A Lovely, Horrible Conversation with Eddie Campbell

A comics interview article by: Jason Sacks

It's always a tremendous treat to get to talk to the great Eddie Campbell, even if by email. Campbell is a brilliant artist, a fantastic raconteur and a bit of a Scottish cynic. This time we talked about some of the ideas Campbell explores in his latest book. The Lovely, Horrible Stuff and also talk about art, life and iPads, among other topics.


Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: When last we talked, in 2010, you mentioned that you were working on the book that became The Lovely, Horrible Stuff. Did it take two years to create or did you take a few side trips?

Eddie Campbell: No, it didn't take that long. It took one year, and I finished the book a year ago. It takes forever to get books out these days, now that we have to key in the regular book market. In the old days, you had a book finished by the beginning of June to get it on the shelves before the end of July. I've finished two other books since I finished The Lovely Horrible Stuff, but I can't talk about those yet.

CB: One of my favorite sections of the book is when you talk about the abortive TV show that was going to be based on your comics and include the Snooter. What happened to the series? Any chance of it being revived? And can we find any videos from it online?

Campbell: I wouldn't say "abortive." It would be more correct to say that lots of things get developed, but only some of them get finished. In the final analysis, it's been an interesting experience. There are a couple of bits of film that were made as demonstration pieces to show the network, not designed to be complete beginning-middle-end things in themselves. They accompanied the pitch to show how to envision this thing, because otherwise executives just don't know what it is that you're seeing in your head when you tell it. Here's a little example that's on the net already. There's a longer version of this with a voiceover and another scene and incidental music composed specially. Anyway, it's interesting to see the Snooter step out of the page and walk around.

In addition to that, there are a few bits of script from the TV development that have found their way into my books. The father-son day out in the big Alec book started as a TV episode. It's got that untypical oddball ending. It's funny how the TV thing started. A couple of producers saw my Fate of the Artist book, in which I have this completely fictitious thing happening where a film crew is in the house making a film about my work or something; it's never quite explained. Anyway, they saw that and the whole fantasy turned into a real event. Very odd indeed. It never got off the ground, but the producers, a couple of grand fellows, had a success with another series they had in development at the same time titled Small Time Gangster.

CB: I noticed that you used more photo backgrounds in the latest book than I'm used to with your work. Have I not noticed it before, or are you doing more work on the computer these days?

Campbell: I do the basic drawing and lettering in ink, then it's onto the computer for everything else, and a lot of the drawing ends up getting redone. But it's all about making pictures, and I use whatever I can lay my hand on to make the picture work. Sometimes it looks like a photo, but there can be a dozen different components in there, some of which are bits of photos. And sometimes it's a photo I took and I can't better it in any way, so why not just put it in there complete? Telling the story is the important thing.

Another thing is that I've been trying over the last few years to get more vivid colour in my work. With The Playwright, for which the basic art was done in watercolour, I was cranking up the brilliance in Photoshop to such an extent that I got to thinking that it's time I started doing the colour completely by computer. I did a few blog posts in which I bemoaned the dreary colour schemes we see in comics nowadays, all this attempting be literal with the colour. Which is a shame, because there used to be nothing in the world as warm and colourful as a comic book. I'm talking about back when I started reading them in the 1960s. Look at those prime Kirby FFs and Romita Spider-Mans, at how gorgeous the colours were back then. Nowadays it's "colour me purply brown."

CB: In our last interview, you mentioned that you didn't have a clue what it meant to "draw in your own style" since you've created so many different types of comics over the years. But this book is closer to what I think of as the Campbell style that reminds me of The Fate of the Artist and such. Is it more or less comfortable creating a comic in that style than creating a book like Monsieur Leotard or The Playwright?

Campbell: It's funny you say that, because my French publisher has leapfrogged Fate and gone straight from The Years Have Pants to the new one, Lovely Horrible Stuff. He just doesn't get Fate, sees it as the odd one out, and would probably be surprised that you see a connection between the two. But yes, I would say that the new book is the next step after The Fate of the Artist.

Eddie Campbell Interview - The Lovely, Horrible StuffCB: You also mentioned that you like to bypass the rigid formality of tiers of panels and strictly constructed plots. I guess that's what I think of as the familiar Campbell style. Do you plan a book like The Lovely Horrible Stuff out ahead of time, or do you allow yourself to improvise?

Campbell: I don't think that's what I said. Simple tiers of panels is always a good thing in my book. I hate the idea that sophistication in comics has got something to do with playing around with panel sizes. Sophistication has got to do with making a vocabulary of symbols and then using them in extended chains to convey complex meaning. Plot is not something a true storyteller thinks about consciously. He should have internalized that kind of thing a long time ago. As for planning The Lovely Horrible Stuff, I had already done half the book when I decided to go to the South Sea island of Yap. And I couldn't predict how that was going to turn out.

CB: Where does the title come from? Is it a quote that I don't recognize or one of your phrases?

Campbell: I thought I had made it up, but somebody later pointed out that it is very close to The Wonderful Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl. No connection is intended. There's nothing new. Usually one comes up with a title, Googles it and, sure enough, somebody already used it, but this one was just slightly different enough that it didn't pop up in a search.

CB: I loved the "cafe" inside your head. Do you really like to have dialogues with Shakespeare and other great creators?

Campbell: I've spoken to fellow writers and artists about this. We like to imagine that we're on a fond footing with our idols, that there's a cafe in the "imaginary," where we go and hobnob with them. I was watching the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris, which is kind of about this very thing. When I see something like that, I find it gratifying to know that my ideas are on the right track, that I'm still dealing with thoughts and feelings that are part of the common dialogue. When you spend most of the year almost locked up alone in a room, you can lose track of things.

CB: I also love the clouds that appear around your head when you start thinking about an idea -- your wife saying, "Everyone knows when you've left the building." I take it that this is a normal occurrence for you?

Campbell: That's one of those symbolic images I was talking about. Having introduced it, it then has to be developed and put through its paces. 

CB: The story about you and your father-in-law in relation to money is pretty wrenching. Have the two of you made up yet?

Campbell: Ha! No, but, of course, as you imply, the book is not really about money. That's an example of what Hitchcock used to call the MacGuffin, the thing that gets the story up and running.  

Eddie Campbell Interview - The Lovely, Horrible StuffCB: I was recently reading the big new book about Daniel Clowes, and in it he mentions that one of the best things about being a cartoonist on his (and your) level is that you get paid to travel all over the world. Of course, one of the big elements of this book is your stay on the exotic Pacific island of Yap. Is there a favorite place you've gone?

Campbell: On this occasion it was great to get away from comics and tap into a completely different kind of story. The problem with traveling to comics events is that we can't get a moment of quiet any more. I saw Joe Sacco and Charles Burns in Angouleme, but I only saw them for half an hour for breakfast. 

CB: What were you hoping to learn on your trip to Yap, and are you happy with what you found there?

Campbell: I was able to get some insight into all those great seafaring adventure stories, about rival tricksters calling down typhoons on each other, and the Victorian era Captain O'Keefe. The world really is full of stories. It gave me loads of new things to draw. But the sea terrifies me. It really does. 

CB: You have a mention on your blog of a recent article about e-books and reader's perception and internalization of literature. I actually work in the e-book field (my company creates custom e-reader apps), so I'm especially curious what you think of the way that readers engage with comics online or on an iPad or Kindle as opposed to paper.

Campbell: It's all just information. My favourite source of comics right now is the Digital Comics Museum. I'm seeing things on there that, to see previously, you'd have needed pots of money. It's all old stuff and out of copyright, and otherwise nobody would ever reprint it. I'm interested principally in the romance comics.

CB: Do you enjoy reading comics on your iPad?

Campbell: Yes, it's all the same to me. I like to be able to enlarge things and have a closer look. 

CB: With the news that Comixology has sold 50 million comics from their store, there really is a sense that e-comics have arrived. But where do you think they are arriving, and what do you think (or hope) that will mean?

Campbell: I really don't know. I don't "get" the majority of comics. We can't even say that they're the comics of a different generation, because there're not that many people reading them, comparatively speaking. The latest Before Watchmen thing is a sad affair. Cartoonists don't even look out for each other anymore. What is there to be optimistic about?

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