Comics creator Ross Campbell has worked for a wide variety different publishers, including White Wolf and TOKYOPOP, where he was one of the creators signed to the publisher's debut OEL manga line, and Minx, where "Water Baby" -- the story of -- among other similarly intense, visceral things -- a teenage surfer whose leg is bitten off by a shark -- was one of the highlights of the short lived DC Comics Young Adults imprint. He also contributed a short story to Vertigo's "House of Mystery" and continues to produce the annual minicomic "Mountain Girl."
Most of Campbell's work, however, has been with Oni Press, where he illustrated "Too Much Hopeless Savages," Spooked" and his ongoing series "Wet Moon." A character-driven story about a group of art students in the deep south, "Wet Moon" is a gripping and exciting tale despite its slice-of-life appearance, with lots of strange events on the periphery bleeding into the characters' lives in unusual ways. Likened to "Twin Peaks" but with a young adult twist, the series is set to return with "Wet Moon 4: Drowned in Evil," a 184-page graphic novel depicting, as Oni's solicitation reads, "goths, friendship, romance, sex, betrayal, gossip, cats, murder, guilt, a squirrel monkey, and all the terrible and wonderful things people do to each other."
CBR News sat down with Ross Campbell to talk in-depth about "Wet Moon," "Water Baby," and what else readers can expect from the Eisner-nominated creator.
CBR: You went to the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. Is a lot of the feel and the atmosphere of "Wet Moon" based on your experiences at art school?
Ross Campbell: Yeah, the city of Wet Moon is heavily based on Savannah, and some of the things the characters go through are based on actual experiences had by me and other people, though fictionalized and altered, of course. But the atmosphere in Savannah was definitely an inspiration; the swampiness, the weather, the fauna and flora, the art school smack dab in the middle of the traditional southern weirdness, all that stuff.
In what ways has your plan for the characters changed from when you first proposed the project years ago?
A lot of the core stuff has remarkably stayed the same, actually. I'm still planning on having characters do things that I'd planned way back in 2002 or whenever it was I made the initial pitch, and most of the big "beats" are still there. I can't say much about what's changed without giving away spoilers, though. But of course, a lot of stuff has changed or I've thought up new ideas over the years that have made their way into the series. Even though the "long term plan" stuff is still in place, everything around that is mostly stuff I've made up over the years doing the series based on a loose outline for each volume. And even the big event stuff has changed somewhat, like specifics and details will change as I work the story out, that sort of thing.
One thing that's changed, and keeps changing, is the artwork. As my skills improve and change the artwork invariably changes with it. Of course, I can never foresee what'll happen with that, so the characters have ended up going through various design/visual changes (not all met with positive reactions from people/readers). Most notably Audrey, I think, who started out in Volume 1 looking and even acting pretty different than what she became starting with Volume 2. I didn't really know who I wanted her to be in Volume 1 because she was originally only a minor character and got bumped up into main cast status at the last minute, so she wasn't very fleshed out or developed. I decided on her "path" or whatever only after Volume 1 was released, so that's sort of a weird blip I didn't plan for.
Other things like that happen, too, like after I do a volume I'll have an idea out of the blue and decide to send a character off in a certain direction the subsequent volume. Never can tell!
You've been at Oni Press for years. What's your relationship with them like?
They totally let me do my own thing. Even though I send them my drafts for each "Wet Moon" script every time, I don't think I've ever gotten any responses or feedback from my editor or publisher, and since I never hear from them I just move on to the artwork stage and we only really correspond when talking about deadlines/release dates, or at conventions once or twice a year. It's really great that they seem to have so much faith in what I'm doing, enough to let me do whatever I want, and they only see the artwork when I've uploaded the final, finished book to their server. That's a risk, who knows what i could end up drawing, but I'm honored they take it.
"Wet Moon" isn't about plot at all, it's very character-driven. Have you thought out the story and the characters for many books into the future?
I have a loose plan up until/through around Volume 8, and I have enough material that could easily spill over to Volumes 9 or 10. There's no definite end, I want to keep the story going for as long as I'm able, whether that means me being sick of doing it, Oni no longer wanting to publish it, or I have to get a regular job, or something like that. We'll see where things are at Volume 8!
"Water Baby" was interesting because it felt like one of your books, but not necessarily a Minx book. What was the editorial process like and how much changed during the process?
My editor was really involved and hands-on with "Water Baby," which was totally different from Oni and even TOKYOPOP. "Water Baby" went through a lot of changes before writing began on it, like, originally, I wanted the book to be super raunchy and disgusting and even more crass than it ended up being, but my editor said I couldn't use "fuck" in the book and I almost turned down the project because of that. But obviously I needed the gig, heh, so I eventually said okay after my editor sweet-talked me into it.
We also came to the decision to tone it all down and shift focus a bit. Originally I'd wanted, besides the raunch, to have the shark stuff play a much bigger role, and my first idea in the pitch stage had the story more similar to something like a werewolf story or "The Fly" on a road trip. That would've been cool, too, but I think, even though it's impossible to say, that after the focus shift the book turned out better for it than it would've been.
Once writing began, things actually remained pretty much consistent throughout. There were little things, like certain scenes were cut out or minor dialogue changes, but for the most part things stayed the same as I'd initially written them. The process on "WB" was also great because I got to see printouts with the lettering ("WB's" been the only book I haven't lettered myself) and we combed the thing numerous times for typos and mistakes and I was altering and tweaking things up until the very end, which was great. On one hand it was a little weird, though, because after reading your own book 15 times, it starts to become amorphous and toward the end I couldn't tell whether the book was good or not and if I even liked it or didn't like it. But it was still nice to get rid of all the typos! [laughs]
A young adult novel with the tone and content of "Water Baby" isn't unusual at all, but it stood out as far as a comic book aimed at teens and and among the Minx line. Did that issue ever come up?
Yeah, there were a lot of horrendously negative reviews in the beginning that addressed this in various ways. Most of them felt not so much the material was too much, but that the characters were depicted way too sexualized. And I think I agree with them, actually. I think I went overboard on the female characters. I'd probably draw them totally differently now if I were to do the book again. I was really concerned and upset about it for a while, too, I thought maybe I'd made a huge blunder by drawing the girls the way I did, and that maybe I was just causing more damage by sexualizing teens along with the media and everything instead of it being me celebrating different body types and different types of beauty. Like, was I just adding to the cesspool I was trying to fight? That sort of thing. I still think it was a mistake but I feel a lot better about it now, and the pendulum has swung the other direction and the book's gotten some great reviews since.
You mentioned that "Water Baby" changed from its initial conception. Do you think part of your fluctuating feelings towards the artwork is the result of a look that was intended for the characters in an earlier draft, or is it just the constant artistic dissatisfaction and uncertainty with own work?
I'm not sure, though that's a good question. The initial character sketches I did were actually less "sexy," I think, so I don't know why they ended up being that way in the final book, while the story content ended up less raunchy. Around the time I did "Water Baby," I was also starting to pay more attention to issues of female sexuality in terms of society and how it's presented in the media and that sort of thing; women being sex objects, perpetuating the idea that girls are expected to be "hot" and things along those lines.
So that was another reason why I was upset with myself for drawing the characters in the way I did. It also seems to me like a dumb decision because 'Water Baby" was such a bigger project, put out by DC and all, I would think the knowledge that more people would be reading "WB" than my other work would've made me tone this stuff down, who knows why I didn't. Actually, looking back on the artwork just now, I still really like it, but I think I went a little overboard on Brody's breasts. Even though Louisa's are even bigger, Brody's particularly seem overly prominent, not specifically because of their size since obviously tons of girls have these proportions and they're fine and normal, but just the manner in which I drew them. Maybe it's just Brody's nipples, which always seem to be pushing into her shirts (I guess I was trying to show that Brody never wears a bra, too), I don't know. Maybe if I could go back and fix up all the nipple protrusion it would be perfect. [laughs]
And of course, artistic dissatisfaction, like you said, is always a factor. I pretty much hate everything I've done after a while. I still like the artwork from a personal angle, I still like Brody and Louisa's designs, but just not so much when I come at it from a technical angle or whatever, and thinking about what readers might be thinking or imagining the images in some way contributing to the over-sexualization of teens everywhere. But a lot of people seem to really like Brody and Louisa's depictions, so that's enough for me at this point.
Do you have more plans for Brody and the other characters?
Brody made a cameo in "Wet Moon" Volume 3, which was supposed to take place after "Water Baby," showing her still in high school because she'd missed so much school by being absent after the shark attack, heh. There are other ties mentioned between the two books, too. I did have a "Water Baby 2" planned which would have detailed Brody and Louisa's efforts to get back home, and it would've shifted a little and become more serious drama, and even horror, than the first book, but now that Minx is defunct I don't know if the sequel will ever happen.
"Water Baby" takes place in the same world as "Wet Moon," and I'm hoping to have Louisa become a regular cast member in "Wet Moon." She's mentioned in Volume 4 and then has a cameo in Volume 5, but if I can sort things out with DC, she'll have much more in Volume 6 and maybe Brody will follow.
Last year you blogged about attending a book festival and having a feeling of really wanting to make comics for teenage girls. Is this something you still want to accomplish with future projects?
Yeah, definitely. "Water Baby" was meant to be targeted at older teens, like the rest of Minx, I think, but I don't know how well that succeeded. I actually don't know what teenage girls or teenage boys want to read, you can't just boil it down unless you start stereotyping, like... girls like romance and "Twilight," boys like explosions and Batman, or whatever, it's so much more complicated than that. And I think even though my work has a general appeal to female readers because I think it treats women and girls like people instead of damsels in distress or props or whatever, I wouldn't know what to do if I had to target specifically teenage girls in a specific "marketing" kind of way.
I want to write for anyone who enjoys reading my stuff, but I'd love to do some kind of all-ages thing that I could get my publisher to market to younger teenage girls. I don't know why; even though there's so much out there for girls of that age, and there's so much really popular stuff that many girls love that isn't marketed specifically to anyone, like "Harry Potter," I still feel like the majority of stuff is marketed to boys. Or stuff marketed for girls has to be "girly" in some way and ghettoized, so I'd love to do something where I could do a story with characters young girls could identify with and relate to without it being marginalized as girly, and something that could empower girls and show them that you can be great and skilled and beautiful even if you don't fit the traditional societal template of what girls are "supposed" to be.
What is the status of "The Abandoned," your in-progress TOKYOPOP project, in light of the publisher's internal re-structuring?
"The Abandoned" is still in limbo, unfortunately, I don't see TOKYOPOP ever relinquishing the rights or being interested in me finishing the series, so the series will probably stay locked in stasis. Even if the company collapses, they're likely to sell off their catalog of properties to another publisher for some quick cash, which is part of why I think they hold onto everyone's rights.
"The Abandoned" is getting released in Italy, so that's sort of something. I also have ideas for a "secret" sequel, which would be the last two volumes I originally intended combined into one, that would hopefully dodge any legalities, and I'd be able to wrap the story up at another publisher, but I don't want to talk too much about that until it's happening.
How did your short story in "House of Mystery" come about, and what was it like working with Bill Willingham and Vertigo?
My editor at DC, Shelly Bond, got me that gig. It was a blast to do. I didn't actually work with Willingham; I didn't correspond with him at all. I just got the script and then turned in the pages. But my editor said that Willingham liked the pages, so that's good.
You're also working on a series of minicomics, "Mountain Girl." Tell us about that book and why you ended up releasing it as occasional minicomics?
"Mountain Girl" started as just a convention minicomic freebie thing and I never really intended for it to become what it is now. It's still only one issue a year; originally it was just me goofing off. But I've become more serious about the series and the characters and I've started mapping out in advance and what the ending of the story will be. I don't know if it'll ever go to a publisher, it'll probably remain self-published, but if it did get put out by anybody it would probably have to be Oni so I'd have full control.
Even though I only work on "MG" once a year, it's a nice break because I have absolutely nobody to answer to, the print run/readership is so small and that's a lot less pressure. I can put pages of long-winded prose text about the history and background of the "Mountain Girl" world and stuff in the back of each issue and it doesn't matter, I can have the heroine run around topless and nobody cares, the characters can talk in endless bombastic tirades and nobody can tell me to cut it down, no deadlines, my own pace, all that stuff, it's great.
Although at the same time I think I'd definitely be interested if a bigger company like Vertigo were interested, it would be something to seriously consider since I'd be able to devote a lot more time to it and really do a complete story. We'll see!
You've got "Wet Moon 4: Drowned In Evil" coming out this month. What can fans look forward to next year, another "Mountain Girl" minicomic? What else are you working on?
"Mountain Girl" #4 is being overhauled right now, even after I just thumbnailed the whole issue, so I don't know when I'll have that ready. Right now I'm really absorbed in writing a four-volume angsty teen superhero thing called "Shadoweyes" that I've been shopping around this past year. I'm really getting ahead of myself, I'm actually first-drafting the scripts and the series hasn't even been picked up by anyone yet, heh. But I'm itching to do it and I'm really excited about it so i can't resist getting started!
I was working on a secret book for Vertigo which I probably still shouldn't talk about, but that looks like it might fall through, so I don't know what's next on my plate or if I'll have to get a regular job until something else comes along. I also have a Godzilla-style giant monster pitch I submitted to a couple publishers, but no word on that yet, either. I might start taking some commissions, see how far I can get with that. I think if nothing's happened yet by the time I finish these "Shadoweyes" scripts, that I'll start thumbnailing "Wet Moon 5," which is already written, and get as far as I can on the artwork for that either before I get another high-enough-paying gig or I run out of savings money and have to get a job at Kinko's.
I also have a pitch I collaborated on with another writer floating around at Marvel, but I shouldn't say anything about that yet until something concrete happens. I've been tooling around with a pitch for a vampire comic, too; don't laugh! It's gonna be unlike any other vampire story! Overall I guess things seem sort of grim for my comics career right now, at least in terms of it being my full-time job since I don't know how a part-time job would affect production, but wheels are in motion!