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Eddie Campbell
Interviewed by Dirk Deppey
excerpted from The Comics Journal #273
Panel from From Hell (©1989, 1999 Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell)

Comic-Book Culture

EDDIE 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...

DIRK 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."

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.


DEPPEY: Of course, you have a foot in both worlds -- and that's as close as a segue as I'm going to find for Bacchus magazine.


DEPPEY: Now, Bacchus ran for six years. It started in May of 1995 and it ran until May of 2001, and I think it's one of the very few independent comics that actually managed to come out on something resembling a monthly basis. You actually published 60 issues in six years.

CAMPBELL: In seven years, I managed to get something out more or less every month, so I managed to get 84 separate publications out; if it wasn't an issue of the mag, it was a trade paperback or it was a reprint or something or other. There was even a poster-print. I managed to put out something every month between '95 and the end of 2002, allowing for missing a month here and there and doubling up in other months.

DEPPEY: I've heard you credit Dave Sim with the inspiration to start Bacchus magazine. Prior to that, you had been doing Bacchus in a series of miniseries for Dark Horse.

CAMPBELL: I'd been doing Bacchus all over the place, '90 to '94. I think like five years running, I had a series out from Dark Horse. So yeah, that was its home. Sim had talked a lot of people into self-publishing, for whatever his political ends. [Laughter.] I don't even know. I'm skeptical of a lot of the stuff that's he's written. Sometimes I think he writes that stuff just to wind you guys up.

DEPPEY: Oh, sure. In TCJ #263, we did a big roundtable on Dave Sim, and I think half the reason I arranged that was just so I could just put it to bed. I gathered a whole bunch of people in a room and said, "OK, talk about Dave Sim. OK, you're done? Great! Now I can talk about Cerebus as a work, without having to talk about the feminist-homosexualist axis. Hooray for me."

CAMPBELL: I think I was one of the last people that Dave talked into self-publishing. He tried it with Alan Moore, and it ended in disaster.

DEPPEY: You were probably the most successful of them, too.

CAMPBELL: Yes. There was Veitch and Bissette, Tundra and so on. In the end, I thought, "This is easy. Why did these guys make a mess of it?"

DEPPEY: Well, because of the way you've come up, you've kind of looked at it from a business angle to begin with. You've not just been a cartoonist, you've also been a manager, Eddie Campbell's manager.

CAMPBELL: It's funny when people treat you like an artist, like you don't know... Like, for instance, whenever I arrive somewhere with Chris Staros, they always talk to Chris Staros about me in front of me about the business stuff. [Deppey chuckles.] It's like I can't manage myself. And I guess it's self-fulfilling, because in the end I've handed all the business stuff over to him and he publishes From Hell now.

The thing about the Direct Market is that once you start in, everything seems to run by itself. It really was dead easy. I see people now talking about how now is not a good time to be self-publishing, nothing works anymore, it's not like it used to be. But when I started publishing in '75 there was nothing, nowhere to go. The 500 copies of my first book, I found I was able to sell 40 through the channels available in '75. There was no Direct Market. I gave up and I went and worked in the factory. What was there to do? There was nowhere to go. So when I hear people saying that it's not like it used to be: Fuck off. It was worse when I started.

The problem with it is that it's very difficult to make a thing grow within there. Being a collector's market, it tends to run on first issues, so you sell twice as many of your first issue as your second, and then there's a falling off, and it's very difficult to pick up readers.

DEPPEY: When I first started going to comic shops, there was a tiny little -- well, compared to today, a relatively tiny collection of Marvel and DC and then enough rack space left over where, even in stores where the owners really had no interest in anything but Legion of Superheroes, there was still enough room left over for a shelf or two full of wonky stuff from Fantaco and Comico and Pacific Comics.

CAMPBELL: A minute ago I suddenly felt guilty because it sounded like I was complaining about the Direct Market. It's very difficult to get the orders up. But actually, looking back on it, the thing was foolproof. It virtually worked by itself... which is what Dave Sim said to me in the first place. He said, "This is the easiest thing you'll ever do," and he was right, it was. All I had to do was get my book out every month. You could draw a curve where the sales are going to go down, but I made a really good living out of it for six or seven years.

DEPPEY: And you managed to get virtually your entire back catalog back into print.

CAMPBELL: That I did.

DEPPEY: With exceptions; there are stories in The Cheque, Mate that Fantagraphics published that you never brought back.

CAMPBELL: Yeah, but if I haven't brought them back it could be because I don't want them to be still around.

DEPPEY: There are a couple of stories in there that I liked. "How to Avoid Sex," that was a neat little story. [Laughter.] It's not the high poetry of The King Canute Crowd or anything, but it was a neat little story.

CAMPBELL: It's an oddity. "How to Avoid Sex," I did that originally for a book about sex, aimed at 14-year-olds encountering sex for the first time, or when you're young. I did a story called "How to Avoid Sex" and they were horrified. They said, "This isn't the attitude we want to promote."

DEPPEY: The story was half a lecture, half Danny Grey going to the bathroom.

CAMPBELL: This is my repressive Catholic upbringing coming out. "We don't want to promote this." So I had to shelve it. Anyway, that was the origin of that. To this day, I find it very difficult to produce work to order like that. When somebody phones me up and says, "We'd like a comic on this and that theme," I go into it knowing it's probably going to end in tears.

DEPPEY: Well, as long as you continue to own it, you can always find a use for it elsewhere.

CAMPBELL: I've never drawn a story I couldn't use somewhere.

DEPPEY: Where was I? King Bacchus. You did this at about the same time Sim was doing Guys, and there are actually remarkable similarities between the two.

CAMPBELL: There's a lot of taking potshots at each other in those stories. I pop up a few times in his things.

DEPPEY: And he pops up in yours.

CAMPBELL: [Laughs.] Yeah, he gets his willy cut off in King Bacchus. Inevitably there was the criticism: "How can you put this in Borders when it's so full of in-jokes, who the hell's going to know what you're talking about?" The fact is, Dave has no interest in moving outside the Direct Market. I don't think he's ever gotten into bookstores.

DEPPEY: I've actually seen a couple of Cerebus books in a Borders three miles north of me; it's the only place in a chain bookstore I have ever seen Cerebus.

CAMPBELL: One suspects it got in there by some tortuous route, by accident.

DEPPEY: Could be.

CAMPBELL: I don't know. Or the ordering clerk had gone to the trouble of getting them directly from Dave, or more likely Gerhard, without going through a distributor channel. That's possible. But Dave's attitude was, "Who are the most interesting characters in comics? It's not Batman or Wolverine, it's Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman and so on. Why can't we just as happily put them in the story."

DEPPEY: There wasn't any formal interplay between the two of you? Were you discussing King Bacchus versus Guys?

CAMPBELL: No, but we were on each other's comp list, so we were both seeing the other guy's stuff as it came out. You've read all those?


CAMPBELL: What do you think of Bunny Wilson?

DEPPEY: Bunny Wilson. Oh, Jesus, I've drawn a blank. Which one was Bunny Wilson?

CAMPBELL: You haven't gotten them all in front of you? I think he did the back cover on issue 12.

DEPPEY: I've got them here in book form.

CAMPBELL: All right. You know he drew for instance, remember the wedding in King Bacchus, he drew the card just before the wedding chapter.

DEPPEY: OK. That's toward the end of... oh, there's the fight scene; the cops are coming in... OK, got it right here.

CAMPBELL: You got Bunny Wilson. He's a hoax, he doesn't exist. See I had this idea that I'd put all these real cartoonists in there, like Dave Sim, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, even Jeff Smith makes an appearance. And into this mix, I'd insert a completely fictitious cartoonist, but I'd play it like he was real. So that every now and then he'd pop up in the pages of Bacchus magazine in the news and text pages, but issue 55...

DEPPEY: That would be "Banged Up?"

CAMPBELL: It's not in the story, it's the text pages, we actually killed him off and we all went to his funeral. [Deppey laughs.] I got all my pals to put on their dark suits on a Sunday, and we were photographed around a grave. Hayley Campbell took the photo. Breach is wearing a white collar, pretending to be the vicar, reading some sales catalog over Bunny's last resting place. He fastened on a page advertising a business called Pancakes in Paradise. "And now Bunny will be eating his pancakes in paradise..." and there's a mocked-up newspaper article written by Whitey.

I kind of ditched the whole idea of this fictitious cartoonist because Seth went one better with his Kalo. [Deppey laughs.] When he announced Kalo was a hoax, I said to mayself, "Oh, fuck it. There goes the whole Bunny Wilson plan. I can't use it any more." So I didn't make a big fuss about it, we quietly killed him off. But on the back cover of one of those, we have a character Bunny Wilson supposedly created in the '50s, called Monty Zoomer, the speediest superhero, and Evans bashed it all up in Photoshop and we made it look like an old 1950s Australian comic. That was my plan. I'd introduce all the real cartoonists and then slip in a bogus one and see if anyone noticed. So while I was making fun of real personages, I intended by sleight of hand to play a joke on everyone. [Deppey chuckles.] It didn't really work. Alas.

[To read the rest of this interview, please see The Comics Journal #273.]

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