Emerging from the British small press scene of the 1980s, Eddie Campbell has since produced a body of thinly-veiled autobiographical comics featuring his stand-in character “Alec” (the pseudonym has been dropped in recent years). These works are distinguished visually by Campbell’s fluid, pen-and-ink technique, which marries the observed realism of classic continuity strips with the loose efficiency of a courtroom sketch artist (a vocation Campbell has practiced). His witty personal narratives are notable for their generously retrospective approach, placing Campbell’s life’s story within a larger social milieu and a greater cultural history. Campbell, now living in Australia, is also well-known as the artist of From Hell, written by Alan Moore, and has more recently authored several full-color, self-contained graphic novels published by First Second Books. One of these, The Fate of the Artist, remains in development as a possible Australian television series. This fall, Top Shelf collects Campbell’s black-and-white autobiographical books in a single volume titled Alec: The Years Have Pants, a 640-page “life-sized” omnibus including thirty-five pages of new material in the artist’s familiar pen-and-ink style.
PW Comics Week: In one of your earlier interviews, a conversation with Alan Moore that you did for Escape Magazine in 1984, you spoke about the differences between your way of working and Moore’s way of working, and I think the phrase that you used was that you work with organic, “found” forms as opposed to being a heavily structural kind of person.
Eddie Campbell: I think I was taking a position directly opposite Alan, because I’m actually not that different from Alan. Alan has a richly structured way about going about the work. But there is, in fact, much more of a structure underlying my stuff than I usually admit to. It’s almost mathematical, which is going to be particularly evident now that the books are all placed beside each other. For instance, each of the books covers a period, but intrinsic to the meaning of the whole thing is the position of the narrator. So that if the narrator in The King Canute Crowd is writing from the position of 1986, or ’87, he’s looking back six years. The narrator of How to Be An Artist is writing from the position of 1993, looking back ten years. But not only does he refer to things that happened in The King Canute Crowd, he also refers to the position that he was in when he wrote the first book, which is outside of the text. There’s much more building going on that’s not obvious at first.
PWCW: Even from the beginning the book has a retrospective tone to it. Do you find looking back that the way that you regard those memories has changed significantly from the way that you did when you were first setting down those recollections?
EC: Yes, and I think that it might be apt to say that I mythologized the events. And I think this is what happens in the history of the world, too, obviously on a grander scale, that very complicated events get codified into simple transactions that are very difficult to unravel. The memory of actual events gets buried and lost forever.
PWCW: Even in the history of comics, which you treat in this book, it’s become a standard formula to say that Will Eisner launched the graphic novel, but in retrospect it’s not clear that that book necessarily had that much direct influence.
EC: Somebody started to launch a debate in the comments of my blog the other day to the effect that Jim Steranko’s Chandler was the first graphic novel. Somebody else will claim that it was Gil Kane’s Savage. Everyone defines it differently, so everyone’s got to pick out that different first one. It’s a stupid, pointless argument.
I think it would be much more interesting to say: where does this quality come from? Say, the quality of authorship? In the late ’50s, comic books were almost entirely anonymous products. And the comic strips in the newspaper, so many of them were in the hands of second- and third-hand cartoonists. So the idea of authorship, my very first sense of that was Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book. Do you follow me? It didn’t say Marvel Comics’ Jungle Book. This was an author, this was a cartoonist: Harvey Kurtzman. I think that’s a very important book for that reason, in the discussion of where all this comes from.
I think this other quality, this quality of comics for intelligent adults. What’s the first example of that you think of? For me it’s Jules Feiffer’s Sick, Sick, Sick. That’s a book about New York neurotics. That’s not for kids. That’s a very adult, serious, intelligent, book. When you go back and read what Will Eisner wrote, he was much more interested in that idea of seriousness of purpose. It wasn’t that it was a certain length. To him, the breakthrough was that he had finally written a very serious story.
PWCW: One thing that was interesting to see, looking at this work all together between two covers, is the evolution of your visual style. It seems to loosen up quite a lot over the course of your career.
EC: I always wanted to be able to draw that loosely, but that’s an acquired skill. Whenever you see me trying to do it early on, it doesn’t quite come off. I think you can only achieve that by drawing all the time.
PWCW: You depict yourself as a kid sort of obsessed with impressionist painting. Was that looser quality of your style informed by that youthful enthusiasm for impressionism?
EC: Oh yes, definitely. One of my favorite comic strip artists is Noel Sickles. He found ways of translating impressionist style into small black and white drawings.
Also, something it took me ages to evolve was a storytelling style that wasn’t linear and literal and can embrace metaphor and tangential ideas and can take everything into its path. And I think I’ve finally found that. Everything is taken up in the momentum of the narrative.
PWCW: Having gone back and drawn an extra 35 page book, The Years Have Pants, for this collection, do you think you’re likely to continue working like this? Or are you fixed on continuing to work on self-contained books, or in that painted mode?
EC: It’s all up in the air at the moment. I don’t know what the way forward is. I was hoping that the TV show would have worked out. Because that would have gotten me out of comics.
PWCW: Are you trying to get out of comics?
EC: (Laughs.) Evan Dorkin used to have a “get out of comics free” card. Which cartoonists always find funny. It’s like getting out of the mafia. You can’t do anything else in your life anymore.
I love the original idea of the graphic novel, but I think it’s become impossibly polluted. It belongs to the world of comic books, and I don’t like comic books. When I say “comic books,” to me, “comic books” is the American tradition, in the same way that bande dessinée is the French tradition, or manga is the Japanese tradition. And I don’t like American comic books the way they are just now. I think they’re terrible. I hate them.
PWCW: You’re talking about the actual Marvel and DC kinds of comic books?
EC: Yeah. Zombies, vampires. What’s going wrong with the world? But the original idea of the graphic novel is a good idea. The idea that we can tell significant stories just using the simple elements of the comic strip, I think is a great idea.
PWCW: That seems like an interesting distinction, because when you talk about comics like that, “using the simple elements of the comic strip,” that seems somehow apart from the conceptual enthusiasm that you see in Understanding Comics, in that it sounds more like you’re talking about the further development of a tradition instead of an abstract approach to some kind of platonic form.
EC: I think the idea of elevating comics to the level of some kind of precious art form is a mistake. I think elevating anything to the level of “art form” is a mistake. This seems to me an outmoded idea, the idea that we have to declare our enthusiasms to be “art forms,” and then work out a complex intellectual discourse around it and find antecedents in the highest art and literature of the past. There’s something bogus about that, I think. To remove the thing and just talk about the form removed from the context in which the form justified itself or explains what it is, I have a hard time with that.
PWCW: Do you think that your context has allowed you to produce what you wanted to produce, in terms of something that documents, as you put it, the shifts and changes over the course of a life?
EC: Yeah, I have. In fact, I sometimes marvel that I’ve managed to get 640 pages done in a marketplace that is not friendly to personal works. I actually make a good living from comics. Somehow or another, I’ve always managed to get things done and justify it, and somehow at the end of the day I end up with 640 pages. I could probably have put 740 pages in, but I threw out lots of stuff that I didn’t feel was up to scratch.
PWCW: You seem a little surprised or gratified that you were lucky enough to be able to do it, but the way you present yourself in the book, it’s almost like it was inevitable. And what this suggests to me is that focus and confidence are the necessary prerequisites that allowed all those luckier things to happen.
EC: Yes, definitely. You’ve also got to be slightly mad. You’ve got to believe that you’re something you’re not. When I used to give talks to college folks or something, the question would be, “How do I become a comics artist?” And I used to say, “Well, if you have to ask that question, I don’t think you’re mad enough.” You have to be so mad that you already think you are one. Like, when you actually become one, there won’t be a difference. It’s not like stepping across a line or going through a door. It’s just, one day you realize: “Oh, I’ve been making a living there for a year. How did that happen?” You didn’t notice it, but you believed. You believed insanely that you were that thing in the first place.