on a diary that I kept over one year, ’79 to ’80. I backtracked a little earlier than that, in order to introduce the characters and everything, but it was essentially a year’s worth of material in this diary, which to me had a beginning and an end. I used to read reviews where I’m sure people thought I was going up to the pub that night and writing down what had happened. In fact, I was writing about the contents of a finite period, which to me was a story that I had a longing to tell. It took me eight years to get the damn thing done. [Laughs.] It was a story of one year that took eight years to get onto paper. For a time, I despaired of ever getting the damn thing finished. It was 10 years after the event, 1990, where we got the Acme/Eclipse edition out, and Eclipse managed to go out of business before they could pay me anything. I never made a penny out of that version of the book, nor of the photocopy versions or the three-volume Escape edition before it. [Laughs.] Weaker men would have given up in despair.

DEPPEY: That’s a surprisingly common story in comics.


(Click image to see larger version.) From “Graffiti Kitchen,” collected in Alec: Three-Piece Suit, ©2001 Eddie Campbell.


CAMPBELL: Fantagrothics, as we’ve always called it here, were going to be doing it originally, I think, but for some reason Acme had fallen out with them, and they went with Eclipse. [Sighs.] What a stupid move that was. I was physically rambling across the world at the time; the artwork was in London. That’s why Acme was handling it for me. They’ve been long out of business too. These publishers come and go, don’t they?

DEPPEY: What impressed me about the book is that it was one of the few comics that I read that was actually matching up to the prose literature that I was reading. At that point, I was hip-deep in books by Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller.

CAMPBELL: Well, thank you. I was, too. Certainly, when I conceived the book, I was reading Miller and Nin’s letters. I was working in a factory through that whole period, cutting sheet metal into rectangles to make ducting. I did that for five years. I’m sure I only got out of it because they went out of business, too. Sometimes I wonder how I ever got anywhere at all. It all seems like a catalog of accidents.


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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. […]