Eddie Campbell: The Oracle
Posted: Tuesday, March 20, 2001
By: Darren Schroeder
It has to be said that most comic creators, especially those working in small press, dress like slobs. That can't be said of Eddie Campbell, creator of Bacchus, Alec, and illustrator of From Hell. The times that I've seen him he has been wearing either a nice suit or very tidy jeans and T-Shirt. As a tall man with graying hair and handsome features he's a memorable figure even if you don't know who he is. When he speaks he gives the impression that he's rather embarrassed by the high regard that his work is held in, and you get the feeling he would much rather buy everyone a drink than get up and speak in front of the group.
For my own part, I've always been reduced to a nervous fanboy in his presence, muttering something rather unoriginal like "Your stuff's neat" while he waited patiently for me to buy a comic and say something sensible. I never managed the latter on those occasions, but hopefully I've done better with this interview carried out by e-mail over the last few weeks.
Darren Schroeder: What is your full name?
Edward Anthony Campbell. My parents call me Anthony. I have been hearkening back to this in my autobiographical rambles in Bacchus.
DS: Favourite web site?
EAC: The one that Breach and Stebner have built at http://www.eddiecampbellcomics.com. As an alien in the technological world I had not appreciated just what a web-page can be and what it can do. They've created a magic castle full of hidden passageways and secret compartments. It also made me realise that a web-page can be an artist's letter of introduction as well as his portfolio and his references and his press cuttings all in one. When I sold the Australian rights of From Hell to Random House Australia, all I needed to do was give my URL. That's all you need on your business card now and a potential client can check you out from there. I realise that I'm probably stating the obvious to some people, but it really is all very new to me.
DS: Were comics a big part of your childhood or did you discover them at a later stage?
EAC: I can't remember ever not reading comics. Although my idea of comics as an art must be attributed to my very first reading of a Marvel comic in the mid-60's as it had the names of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby on it. Up until that moment it had not occurred to me that these were drawings made by real people. I suppose I had just presumed them to be reflections of some real life event as though seen in a mirror or through a window. It's funny how we don't think of it any deeper than that. I have over the last couple of years watched my son who is now 8 make the same discoveries. Of course he did it earlier than me having had the advantage of seeing his old man creating the things over there in the studio. I think he would much prefer of course that I would draw superheroes.
DS: What is the key to the fascination that superhero comics hold?
EAC: It's only natural that little boys would be interested in superheroes. What I don't understand is how adults can be interested in superheroes. Somebody explain that one to me. On the other hand superheroes can be used as larger than life symbolic figures. I tried to use them this way when I was hired to write a superhero thing but the implicit message I was getting from the editorial department was that such considerations were surplus to requirements. Most superheroes out there actually don't represent anything at all. I put all my thoughts on the subject into a story called Superguy which you will find in the 1001 Nights of Bacchus.
DS: Was art an important part of your education?
EAC: I'm kind of wary of discussing education because education is a thing that we must continue all through our lives, by which I mean we must get out of bed and learn something new every day. And I don't just mean about comics or the subject that we may be writing about that day. In recent years for instance I had studied in great depth the history of Greek sculpture, how wine is made, the history of the popular song going back to the 18th century, the history of Star Trek and things of that nature. They may or may not turn up in my work, but that is not the reason I study them. As for formal education, going to class and sitting and listening to lectures I have never got anything from that. I failed miserably at school through an inability to pay attention
DS: Who is you favourite Star Trek character and why?
EAC: I must say that I have an affection for William Shatner. The man had and perhaps still has, charisma in abundance.
DS: How did you get interested in drawing and why did this interest continue through into your adult life?
EAC: The way you phrase that is odd because you imply perhaps unintentionally that it is natural for the child to draw and natural for him to lose interest in this as he gets older. It's kind of sad that people in the modern world have reduced their actions and their store of knowledge to encompass only that which is useful to them in their employment. For instance, I was at a wine society dinner last night (it's the first time that I've ever been to one of these affairs), but the wine promoter didn't seem to be able to consider wine in anything other than the linguistic terms necessary to sell me some of it. For instance my esteemed colleague Darren White started talking about Bacchus The God of Wine and it became clear to me that she didn't know Bacchus was the classical god of wine (and his name has been used symbolically down through the ages, for instance there is a grape type called Bacchus and there are magazines on the subject of wine invoking the name of Bacchus). Now how do you work in the wine trade and never come across the word Bacchus. The answer is simply that the man on the street doesn't know it so you don't need to know it to sell him some of the stuff. Adults don't need to draw, similarly adults are not required to draw and have lost any notion that it is a pleasurable thing to do. An ever sadder fact is that very few people can play musical instruments any more or can sing except in grotesque imitation of recorded music. I think that karaoke is the saddest development in modern culture.
DS: When did you discover that drawing was an enjoyable activity? Did this coincide with you realizing you had some skill in it?
EAC: Drawing is a mad and furious activity long before you discover you're any good at it. I can see my 8 year old son going through the same process. You're always discovering that you have less skill than you thought you had. At this point you either give up or get better.
DS: What was the first comic you published yourself and how did that come about?
EAC: The first comic I published myself was the Tale of Beem Gotelump in 1975. It was a 40 page book and I printed 500 copies. It was on white paper A5 size. It was in the style of what we would call today mini comics. The story of it was about an aging jazz pianist who finds that he must play the music for the end of the world following the arrival of the Angel Gabriel with his trumpet. For three or four years after that I did no comics work of any significance burdened down with the pessimistic certainty that never again would I have an idea as good as that one. I recently showed a bunch of these pages in Bacchus (issue 53) for anyone who might be slightly curious. Otherwise I still have some copies in my parent's loft in England. I took 30 copies to Small Press Expo in Maryland two years ago and was surprised to find that they disappeared very quickly indeed. With regard to the term small press, this term was never used in connection with comics. As far as I know prior to my introduction of it in 1981 before that, non-newsstand comics were either described as "underground" or "fanzines" and everybody understood what those terms meant. I felt that what I was doing was not covered by either of those terms and, influenced by seeing a table of small press poetry pamphlets at the Cambridge Poetry Festival in 1981 (an incident described in my book Graffiti Kitchen), I proclaimed that "small press" was a more accurate description of what the "alternative" (an expression I don't like and never use) guys were up to.
DS: In relation to "alternative music" I've always wondered how something made on the other side of the world and shipped all the way to my home town (Christchurch, New Zealand) by multi-national music distributors can be called "alternative". Why do you dislike the term?
EAC: I just don't think it conveys any meaning, or at least it conveys nothing to me. I think it’s all one continuum and don't see a separate accepted culture and another one refusing to be accepted and then confusion of perception if it accidentally steps over the line and becomes acceptable. It strikes me as being the language of poseurs. People who want to create the illusion that they are dangerous and on the fringes.
DS: Why did you publish Tale of Beem Gotelump under a pen name?
EAC: The simple reason for that was that I had roped one or two other people into working on it but I didn't want to draw attention to that. I hate comic books.... the way they have huge long lists of credits. What a sad state the comic is in when it takes seven or eight people to make one.
DS: Don't the collective skills of the group make such a comic better than the efforts of one person?
EAC: On what do you base this astonishing presumption? Name me one comic in the universe superior to George Herriman's Krazy Kat or to Schultz's Peanuts.
DS: Moore and Campbell's From Hell.
EAC: What fools these mortals be.
DS: What is it that makes these Krazy Kat and Peanuts so good?
EAC: Krazy Kat is a work of poetry and genius and like all such works cannot be summed up in a few good phrases. It must be experienced. I think Peanuts is a much lesser work but I threw that in because I thought a great number of people reading this may not have read Krazy Kat.
DS: So is it your view that the work of a lone artist/writer is inherently superior than that created by a group or partnership?
EAC: No. That isn't what I said.
DS: How did you distribute your comics early on in your career?
EAC: In 1981 I did a comic with Dave Harwood titled Flick which I distributed through a comics amateur press association (APA). I won't get into describing here what an APA is because I really didn't belong there. This comes under the heading of fanzine and fanzines were definitely where I didn't want to be. Flick wasn't a Fanzine and didn't belong there. It got an opportunity to flourish when I connected with Paul Gravett right at the time when he started up his Fast Fiction distribution service which gave a focal point to a nascent British comics movement. The Fast Fiction crowd saw themselves as separate from the 2000AD/Warrior crowd and also from the underground comics as represented in England by Knockabout. Somebody like Alan Moore was perceived as belonging to the 2000AD/Warrior thing but he did a lot to bridge the gaps and bring things closer together which made possible the arrival of Gaiman and McKean. Their book, Violent Cases was published in 1987 by Paul Gravett and their careers took off from there.
I mention all of this to give a picture of the landscape at that time. I remember it as a very exciting time in my life full of interesting characters and events which I feel I have captured very well in the book that is on my drawing table just now titled Alec: How to Be An Artist. Apart from being about my experiences in becoming one, it is also the story of the rise and fall of the graphic novel as a whole. I feel that the time is absolutely right for this book since the larger world of the book trade has been showing considerable interest in the graphic novel of late. In your interview with Jason Lutes he was saying that the world is currently celebrating the books of Joe Sacco and Chris Ware and it is crucial that we very quickly put another gladiator into the fray to continue the momentum. I think that Jason's book is absolutely the one to do what must be done. I'm hoping also that my book How to Be An Artist will hit its mark particularly at this time by giving the new audience that we are garnering a context in which to view the graphic novel. Scott McCloud's books Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics are other books which have gone some way to filling this demand. My book should be out in April.
DS: What function would this context serve?
EAC: It would serve the function to put it simply, of directing them to all the other books that we feel that they should be reading and in this way we would boost the health of the art of comics. Furthermore, somebody has to speak up before the sales people at the big companies do it for us. There are a few books of genuine quality but there are commercial interests who would wish to confuse the public as to just which books those are. For instance, there was a recent, very large article in Publisher's Weekly telling shops that the graphic novel is a phenomenon to watch, but in order to justify the eleven pages that was given to this article there had to be a considerable amount of advertising, so of course the biggest advert would be purchased by DC, it being the publisher with the deepest pocket. There was a huge image of Batman in the middle of an article trying to tell us that the graphic novel is a serious cultural phenomenon. This is what we are up against. So it requires a few independent voices to redress this imbalance.
DS: What is the distinction between comics that "...they should be reading" and those that "they" shouldn't?
EAC: I think a good piece of work is good and a bad one is bad. My favourite comedians are Laurel and Hardy. You can't get more mainstream than that. The notion that the alternatives have a monopoly on intelligence and quality seems a bit cock-eyed to me.
DS: Is this the same distinction that defines what the "independent voices" are independent of in your comment So it requires a few independent voices to redress this imbalance.
EAC: No, I was talking about the politics of publishing. These, as in many endeavours, have determined that the real advances usually come from the opposite direction of where the money is coming from. This, alas, is not indicative that everything independent is of any value. Take Image for instance. And so many young people self publishing work that makes all the same mistakes. I rest my case.
DS: So "alternative" is an empty concept?
EAC: I don't mean that alternative is an empty concept, I just mean that it is of no use to me. I think the only really alternative comic is Mike Diana's. I'm certainly not alternative, and Love and Rockets isn't and Joe Sacco isn't. And by independent I just mean people not having to toe the company line. That's not a measure of quality, you see. Because fine work, such as Gaiman and McKean's Mr. Punch can come from DC, via Vertigo. It's just that a lot of shit also comes from there.
DS: In rereading some of my small press collection recently I found that The Alternative Headmasters Bulletin #6 contained one of your King Canute stories (The Mini-van episode). What can you recall of your involvement with this anthology?
EAC: To start with, I'm astonished that you got hold of stuff like this. The Alternative Headmasters Bulletin is just one of many that I contributed to. I'm probably incapable of remembering all the titles that I contributed to. There were hundreds of these on the British Fast Fiction scene. My involvement with most of them was simply that they'd ask for a contribution and I would send them the next one off the drawing board. In this way all of the early chapters of what was to become The King Canute Crowd graphic novel appeared in print in some small way between 1981 and 1986 as well as all nine of my Ace Rock N Roll Club stories and loads of other cartoon things done on the spur of the moment. For anybody interested in a bigger picture of this period, I'm reprinting a lot of these things in my Bacchus monthly at present.
DS: According to the BBC series Dancing in the Street an important facet in the punk music movement was the "anyone can do it" attitude. Do you think this rubbed off on the zine/small press scene at the time?
EAC: that was definitely the impetus behind Paul Gravett's creation of Fast Fiction as an outlet. In fact he used to use that very phrase that anyone can do it which I never entirely agreed with, but that's his opinion. The result was a mad flurry of pamphlets that astonished even us, sitting there at the heart of it. Paul ran a table at the bimonthly Westminster comic marts in London with the standing invitation for any small press operator to show his wares upon it along with all the others. In conjunction with the table Paul published at the same time (every two months) a leaflet listing all the new items so that those unable to make it to London could order by mail. There tended to be around 40 new items every two months so when you think about it there were either one or two small press comics being produced every two days.
And that was just Britain.
DS: Why don't you agree that "anyone can do it"?
EAC: Perhaps it's because I always longed for some kind of special adulation reserved for the very few. If I were to accept the idea that anybody could do it I would be cutting myself out of my inheritance in that department.
DS: What is the worst experience you have had with printers/photocopiers?
EAC: My girlfriend, now my wife, once busted the office copier while sneakily printing one of my mini comics. (She's typing this. As she types this from my dictation she shakes her head remembering the title of that mini comic - Flypaper tsk tsk).
DS: What materials and equipment do you use when drawing your comics?
EAC: A young guy recently wrote to ask me what paper I use hoping I suppose to learn the true secrets of the professionals and when I told him that I use the ordinary ivory board that you can buy at the art shop he was very disappointed. He really wanted to hear that I use the paper with blue lines printed on it. He wanted me to tell him that it was some kind of expensive paper so that he would then have an inroad to esoteric inside information which the guy next door didn't have. The simple fact is I use ivory board but it must be the type which the manufacturer designates as "translucent" and I buy it in such bulk that it is delivered by truck (500 pages at a time) which makes quite a heavy bundle. This paper has a very hard shiny surface which is absolutely right for the pen work which I do but more difficult for brush work. For brush work you want paper with a "tooth". A certain roughness to it so that the brush may be controlled. On the translucent paper it tends to slide around, but I like that too. I don't like, as a rule, the American style of brush lines. The Mickey mouse style if you know what I mean, of ultra slick line work. I like a drawing to have a dangerous edge to it. I like the ink to appear to have its own mad life.
DS: Is a blank piece of paper a challenge to be met or a chore to be completed?
EAC: The blank piece of paper is probably the most interesting part for me. I often start well and finish in a bit of a rush. This is one of the reasons why in Bacchus and From Hell I tended to get help from somebody who was the opposite. Pete Mullins always finishes in a very precise way so between me starting confidently and Pete finishing thoroughly we were able to craft a piece of work for the American market which expects more of a finish then I am naturally inclined to provide. On my own autobiographical work of course, what you get is 100% Campbell and I would never let anybody else touch that work.
DS: Why not?
EAC: What I'm putting down are my precise impressions of the world as I see it. I can't get somebody else to do that for me.
DS: Who do you see as the target audience for your work?
EAC: Regular people who like to read but who like a little depth to their reading. Not the sort of people who read Garfield in other words.
DS: What comics have you read recently? Why did you like/dislike them?
EAC: I've been following a recent rise in attention that the graphic novel has been accruing that there has been a series of book which have achieved this including Ethel and Ernest by Raymond Briggs, Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds, David Boring by Daniel Clowes, Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware, Safe Area Gorazde by Joe Sacco, The Jew of New York by Ben Katchor and Berlin by Jason Lutes.
DS: If a film was made of your life, who should play you?
EAC: I'm still in good enough condition to pay myself although they might have to dye my hair for the younger me.
DS: What makes a convention good for you?
EAC: We artists work at home all day. It's crucial to our sanity to get out there once or twice a year and see if it's working or not.
DS: Does the comics community spent too much time worrying about being respected buy the general public?
EAC: Comics need to be loved by someone and they need to be loved by a good few more people in order to survive than they are currently loved by so I don't think the longing is necessarily a neurotic one.
DS: Does an autobiographical comic always have to be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
EAC: No. It's a Good Life if You Don't Weaken was in one way a hoax but it is still a work of art. The truths that it embodies are not factual ones but they examine profound questions such as what does an artist leave behind him when he's gone.
DS: What do you hope to leave behind?
EAC: I think the very act of making books involves a longing to communicate beyond one's surroundings. This applies to both space and time. One imagines one's book traveling to places that we may or may not visit but if we do, our book will have been there before us checking out the scene before we get there. We imagine that our book will still be read a few years from now and that our best works might even make it into the next decade. In our most ambitious reveries we picture our works outliving us and being fondly cherished by generations that come after us, much as we, as a society, cherish the works of the past. In our worst nightmares the political or religious climate changes and our works are destroyed like the statues of Buddha presently being destroyed in Afghanistan. Imagine the Judaeo-Christian religion going out of fashion and the Sistine Chapel ceiling being knocked down. Not that any of my works are as important as those, but the artist tends to see his work as being on the same continuum rather than being in a separate game altogether. I go into this kind of thing in great depth in my new book Alec: How To Be An Artist.
DS: Here's a question for your wife: What is it like seeing yourself and bits of your life depicted in your husband's comics?
Anne Campbell: I always start to get nervous when he draws my bum. Sometimes Eddie has no sense of decency.
DS: Eddie, you've said elsewhere that Dave Sim suggested that you start to self publish. What made this a better prospect than continuing to work for other companies?
EAC: It was a matter of timing. The whole industry started to collapse just at the point where I started to self-publish. The new state of play made it dangerously competitive for the freelancer. It was good for me to be free and far away from the paranoia and self-destruction suffered by the big companies in those years.
DS: Have the big companies learnt anything from that process?
EAC: Well, everything is eroding at an alarming rate so the point is moot.
DS: Was it a positive experience for you working on Hellblazer?
EAC: The problem with Hellblazer was the one referred to above. Once the market started to go wrong it was very difficult to come up with ideas that could satisfy DC and they were apt to blame the nearest person at hand for plummeting sales which inevitably was the writer. I had already fallen out and left the book before the first issue was even published. Since sales figures on a comic are coming in two months before the comic is due to be released and in a good working environment the writing on the comic is done at least two months before that, so I was already off the job before my storyline had any kind of chance to prove itself. That's a very difficult situation in which to be creative.
DS: What message would you send back to the younger Eddie Campbell who was just about to start self publishing?
EAC: I'd tell him not to worry so much about money and that the gods are looking after him.
DS: How did the idea for your Bacchus stories first develop?
EAC: I guess it sprang from the simple observation that excessive revelry does not result in a cheerful disposition.
DS: How did this lead to the gods of Olympus?
EAC: The secret is bathos. To see mighty concepts comically reduced to the mundane and the highest thing you can play with is the gods, so Bacchus is a drunk, Theseus is a thug etc.
DS: Are your Bacchus stories outside of the "authentic" Bacchus mythos or a new part of it?
EAC: I'm just using the old characters for my own satirical purposes. I've not aspirations to anything higher than that. I certainly don't see myself as adding to the great lode of serious culture.
DS: A mailing list I'm on recently discussed the topic of print costs etc. and the following figures were attributed to your comic:
Eddie Campbell prints 5000 issues and still pays about $2200 for his print bill (and doesn't run ads in Diamond, either!), leaving a profit of $$3700 per month.
Have they got their facts straight?
EAC: No. That sounds like five years ago. The structure of my business is changing all the time. The monthly comic doesn't lose money, but it certainly wouldn't be justifiable if it was the only thing I had going. My income is now spread across a wider area, and all the parts link together, but selling foreign rights and original art play a bigger role these days. As do getting my books into book store distribution. We tested the water with From Hell and sent the King Canute Crowd in after it. LPC in the States handles that, and Knockabout in England. And now I've got a bookstore edition of From Hell in Australia. I also travel a lot. I'm off to Spain for the third year running and these are all-expenses-paid guest outings. So balance all that against the fact that the Bacchus monthly really is waning. On the other hand, I'm enjoying putting a lot more thought and creativity into it than I used to. It has become a very lively little magazine. Indeed, I've changed the title to Eddie Campbell's Bacchus Magazine to reflect the change in direction.
DS: What are your plans for 'Bacchus' over the next twelve months? Are we likely to see any more long story arcs involving the god of wine?
EAC: No, Bacchus is finished. However, I have a book brewing in my head titled Bacchus' Big Book of Drunks: a Compendium of Lushes , Topers and Sots.. I've been collecting information for this for several years.
DS: What criteria do you use when selecting the work of other creators to publish in Eddie Campbell's Bacchus Magazine?
EAC: I've never really 'selected' others. They just kind of get under my skin and end up in the magazine. but they tend to be people who share my enthusiasm and view of the art form.
DS: Comics or fine wine, which does the world need more and why?
EAC: What the world needs is more of both and it needs less of the wankers who like to talk about it and impress upon us that they know something that we don't. Genuine scholarship tempered with humour and insight is always welcome.
Eddie Campbell Comicography
From Hell: A page dedicated to Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell's graphic novel
Top Shelf Comix
Interview with Eddie on the Italian site Ultrazine
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