The Eddie Campbell Interview (part one of four)

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


(Click image to see larger version.) From “The Move From Straight Street,” collected in After the Snooter, ©2002 Eddie Campbell.


Grafitti Kitchen

DEPPEY: The first book that you did after the last interview was Graffiti Kitchen.

CAMPBELL: Yes, in 1993. That was based on another diary which I kept, over an even shorter period. It was the diary of the summer months of May to September of 1981. This was back when I was living even more in my own mind. I’d always think I was in comics in my head, so much so that, over ’78 and ’79, I turned out those stories that Fantagrothics published in 1994 as In the Days of the Ace Rock’n’Roll Club. There were 10 of them, but they were all completely finished and Zip-a-Toned and everything, as though they were being published, as though they were going off to the printer. You’d think that if nobody was printing these, there’s no hope of ever seeing them in print, why am I preparing them camera-ready? Story after story — it made an 80-page book. But in my head I was in comics. It’s just that they weren’t published until many years later.

DEPPEY: So was the Fantagraphics version the first time it was published, or…?

CAMPBELL: They appeared in little photocopied books around ’82, ’83, when we started stirring up that small-press scene in England. There was a book of three or four of them that came out from Harrier in a single stapled comic book in ’87. The Fantagrothics book was the first collected edition with everything in place as it was supposed to be — and in continuation of observations made above, I believe that may have been the first time I made any cash out of the damn things, and it wasn’t much to speak of. Well, you would know.

But the challenge with those was… I’d find myself in odd situations where I was aware of a peculiar feeling or complex of feelings, or observations of behavior, and I thought to myself, “I don’t remember reading exactly this feeling, or exactly this sequence of interactions between people in a story; certainly not in a comic book story.” Being interested in the potential of the medium, I was thinking, “How can I get exactly that complex situation into a comic strip?” That was the motivation in those early short stories. The subject matter wasn’t important.

I was interested in the confusion people would create to avoid intimacy, to avoid being honest with each other. The motivation in people to have sex, but then to subconsciously devise ways of making it difficult, or to succeed but by convoluted self-deception. I was finding these things curious, these interactions between people, all the little lies and deceits…

DEPPEY: …the little deceptions that allow us to get on with the day.

CAMPBELL: Hmm. I started to challenge myself, how can I get that one… what are the ways of… and more and more I found that the ways to do it involved throwing out the comic-book language as it was then, because it was a language of melodrama. For instance, let’s get rid of all this foreshortening. Let’s get rid of all these camera angles. We’ve created this burgeoning, violent, in-your-face kind of melodramatic vocabulary of effects, none of which are of any use for communicating the everyday life of humanity.

DEPPEY: Your work, especially your early work, always struck me as borrowing from, in terms of text, Henry Miller and the Beat poets, and in terms of images, from the Impressionists through the… You know, painters from the late-19th century up until the mid-20th century.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, what you’re saying there, these are all things I was interested in. For instance, I was interested in just capturing the light of the regular walkabout streets. Not the mean streets of Frank Miller…

DEPPEY: Right. The street you walk down after you’ve left the bar at two in the morning.

CAMPBELL: Or two in the afternoon. The lighting and things… the street that you see on your way home from work, as the sun’s going down; to capture the effects of light. Something I’ve discovered, for instance, in mucking about with pictures, is that nighttime is not… we think it is probably a contrast of light. So we always do nighttime with black ink. But I thought, “What if I just do it entirely in grays, which are very close to each other in tone?” That is, I’ve turned the contrast down… turn the contrast down to near zero, what you’ve got is grays that are almost indistinguishable from each other. Reduced contrast.

DEPPEY: Your average street is not illuminated like a Hollywood set piece.

CAMPBELL: That’s right. By the time I got to the real life situation that would become Graffiti Kitchen, I found myself in such a complicated muddle, that I felt, when I later thought about it, “How the hell am I going translate this one into a comic?” I’d gone from working out ways of getting the simplest and everyday exchanges between people into comic-strip form. It got more complicated in The King Canute Crowd. In The King Canute Crowd, starting with myself almost as a being a blank slate, I made myself more innocent and foolish than I actually was, probably.


(Click image to read longer excerpt.) From The History of Humor, published in Egomania #2, ©2002 Eddie Campbell.


DEPPEY: Yeah, you spend a lot of time in The King Canute Crowd watching other people, it seemed.

CAMPBELL: In order, as it were, to start from zero, and then build up little things and create a complicated world. But with Graffiti Kitchen, it was the most complicated situation, where I was then challenged to come up with completely unknowable ways of expressing what I needed to express.

The first time I tried to do it was 1988. I did 16 pages, then I put the whole thing on the shelf. I thought, “This is impossible; I don’t know how I’m going to do this.”

DEPPEY: When you mention a false start to Graffiti Kitchen, are you perhaps referring to “Blues,” the story that appeared in Prime Cuts #1? Has this story ever been reprinted elsewhere, or is this the only place it ever saw the light of day?

CAMPBELL: I reprinted “Blues” in Bacchus magazine, but that’s not what I was referring to. I drew 16 pages of Graffiti and then gave up. Later, I switched a deal with Tundra. I had contracted to do a book about the 18th century Hellfire Club, but I decided that was a mistake and suggested I switch the advance over to another book and gathered my mental armies and finished Graffiti Kitchen. I didn’t have the heart to do the first 16 again and incorporated the already-finished pages into the new assault. They are mingled in among the first 20 or so pages. I wish I hadn’t done that, because those 16 always strike me immediately as being of a lesser order than the new 32 I added.

Anyway, I got it out again in ’92, ’93 and finished it off as a 48-page book. I felt I was more capable of doing it then — the intervening years had given me the confidence and the skill with which to do it. I still look at that book as a success. I still terrify myself with the mad insight in that book. Somebody, a reviewer, I think pinned it down. He said, “What makes this book is the willful self-mythologizing” or something like that. [Laughter.]

DEPPEY: And it is quite willful. The first words in it are “Watch me, I’m the most important guy in this bestiary.”

CAMPBELL: There’s a rampant egotism in that book that was kind of audacious, because… Actually, it terrifies me when I go back and look at it.

DEPPEY: Well, it describes a fairly audacious period of your life.

CAMPBELL: We’ve come to expect the autobiographical comics writer to be more self-effacing, putting himself down. [Laughter.] I was just reading that book with Eisner and Miller from Dark Horse, where Eisner’s saying that we have to be egotists in this game, to sit away in your room for a whole year and get the book done, you have to have a higher than ordinary belief in yourself.

DEPPEY: Oh, absolutely. When you’re in your early 20s, and you’re discovering that you do have the power to affect romantic and sexual relationships, and that you can have these adventures that you impotently fantasized about when you were a teenager, it really does feel like a mad rush of power, in some ways.

CAMPBELL: I hope I’ve captured it. My favorite image in the whole comic is where I’m looking at my reflection and saying, “What a truly mythological creature I am,” but I’m looking at my reflection in the teapot. Which makes a great symbol for British daftness. A teapot.

DEPPEY: The downside of that period in life is that you’re also not nearly mature enough to be able to make competent decisions. You kind of just flail your way through the relationships. I think I can count the number of friends I have who don’t look back on their early 20s and think, “What an idiot I was,” on the fingers of one hand. [Campbell laughs.] You managed to capture both sides of that beautifully. There’s a scene with the character Janie where you’re in the process of breaking up, and you’re telling her, “You can’t change the whole world history by ranting and raving, you’ve got to just concentrate on the here and now,” and she just says, “Look Alec, you’ll see it all differently when you’ve my years.” [Campbell laughs.] That’s not something you can tell someone in their 20s, but it’s something that makes perfect sense when you’re older.

CAMPBELL: Then you’d like to go back and say, “Yeah, OK, maybe you were right.” [Laughter.]


(Click image to read longer excerpt.) From “Obsession, Revisited,” collected in Alec: Three-Piece Suit, ©2001 Eddie Campbell.


DEPPEY: There’s a point in After the Snooter where the 40-year-old you looks back on the 20-year-old you and says, “What a wanker! I’m going to punch him in the back of the head.” Then an even older version of you comes back and tries to stop you.

CAMPBELL: “No! You’ll see it differently in a few years.” [Laughter.] I stop the action for a minute while the author punches his younger self, the protagonist, on the back on the head, but then on the next page, the protagonist of the story has a vague memory of being punched in the back of the head by somebody, or he stops in the street and goes, “Did something just hit me?” As though it was literally part of the action. Nabokov expressed it perfectly in Lolita. The line was, “It hit me with all the force of a future recollection.” [Deppey chuckles.]

See, back in the factory, I did a criminal amount of reading while working a cutting machine… brrrr. I was reading things like that in books, and I was thinking, “How do you express that in a comic-strip panel? These remarkable observations that could be expressed so perfectly and simply in prose by great writers, I’d like to put that kind of moment in a comic. But where is the comic-strip vocabulary for expressing it?”

DEPPEY: It seems to me like almost your whole development as an artist has been learning how to answer that question. Certainly, in The Fate of the Artist, you are in many ways approaching the subject in some of the most oblique fashions, forcing the reader to sit there and put that together in their heads.

CAMPBELL: I sometimes wonder if a reader is going to be able to follow me into this, but then it’s human experience. As a kid, I used to enjoy reading the experiences of people much older and more complicated than I was.

I’ve been trying to wrestle with the ideas of The Fate of the Artist for some time. For instance, I did a little thing in Diana Schutz’s anthology, Autobiographix: “I’ve Lost My Sense of Humor.” It’s just a little four-pager. That was my attempt to deal with the material in this book, this feeling of “I don’t want to be an artist anymore!” I think it failed. It just came across as a whinge, even though I did it in a humorous way. I don’t think I’ve expressed it well enough.

I attempted to grapple with the same ideas in another thing I did, called The History of Humor, in my Egomania magazine, which I abandoned after three chapters and 30 pages as being impossible. It was masquerading as a didactic work: A work where I was actually going to give you the history of humor, but within a few chapters, you’d suddenly realize you were in the middle of another bloody Alec story. That’s what I was trying to pull off with that. I was trying to set up this complexity of the mind and all the things that one carries around in one’s mind that affect the transactions in one’s life. But I thought, “This isn’t working. People aren’t going to follow me through all of this. I have to find another way of doing it.” In the end, The Fate of the Artist is it. As you see, it’s a humongous, complicated thing. The challenge was to make all the parts simple in themselves. There are little objects which work as daily-strip gags, but taking the book as a whole, everything in it refers to something else in there. You suddenly get this crisscross weave of references going on. Another idea behind the book is that time exists three-dimensionally. We like to imagine that time can be contained in one-dimensional “timeline” diagrams. I always chuckle at the foolishness of that kind of thinking. That you can take all this complicated information and arrange it in a straight line. Time doesn’t work that way. In Fate of the Artist there’s probably no time to speak of that passes between page 1 and page 96. I couldn’t answer that it’s a day or a week or whatever. Obviously an hour or whatever can be seen to pass within a certain anecdote. But then from another position in the proceedings it might appear that that same certain anecdote didn’t happen at all. For me, I can still look at it and find things in there I’d forgotten about, so I’m sure it’s a book that you could certainly enjoy reading a few times.


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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. […]