The Rumpus Interview with Eddie Campbell


Eddie Campbell is about to release a comic that will probably be world-renowned. It’s a compendium of his Alec books, titled Alec: The Years have Pants, which have long been recognized within a statistically insignificant community as some of the most inventive autobiographical comics ever authored. Next year, Top Shelf will also release a compendium of his Bacchus books, which is comparable to Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, in that it’s a big sprawling saga that places mythological ideas into a funny, human “now.”

I like Eddie Campbell because he’s bitingly smart; and because when American comics encountered its “British invasion” in the 1980s, the one that had Gaiman and Alan Moore and Grant Morrison and everybody, Campbell had just married an Australian lady and was living in a house in Queensland, where he can still be occasionally sighted biking around and drawing bookmarks for a local second-hand bookshop.

That he was the international publisher for the book-length From Hell comic at the time the Johnny Depp/Heather Graham movie was released—if you didn’t like the movie, the comic is written by Alan Moore and is actually this baroque and complex monster—from a P.O. box in suburban Brisbane… it’s hard to understand how cool this is if you are not yourself a Brisvegan. “Brisvegan” doesn’t come from Veganism; it’s because one of our sister cities is Las Vegas.

Eddie wanted to meet at JoJo’s, a bar in the Queen Street Mall which is owned by Stefan, a fabulous hairdresser best known locally for his colorfully-topped silver “sky needle”. JoJo’s has cheap Coronas, big slabby white countertops, lots of life-sized animals cast in bronze, and mannequins of black people dressed in vintage suits. There is also an oversized photo of Stefan’s face saying, and I’m paraphrasing, “Good restaurants are like good friends; you accept them with all their flaws. If any flaws in JoJo’s become a problem for you, don’t hesitate to inform our staff.”

The Rumpus: So does Top Shelf have room to let a book build momentum and sell slowly?

Eddie Campbell: More so than my publisher of the last three years, First Second Books, who are a conventional book publisher. In the book trade they need to sell it within a period and then clear it out of the way, or remainder it in other words. As a small self-serving self-publisher, I was able to keep my books in print as long as I wanted. Book publishers put a certain amount of promotion into it, and then they have to stop and promote the next author. Your book’s on the conveyor belt to the shops, then to the shredder.

Rumpus: They just pulp masses of books, don’t they? I’ve known people who work in clearing houses, and they get massively depressed about the amount of crap that gets pulped into the world and then very quickly pulped out of it.

Campbell: Somebody once proposed to cut out the middle-man and send it straight from the printer to the shredder. Because the book business is crazy, this is why I got out of the publishing end. You’re dealing with returns all the time. This is insane. You make this lovely, nice product, and all the time you’re calculating what proportion of sales to returns you need to keep the books balanced. If you get half your print run returned and scrapped, how can you be in business?

Rumpus: For First Second, because they knew they were going to get a book out of you once per year—

Campbell: They didn’t go in knowing.

Rumpus: Would they stop the promotion on, say, The Black Diamond Detective Agency when The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard came out?

Campbell: No, no, long before. They only promote a book for a month and a half. See, on my website, I promote my books all the time. Whenever I’ve got a news story I can relate it to one of my books, on my blog. The reason I started the blog was that First Second weren’t blogging every day. I said to them, you have to. And you have to mention all of the books every day. Find reasons to mention all the books. I was saying what you’ve gotta do is hire a young guy like you, give him enough so that he can sit at home and just run the blog all day. $500 a month or whatever. You’d write a blog! Well, probably not now. But when you were nineteen you’d have been happy to sit home and run somebody else’s blog, and get paid enough to give your mum board money.

Rumpus: I guess there’s a lot of unemployed journalists out there.

Campbell: They just look for an excuse to sit around the computer all day. If they’re gonna invent the next whiz-bang thing in the computer world, they need an excuse to sit there all day. Just give them some pizza money.

Rumpus: Do you think that you treated your books better than First Second have? I know you got out of publishing because of the minutiae.

Campbell: No, the reason I got out of it was because it was becoming more—the business model that existed when I went in had now evolved into another model. When I came in, I was supplying to the comic book shops, and there are no returns in that market. The publisher gets a smaller percentage, but he’s not taking returns. That makes all the difference. The retailer takes the risk. They’re specialists, they know their subject. It was a retailer who designed the scheme in the first place, and proposed it to the publishers. With the swift breakdown of that market through the late nineties, in order to survive we had to deal more and more with the regular bookstores, and these are two market types that have trouble interfacing. It’s like taking electrical appliances abroad. I was grappling with it up to the point where our bookstore distributor went bankrupt, owing me about $50,000. Then I thought “I don’t know how this works anymore.” This was supposed to be our safety net, dealing with the bookstores. Because one market wasn’t working, we go to the other market. And the first thing that happens is our distributor in the new field goes bankrupt. The terrain was getting too rocky, too mountainous, too impossible to negotiate. In fact, three years after my distributor went bankrupt the printer of From Hell went bankrupt as well, owing us $20,000, and we were in trouble because we were still working the old way with big sheets of negative film, and no digital files. The whole thing was just impossible. I don’t know how I survived it. Because everywhere I turned there seemed to be a disaster. That’s the reason I gave up. I couldn’t read the signs and I daresay it’s because I wasn’t paying attention. It just needed a better brain than mine to be able to negotiate the situation. Such as Chris Staros at Top Shelf. He thinks outside the box; he’s very creative with solutions to problems, just when I’m inclined to make like an ostrich. As soon as that distributor catastrophe happened, he was on the internet the next day, this earnest message: “I’m not doing the hard sell here, but if you were gonna buy one of our books, over the next month, please do it now. And here are all our authors. If you buy this number, you get this percentage off.” They did these great deals. And there was so much goodwill in their readership that they turned everything around overnight. That’s the kind of people you want on your team: people who can see opportunities.

Rumpus: I noticed they were selling off their individual Alec and Bacchus books as part of a sale last year, for quite cheap. And so it didn’t surprise me a month later when they announced the omnibuses. I think that’s a good business decision.

Campbell: Yep. Then nobody’s offended. You can’t complain if you only paid three bucks for a book.

Rumpus: Would you ever do a monthly comic again? Or if not monthly, then serial?

Campbell: I could be talked into it I suppose. The way I’ve gone with the Alec compendium is closer to how I used to work. I’d collect the bits and pieces together from where they had originally appeared, but in order to make it a thorough package, I’d need an extra twenty pages. When I first did Alec: How to Be an Artist, collected it into one book, I added an extra twenty-five pages to make it complete. The money I would make by way of an advance for the book would justify me doing a certain amount of extra work. And somehow my complete oeuvre, the Campbellian catalogue, is growing all the time. When I did the previous big Alec book in 1990, there were three volumes, plus a fourth one that had not been published, to make 140 pages. And so it goes. I’m talking about management. The old stuff pays me to do new stuff and somehow I’ve made a good living without having a stream of big hits. It’s a real business plan, I’m telling you.

Rumpus: So do you feel that now individual Alecs have been folded into larger Alec books, then finally into this one massive Alec book, that it’s complete?

Campbell: No. I say that in my introduction, in fact. I say “I hope there will be an old, baggy version of these pants in another twenty years, but enjoy these neatly pressed ones in the meantime.”

Rumpus: With Alec coming out and that being your major new release, it draws attention to the fact that the art styles between Alec and between the books you’ve been releasing in the last handful of years, for First Second, are massively different.

Campbell: The richest kind of art is in the Alec books, because there’s a complexity to the relationship between the parts. Whereas something like the shootout at the rail station in The Black Diamond Detective Agency is a fairly straightforward—there’s a lot of commentators on the comics think that kind of thing is quite sophisticated. Remember the shootout at the railway station where I suddenly had lines of panels that were parallel lines of continuity happening simultaneously? And at some point they would come together, as those characters crossed paths. It made for a, I think it was six or seven pages, maybe about ten, but it made for a very exciting, a very kinetic action scene. But to me that’s playing games. It doesn’t have any real depth of meaning. You wouldn’t get that sort of thing in the Alec book. In the Alec book, I’m frying much bigger fish. I’m not just trying to create kinetic thrills. I can do that in a more showy, please-the-gallery kind of book. I enjoy doing that. But in the Alec books, I’m trying to distill a much profounder view of the world and how it works.

Rumpus: So do you think that takes more technical skill, or a different type of technical skill?

Campbell: A different type. In a book of this size, you can devise leitmotifs such as that image that you first see on the cover, it’s there again on the opening story-page. “Danny Grey never forgave himself for leaving Alec MacGarry asleep at the turnpike.” This image resurfaces later in the book. But having invented it, imbued it with whatever metaphorical meaning I choose to, I can evoke all of that that later in one image. I can open that suitcase and all of its contents in one graphic gesture. These are the kinds of things you can do in a book of this size. There are many more examples of that in there, and I could sit here pointing them all out to you. By the time you finish reading it, you feel as though you can talk using a specific alphabet that only exists in this book. But if you had read the various components years apart, you wouldn’t be feeling that propulsion. Also, in the Alec book, there’s a greater density of thought and feeling going on. Virtually every page, virtually every panel, seems to be a new idea, which I’d forgotten. I was reading it the other day and thinking, “Jeez there’s a lot in here.” Anyone who’s read individual volumes before may not even have noticed something like, for instance, in the first book, in The King Canute Crowd, I’ve got this odd intrusion where I’ve shown myself at the time of writing the book. Writing it five or six years after the book’s events and I’m sitting there with a wife and a baby that haven’t been introduced or explained. I had a bigger idea of where I was going with this because away forward along here, a couple of books later, we’ve got the same scene that we saw earlier, but this is him, me I mean, now working on the book that you have previously read. You see Campbell sitting there trying to come up with it, this book that you already know about. There are these connecting threads that make up a complex and rewarding reading experience. Some people think there is an improvisational quality in my work, but really there’s an almost mathematical structure underlying it. A crucial part of the meaning of a book is the point in time when it is written. Call that A, and the narrator may look back six years to Ax, or just to the day before, call that Aa.  Now, in the later book let’s say the writer is at position B, looking back to Bx. But he can also look back to A.  This isn’t exactly the same as the second part of a trilogy referring to the events that took place in the first, because technically A is outside of the text. Furthermore, the event at Ax has now taken on the quality of ancient myth. There’s a richness to this that you won’t find in a book planned and written all of a piece. Or, that’s the scheme. And we know about the best laid schemes of mice and men, going aft agley, as the Scottish poet put it.

Rumpus: Now that it’s out as one big volume and it’s more likely to be discussed, what context would you like people to read it in? We often only see comics discussed purely in the context of other comics of a similar size, or of other autobiographical comics or whatever.

Campbell: I’ve been thinking a lot about that. I’m no longer in harmony with the idea of comics. The idea that this is a medium or an art form, and that because I use these typographical devices I am somehow related to everybody else who uses them. Even though they’re doing something I think is horrendous or stupid or not worth a minute of anybody’s time. I’m very often in the position of having to justify it all, as if it’s all of a oneness. I’ve always wanted to just be an author. And just be asked, like other serious authors, about my themes and ideas and my philosophies, and whether I would like more dessert. There’s a page in the new book that you might find amusing. It’s called “The Day I Was Mistaken for an Author.” It’s about when I was in transit through Singapore, I picked up the paper on the aeroplane, the Straits Times, and there was an article about Simon Winchester but they’d used my photograph. Because the From Hell movie was coming out, I sent them my photo to accompany their interview with me. But they used my photo with Simon Winchester’s interview. And I’ve always thought it was because to the folk in Asia, we westerners all look the same. And later when my photo turned up again, but in its proper place, in my own interview, it would only have confirmed their suspicions.

Rumpus: If you were going to look at Alec in a context other than comics, what would that context be?

Campbell: Autobiographical fiction. Yeah. There seems to be a movement, there’s a label that popped up with Alison Bechdel’s book: “Graphic Memoir.” And I think, what the hell does that mean? If you’ve constructed this into the form of a novel, it’s fiction as opposed to nonfiction. Not fiction as opposed to fact, but it’s fiction as a form of writing, or composing. And I think if it really happened, you can present it as fiction. I read about this guy who wrote the story of his grandfather, his experiences in Auschwitz, as a novel instead of a history, because then nobody could tamper with it. There couldn’t be another version where the facts had been footnoted.

Rumpus: Having a work released as a massive comic must be freeing, marketing-wise. A big complicated novel about life, it would have to have some kind of hook. It would have to be centered in the Holocaust, or centered in a certain class, or centered in a certain country. People like countries, right? Whereas for a comic the hook is it’s a massive autobiographical comic. So what’s inside it is maybe freer to hang together on its own.

Campbell: On the other hand, and to contradict what you’re saying, I was trying to sell a book recently to a book publisher, who felt that the story wasn’t ‘big’ enough. See, when I was starting out, my perception was that stories were too big. Especially comic book stories. They always had to be about something of cosmic-spanning significance. They couldn’t just be about here and now, what people are saying or doing to each other. I think this is why comics faltered in the late eighties. We’d sold the world on this idea of the graphic novel, and we’d given them Watchmen and Maus. But we didn’t have anything else of that intended scale. There were plenty of other great books around, but there was nothing else—see, even some of From Hell. With the tagline that the movie picked up, but having removed it from its context it didn’t really mean anything.

Rumpus: What was the tagline?

Campbell: [Gravelly voice] “I gave birth to the twentieth century.” But having thrown out all the stuff that justified that having some significance, it now just sat there and meant nothing.

Rumpus: Did you deliberately leave off Leotard at a similar era to where From Hell was left?

Campbell: No, we finished circa 1930, so we’ve spanned 60 years. I like the idea of drawing old people having sex. They go from young and optimistic to old without really becoming disgruntled. They remain optimistic even to the end.

Rumpus: I’m a moron—I was thinking of Black Diamond, which does also end at the birth of the twentieth century.

Campbell: I inherited the script that way. But now that you mention it, I did add the business about ringing in the new century, and all the portents about expectations being turned upside down: “There’ll be sculptures that don’t look like nobody, and paintings with nothing in ‘em but your nightmares.”

Rumpus: So but on what you just said about Leotard, if you were writing a novel, how would you really represent that? Comics characters can change, because the situation around them can change completely, but they can still unproblematically stay fundamentally the same, because they remain the same figure. I think I’m bothered by your saying you want to be considered just an author.

Campbell: What do you mean “just” an author? Comic books used to be largely anonymous, and even when there was signature on them it didn’t mean that was the person making them, and anyway the stories were author-neutral, all interchangeable. Now my readers will buy my book because they want to “hear” my voice.

Rumpus: That is fair. But it does remind me that there always seems to be too little discussion of themes in comics, it’s so often overtaken by the topic of comics. And even probably the most serious discussion of comics that you can have today that will see a decent readership is a discussion about the culture of the creators, and how that culture is changing. It’s often not about the work.

Campbell: Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. You want to talk about the ideas.

Rumpus: So what is the idea of Alec in the end? How does it feel when it’s finished?

Campbell: I do address that in the book, actually, by using The Years Have Pants as a title—”The Years Have Pants” is the title of a poem written in 1927 by a fellow called William Earnest Moenkhaus, which I address to the reader here in the book. And the poem is the finest example of a memento mori, a reminder that we’re all going to die.

“’Twas his to live, and now to die,

who remembers not the pie,

That each and every evenbing went,

Into a mouth that now lies bent?”

So that’s the spirit of the book. Which is why at the last minute, I decided to make that the title of the whole book. The Years Have Pants.

Rumpus: In other interviews, you’ve said things that are slightly depressing about your own view of your own career and your own trajectory through your life. Things that make it seem that you’re not where you wanted to be. Is that a fair thing to say?

Campbell: Yeah. For instance, a couple of years ago, I was a guest at a writers’ festival. But having accepted, I then realized I wasn’t being invited as an author. You’d think after plying my trade for thirty years I’d be an individual. But no, someone had the idea “let’s get a gang of graphic novelists.”

Rumpus: Who did they pick? Shaun Tan, Nicki Greenberg?

Campbell: Yeah. That was a good panel. Were you there?

Rumpus: No, but that’s obviously who they’d pick. [Tan and Greenberg are other two biggest comics creators in Australia. I don’t mean to sound flip: they’re fantastic.] I like the quote by Tom Spurgeon on the back of this new Alec compendium that says “There’s no artist working today whose body of work I admire more than Eddie Campbell’s.” Because it seems to me that your body of work seems to span the life of comics in the last thirty years in a really grand sense. There’s things in this Alec book that I think first appeared on A5 photocopied paper. Right up to single comics, graphic novels; then I guess the First Second books seemed like something that’s more in line with the book industry than what many other people are doing. Small novels, essentially, that stand alone. A package that’s marketed apart from comics, and now you’ve got this Alec book as well. So yeah, it doesn’t feel like it’s a body of work that has failed to gain you the legitimacy you’re looking for for want of trying. It seems like you’ve done the right things. Anyway, it feels as though I’m asking you to complain or something. I don’t myself see you as a sad figure. What is your new book with DeeVee?

Campbell: No, DeeVee was a comic book anthology, co-edited by Daren White, that serialized How to Be an Artist. And after that, they serialized The Playwright. Daren White also wrote The Playwright. I illustrated it. We’re doing it as a book next year.

Rumpus: Right, ‘cause I’d never heard of DeeVee the anthology. But they published really great stuff.

Campbell: It hasn’t been coming out for a few years now. They put it out as a quarterly between 1997 and 2000, fourteen issues. And they did one special a year after that. Each one had a chapter of The Playwright. Nine panels to a page. But we’ve broken it down and made a little horizontal book out of it and I’ve colored it all and now it looks completely different.

Rumpus: Cool. What were you doing with The Playwright? What’s the thrust? It’s about the sex life of a celibate man.

Campbell: A celibate middle-aged man. So there’s a lot of wanking. Actually, I saw on an internet forum  “Well, Eddie didn’t write it himself. It’s not really Eddie’s book. It’s just full of wanking.” And I thought, that’s got to be our blurb. But basically it’s a long, a 160-page rumination, the principal theme of which is sexual anxiety. It’s very funny. It’s in the third person. Each chapter begins “The playwright…”. There’s one chapter where he’s thinking back to his school days, and how the boys in the dormitory introduced the concept of “the stranger.” How you sit on your hand until you get pins and needles, and then you pleasure yourself.  Most peculiar if you ask me. But anyway, the playwright’s lying in his bed and the caption says—this is at the end of the chapter—“even to this day, the ‘stranger’ still occasionally visits.” And on his bedside table, there’s a bottle of red wine and two glasses. He’s poured himself a glass and one for “the stranger,” who’ll be along in a minute.

Ronnie Scott edits The Lifted Brow, an independent magazine from Australia. He profiled Mr. Lethem for The Big Issue, another magazine from Australia. This is the transcript, pretty much raw. More from this author →