Recently, Jason Sacks got the chance to catch up with acclaimed artist Eddie Campbell to pick his brain about his latest book, The Playwright (with writer Daren White), and much, much more!
Jason Sacks: So, Eddie, have you ever played the Sydney Opera House before?
Eddie Campbell: How did you know? Yes indeed. I got back from Sydney yesterday.
Sacks: Did the event at the Opera House turn out as you’d hoped?
Campbell: It was a remarkable event. GRAPHIC at the Opera House. A remarkably unusual idea. Stage performances based around comic stuff. Neil Gaiman read his story from the concert stage with my 35 illustrations perfectly timed to be faded in at the right points in the text on a huge big screen. That and a string band playing a specially composed score. And all of this for an unbroken seventy minutes. Then I got to come on stage and do a 15 minute comedy spot with Neil that I worked out just a couple of days before. All of this in front of a 2100 strong audience.
Sacks: Before the event, Neil Gaiman described your appearance there as: “Eddie has to talk. Eddie has to be grumpy. Eddie has to tell the world the glories of Eddie Campbell”. So my question for you is, if you could be any tree, what would you be — no, no, were you indeed grumpy and glorious?
Campbell: Yup, I had to pretend to be a surly Scotsman. Next I should be applying for an equity card. It’s the actor’s life for me. Just so long as I keep being offered parts as a surly Scotsman everything will go swimmingly.
Sacks: The subtitle of the GRAPHIC event is “Meet the Mythmakers of the Modern World”. Do you consider yourself a mythmaker?
Campbell: I don’t know about that, but I was definitely the mythmaker’s illustrator. Maybe his jester too, since the audience all laughed uproariously in the right places. If I’d stopped to think about where I was and what I was doing I think I would have died of terror. But when you stand out there, all you can see is one row of people. The rest are all lost in the darkness. I was worried that I might have to use that technique where you picture them all naked.
Sacks: I had never heard of the Opera House putting on a show like they did for comics this month, but it seems they have all kinds of interesting folks there – I saw Joss Whedon and a Beatles related event on their schedule along with the expected Marriage of Figaro and Viennese Masters. Do you feel that this is a sign that comics are taking their rightful place on the artistic landscape or is this a passing fancy for the glitterati?
Campbell: What actually happened is that world culture has descended to the level of comic books. While I was in the control room just after Neil had gone onstage, a beautiful young lady in 19th century clothes came along. She was the soprano from the Opera stage, due to go on in half an hour in a performance of Bellini’s La Sonnamula, and she had nipped across to get Neil’s autograph on a copy of Coraline. So I explained that she had just missed him. She made a sad face through her perfect period make-up, and then said, “And I would like to get yours also”. I thought she was just being kind, but then she pulled out of her bag a copy of my Fate of the Artist. You could have knocked me over with a feather, as they say. But it should have been the other way around I should have been scooting over there to get HER scribble.
Sacks: Your latest book, The Playwright, is one of those sorts of comics that defy easy description. It’s kind of the story of a very lonely man… well, I guess I shouldn’t give away the ending. How would you describe the book?
Campbell: Without giving the whole story away you mean? The blurb on the back came to us during a beery lunch session and I don’t think we can better that. ‘The sex life of a celibate middle aged man’
Sacks: How did you collaborate with Daren White on the story, and was it strange adapting someone else’s work?
Campbell: He wrote the words. I fixed all the spellings. then I lettered the captions above the panels. then I filled the panels with pictures. It was pretty straightforward.
Sacks: The whole feel of The Playwright is a bit more introspective than some of your other books, like the exuberant Monsieur Leotard and the freewheeling and improvised-feeling The Fate of the Artist. There was much more use of techniques like repeated images and zoom in this book. Did you intentionally choose a style that would convey the kind of inert emotionlessness of the main character of the book?
Campbell: The business of zooming in on details was Daren’s way of reducing the workload and making things easier on me, but once I got started the technique became this mesmerizing thing that was absolutely right for this story. I would continually zoom in closer on a simple outline of a face, getting inside The Playwrights mind, as for instance in this big close up which I made for another purpose after we had finished the book but which wasn’t used. I’ve played around with a couple of photographed eyes and dropped them into place.
Sacks: Why the unique format of the book?
Campbell: We wanted it to look as unlike a comic book as we could make it. A simple strip of pictures on each page, with plenty of space around it, uncrowded and artistic.
Sacks: What books are you working on now?
Campbell: I’m back working on my book about money and me. it’s titled The Lovely Horrible Stuff.
Sacks: Over the last few years, especially, you’ve illustrated a pretty diverse range of books, from Batman to autobio. How do you choose what to work on?
Campbell: Yes, when I think back over it I look like a schizophrenic. An unpredictable madman. The parts are so different that a success in one department never translates into better sales in another. A recent problem was that a magazine wanted me to do a promo piece of a part of Sydney ‘in my own style.’ I really hadn’t a clue what they meant, probably From Hell. I haven’t drawn like that in ten years.
Sacks: I’ve been a fan of your autobio books since I discovered a copy of the first Alec book from Escape Press way back in 1986 at the comic store Future Dreams in Portland, Oregon. It’s fair to say that along with Pekar’s American Splendor, it changed my whole attitude towards comics. But unlike Pekar’s work, your comics seemed so full of a joy and energy and pleasure in the small moments in life. Did you consciously choose that kind of loose, shaggy dog style you use in your autobio books, or does it just reflect the way you feel?
Campbell: The way I talk probably. I wanted to find a way of bypassing the rigid formality of tiers of panels and stiffly
constructed plots. To make the whole thing more fluid and natural. I wanted it to feel closer to a spontaneous dinner table or public bar conversation than a conscious preconceived construction. In fact I actually got to do a big shaggy dog story live in a pub for a movie camera a couple of years ago. It goes on for half an hour and has a punchline at the end.
Sacks: It’s fascinating reading the giant The Years Have Pants book because the stories really span your whole life, from being an overeducated factory worker to a somewhat responsible father. Do you ever feel strange about having your whole life played out in public?
Campbell: I don’t really think of it as mine. It’s an artistic construct. I usually find that once I’ve put an experience down on paper in drawn panels, my memory of the experience fades away. I no longer think of it as something that happened to me. more like something I thought up.
Sacks: Did Pekar influence your work at all?
Campbell: No, I don’t think so. I was introduced to his work by a friend in 1983, by which time I was already well into my own program of work. If you look at Alec you can see that the important stylistic elements are all in place by that date.
Sacks: Do you have some thoughts on Pekar’s recent passing?
Campbell: I’d say Harvey was certainly an important figure in the modern comics movement. But when all is said and done, my favourite thing of his is the film of American Splendor. the sequence where Giamatti plays the part of Harvey telling the story of the two other Harvey Pekars in the phone book is sublime. Having spent his life holding down a regular nine-to-five it’s a shame he couldn’t have enjoyed a longer spell just being himself, like Eisner did in his last twenty-five years
Sacks: You self-published Bacchus for five years. Any thoughts on the self-publishing movement? (I’m interviewing Terry Moore later this week)
Campbell: I was a self publisher for closer to eight years. We were running that show full time from the end of 1994 all the way to the end of 2002. I self published not because I could have more artistic freedom because I always had that with Dark Horse and Tundra, but because I’d make more money by doing the publishing work myself. The only reason I gave it up was that as the comics market shrank it was necessary to deal more and more with the regular book market. It’s much too complicated to detail here, but that really is a completely different business altogether. And now that I’ve worked with both book and comics publishers I can say that I know that the biggest problem lies in finding ways to make the two separate markets interface with each other.
Sacks: Anything else you’d like our readers to know about you or your career?
Campbell: I can’t think of anything. I’ve done so many interviews lately that I have no extra thoughts wandering around my head hoping to be rounded up. But thanks for the opportunity to do my blathering thing once again.