Does Eddie Campbell really require an introduction at this stage of his career?
Campbell illustrated the Alan Moore scripted “From Hell” widely regarded as one of the most monumental and epic stories that the comic book medium has produced. He then went on to illustrate “The Birth Caul” and “Snakes and Ladders” based on Moore’s stage shows, which have been collected into the book “A Disease of Language.”
He’s also been a writer and artist for more than thirty years, including last year’s “The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard” (one of the Best Comics of the Year, according to CBR and many other reputable news outlets), “The Fate of the Artist,” and the Bacchus series. Campbell is also a noted blogger whose online journal, eddiecampbell.blogspot.com, provides a look at comics, graphic arts, literature and Campbell’s own work.
Campbell has also been a publisher, producing “Bacchus Magazine,” the short-lived “Egomania Magazine” and “From Hell.” He’s written “Hellblazer” and Batman, contributed to “Dark Horse Presents,” illustrated “Captain America” and co-wrote and painted one of the last of DC Elseworlds titles, “Batman: Order of the Beasts.”
Perhaps some of Campbell’s best known work is the Alec series. In four autobiographical volumes, Campbell created some of the most influential comics of the past few decades. This month Top Shelf is releasing a single volume omnibus edition of the series titled “Alec: The Years Have Pants,” which in addition to collecting the four volumes, which appear in chronological order includes a new short story.
I’m curious, just because you’ve crafted so much autobiographical material over the years, do you keep a journal?
Not exactly, but the answer is probably yes, more or less.
Was there much being published in the way of autobiographical comics when you started “Alec,” or were you drawing inspiration more from prose and other sources?
A couple of people had drawn themselves into their work in a scattershot manner. Crumb, Speigelman. Pekar was doing it, but I didn’t see his work till later. But I don’t think anybody had attempted a long-form work in autobiographical mode, or at least I hadn’t encountered it.
Why did you decide to make an Alec omnibus, and why now?
It’s the next logical evolutionary step. When we first started making comics on a colossal scale, we had to do it piecemeal, releasing the work in periodical parts. There wasn’t the financial machinery in place yet to pay an artist to disappear for several years to do the work, like you have in the mainstream book trade. That was the second step. Now we have a third step, where several books by an author are gathered into a huge compendium. We’ve seen it with Eisner and the Hernandez brothers, and the big “Absolute Sandman.” Also, at least one of my books had been out of print for some time, so a new presentation of the work was due. I was surprised how much of it there is. I had to do a lot of tightening up and trimming to get it down to 640 pages.
At what stage did you decide to include a new comic “The Years Have Pants” in the book?
It has always been my way to use the rounding up of older work as the justification to make new work. Economically, it’s a useful way of doing things. If I could raise a couple of thousand bucks as an advance for something like “Doing the Islands with Bacchus,” then I’d see that as payment for drawing ten or so new pages. In this way I have always stayed in work and continuously added to my inventory. As another example, the Alec book, “How to Be an Artist,” was first serialized in fourteen issues of the anthology “DeeVee.” When I gathered the parts together to publish them myself, I took the opportunity to expand the work by twenty-five new pages. And here we are again, with all of the Alec books rounded up in one volume, it was logical to add a whole new book to bring things up to date. The new book is thirty-five pages, and, with other additions, there are about forty-five pages altogether of new material.
Did you rework or change any of your old work?
I’ve fixed things here and there for clarity, and to fix obvious mistakes and head off misinterpretations. There was a panel in one story where a character is wearing a hat and another character takes it, but then in the next panel they’re both wearing the hat. Those kind of fixes are always going to be necessary. But I haven’t gone in and revised things to make myself look better. That way I’d end up drawing the same stuff over and over for the rest of my life, never catching up, but losing the particular qualities that give the work the voice of a twenty-five year old, or a thirty-five year old, until one day I’ve changed it so much it all has the voice of a cranky old man, or Michael Jackson’s face. There’s another kind of tweaking I’ve done, to make connections between one book and another. In one book I left a character unnamed because his part was too small, but given that he has a slightly larger appearance in one of the other books which is now juxtaposed, it seemed right to go back and insert his name for anybody with enough of an encyclopedic mind to follow all the threads and connect the dots. I’ve done that a few times. And I’ve done other things like add a two page post-script to one of my books, so my long time readers will have plenty of additional things to think about. There’s quite a lot in this business of editing old work. You can’t just get the pages and shove ’em all in there.
After working in color the past few years on books like “The Fate of the Artist” and “The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard,” what it was like going back to working in black and white for these new Alec stories?
The immediate problem was technical, getting my ink to the right fluidity. It was so long since I’d used the bottle that it had turned thick. Then I diluted it and it bled into the paper. I had to go out and buy fresh materials, nibs and brushes too, and make like I was starting out afresh.
In the fourth Alec volume, “After the Snooter,” you abandoned the Alec persona. Does that affect the new comics or anything about the book?
It doesn’t really matter. You now have a big book in which the author decides to throw away his pseudonym three quarters of the way through. I’m sure you can psychoanalyze it and come up with reasons, or attribute it to an audacious postmodern gambit, but the characters all change their names. It’s a bit like Spiegelman admitting he’s not really a mouse at the beginning of Maus II. It can’t really destroy the illusion of reality since that was never just an illusion in the first place. You can no more fabricate a truth by devious literary tricks than you can deny it by unmasking your scam. The truth is independent of all that. You know it when you hear its ring.
If you had to do it again, would you have used the Alec pseudonym?
Oddly, I was thinking of bringing it back for the next one, which I’ve been turning over in my head. It seems to want to be written in the third person.
Do you see yourself continuing to write more Alec, or Eddie, stories?
Perhaps. the world of comics has become a disappointment to me of late. My ideal would be for the TV thing to work out so I can get away from the drawing board.
You’ve written a lot about your TV project on your blog, which is intended to cover similar ground to some of the Alec material. Was it a creative boon for you, an enjoyable experience that helped you think about the material differently in ways you hadn’t expected?
The show is still “in development.” The world financial crisis has slowed things down. But yes, I have had to take things apart and put them back together in different ways, and there has been a great deal of argument at every step of the way. I’m hopeful that there will be some advances soon. I would enjoy getting off the printed page for an extended period and watching my characters play out their everyday daffy dramas in real space and time
Do you ever read the Alec stories, not thinking about yourself and your own experiences, but experiencing them as stories the way those of us without a connection to the material do?
All the time. The act of turning experience or observation into fiction tends to relieve the memory of its obligation to hold onto it. It’s like I’ve removed it to an external hard drive. And when I encounter it there later, I’m often surprised by it. Sometimes I don’t recognize my own voice. Sometimes I see connections or insights that I don’t remember putting into the work. There is a subconscious Eddie Campbell at work who often seems like a different person. I think also we underestimate how much we change over time, so that your younger self really is a different person, somebody you wouldn’t want to invite to dinner.
Your other big project, which comes out next year from Top Shelf, is the two volume Omnibus edition of “Bacchus.” Are you going to reorganize anything, tell a new story, or is there anything else you can tease about the two volumes?
There won’t be any new narrative work in the Bacchus books. They already form a very precise story from beginning to end, but there will be loads of black and white versions of covers and other pictures in between the stories, as dividers, a small number of which may not have been printed before. So for somebody who only has the nine volumes of the Bacchus series there may be loads of pictures that they don’t already have. It’ll make a very nice package altogether.
I know that there are other early comics of yours which haven’t been reprinted over the years. Do you have any plans to collect them?
We’ll see how the big Alec does, but I have also been busy scanning my “Ace Rock’n’Roll Club” stories, which is work I did thirty years ago and has been out of print for some time. And my two volumes of “Bacchus” are almost wrapped up. The work of a comic book artist nowadays always involves all this consolidation of the older work, all the time creating new stuff and at the same time finding ways to rehabilitate the old work. It sure beats being on a treadmill and having to endlessly fill up waiting white art boards with the clock ticking, like the old time comic book artists. Over the years, I have not tended to get the best page rates for my work, but I have kept the rights to virtually all of it, and it continues to feed me. As you get older It’s good for things to get a little easier, to be able to throw out the old equation that ‘time is money’, which can sap your humanity.
You have a new book coming out from Top Shelf next year, “The Playwright,” with your “Batman: The Order of Beasts” co-writer Daren White. What can you tell us about the book?
Yes, that’s all done and ready to go. I just have to do a cover that everybody is happy with. Daren was one of the guys behind DeeVee, and we’ve done lots of stuff together over the years, but mostly just meeting for a four hour liquid lunch once or twice a week. “The Playwright” is in the tradition of the cranky old guy, like George Sprott or Larry David. I’m not sure what the attraction is. Maybe we can look at him and think “thank God that’s not me.” “The Playwright” is about the sex life of a celibate middle aged man.
Have you and Alan Moore talked about another collaboration? “Big Numbers,” maybe?
We have occasionally juggled with the idea of a “From Hell Companion” which would include, among other things, a new appendix along the lines of “The Dance of the Gull Catchers,” in which we bring up to date our study of ripperology. But we won’t be revisiting “Big Numbers.” That dog has bolted. Anybody curious about the strange and remarkable history of that great failed project is directed to read my “How to Be an Artist”Â in “Alec: The Years have Pants,” which tells the whole sorry and unbelievable story, which ended with Al Columbia allegedly finishing the fourth book and then tearing up all the pages.
Your career has been dominated by long stories. Alec was told over a long period of time. Bacchus and From Hell each took more than a decade. I know “The History of Humour” was going to be a long term project but after “Egomania Magazine” ended, it fell by the wayside. Since then you’ve been creating shorter standalone books. Do you see yourself returning to “History of Humour” or another long form story in the future?
“History of Humour” is gone. And I was thinking recently about how much harder it gets to start up something big. I really don’t know if I would have the resolve to do something again on the scale of those other works. It’s the kind of thing you can manage in your forties. I don’t think we’ll be getting another “Maus” from Spiegelman, either. There’s a time in your life when you’re up for something like that. Impossible to replicate the frame of mind later. I think I’ll probably add another “book” or two to the Alec opus, and there’ll be a bigger version of that further down the line.
You’ve been writing on your blog about the nature and meaning of the “graphic novel” and your last book, “Monsieur Leotard,” felt as if that was where a lot of what you’d been working out was fully expressed in terms of ignoring the language of comics, and instead utilizing illustration tools and typography to create a new kind of graphic novel, more of an “illustrated book” than is typically seen.
Well, that was the original idea of “graphic novel” before all the dullards of the comic book world decided it just meant a format. It was about the ambition of trying to do something grand and memorable with the simple elements of the comic strip. Like any language, it can be prosaic and utilitarian, or you can craft it its phrases into lines of haunting beauty.