Eddie Campbell: Interviewed
To set the scene, I’m sitting at the Beach House pub with Eddie Campbell; next to us are his daughter Hayley, Daren White of DeeVee and a local cartoonist named Mister J. It’s a bit noisy, so you’ll have to forgive the bits where it gets [indecipherable]. I start the interview by asking Eddie about the book he’s working on at the moment, The Amazing, Remarkable Mister Léotard.
Eddie: They’ve (my little cast of ‘strange people’) got this running catchphrase: ‘May nothing occur.’ And they all say this to each other at the end of an episode, they say ‘May nothing occur in the next episode.’ And one of the characters is saying it to the other as they’re all getting onto the Titanic.
Jody: Do they know it’s the end of the episode? Are the characters aware –
Eddie: Yeah, they always say ‘May nothing occur in the next episode,’ and then you turn the page and the heading says, ‘The Next Episode.’ No other title but that. I’m thinking of having a contents page where all the chapters are listed just as ‘the next episode,’ with the page number. Can you imagine anything so deliciously useless?
Jody: And something occurs.
Eddie: Something always occurs.
Jody: I read in The Lifted Brow, you were talking about how it starts out as non-fiction and then becomes fiction. You started out with the actual historical Léotard, then killed him off?
Eddie: He died young, so he wasn’t going to take us very far, and we (Dan Best has been helping me write it) and we wanted to cover a large piece of time, so that we could be adventuring across Paris in a balloon during the Prussian siege of 1870. So we had to have somebody impersonate him for the rest of the book. He dies; somebody else impersonates him from then on.
Jody: Did he actually die on the Titanic?
Eddie: No, no. He died in his bed. He pops up in the margins after that. Léotard dies on page five, but he pops up in the margins giving advice. He’s a marginal figure.
Jody: Like those characters in The History Of Humour, the rabbits and the gargoyles.
Eddie: I’ve been meaning to use this idea. The page is a place and people inhabit different parts of the page in different ways. This isn’t a new idea, this goes back to illuminated manuscripts. Certain kinds of creatures, Grotesqueries, inhabited the margins of the accepted world, so they were literally in the margins of the text. God was at the centre of the page.
Jody: They were on the outside of buildings and they were on the outside of pages.
Eddie: The Church worked the same way. This is a modern theory, otherwise we can’t figure it out – why there would be obscenities on the outside of churches, people showing their arse or their genitals. And this is a very good explanation. The Church was the microcosm of the entire universe. God was inside, evil was outside.
Jody: Do you think it’s a true explanation?
Eddie: Fairly convincing! Sounds true to me. The theory has been expounded by Michael Camille, the scholar of medievalism, he died in his 40s, two, three years ago – I’ve got all his books.
Jody: In The Black Diamond Detective Agency, have you done things like that, have you put figures in the margins? Have you got any of the sort of typographical tomfoolery you’ve been up to elsewhere?
Eddie: The good thing about having done Fate Of The Artist was that before that even come out I knew that I was playing safe by doing this straightforward adventure. It’s set in 1899 – it’s got guys with guns shootin’ each other. It’s a detective story. I have done a few tricky things, played around with a couple of post-modernist ironies, but otherwise it’s a straight-ahead adventure story.
Jody: Were you given a lot of liberty to work with the screenplay? It started as a movie, right?
Eddie: Yeah. The guy who wrote it’s pretty good about it. He’s not precious, he sees it as a growing thing. I think when I got it, it had already been through a couple of rewrites. There was something that didn’t work in it, and I had worked out a logical solution to the problem, and when I was talking to him he said, ‘Yeah, that was my idea in the first place, but it got written out.’ It was a psychological thing that was missing. I logicked it back in. That’s the business about the eyeglasses. So I have rewritten it to some extent. I came up with a piece of Campbellian byplay about everything of a mechanical nature failing just at the time when it’s needed.
Jody: It’s an odd circumstance, having the comic written of a screenplay, before the movie is made. How did that happen?
Eddie: Maybe somebody in Hollywood had the idea that graphic novels are big at the moment. I don’t know where he got that idea. Perhaps his market research department told him, ‘Get into graphic novels!’ But actually Bill Horberg, who produced The Quiet American, and Cold Mountain, I think he’s quite sensitive to the idea of the comic book medium, because he did a kind of illustrated comic book about his meeting with Mickey Spillane. They were gonna work on something together, it didn’t come off, but it was a funny story that he told in the form of an illustrated book. Printed 500 copies. I think he’s probably sensitive to the idea of the graphic novel rather than being opportunistic. It’s been great working with both of those guys. There were a couple of things I left out and Bill made some little noises and I figured a way of getting them back in.
Jody: There was that movie The Fountain recently, Darren Aronofsky did, and as well as directing the movie he wrote a graphic novel… [Some indecipherable stuff follows wherein I suggest that Aronofsky wanted to see how differently the same story would play in two different mediums.]
Eddie: I don’t know that the different mediums themselves demand a different kind of story. In fact I think the American comic book is trying too hard to be like a movie and the movies are trying too hard to be like comic books. I think they’re interchangeable now. It’s no surprise to me that they would do 300 exactly like the book. The movies and comic books have met at 300. You can no longer talk about the strengths of either medium, they are now identical. [points to tape] You sure you’ll be able to hear that?
Jody: Oh, I’ll make it up if I can’t. They’re making a movie of The Amazing Adventures Of Kavalier And Clay, the Michael Chabon book. You’ve read it right?
Jody: There’s that scene in the Arctic with the dogs…
Eddie: It’s the best scene in the book.
Jody: …they’re apparently doing that as a comic in the movie. Rumour has it they’ll just have comic panels on the screen for a while and the studio was saying, ‘Can’t we just do it as a cartoon, animate this?’ And whoever is directing it said, ‘No, it has to be comics.’
Eddie: I wish they’d just do it straight. It’s a great scene.
Eddie: Who’s gonna care about a comic-book dog?
Jody: So, you think they should be separate mediums, but at the moment they aren’t.
Eddie: I have no interest in either of them, really, to tell you the truth. When I do a book I’m just doing a book. Somebody wrote of the last book, The Fate Of The Artist, that it’s not a graphic novel per se, hence giving rise to the slogan: It’s not a graphic novel, Percy. If it’s not that it’s something else, y’know? Everybody’s obsessed with the naming of things, ‘What are we gonna call it? Is it really a graphic novel?’ It doesn’t matter what it is. Does anybody argue if it’s a film or not? Show it in a filmhouse, the theatre, it’s a film. Stick it in the newspaper, it’s a comic. Whatever. In the final analysis, did we end up any wiser? Did we learn anything? Are we wiser human beings after the exercise? Most of these things are just pyrotechnical displays. At the end of the X-Men movies, are we wiser as human beings than we were before we sat down? Probably not. I can’t be bothered watching most of this stuff, it bores me to tears.
Jody: You haven’t seen any recent comic movies apart from 300?
Eddie: I haven’t seen 300, I’m just taking it as a given. I don’t think I could sit through it, I’d be looking at my watch.
Jody: Do you think The Black Diamond Detective Agency will make people wiser? Is there a message?
Eddie: No, it’s a straightforward adventure.
Jody: Guns and detectives.
Eddie: Set at the end of 1899. The end of the century. On the eve of the 20th century.
Jody: Is there pre-century tension going on, looking forward to where we are now?
Eddie: There’s a joke running through it about everything breaking down. There’s nothing improves us like a good laugh. On the eve of the technologically mindblowing twentieth century, nothing works. There’s a camera that takes pictures that never seem to be in focus. At the crucial moment a gun jams.
Jody: That brings me back to The History Of Humour. Will you be continuing with that, or is that a dead end now that Egomania’s gone?
Eddie: No, that’s gone. Did you enjoy that?
Jody: Yeah. I only ever got the second issue of Egomania.
Eddie: I think it was too complicated. I think that whole idea was too complicated for a comic book. I don’t know. I think the potential audience for it was too small for me to spend a huge amount of time on it.
Jody: Nobody was ever going to buy the movie rights for that?
Eddie: No. Because as humour becomes more sophisticated, the audience for it become smaller and the idea of looking at the entire universe of humour reduces it even more. I think it was kind of an antiquarian exercise. It was meant to be a fiction. The whole thing was meant to be set up as a serious historical presentation, that would turn into an autobiographical fiction, which makes it even more complicated. Where would they file it? They wouldn’t know where to put it in the shop, and I’ve discovered that that defeats most good ideas. Many a good idea has been defeated by being difficult to file. Everybody wants to classify things. Anything that can’t be classified tends to be ignored or shunned.
Jody: If it can’t be classified it can’t be sold. It’s like a bookseller’s way of looking at things. To say we need this over here over here with the other graphic novels, and this over here with the science fiction, this with the non-fiction…
Eddie: Sure, but I mean in an even bigger way than that. Gore Vidal’s thing. His quotation that ‘America has invented two classifications that don’t exist: gay and straight.’ We should see them as points on a continuum. So in my field, or in the field of literature, there’s always this obsession with naming things. This is science fiction, this is a literary novel. People won’t sit down to read something unless they’ve read the contract up front on what the thing is. Do you agree?
Jody: Yeah, yeah, I do. They want to have expectations about something so that they can be good and properly disappointed if they don’t like it. So that they know exactly how to frame their disappointment if it doesn’t live up to the expectations that they asked for beforehand.
Eddie: I think once again it goes deeper. We are terrified of randomness. We have to know if there is or is not a God. We can’t just live with the idea that we don’t know. We have to invent one or the other. Are you religious or are you atheist? We can’t have an inbetween.
Jody: So people argue about what is and isn’t a graphic novel because they haven’t embraced agnosticism, is basically what you’re saying.
Eddie: Yeah, but I’m trying to elevate above talking about comic books. I’m talking about society as a whole. In fact I’m trying to write an essay about this at the moment, this need to define things in our society. Some people say, ‘Do you believe there are beings on other planets?’ How the fuck would I know? Sixteen squillion planets out there, how the fuck could you know what’s on them? What’s belief got to do with it? How could we possibly know?
[Daren leans over with interest.]
Eddie [to Daren]: It’s true!
Daren: What was the question?
Jody: I don’t remember.
Eddie [points to drink]: Are you having another one?
[Pause for the fetching of drinks and switching sides on the tape.]
Jody: I did want to ask you how long it took to do Black Diamond Detective Agency.
Eddie: A year.
Jody: A year. Is that longer or shorter than usual for you? Working from a screenplay, did that make it faster?
Eddie: No. 120 pages … it took me maybe 14 months. I’ll do a page every two days, so I’ll do three in a week and maybe have a day off. For a whole year.
Jody: That’s a nice lifestyle. You’ve got plenty of time to wander down the pub and do this?
Eddie: I can take half a day off and half a day off Sunday. Or I can figure out a way of doing a page quickly. If I do a page in one day, then I get a day off. But if I want my new book to come out in 2008, I’ve got to have it finished by September 1st, which means I’ve got to stick to that schedule. It can be a pain in the ass.
Jody: Did First Second give you that deadline?
Eddie: Yeah. That’s the latest I can possibly deliver it and still have it out next year. I can deliver it later and have it out in 2009. I want to have it out in 2008.
Jody: Because then you get paid sooner?
Eddie: No, no, I get paid on delivery. I just think it’s probably a bad idea to go missing for a whole year.
Jody: People will think you’ve died, or stopped. So, what facilitated the move to First Second from the self-publishing that you used to be doing?
Eddie: Wasn’t deliberate. It happened and it was good… I’m just trying to rationalise it. I got into doing painted books, because I did the book with Daren about the Batman…
Jody: The Order Of Beasts, yeah.
Eddie: So when First Second phoned me up and they wanted a colour book, I thought, ‘That’s great, that’s what I want to do. Let’s go with that.’ This is my third book for them, now. Fortuitously got into another area; could have gone wrong, but it’s worked out.
Jody: So you couldn’t do colour books when you were self-publishing? Too much hassle?
Eddie: Too expensive.
[Construction workers do something noisy, obscuring an explanation of how colour requires four sets negatives and is thus almost four times the cost, or at least not just double.]
Jody: Would you like to go back and do some of your older books again in colour?
Eddie: Colour? No. From Hell, no, From Hell’s black and sooty.
Jody: It needs to be bleak.
[Eddie hands me his copy of Black Diamond and I start thumbing through it.]
Jody: Did you work with a work with a grid on this, were you aiming for roughly, I dunno, four, five panels?
Eddie: No, no. Makin’ it up.
Jody: You’ve got some double-page spreads.
Eddie: It gets technically complicated.
[Daren leans over towards us again.]
Daren: Did you see the big girl’s arse?
Jody: Yeah, I did see the big girl’s arse. Yeah.
Daren: It falls open at the big girl’s arse because that’s what everyone wants to look at.