The Eddie Campbell Interview (part two of four)

Posted by on June 23rd, 2010 at 11:57 AM

The following interview originally appeared in The Comics Journal #273 [January 2006].

Part One   ♦   Part Two   ♦   Part Three   ♦   Part Four


(Click image for larger version.) From Graffiti Kitchen collected in Three Piece Suit, ©2001 Eddie Campbell.


Comic-Book Culture

CAMPBELL: The 20th century is the first time in the history of humanity that there’s an officially recognized art that ordinary people don’t get. I think ordinary people have always got art, even if they didn’t always understand it, they always knew why it was there. “That guy is talking to the gods for us, and whatever he says goes.” The shaman, or the sculptor who’s erected the idol…

DEPPEY: It seems to me, that as we’ve managed to separate ourselves from the drudgery of survival and existence, as we’ve gotten past serfdom and the perpetual slavery to the agricultural season, and as we’ve gained more independence for ourselves, art has slowly gotten more abstract. Because we’re not all necessarily sharing the same experiences any more on such a mean level, it’s getting more difficult to climb inside each other’s heads simply because, you know, there are now differences. We’re not simply peasant A and peasant B and, well, maybe peasant C over there is a little different because he’s, you know, crazy in the head or something, but…


DEPPEY: Is this even vaguely related to what you’re talking about?

CAMPBELL: [Laughs.] I thought your thing was going to lead us way off the track, I was going to turn back immediately, and I thought, “Oh, what the hell.” [Deppey laughs.] The procedures… I think there are more or less, in all the arts, there are procedures. At the tightest, at the lowest end, art can be so bound up in procedures that there is no room for personal voice. Like genre fiction: the cowboy can only say certain things, pardner. In the love story, there are only a limited number of things they can do to each other; throw the engagement ring out the window or whatever, fall down the stairs and lose the baby…

I think if you change it, “Oh, that’s not romance anymore,” or “We can’t publish it.” It’s an odd world. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with it; I just don’t care.

Anyway, getting back, another aspect of the whole graphic-novel era: I don’t think there ever is any point in arguing whether something is or isn’t a graphic novel. I think anyone who’s going to talk about it should lay out the rules at the outset. Rule one: We don’t argue about whether something is or isn’t. Also, Rule two: There’s no point in arguing about what was the first one. I get so sick of that. [Deppey chuckles.] As soon as the world conceives the comic strip, the next step is automatically the long-form comic strip. Like for instance, in Punch magazine in 1850, Richard Doyle did a series of one-page things about these characters he’d invented called Brown, Jones and Robinson. Now, he left Punch that year, and five or six years later he put out an 80-page book called The Foreign Tour of Brown, Jones and Robinson. I don’t think there was any great imaginative idea in inventing the long-form comic strip. As soon as the comic strip exists, automatically, “Why don’t we do one that goes on for 100 pages?” It would have invented itself if somebody hadn’t done it. No big deal. No prize, no medal.

DEPPEY: Well, the term has always struck me as a term of convenience, to separate it away from the gaudier stuff, the greasier kid stuff. “Now I’m going to create a graphic novel.”

CAMPBELL: To the people immured in comic-book culture, the only thing that makes it a graphic novel is that it’s longer. But there’s much more going on in this new evolutionary model. For instance, around 1970 I picked up Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book, which was published in 1959. I remember this was the first time I ever thought to myself of a comic having an authorial voice, the voice of an author. It wasn’t Marvel Comics’ Jungle Book, it wasn’t Uncle Creepy’s Potboiler of Hideous Horrors; it was Harvey Kurtzman’s. There was an author here, his name was above the title. This was the first time I’d ever come across this in a comic. Choir of angels singing, holy trumpets, epiphany, etc.

DEPPEY: You did an interview with Milo George for At one point, you were talking about the separation of the graphic novel from the rest of the comics industry, and you rounded up by stating, “I propose that we just accept that comic books are now about superheroes. The reason for this strategy is that it really has now become too difficult to try and change the public perception. If we want to use the graphic vocabulary of the comic book to create something else, let’s call it something else, and I believe that we’ll come to realize that the vocabulary we’re talking about is actually very limited and we can start enlarging it. The best works that we have are already doing it.”

CAMPBELL: This is a growing thing. Since I wrote that manifesto last year, I’ve been trying to enlarge upon it or get down to specifics and actually work out a theory, because there’s so much nonsense written on this. There are so many people out there talking rubbish. I think if we’re going to use it, we must mean something by it, and we must separate it from what I call “comic-book culture.” Now, for instance, comic-book culture consists of, as we were talking about before, periodicals with issue numbers. It consists of arguing about whether an artist was a better penciler or an inker. The outside world doesn’t know what we’re talking about. It’s about a credit line with six names on it, a six-name credit on a 20-page comic book. Does it take six people to make a comic book? Within comic-book culture it does.

DEPPEY: It seems to me that any discussion about the nature of the graphic novel will be problematic precisely because it’s defined from a negative. It’s, “We’re not that.”

CAMPBELL: And to somebody wrapped up in comic-book culture, Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware probably look a little pretentious, because that’s where they’re arguing from. You know those Idiot Guide books? I see there’s an Idiot’s Guide to Creating a Graphic Novel.

DEPPEY: Yeah, I actually picked that up a couple of months ago.

CAMPBELL: As though we need any more idiots doing it. [Laughter.] We’ve got enough idiots in here already.

DEPPEY: I don’t necessarily have a problem with idiots creating graphic novels; you never know what they’re going to come up with. The problem with this specific book was that it’s pretty much restricted to explaining, “Here’s how other people have done it, and so here’s how you should, too.”


From Graffiti Kitchen collected in Three Piece Suit, ©2001 Eddie Campbell.


CAMPBELL: I think that’s a problem, because as I was saying earlier, part of the new regime is that there are no answers, there is no How Do You Get In. You have to create your own way. In comic-book culture you show your portfolio at a convention. Go up to Marvel Comics and ask for a tryout story. In the era of the graphic novel, it’s a totally unexplored landscape. I would say that anyone who is truly ready to do a “graphic novel” will already have solved the problem of “how to team up with a writer,” which I notice is one of the headings in there. That belongs to comic-book culture. By that, I don’t mean that there’s only one person involved in a graphic novel. If you don’t have the strength of attraction to attract the artist that you need to you, then you’re definitely not ready.

Let’s separate the ideas. We have two completely separate evolutionary models here. One is away over here on the right-hand side, and one is away over here on the left. There is no line down the middle. Different objects may be closer to one than to the other. For instance, take that magnificent fellow, Neil Gaiman. Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is not as close to the graphic novel polarity as his Mr. Punch. Sandman‘s probably hovering somewhere in the middle. I thought it was interesting, something I was talking about, the authorial voice. In the latest editions of the Sandman books, I noticed Neil Gaiman’s name up along the top there, as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. It’s taken some getting there, but it finally got the author’s name on the top of the book. And any artist who’s ever worked on that, I think, he or she knew full well they were doing so as Neil’s guest. Neil is the author of those books. Doesn’t mean he’s the only person working on them, any more than David Bowie’s the only person working on one of David Bowie’s albums.

Now, instead of arguing about how many pages make a graphic novel, we should be looking at, “Does it have the sensibility of this new era?” People argue about His Name Is… Savage or [Jim] Steranko’s Chandler or McGregor’s Sabre as the first graphic novel. I think it’s kind of irrelevant because they belong so completely to the mentality of comic-book culture that it’s a pointless argument. With a view to separating the question of merit, may I add that they’re fine books; I have them all.

DEPPEY: The definition starts out as basically a term of convenience, and only gains weight after examples occur. People make graphic novels and say, “This is what I mean.” Then this guy over here does it and that guy over there does it. By comparing them, you can create a continuum.

CAMPBELL: I was looking at somebody’s website the other day, and he was arguing against somebody else who had said “Star Wars isn’t really science fiction.” So he was defending the argument that Star Wars is science fiction. Then further along in his blog, he was arguing that manga isn’t really comics.

DEPPEY: Oh, yeah, actually I started that argument. That’s a guy named Pat O’Neill.

CAMPBELL: What the hell? Is that worth arguing about?

DEPPEY: He was responding to my essay in TCJ #269.

CAMPBELL: Ah, right, you started it. [Laughs.]

DEPPEY: That whole girl’s-manga issue that we did.

CAMPBELL: Oh, right.

DEPPEY: O’Neill’s essay argued that manga are not going to save comics, which is something I never said to begin with. My essay was trying to define what girl’s manga is, why it’s appealing to people here in the United States, and what structural deficiencies keep Western comics publishers from being able to make the same kind of appeal themselves. I think that there are things that Western comics can learn from manga, but I don’t think manga’s going to save anything other than [Tokyopop founder] Stu Levy’s pocketbook.

CAMPBELL: [Laughs.] Good issue, by the way. I loved that issue; it was well done. I learned a lot in there.

DEPPEY: Thank you. Anyway, this guy was arguing that manga aren’t comics, and he was doing so basically because he has a very strict and well-worn definition of what comics are: They’re the kind of comics he likes.

CAMPBELL: I get tired of the definers. People only define things so they can throw out the riffraff. The point we should be discussing is, “Does this thing make us wiser, does it make our lives better, would the world be poorer if it disappeared?”

DEPPEY: But just to play devil’s advocate, when you start trying to define away the graphic novel, you’re doing the same thing. You’re kind of puffing up your own chest and saying, “Ignore that guy in the underwear over there. I’m what’s important around here.”

CAMPBELL: But remember, I said earlier that I think a failed graphic novel is a much less interesting thing than a good comic book. I’m not implying that it’s some badge or medal that you can award. I think we’re just talking about different models. For instance, when I do Bacchus I do comic books, if I do Fate of the Artist I’m taking a stab at the graphic novel. From Hell is a graphic novel. I think we should be talking about ideas, and that was my proposal, that we start by talking about the graphic-novel sensibility, and what the key marks are that help us understand what that is about. We all know what comic-book culture is. It has its great moments: We love Kirby, we love Miller’s Daredevil, and we’re not saying the graphic novel isn’t comics. It’s all comics; it’s a newer, more involved idea of a comic. That’s all it is.

DEPPEY: A different permutation of the same metalanguage.

CAMPBELL: Yeah. Another thing I picked up recently in that book Raeburn did on Ware, quoting Spiegelman on another aspect of the new sensibility. Spiegelman said, “In order for comics to go forward, they first have to go back.” This is another aspect of the new sensibility: this respect for the pioneers of comics — I mean the old ones.

For instance, Walt and Skeezix. Gasoline Alley is reprinted, but it’s dressed up lovingly by graphic novelist Chris Ware. Now, the book has been assembled and produced within the sensibility of the graphic novel. To take that and say, “Yes, but this is daily strips,” and then file it in the library in the humor section next to Garfield is not a productive thing to do. You would take Walt and Skeezix and file it with the graphic novels because it belongs to that sensibility.

DEPPEY: But it seems like you’re imposing a modern definition of something that… I don’t think Frank King really considered the question.

CAMPBELL: No, I’m not saying it is a graphic novel, because the graphic novel doesn’t exist. “Graphic Novel” is an abstract idea. It’s a sensibility, it’s an advanced attitude toward comics. We’re interested in this, we’re less interested in that. Put that over there, put this over here. Doesn’t mean that everything over here is a graphic novel, I’m just saying that the culture of the graphic novel respects this, respects that, admires that and venerates this other thing. The graphic-novel sensibility is more interested in Frank King than it is in Jim Steranko, whereas comic-book culture is more interested in Jim Steranko than it is in Frank King. And Paul Gravett’s new book, Graphic Novels, in fact manages to survey the entire history of comics, but from the position of a graphic-novel sensibility, which is to say that all the emphases are now different compared to any history that may have been written 40 years ago, and the angle of foreshortening has caused a lot of stuff to be obscured from view. For instance, all the stuff that Arlen Schumer celebrates in his The Silver Age of Comic Book Art. Do you see what I’m saying?

DEPPEY: Yeah. Basically, if we’re going to take a term of convenience like this, let’s at least make it convenient to our aims.

CAMPBELL: Going back to that remark of Spiegelman’s, I noticed that at the time I was doing Fate of the Artist, where I had been doing this very thing myself. In Fate of the Artist I invented this old newspaper strip that appears at intervals throughout the text in both daily and Sunday forms, and I’ve… I created a married-couple strip.

DEPPEY: The Honeybee strip.

CAMPBELL: An idea that belongs to the earliest phase of comics, so I’m talking about this idea that in order to go forward, we must first go back. This love of the old daily strips, of Bringing Up Father or The Family Upstairs; Spiegelman did it in his No Towers book, of course, with his section of Sunday strips. We’re talking about tendencies of taste, rather than definitions of form.


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