Smoke, Ashes, Valentine: DIY Comics With Alex De Campi

A comics interview article by: Keith Silva


I'm a slow learner, so bear with me. Here's what I've figured out: the DIY comic book business … it's a tough racket. The faint of heart or those seeking medical attention may want to (re)consider before going through that particular breech. Alex De Campi was nominated for a 2005 Eisner award for best miniseries for Smoke (art by Igor Kordey).

Seven years in our "on-demand" culture seems like a lifetime ago! De Campi has moved from Smoke to Ashes, a thriller about a life inside the wires and out. In between these titles of irreversible change, she just may have mastered the digital comic with Valentine which she (rightly) calls me out on for not paying attention to until now.

Alex De Campi does not stand pat. She is a strong and independent voice in an industry where the deck chairs are always being rearranged in fifty-two new ways now and forever as the ship continues to slowly slide down the water line. As a writer, De Campi can turn the screws with the best of them. She also knows how to break hearts in seven words or less -- a tough racket requires tougher voices. When you read Smoke and Ashes, it's easy to understand that when you read Alex De Campi, you play with fire.


Keith Silva for Comics Bulletin: Reading your Livejournal entries, I have to say that you've lived an exciting life, worthy of a comic book one might say. Is this an example of write what you know?


Alex De Campi: Oh my goodness, I haven't been on Livejournal for years. I think I still have a MySpace page, too! Well, yes, I have had a lot of different experiences: living in Hong Kong for five years; sailing across the South China Sea several times; the time I was stuck across the Russian border when I was a teenager (protip: bad idea); lots of other stupid things that I survived more through pure luck than for any other reason.

As for comic books, like any girl of my era I read Elfquest and Asterix when I was very young, and every shitty sci-fi and fantasy book I could lay my small hands on. D&D, of course – which is such a total gateway drug to storytelling. Then X-Men comics from the spinner rack in the drugstore. Lots and lots of X-Men comics.

I always say the first line of Shakespeare I ever read was punk Storm quoting King Lear! Then I discovered boys and rock and roll and put away all those childish things. I kept reading, though... poetry and more serious literature. Then when I lived in the UK, a friend was moving out of his army barracks in London and had a ton of old comics he gave me: 2000AD, some of the better Vertigo books from way back in the day. I was addicted again. Now I write the darn things.



CB: How do you describe Ashes?


De Campi: Ashes is a thriller. After an accident at a military base in the US, the consciousness of a very disturbed 15-year-old boy is uploaded to the internet, making it sentient. The boy particularly hates our two main characters, a journalist and a former soldier. She has words; he has guns... what good is that against the internet? Which is, of course, connected to everything?

Ashes is, of course, very exciting and full of cliffhangers and inventive action scenes... but it is also a callback in some ways to a type of graphic novel which has somewhat fallen out of favor with the mainstream publishers: something more literary, that has a certain depth and a great deal of subtext to it, in the mode of Alan Moore's earlier works. The literary side is there if you want it, but it's also very easy to ignore if that's not your thing. Although you will have to Google the English translation of the Cocteau quote that starts off Chapter 5.



CB: Like your Eisner-nominated series Smoke, Ashes takes place in a near-future, a dystopia. What attracts you to writing a story in this particular setting?


De Campi: Smoke and Ashes do share main characters but everything you need to know about Smoke is explained in the first chapter of Ashes ... you can read Smoke (only available via Comixology, $2.98 for 130 pages) or not as you see fit. I think I've progressed a long way as a writer since Smoke; we all tend to have a horror of the books that have gone before the present one as the creative journey is ever forwards. Or, it should be.

What attracts me to dystopia? I don't know. I don't feel those futures are very dystopian at all; there are things happening right now, this minute, that are way crazier and scarier than anything I've put in Ashes' setting. In some ways, Ashes is less futuristic and dystopian than Smoke.

Neither is a proper dystopia anyhow; they are too similar to present-day. I am not that sort of William Gibson-esque or Warren Ellis-esque writer that does that sort of heavy thinking on the future. They always say that sci-fi writers fall into two categories: techno-prophets and folks who write Westerns in space. I am definitely in the latter category... there is something of the Western in everything I write, and you'll feel that.



CB: Newspapers and radio play an important role in both Smoke and Ashes, respectively. Dystopias from 1984 to The Warriors to V for Vendetta are always very media-saturated both for good and for ill. Are you being paranoid or is “the Media” a prerequisite for writing this kind of science-fiction? (FYI, in case you were wondering, nobody’s watching)


De Campi: Everybody's watching, but there is so damn much to watch that everybody is also missing all the important stuff while we concentrate on celebrity boob implant accidents and cute kitten videos (and of course their inevitable crossover, cute celebrity kitten implant accidents).

Though to answer your question in short: I think surveillance and media are two of the most important factors of our lives today. As we become increasingly removed from actual face to face human interaction with most of our friends, our sources of information are retweeted rumors and headlines, and our sources of security are cameras and IP traces. In the future, punishment will be the removal of access to information and entertainment. We are so used to having four or five things happening at once... actually, punishment NOW is the removal of access to these things... hence the 3-5% of all prisoners including juveniles stuck in solitary.


CB: The light at the end of the dystopian tunnel (which sometimes is an oncoming train) is hope. How does hope or optimism factor into your storytelling; in other words, is there hope in your stories?


De Campi: You can't have a story without hope. There must be a reason to continue, even if the characters do not want to admit it to themselves. Of Ashes' two main characters, it's Katie's relationship with hope that is the most nuanced and interesting; she has a conversation in the seventh chapter that really outlines a lot of her attitude. I think the human being is an inherently hopeful beast. We think tomorrow will be better.


CB: Aspects of Ashes remind me of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Why do you think we are so quick to embrace new technology (smartphones for instance), but we also carry an inherent anxiety about that technology “taking over” or getting out-of-hand? (no pun intended)


De Campi: I've never read Snow Crash. But, to your question: we now are nowhere near understanding the basic technology we use daily, and how it all connects together. It is sort of like magic, or how the ancients would view the natural world. So of course people will begin to fear it, while they are also addicted to it. It has power over us now (come on, stay off your computer and smartphone for a week – I dare you!). Will it get out of hand? I believe so; not to the operatic extent it does in Ashes, but the terrorists of the future will be in the wires. It's so easy.


CB: Smoke and Ashes play with science-fiction tropes whereas as Valentine -- a story about soldiers in Napoleon’s army during the winter of 1812 -- uses elements of the supernatural and fantasy as well as history. What's the charm of writing genre fiction for you?


De Campi: I grew up reading genre fiction. Well-written genre fiction is wonderful: full of suspense and unexpected twists and turns. And more and more, there's an acceptance that genre fiction can also be smart and literary. However, genre comics are still (bar horror) surprisingly unexplored territory. No publisher other than Rebellion (2000AD) really supports a solid genre line, and that's just crazy given how successful genre fiction is and what a crossover audience, including teenage girls, that these books have garnered.

Valentine was just so much fun to write, too. It's written in a very pulpy, twisty format meant for serialization – there are so many twists and turns to the story to make it exciting. And getting to play in the fantasy toolbox is such a delight! Of course I had to turn some of the genre's beloved tropes on their head.



CB: Valentine was originally distributed in a digital format. Image Comics has now published the first 10 chapters and a bonus story as a trade paperback. Does it feel 'more real' it's now available in printed form?


De Campi: No. Any story once written is like an old favorite coat from years ago, rediscovered in the attic. ''Oh, this old thing?''. Once the last line is written, it's done. It's only real to me while I am writing the script. After that, it is no longer mine.



CB: With over 350,000 downloads (and counting), why not keep Valentine in the digital domain?


De Campi: Because people like you won't write about it while it's digital; you only write about paper books.


CB: Touché!


De Campi: And I need to raise money to finish the story (the Comixology version is free. I could charge money and have to do marketing, or I could make it free and let it market itself.) As soon as Valentine is with the printer, I want to start organizing a Kickstarter to finish the last 10-14 episodes of Valentine. I also want to do a lot more on the digital side with it – its own app; maybe get it on Thrillbent too... but it's just me, and I'm a single mum, so I have three days I can get work done while my daughter is at daycare and occasionally some ninja stuff during naptimes. I really need help. And I hate self-publishing because it means I write so much less.



CB: Ashes was an overnight Kickstarter success story that turned almost as quickly into a cautionary tale (a nightmare for you) about creative differences in the extreme. In a nutshell what happened and where is the project at now?


De Campi: Short version: Ashes originally had one artist signed on to do the whole book [Jimmy Broxton, the pen name of James Hodgkins - CB]. A guy who had done a few things here and there but nothing major. Good artist, though. He turned out to be a phenomenal bully who was unable to accept any creative discussion of his work, despite the fact that I had raised an enormous amount of money on Kickstarter pretty much by myself to pay him for said work.

I was just planning to suck it up and deal, as I realized that changing artists might seriously endanger the book, when said bully also angered a major magazine art director who had commissioned us to do a two-page comic at extremely generous rates. The comic never came out because the bully was too precious to draw approved script. It's a shame, as the original guy is a terrific artist, just a rather unpleasant human being.

However, Ashes orginally-originally was meant to be broken up among different artists as frankly, what pro has time to do 250 pages on a crappy indie rate?. So I went back to that plan and contacted a bunch of friends and friends of friends and thankfully they all really liked the script and could manage 10-40 page chunks around their other workloads.

Thus I ended up with an absolute murderer's row of talent on the book: Bill Sienkiewicz doing a painted section at the end, RM Guéra (from Scalped) working on my pages in and around pages for Quentin Tarantino, Colleen Doran, Carla Speed McNeil, the divine Dan McDaid (I must write him a story, he is amazing)... Mack Chater, who will be 2000AD's star of tomorrow guaranteed... James Smith, a serious indie talent... I also lined up some amazing cover artists from Dan Panosian to Coop and Viktor Kalvachev, as well as “non-comics” artists like Nicole Aptekar.

The book is turning out beautifully and is still more or less on its original schedule, but oh my goodness has it been stressful. The Kickstarter backers have been WONDERFUL... of course I offered full refunds to any who no longer wanted to be with the project, and about a dozen out of the 500+ took me up on it, but others would keep me going via random, kind messages of support from out of the blue. They really made me want to make the book excellent, so I could deserve all this kindness they were giving me.

I will never raise that much money on Kickstarter again, though. The Valentine one, I think we'll aim for $5,000. $27,000 was a hell of a goal, and it ate two months of my life.



CB: Rachael Deering the writer/creator of Anathema had a similar situation as you did (perhaps less dramatic) having to fire the artist she was working with as well. Why do you think this happens so often in comics, and are creative differences more prevalent when it comes to independent/self-published or creator-owned work?


De Campi: Oh, it happens all the time. I think there are a number of reasons. First is that some young comic artists get their heads inflated pretty quick and start treating indie jobs and creators poorly once they get some sniffs from publishers. Second is, some people aren't pros for a reason. It's not just talent that makes you a pro; it's also attitude and reliability. I had artists on Ashes who were late, in some cases very late. But they let me know substantially before deadline they were likely not to make it; they kept me informed on progress; and they sent me pencils/layouts so I could do the lettering ahead of time. That's what a pro does.

The people that vanish into a black hole? Well, first it's worth finding out if they've had some kind of personal emergency or family health disaster, because that does happen, especially in the lives of the self-employed. But if they're just not getting back to you because they're afraid, or they've decided not to do the project... well, word gets round about that sort of person.

There is a substantial aspect of writers taking the mickey out of artists, though. Most indie jobs pay pretty poorly (though in Rachel's defense, her page rates were very generous – she was paying more than me). If you are asking an artist to do 24 pages with no pay, around his or her day job and family, yeah, those pages are going to be late and/or maybe never finished. Try drawing a page, sometime. It takes a long time to do well. And life gets in the way.

So, you know: pay your artist. Respect the amount of work that a good page takes. Set deadlines with them. You, the writer, have to act like a pro, too. Then if your artist fails to act like a pro and/or is shitty to you or about you in public, have a serious conversation with them and try to kindly help them shape up. If that still fails, fire them and find another. Which is ultimately what Rachel did.


CB: In addition to having written Ashes, you are lettering it as well. How did you get interested in lettering and what makes a good letterer?


De Campi: I started lettering Valentine simply because there was no money to hire a letterer, and I enjoyed it so much. I now look at it as my chance for a final round of edits, and as a golden opportunity to adjust things so that the story fits the final art like a Savile Row suit. Plus, I'm a font nerd, so the opportunity to go a bit nuts in the Comicraft sale was welcome!

With Ashes, I started to get a bit obsessive. The art was so fine, I couldn't use ugly, stock word balloons. It needed to be more handmade. So a lovely artist named Don Wood donated me his old Wacom, and I began using it to hand-draw the word balloons in Illustrator. Although this has made lettering much slower, I think the ultimate result is far, far better and kinder to the art.


CB: This question is in the sub-grouping of “other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln,” would you use Kickstarter again and what did you learn from the experience?


De Campi: Absolutely. I'd raise less money, possibly breaking projects up into three or four chunks, but yes, I'd totally Kickstart again. My backers have been AMAZING, and the thing that's kept me going through Self Publishing Hell has been their kindness and support. I've backed like 25 other projects on Kickstarter; it's pretty much the only place I buy comics these days!


CB: Crowd-source funding and digital distribution are both great ways to get one's work noticed. The stakes are high, but the payback (seems) so low. So, what's the benefit to DIY comics?


De Campi: The benefit is getting your work out there in a publishing climate where there are fewer and fewer players, and their focus is narrower and narrower. If offered the choice, I would not self-publish as the mechanics of production take up far more of my time that could be better spent writing. But if it's self-publish or don't publish, I'd do this again.


CB: Can you make money (or a living) creating/selling comics through the use of crowd-source funded projects, digital distribution like comiXology or from your own website?


De Campi: Several people do – Colleen Doran, for one. I so far, have not, though I am early in the game and frankly my website needs a major revamp (another task for which I have no time at the moment). I am far from making a living in comics. Those that make a living out of their indie work often have done some significant runs on mainstream properties to build fanbase (and also make a living while they do indie projects on the side). I have not done that, and I am unlikely to be offered that sort of gig.


CB: Would you consider your career in comics to be a success?


De Campi: Yes and no. I have been grindingly, achingly poor for years. I have no healthcare. It is very, very hard just to exist, for me. I have gotten to do my stories, my way, but there has been a great price. And that price involves you getting fewer stories, because of the struggle I face just to make ends meet.


CB: In addition to writing comic books, you've worked as a director for several music videos. Directors direct, but they also need to rely on other professionals to achieve their vision, is this all that different from being a comic book creator/collaborator?


De Campi: In directing, you need to collaborate with many more people and in much more of an open fashion than in comics. That was the frustrating thing about Ashes, originally – I know I can collaborate! It's not like I'm some sort of demanding fascist who can only see things one way. The whole point of directing or writing comics is you have an idea in your head then you pass it to somebody else and the idea ends up looking different than you imagined and in most cases better. You have to be okay with the idea evolving as it moves from hand to hand.



CB: The images in all of your work have a very distinct visual style. How much of the look of Smoke, Ashes, and Valentine in particular is the script and how much do you leave up the artist?


De Campi: My scripts are nothing like Alan Moore ones. I don't over-describe: the artist is not a draftsman, to be told exactly what to do. I get good artists, I describe the necessary items or emotions/point in a scene, and I leave them free to create the rest. I do tend to call shots, which is a director's habit (down to shot size/angle suggestions), but I don't get mad when the artist ignores those suggestions. The only time I ask for revisions is when the point/subtext/emotion of the page is not supported by the art. My scripts are actually quite minimal.



CB: I first learned about your work from your 'Experience Creativity' Ad for Image Comics. What does this campaign say about how creator-owned work is viewed by fans, the industry and creators?


De Campi: I think the successes of people like Brian K. Vaughan, Ed Brubaker, and Robert Kirkman have made all of our lives easier as independent creators. The campaign is really enjoyable; it's always fun to see how people boil down their creative approach/attitude towards comics into a sentence.


CB: You recently took part in a panel at the 2012 NYCC called Creating Comics with Two X-Chromosomes: Real Talk with Image's Female Creators. What did you learn about your fellow female creators and what can creators of both genders do to get more woman involved in comics?


De Campi: I learned that there are a ton of great female artists but comparatively few female writers. There were like six artists and me on that panel. They also didn't ask Colleen Doran, which was shocking, since it's basically her and Carla Speed McNeil self-publishing their truly amazing long-form works (Finder for Carla; A Distant Soil for Colleen) that made it possible for any of us to play in this garden. A Distant Soil is an Image book now... seriously, go buy the series. It's GORGEOUS and I literally could not put it down... so well written, so well drawn.

I think there's nothing creators and companies can do to STOP women getting into comics at this point. Look at the con attendance! It's at least 1/3 female and that proportion grows on a yearly basis. If you don't start marketing to women, you will go the way of the dinosaurs.


Interested in checking out Ashes? It is available from 17 different retailers (detailed on her Kickstarter). There are currently only 150 copies left out of the original print run of 1000, and they can be ordered be emailing De Campi or contacting her on twitter (at @alexdecampi). It's $40 for a digital code with a hardback copy mailed to you when it comes back from the publisher.


Keith Silva works in television, it's a small space, but, hey, it's show business! Follow him @keithpmsilva and if you're Interested in Sophisticated Fun? read his blog.

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