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 “Obsession, Revisited,” collected in Alec: Three-Piece Suit, ©2001 Eddie Campbell.


Five Books in His Bag

DEPPEY: Some of the themes you wrestle with in Fate of the Artist, you’ve been wrestling with for quite some time. Getting to the next spot on our little tour of Eddie Campbell’s life, The Dance of Lifey Death, there are several things that foreshadow some of the themes you would deal with later: the first being the character Dr. Nodule, who was just this obsessive collector, and the collector’s mentality figures heavily both in Dance of Lifey Death and in Fate of the Artist. With Dr. Nodule, you’re looking at it from a distance, whereas in Fate of the Artist, you have other people looking at you.

CAMPBELL: When all’s said and done, there’s probably four or five books that I’ve done that I’m putting in my bag when I go up to heaven. I’ll show them to God’s officials — I’m an atheist, this is just a metaphor — “These are the five books I’ve done, you can forget the rest.” And those five books would tell a continuous story, in a way, in which one thing leads to another, one book leads to another. There’s a thematic consistency, and you can ignore all the ones in between. The King Canute Crowd, Three-Piece Suit — comprising Grafitti Kitchen, Little Italy and The Dance of Lifey DeathHow to be an Artist, After the Snooter and the new one, The Fate of the Artist.

So yeah. The collecting. I think more and more, certainly in The Fate of the Artist, I’ve gotten more and more inside the psychological labyrinth of the mind, rather than — the thing I was trying to do with The History of Humor, I was trying to create that labyrinth, which would then stand for the rest of the book. It would become this labyrinth that we know about, and the mind of the protagonist could wander through it in his quest for whatever it was he was looking for.

DEPPEY: In History of Humor, you were basically depicting yourself constructing this labyrinth.

CAMPBELL: That’s right.

DEPPEY: Whereas in Fate of the Artist, you have your family and other characters wandering around in this labyrinth that you’ve left behind.

CAMPBELL: [Laughs.] That’s a good way of describing it. With History in the end, I didn’t think the reader was going to follow me through. He wasn’t going to be preached to, through this didactic thing. In The Fate of the Artist, I’ve imagined the great late scholar H. W. Fowler telling me off for thinking that was going to work. [Laughter.] A little conceit of mine.

DEPPEY: Yeah. But you’re right, in terms of the way that artists approach themes: You’re padding around the things that are important to you and looking at them from as many directions as possible. I think it was Bertrand Russell who, in his Principia Mathematica, used mathematical formulae to prove that it was impossible to know everything. Probably the only time that anyone’s ever proven a philosophical point with math, simply by stating that in order to know everything about a given subject, you had to have a brain big enough to contain that subject plus yourself besides. [Campbell laughs.] Consequently, there was no way you would even be able to fully know yourself.

CAMPBELL: I think in a certain way, the work that is worthy in the end, an artist is almost doing the same book over and over, or making the same movie or writing the same piece of music. In a way, he’s simply redoing it each time. We would rather he did that than go off and create some novelty just to be different. I want Chris Ware to keep doing that book he’s doing. Anybody who says they’re tired of this one-note tirade of his has missed something crucial.

And even, to pick somebody other that Chris Ware, following the Sin City movie, I was rereading some of Frank Miller’s stuff. I think The Yellow Bastard is probably my favorite of the Sin City books. But, if you even just take that movie, the three parts of it, the first and the last are my favorites. The one in the middle where he goes off on another tangent is the least interesting — to me, anyway.


Campbell spoofs Frank Miller on the cover of Eddie Campbell’s Bacchus #17, ©1996 Eddie Campbell.


DEPPEY: That would be the one with the prostitutes fighting the gangsters. Yeah, I had the same attitude. I think it was partly because the characters in the first and the third were just so much larger than life.

CAMPBELL: But the first story and the third story, he’s done the same story from another angle. The theme — I’ve underestimated Frank on occasion, it’s actually quite magnificent. I think The Yellow Bastard is a great graphic novel, marvelous. I think he’s dealing with one very grand theme in his best work, and it’s when he starts being amused by other things, and playing and having fun, that I’m less interested. I really like it when he sticks to the simplicity of that theme, which is essentially Raymond Chandler’s “white knight” amplified to a monstrous degree and mixed with the principle of saintly martyrdom. Characters like Marv and Hartigan are driven by an idealistic concept of responsibility, though they do not stop to think about it in those terms, and they walk resolutely to their destruction. Miller’s 300 magnified the same theme into a communal ideal.


A String Quartet and a Symphony

DEPPEY: Can I drag this back to Dance of Lifey Death for a second?

CAMPBELL: We got off the point there.

DEPPEY: The other theme that I found in The Dance of Lifey Death that would recur later was that it was the first time you really depicted the family that you have now, and already you have people putting disparaging things about you in their mouths — “Genetic Defects,” for example, where Hayley’s horrified at the prospect that she’s going to grow up to be like you. [Campbell laughs.] I mean, which is just the absolute opposite of Graffiti Kitchen, where it’s Eddie Campbell at his most egotistical.

CAMPBELL: Yeah. I’m very pleased with the last three pages of that. The way I finished that, where I took the old nonsense rhyme of Edward Lear, The Jumblies. I spun it out over three pages with the illustrations of my children as the Jumblies, “going to sea in a sieve,” using it as a metaphor for flouting conventional wisdom about playing it safe, studying at school and getting a job and taking care of your retirement. Once again, it’s casting around to find a true comic-strip way of expressing a complex feeling.

DEPPEY: The notion that you’re just a temporary custodian for these little people that you love very much.

CAMPBELL: Yes, and you want to give them the biggest possible vision of the world. [Laughs.]

I was having dinner with friends of mine. [He’s probably reading this. Sorry for bringing it up again.] My eldest daughter, Hayley, was coming up to leaving school, and what’s she going to do? Is she going to university? I was being asked. And I said, “Well, I bring the kids up first and foremost to be themselves, and to be good at being themselves. And everything else will take care of itself.” And my friend’s wife said, “Well, that’s all right for you, Eddie, the rest of us have to work for a living.” [Laughs.] Perhaps I’m blessed by some divine agency that enables me to bypass the daily strife and worry or something. Fate of the Artist will put paid to that notion.

I think on the education front, the world focuses too much on the idea of education as a means to a job. Imagine learning all the great wisdom of the world just so that you can get a job. What an absurdity. We should be learning all the great wisdom of the world in order to become wise.

DEPPEY: I can pinpoint the moment where I myself became utterly disillusioned with education, midway through high school, when I realized that nobody around me was trying to teach me how to be an adult citizen; they were trying to teach me how to be an employee.


DEPPEY: At that point, I lost interest in formal education.


Campbell depicted in Mister J’s minicomic, You’re a Sorry Sack of Shit, mister j, ©2000 Mister J.


CAMPBELL: There’s a line of Alan’s in The Birth Caul that I like to quote when this comes up. It says, “The real curriculum is punctuality, obedience and the acceptance of monotony, those skills we shall require later in life. Oblique aversion therapy to cure us of our thirst for information, and condition us so that thereafter we forge an association between indolence and pleasure. We confuse rebellion with a hairstyle.” The Birth Caul is one of the best things Alan ever wrote. I begged him to let me illustrate it. [Imitates Moore.] “What do you mean, Eddie? It’s not illustratable.” [Laughs.] “It’s an hour-long poem.”

DEPPEY: Many of your works actually resemble poetry as much as they do comics.

CAMPBELL: I sometimes think that the minicomic, the essence of the minicomic, is that it is a poetic thought. My old pal Phil Elliott was very good at it. Glenn Dakin too. Perhaps the British small press introduced the idea, but there’s nothing new about short stories in comics; that goes back to the ’50s, you know, EC comics and everything. But the minicomic embodies an idea of a comic that’s even more microscopic than a short story. It’s no more than a poetic thought. Any Kochalka daily strip is a good example.

DEPPEY: It sort of sidesteps the whole concept of what a comic was supposed to be up until that point, and just goes wandering around other arts, picking and choosing what it likes.

CAMPBELL: I’ve been working on a theory of the graphic novel, what it is. I think it’s undeniable that there is a new concept of what a comic is and what a comic can be and what it can do that has arrived in the last 30 years. I think the concept, when it was first talked about, was talked about in the abstract. Way back in Graphic Story Magazine, Richard Kyle or whoever it was who coined the expression “graphic novel,” but even before anybody had done one, there was an abstract idea of what it might be. It wasn’t just a comic of greater length, it was a comic of bigger ideas. In other words, a comic book trying to be important.

I think one of the key things in the graphic novel is ambition. Safe Area Gorazde couldn’t have been envisioned until Sacco did it. We’re talking about things that are so ambitious we can’t even imagine them until they’re done. In 1968, when they talked about the graphic novel, they were imagining a novel-length comic. They couldn’t have even imagined where this thing really was going to go. Anyway, you have the large and the small, chamber music and orchestral music, you have a string quartet and a symphony, you have an easel painting and a mural. The minicomic and the graphic novel.


From “The Dance of Lifey Death,” collected in Alec: Three-Piece Suit, ©2001 Eddie Campbell.


DEPPEY: It’s like up until now, to continue the musical metaphor, you were allowed to sing Gregorian chants for 600 years, until all of a sudden, somebody gave you a violin and said, “OK, do what you want.” It’s like you’ve had this one tiny little model that you’ve worked on, and now all of a sudden you’ve got a blank canvas, and so there are a thousand different directions in which you could go, and they all seem full of novelty.

CAMPBELL: I don’t think the artist is ever faced with chaos. I don’t think he’s ever standing on the brink of darkness with nothing in front of him. I think he always has a set of procedures to work with, sometimes tighter than others times. The world has invented the idea of art as standing on the brink of chaos, and what we get is the tempest in the teacup. We’ve rejected everything from the idea of art that we can identify as somehow being not purely Art; we’ve excised it. First function, then subject, then meaning, finally form. What’s left is Art. Or to put it another way, we’ve allowed the philosophy of Art to become Art itself.



Part One   ♦   Part Two   ♦   Part Three   ♦   Part Four


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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. […]