The Eddie Campbell Interview (part three of four)

Posted by on June 24th, 2010 at 1:35 AM


From Captain America #27, written by Robert Morales and drawn by Campbell; ©2004 Marvel Characters, Inc.


The Bookstore Question

DEPPEY: How To Be an Artist starts out with you recounting your experiences as an artist, “turning them into lessons by distilling them into recognizable formulae,” as you put it in the introduction. You wound up talking about, and again I quote, “an account of the rise and fall of what has become known as the graphic novel.” I don’t know… first of all, it seems to me that the phrase “rise and fall” might almost seem a bit premature given the way that graphic novels have grown since then.

CAMPBELL: Intentionally so, from a dramatic point of view. That is, I start by positing that I’m writing my book from a point in, say, 1993, when things looked like they were on the out, even though I’m writing it much later. I believe that even an autobiographical novel is still a work of fiction, in that fiction is the process of constructing a story, so that the opposite of fiction is not fact, the opposite of fiction is nonfiction. And the purpose of fiction is not to indulge myself; it’s to create some kind of — I’m making this up as I go along — something of use to the community at large. My photo album on my shelf there is a personal artifact, but what I do in Graffiti Kitchen or How To Be an Artist is a studied work of fiction, using all my assembled abilities of 30 years of being an artist-storyteller to create a narrative work. So I’m being kind of annoying there when I say the rise and fall, in the same way that when I write about my death in The Fate of the Artist, I’m not really dead. [Laughs.] My intention is to use this as a dramatic effect.

DEPPEY: Right. It seems to me that toward the middle of the 1990s the graphic novel had fallen.

CAMPBELL: I used that approximate date conveniently; there definitely was a withdrawal. It’s like the sea going out before the tsunami. [Laughs.] All reports of the tsunami were, the sea disappeared, it pulled out and then it came back as a huge deluge. I think in the last seven years we’ve had an extraordinary… I was going to say a pileup, but that sounds like a road crash. An extraordinary wave of great work.

DEPPEY: So near as I can tell, the conventional wisdom is that the first little graphic-novel boomlet petered out when people realized that there really wasn’t enough stuff to fill a bookshelf.

CAMPBELL: It’s interesting you bring that up, because I feel I brought this up somewhere else, it may just have been in conversation. Art Spiegelman’s idea of critical mass: I’m not sure if the expression itself says anything of use, but I take it what he means is that, as you say, there weren’t enough books to fill up the shelf. I don’t think at the time it was true, because I remember at the time my book was rejected by Penguin. At the time, everyone was rushing to publish graphic novels, and I consider my book to be a work of some artistic merit, which let’s presume is what Art Spiegelman means. Or does he mean there weren’t enough blockbusters, like Maus and Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, to hold the attention of the mass audience. Is that what he means? Surely not. Well, I showed mine to Penguin and it got rejected at the time. I think part of the problem was the book world didn’t know what to do about it. A lot of the things that were getting published were being published for their graphic novelty rather than for their depth.

DEPPEY: I don’t know; I tend to think it was kind of a bit of both. On the one hand, you’re right that the book world didn’t really know what to do with your work the first time out. But there also wasn’t enough self-sustaining work on both an artistic and commercial level. Certainly on a commercial level; when you look at the genres that bookstores use to file their categories, there’s always a certain amount of popular works and then there’s a certain amount of the more literary stuff, which is supported by the popular works, and it’s the popular works that hold the shelf space there. At the time, during the first boomlet, all you really had was superhero books, and while there are plenty of fine superhero books, and I don’t want to disparage them en masse, it’s not enough to hold the popular imagination.


(Click image to read longer excerpt.) From Alec: How to Be an Artist, ©2001 Eddie Campbell.


CAMPBELL: Another part of the problem is that the operations with the loudest voices here are publishing superhero books. This is one of the reasons why we’ve never been able to shake this whole superhero connection. The example I usually give was when Publishers Weekly started giving space to the graphic novel, obviously it had to be justified by advertising revenue. But who could afford the advertising? So obviously there’s all this talk about the seriousness of the graphic novel, but it’s next to a big picture of Batman. In a way, the comics community is at fault in that it can’t shake this unhelpful association. There’s nothing wrong with superheroes, but it’s as if we’re trying to say that the graphic novel is a literary form to be welcomed and held in esteem along with literature and art and the great movies, but we’ve always got to walk in beside Superman. Excuse my friend, you know? Excuse my costumed friends. [Deppey chuckles.] It’s difficult to make these ambitious claims. Just after Watchmen, Alan Moore was on a TV show — I quote him saying this in How To Be an Artist — he said, “We found ourselves caught on the main street of culture, wearing our underwear on the outside.” That expresses it in one phrase.

DEPPEY: It’s not so much the fact that it’s genre work; if there had been superhero books, plus crime books plus horror books plus romance books — if we’d had a healthy selection of those the first time around, I suspect it wouldn’t have been so difficult, because people understand that. People understand that, for example, books or films or television shows are broken down into genres, and that popular stuff…

CAMPBELL: But the comic book has evolved away from that. We might just as well accept that superheroes equals comic books, the comic book has actually evolved into one of the geeky genres. [Laughs.] It’s like when I get invited to a science-fiction convention, a couple of them last year. They all divide up into the little groups: There’s hard-line science fiction, there’s the fantasists, the slash crowd, and you know comic books are one of the geeky genres that front up at these kinds of events. But that is actually what comic books have become. Comic books are superheroes. In essence, they are a genre. The comic book is a genre. This is what I was saying when you quoted me earlier. It’s gone too far to reverse it.

What we have to do is establish another camp, over here away from that one, where we somehow avoid association with it. Revolutions in art tend to start off that way. In order to do what they have to do, they have to reject the main body. Impressionist art had to reject the salons and the whole academic system. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t like any of that, it just means that it has to start by saying, “We reject all of that completely, we’ll have nothing to do with it.” And therefore, there’s inevitably a phase in the graphic novel where it said, “We detest, we despise the superhero, we will have nothing to do with it.”

Interestingly, I was reading Seth in an interview recently where he said, “I think the time has passed where we have to take that position,” or something to that effect. His words clearly recognized that this was a position that needed to be taken, but that we had achieved what we needed to achieve. We can let the superheroes back in. “You guys have to leave the hall until we argue this one out… All right, we’ve achieved this position, you guys can come back in.” So, having despised and disparaged superheroes for the last 30 years, I can quite merrily go away and draw a Batman book and be proud of it. [Laughs.] I’m quite proud of my Batman comic. I don’t mind. I can say it now, in private company, that I’ve done it. I don’t have to hide that, pretend that I didn’t do it any more. It was fun.

You’re talking about filing. Something else I was reading the other day: Frank Miller was looking forward to the time when he could be filed alongside Mickey Spillane, instead of alongside Spawn. This is something I’ve resisted, the idea that comics arrive at a stage where they’re treated like regular books. This is a crime comic, we file it with the crime books. I enjoy the idea that, not that it’s a separate genre, but that it is a separate art. We don’t expect to see the books on cinema filed away under romantic comedy or whatever. I mean in the DVD store they’re broken up that way, but not interspersed with books of similar subject.


(Click image to read longer excerpt.) From Alec: How to Be an Artist, ©2001 Eddie Campbell.


DEPPEY: You don’t expect to see a DVD of Sin City filed away in the crime-book section of the bookstores.

CAMPBELL: I personally want to be filed next to Joe Sacco and Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman. In the end, you can’t really choose who you’re filed next to, but in an ideal world, I’d like to be filed next to Frank Miller. I wouldn’t even mind it terribly that Mickey Spillane made it on to my shelf, but I wouldn’t want to be stuck in among the crime books even if I did crime stories, which I don’t.

I like the idea that we should perceive ourselves and be perceived as a community, an artistic community of shared ideas and aspirations. I like that. I think the stage where we actually just join the rest of the book world would be a point in which I’d feel dismay and lose some interest in the whole thing. I’d feel like, “Well, we’ve achieved all that and now I’ve lost interest in it.” It’s like when I see — where did I see this recently — Kirkus Review just did that 24-page special on the graphic novel. Now, I felt a bit sad looking at that. “Now we’re being treated like regular books,” I thought. I realized this was never what I wanted.

The other example I always give: When I got From Hell published here by Random House, in Australia, this started as a solution to the problem that we were talking about, where I couldn’t import it into the country. There were two weeks there when there was a ban on the importation of it. And during that two weeks, I thought, “Well, just in case I don’t get this lifted, I’m going to try and see if I can get a publisher here interested. A bookstore publisher.”

I made a list of the three majors. First I called Penguin, and the lady there told me I’m going to have to go through channels and I said, “Look, the movie’s out in six months. We’re going to have to fast-track this.”

“I can’t do that, sir, you’re going to have to go through channels.”

So I phoned Random House, which was second on my three-publisher list, and somebody there named Justin answered the phone. See, I’d already been dealing with Con at customs, and Dez at the OFLC, these upstanding traditional Australian blokes. I phone up the book publisher, Justin answers the phone. It’s all sounding better already.

I said, “Look, I’ve got a book here, I’ve published it myself, and I’ve sold 35,000 copies just out my front room.” I said, “Have I got your attention?”

And he said, “Yes, you certainly have.”

I said, “All right now, I’ll start from the beginning. My name’s Eddie Campbell.”

And he said, “Hold it. Are you the Eddie Campbell that publishes Bacchus?” [Laughs.] So I was in. I didn’t know Justin was just working in the mailroom, [Deppey laughs] but that didn’t matter. I had a man on the inside. He said to me, “I think the person you need to talk to is Natalie.” I love the way these names, they float off the tongue, they’re gorgeous compared to Con and Dez. I want to work in this lovely world of books. Oh, indeedy. “I think you need speak to Natalie.” He phoned me back and he says, “It’s not Natalie you speak to, it’s Eleana but she’s out to lunch. I’ll get Eleana to phone you back later this afternoon.”

By the end of the afternoon, it had gone past Eleana and all the way up to Annabelle. She was the submissions editor, I think, and she phoned me. And in the meantime… this is where I could really see the value of the website, put together by that sharp fellow Breach. I thought, in the old-fashioned way of things, I’d have to get my samples and a briefcase and go down there on a plane, but Justin got on the computer and showed them my website. He showed them all the links to the different movie sites, so I didn’t have to convince them there really was a movie coming up, because they could read it all on there. I didn’t even have to go down; I did the deal by phone. I made my first contact with a book publisher briefly over the phone, quickly. It was all settled within days. They reshuffled the design on the cover and sent it to me for approval. Mick was working in-house that day, so I handed it to him — he did the original design, after all — and he marked it all over with his red pen. There was a red arrow pointing to the logo on the spine, the bantam cock, because they were putting it out under that one of their many imprints, and a note saying it was too big. The joke around our place for a while was that Mick had taken out the bantam cock and put in his own.


From Alec: The King Canute Crowd, ©2001 Eddie Campbell.


This was a new thing for them here, they were eager, they were game, but it was a real eye-opener for me on the problems involved in dealing with this. For instance, when the book came out, Chris Breach did a quick check around the place down there in Sydney. There was one store that stuck it in the window — they did quite well, they sold whatever they ordered. There’s another one, put it on the table without having been given any incentive to do so. They put it on the table in the middle because they wanted to support it, I presume. It was their “proprietor’s choice of the week,” or whatever. They did great trade with it. Then there was the store, stuck it down the basement with the sheet music. That was still there a month later, down in the basement. No two stores did the same thing with it. They just didn’t know what to do, the regular bookshops. Now, this is back in 2001. I think Publishers Weekly is now putting out so much information, and the libraries — it’s got a Dewey system number now and all the rest of it. There’s more knowledge; we’ve got a real steamroller of information happening.

Another problem I found at the time was that — and I’m going to have to be careful, I’m talking to First Second about this, the publisher of Fate of the Artist, we have to get this right — is that the book trade doesn’t quite know how to interface with the Direct Sales Market. This was a serious problem. I saw it happening and there was nothing I could do about it. I heard on the grapevine that the comic shops couldn’t get the book out at a decent discount. Now, regular bookshops buy a huge volume and get a certain discount, right? But what do you do if there’s only one book you want from this publisher? You with me?

DEPPEY: I’m right here.

CAMPBELL: I’ve been running so long here, I thought you might have dozed off. Anyhoo, the store’s not going to make the volume, is it? It only wants the one book, because you know, you’re a specialist shop and there’s only one graphic novel in the publisher’s catalog.

I was speaking to the publishers and I said, “Is there nothing we can do about this?”

And they said, “Well, no, because then our other customers will complain if we make special arrangements with the comic-book stores.”

And I said, “What figures are we talking about here anyway? What are the percentages?”

At this point they said, [in a stern voice] “It’s not our policy to discuss that with authors.” [Deppey laughs.] Now, you know, for the last six, seven years I’d been, well, since ’95, this is 2001, I’d been arguing percentages, you know? Two points for this and two points for that with Diamond. I knew that game inside out… well, Staros does it much better than I ever could. Makes me look like an amateur, if not in fact an incompetent. Anyway, I knew what the comic shops needed to get, and so on and so forth. But by the time they import From Hell to this country, a $35 book sells for $70, Australian. The Australian publisher was able to get it out for $45, but all the comic shops were overjoyed when the damn thing sold out and they were able to import the Top Shelf edition again, get everything back to normal and charge 70 bucks for From Hell.

DEPPEY: It depends on the exchanges, and what the Australian dollar is worth, I assume.

CAMPBELL: It was close to two-to-one then. And now it’s more like five-to-four. [Laughs.] Most of the shops are still charging two-to-one. It’s like the petrol goes up, it doesn’t go down again. The gas, sorry, gas. This is when I learned, shortly after this, I decided this publishing thing’s getting too complicated. When it was just direct sales, I could handle it.

Ooh, I forgot the punch line to my story. Alan was talking about getting caught on the main street of culture with his underwear on the outside. So I often thought “Now this is where we want to be. We want comics down the main street of culture.” So when the Random House catalog arrived, in the inside covers, they had the little color images of all the books for that quarter. And there was From Hell in among all the regular books. It was a welcome sight to see. There we were snuggled in between The Natural Guide to Better Breastfeeding and The Dog Owners Manual. [Laughs.] Which is not what Alan meant, I don’t think.

DEPPEY: No, probably not. It’s curious; there’s a very good independent bookstore very close to where I live, and they do a combination of new and used books and it’s staffed by book lovers. For a while, they were experimenting with putting Chris Ware and Dan Clowes in the regular fiction section, and the books just sold like ugly dogs. They just kind of sat there. Then they picked the books back up and put them back in the graphic-novel section, and suddenly the books started selling again.

CAMPBELL: Yup, as long as we have to work as an integrated community, I think we have to present that face to the world. Because when you get down to it, the guy who reads Clowes’ work probably is also going to read Ware’s work; they should be together somewhere. I think that’s the way it’s going to work. Something else I noticed before we leave that subject is when I was in the U.S. two months ago — Greg Huneryager was showing me around Kansas — I checked out Barnes and Noble, and I noticed that they seemed to have divided the graphic novels sections into three parts. The largest part by far was the manga, but then the other stuff seemed to be in two parts: the superhero stuff, which is filed A-to-Z according to characters, and then — this is the most interesting part — the, what are we going to call it, the “literary graphic novel.” I hate that expression.

DEPPEY: Everything else. You might as well call it “etcetera.”

CAMPBELL: [Laughs.] What we would call the Real McCoy. The real graphic novel was filed A-to-Z by author. And I thought, “Well, this fits in with my theory about the authorial voice being the essential element of the whole idea of the graphic novel.” In other words, the other stuff, filed by hero is basically the superhero stuff done up as books. Call it what you like but I call it comic-book culture. But this is where the graphic novel really is, this A-to-Z by author. This is the pure unadulterated idea of the graphic novel. Everything else is bandwagon stuff, I would say.

DEPPEY: Now, when you were sitting around back in London at the Westminster Arms with various other cartoonists of the U.K. comics movement of the ’80s, did you imagine anything like this happening?

CAMPBELL: As I said at the very beginning of this, imagination is everything. When I was a kid I imagined I was a cowboy. I lived in a big dirty engineering city, Glasgow. But I didn’t see that as an obstacle to being a cowboy. When I decided I was an artist, I was one of the Impressionists, I sipped coffee at the Café Guerbois with Monet and Renoir. And when I imagined I was in comics, I was the king of comics, I was a celebrated author… in my own head. But it’s taken 20 years to get to the point I imagined, way back in ’82, ’83, that I thought we were going to reach by the end of the decade. But no, it was to be another two and half decades before we’d get there. I was creating my books, the original Alec books, as they came out from Escape. They were in slim volumes; obviously I would have liked them to be fat volumes at the time. But I brought out my first, The King Canute Crowd, in three slender volumes.

I hate the way the comic-book culture uses this as a differentiating thing. A graphic album of previously released material, a graphic album of new material. You know, the awards. Only in a cuckoo comic-book culture would Dave Sim be given an award for “lettering.” [Deppey laughs.] It is because we’re taking the new model but we’re applying the old rules and principles to the new model, and they don’t apply. It doesn’t matter whether the damn thing has previously appeared. Is it the best book of the year or not? Fuck whether it’s appeared in some form or it’s serialized. If a real novel has been serialized in the newspaper, or a women’s magazine before… If it’s been read out completely on Oprah or whatever. That’s all just part of how you get the stuff out. It’s only in the stupid comic-book world is this a “reprint.” Fuck off. [Laughter.]

An artist, in order to get things done… because we’re dealing with a new model, it exists in our heads. I’m sure Art Spiegelman’s Maus existed in his head as a book. But we’re invading a market that already works one way. So, we’ll release it in parts. You know, this doesn’t mean that we’re disqualified from calling it a complete work at a later date, or that the stupid comic-book market calls it a trade paperback. They’ve got this stupid idea that a trade paperback is strictly a collection of previously released comic books. Where the fuck did that come from? What kind of stupidities are at large out there?


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