The Eddie Campbell Interview (part three of four)

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


(Click image to read longer excerpt.) From “I Have Lost My Sense of Humour,” in Autobiographix, ©2003 Eddie Campbell.


Birth of a Notion

DEPPEY: Let me try and rephrase my question in another way. When you were sitting around —

CAMPBELL: Oh, there was a question? [Laughs.]

DEPPEY: Yes. When you were sitting around the Westminster Arms with other cartoonists, what did you think you were heading toward? What did you and the other cartoonists — did you talk about this?

CAMPBELL: I remember before there was even that. During the period I was hanging out at the pub I’ve called the King Canute, Danny Grey used to say to me, “One day the world will beat a path to your door.” He was the only reader I had. I used to show him the Ace Rock’n’Roll Club stories and say, “Now I’m going to do our story next.” He cultivated me. [Laughs.] He once went in for a raise at the factory where he worked and he jokingly said to the manager, who kind of knew what the situation was, he said, “I need more money than this. I’ve got a wife to support and an artist to patronize.” [Laughter.] My patron.

I didn’t, at that time, envision a world full of graphic novels. I thought what I was doing was unique, actually. Maus hadn’t come out at that time, I hadn’t even seen Pekar’s works. I didn’t even know that Pekar was already doing autobiographical stuff. He was doing that before me, of course, but I didn’t know, I didn’t see that until maybe the mid-80s, ’83, ’84 maybe. I’d arrived at the idea of autobiographical comics independently. Spiegelman had done that before as well, in Arcade and so on. I remember a great one he did when his apartment was overrun with cockroaches. These cockroaches are starting to peer in from the edge of the margins, this trick of the eye where the cockroaches appear to be walking over the page that you’re reading. And Crumb did the autobiographical thing, too. You can go much farther back. I remember Rube Goldberg around 1915 sent back autobiographical comics of his trip to Europe. And there’s cartoonists who used to put themselves in their cartoons quite regularly, Tad Dorgan, and Herriman. I’m very fond of that period of cartooning.

So anyway, I envisioned my book as a book on the bookshelf, I really didn’t see it as part of a movement until I fell in with the other small-press guys. Then I thought, “This is exciting, all these things are happening, there’s a whole world of this kind of thing opening up.” All these different people who had been doing it independently, who had arrived at the idea of comics as a vehicle of self-expression, were all quietly creating their works in isolation. Suddenly, they were all being introduced to each other. First of all, in London, then… We knew about Raw. And Raw was connecting all sorts of different people. So, even at the very earliest, we knew there was an international movement about to take off. Some things were happening. We were connecting with people all over the place, even — you ever seen the work of Lat, in Malaysia? First Second are going to be printing a book of Lat’s, I don’t know if they’re doing Kampung Boy or a new book. But I first discovered Lat’s work way back in 1981, he’s another artist doing autobiographical stuff. He is amazing, and has his own style, his own… they’re so simple and crude at first glance, but he’s evolved his own graphic language, filled up with components from here and there, references. Like for instance, there’s an English comic called Dennis the Menace.

DEPPEY: I’ve seen it, yes.

CAMPBELL: Little black-haired villainous character that makes the American one look very tame. This one is violent and vicious, but it’s a children’s comic. Lat always depicted himself with the same hairstyle as Dennis the Menace. I think he also looked at Giles’ cartoons, Giles was an editorial cartoonist in England. So he pulled together a lot of different threads of influence.

DEPPEY: Yeah, the first time I saw Lat’s work, it reminded me almost of Tom Hart’s art style.

CAMPBELL: Definitely. Hutch Owen. I wonder if Hart knows Lat’s work? It would be interesting to find out. Hart is a greatly underrated cartoonist of our times. I really enjoyed, was it Spurgeons’s piece on Hart? I think it was the 2002 Journal Special Edition, the same one that had the Escape guide, you know the big square ones you put out every year?


CAMPBELL: I think it was Spurgeon did it, did five pages on Hart. I thought it was very insightful, it was brilliant — a good appreciation of what Hart’s comic work is about. So there was a lot going on back in ’81, no doubt about it. Somebody should write a book. Paul Gravett, my “Man at the Crossroads,” is doing a big book on the history of the graphic novel. That may be the one we’re waiting for. Clowes has done a cover for it, I believe.

Eisner should be given his due, of course. He was magnificent. There are a lot of arguments, but I think Eisner was definitely stepping forward, he was in the advance guard of that period. His whole approach is very old-fashioned at heart, hearkening back to the obsolete Yiddish theater tradition. But that should be read as another of those precious personal elements that make up the graphic novel.

DEPPEY: Right. You always pictured Eisner’s characters as projecting their acting to the back row.

CAMPBELL: Eisner tried a lot of different things. Some of them may have hit the wrong note, but I think that the best work Eisner did, you can pull out maybe five books, and I think they’re among the best things in the graphic novel literature, like Contract With God, I’m quite fond of A Life Force, To the Heart of the Storm and The Neighborhood.

DEPPEY: Have you seen The Plot?

CAMPBELL: I haven’t seen it yet. Is it good stuff?

DEPPEY: It is, it’s more… It definitely tilts more toward, I want to say propaganda, but it’s…

CAMPBELL: Didactic?

DEPPEY: Yes, it’s a very didactic work. There are extended periods where he’s just printing the text verbatim from the Protocols, then putting things next to it to refute specific passages and whatnot. But because of the subject matter, it doesn’t have that whole…

CAMPBELL: Even if he only did that, I think it’s a useful thing to have on your shelf.

DEPPEY: Oh, yeah. But in terms of the dramatic nature of it, I think it’s a little more low key, because he’s a little more tightly controlled, you don’t get the feeling of actors screaming to people 50 feet away.

CAMPBELL: Even if we decide it works or doesn’t work, whatever — but to finish a career with a book that we will have argued about; that’s great. Most people get to that age, and they haven’t done any work for 20 years, or it’s some kind of feeble-minded self-indulgence, because they’ve lost the critical faculty. Eisner’s critical faculties were alive right until the end. Got to give that to him. [Since the interview, I’ve read The Plot and I would count it without hesitation among Eisner’s good ones mentioned above, making five. I seem to have arbitrarily, in the process of this interview, decided that we’re all taking five books with us when we die. -Eddie]


(Click image to read longer excerpt.) From a comic created for and exhibit entitled “City of Shadows,” staged in Brisbane; ©2006 Eddie Campbell.


The Fate of the Artist of The Fate of the Artist

DEPPEY: Let’s move on to Fate of the Artist, then. This is more the rise and fall of the graphic novelist.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, everybody wants to know how to be an artist. But once you’re an artist, how do you stop being an artist?

DEPPEY: Well, have you stopped being an artist? Is this your last word on the subject?

CAMPBELL: Good Lord, no. I’m working on a new book, which I’ll tell you about in a minute.


CAMPBELL: Nobody wants to hear an artist complain or whinge. Posy Simmonds, I can’t remember the title of it, Posy has got a great thing, I don’t even know if it’s been collected yet, but it’s all about writers complaining about their lot.

DEPPEY: That was serialized in The Guardian, if I remember correctly.

CAMPBELL: Some of it, I read: I was laughing, but I was blushing at the same time I was laughing, because I recognized myself in some of these idiots that she was depicting. I thought, “I’ve become one of these complaining idiots. ‘Feel sorry for me, I’m a writer who’s condemned to have to write for the rest of his life.'” Fuck off. [Laughter.]

DEPPEY: Every time I feel sorry for myself because of my workload, I think back to other members of my family who actually work for a living. They’re laboring their asses off at mind-numbing tasks, and I’m sitting here in front of a computer and enjoying the hell out of my job, just thinking, you know, “I have no right to complain.”

CAMPBELL: That’s right. Poor me. There’s nothing else I can do in the world, so I have to be a writer. I have actually long passed the stage now where I can go out and get another kind of job. I cannot do that now. I can’t even get a job in another field of art. I couldn’t go out and get a job as an illustrator.

DEPPEY: I’m not sure that’s true. There are a whole bunch of other cartoonists who support themselves with illustration work on the side. Seth does, Charles Burns does; I’ve seen Jaime Hernandez work in The New Yorker. Adrian Tomine makes a fair amount of money as an illustrator. I know Chris Ware has done advertising and illustration work. So you could do it.

CAMPBELL: I suppose I could. [Laughs.] The fact is, I do actually make my living at drawing comics. I just finished a job for a police museum in Sydney, Australia. They’re putting up an exhibit; it’s called “City of Shadows.” It’s the Sydney of the late ’30s, early ’40s. There are different rooms, different themes, subjects. There’s one room given over to a particular, vicious murder: the different artifacts in the room, the different bits of evidence and so on. And they had the idea of having the narrative as a comic strip going around the walls, so that you read the story. And I guess under it there will be little linking arrows or whatever, to the evidence exhibited in the room. Whatever, I’m only trying to picture it, I haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. But my thing is a running comic strip with word balloons and everything, to a text by one Peter Doyle. It’s in my From Hell style. A rather unusual little job to come one’s way.

The other thing I’m working on at the moment is another book for the new imprint First Second called The Black Diamond Agency, which is an adaptation of a movie script. This is an interesting idea because it’s an original screenplay, so there is no book. But I think they kind of wanted something to be out there before the film. I don’t know when — the film’s not even in production. Someone suggested, “Why not a graphic novel?” I don’t know how by what logic they arrived at this, but somehow or another, I got connected with them. I’m doing this as a fully painted job.

DEPPEY: Would I recognize the writer?

CAMPBELL: C. Gaby Mitchell. He has one of the writer credits on Cinderella Man. And the producer, whom I’m working, for technically speaking, is Bill Horberg, who has credits on The Talented Mr. Ripley, Cold Mountain and The Quiet American. But I have a free hand to adapt this. They appreciate that a graphic novel is a different thing from a movie, so at least it works both ways. The work probably has to go through a couple more rewrites anyway, so I guess a new take on it is more than welcome. But it’s an odd feeling to be working the other way around from the From Hell situation.

DEPPEY: How long is this going to be?

CAMPBELL: 128 pages, approximately. I’m 50 fully painted pages to the good, so it’s already a substantial work. I should be done by mid-2006.



Part One   ♦   Part Two   ♦   Part Three   ♦   Part Four


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