In 2005, IDW published a three-issue political spy series called Smoke, which signaled the arrival of an intriguing new talent in writer Alex de Campi. De Campi, who also works in the film and video industry, drew rave reviews for her writing on Smoke, which was nominated for an Eisner award for Best Limited Series. In 2011, de Campi announced that a sequel would be forthcoming. Entitled Ashes, the story would continue, first as a serialized digital comic available through ComiXoloy, then in a hardcover original graphic novel and feature art by Jimmy Broxton. The project initially made waves for anticipating the impending trend of independent comics in effect using Kickstarter and other crowdfunding avenues as a publisher unto itself. Shortly after the project made its fundraising goal on Kickstarter, de Campi announced that due to irreconcilable differences, the collaboration with Broxton had dissolved, and the status of the book was temporarily uncertain. Before long, she announced that Ashes would indeed see the light of day, with a variety of different artists. Through multiple delays and setbacks, de Campi remained dedicated to Ashes, and the story was ultimately picked up by Dark Horse Comics for publication in a hardcover collection that also included Smoke. Not long after that, Dark Horse announced Grindhouse, and eight-issue limited series written by de Campi, drawing inspiration from 70's-era low budget genre exploitation films. De Campi spoke to The Outhouse (literally) from the floor of Artists Alley at New York Comic-Con, weeks after the publication of the Smoke/Ashes hardcover and the first issue of Grindhouse.
The Outhouse (OH): You are now on the other side of what turned out to be a massive undertaking, and if you'll forgive an equally large question, how do you look back on the entire experience?
Alex de Campi (ADC): Protip: a 250-page original graphic novel is a little ambitious for a first Kickstarter project. Don't do that! Start off smaller.
It was kind of like one of these epic Biblical struggles. I wrote a book in 2005 called Smoke, drawn by Igor Kordey, got nominated for an Eisner, lost to Grant Morrison for Seven Soldiers, justifiably, because frankly that was a greater achievement. Then I took forever to write a sequel. But it was always staying in my mind. Those characters weren't finished. Their story wasn't finished. It was actually going to be a longer series, but at the time, IDW was switching from mostly creator-owned stuff to more licensed work. So the company was changing directions, and they were like "we don't want to publish an ongoing original series." But they were awesome about it, they gave me all the rights back. Wonderful publishers.
It was tumbling over in my mind how I was going to finish the story. It was a spy thriller, but I didn't want to just carry on from the last page of Smoke as if nothing had changed, because a lot had changed. I had changed as a writer in the intervening years. I had done a lot more film work, so my eye was different, my pacing was different, my interests were different. It would have felt wrong to keep going on as if nothing had happened. So I finally wrote this sequel, this 250-page OGN that brought everything to a close in a way that made me really happy, which ultimately is all that matters to me. I write to please myself. When other people like my work, it's a really wonderful surprise; I'm thrilled that anyone at all will publish me, because I do have a very specific vision, fairly unrelenting. So I did this book, and I had always intended for it to be done by different artists, because nobody can draw a 250-page OGN. No one has time! No one can get the pages done on time because they have too many other calls on their time. A guy actually stepped up and said "I'll do this whole thing" and we did the Kickstarter. A really great artist...unfortunately, not a super human being, it turned out. People can be amazing artists, but be somewhat lacking in the human department.
So I did this Kickstarter, which was really all me. Two months, raised $32,000, which was a fuckton of money at the time. Nowadays, people raise that much to publish their horror anthology in like two days. But back in October and November of 2011, it was a huge undertaking, and was like the sixth biggest comics Kickstarter ever. Whatever. Soon after that, it became really apparent the artist I had chosen wasn't going to work out. Luckily, it was before I had sent him all the money he had asked for. That would have been problematic. There was a personality clash, and it just wasn't working. He wouldn't have been happy struggling through 250 pages with me, and I really wouldn't have been happy. So we parted company. Then I had to decide on what to do with the project. There was much brouhaha; the internet kind of hated me for a couple of weeks. This happened to be the couple of weeks when I was driving to Mexico shooting a music video as a road trip video, which was cool, but stressful. As were the internet hate messages at the time. I thought about canceling the project, but a bunch of backers contacted me and said "no, see if you can work this out. We were pledging for you; we know it was your Kickstarter. The guy was a great artist, it's a shame, but find someone else."
To make a long story short, I assembled a real Murderer's Row of amazing artists who were super cool and said "I can't draw your whole book, but I'll draw a chapter. I'll draw ten pages. I'll paint twelve pages. I will draw fifty pages. I will draw chapter 3." Colleen Doran, Dan McDaid, Carla Speed McNeil, Bill Sienkiewicz, RM Guerra, who's an old, old friend. And we made the book. I did all the lettering, managed all the artists, commissioned cover art for each issue (it was serialized online. It's available on ComiXology. Dark Horse picked it up and published it as a 450-page compendium with Smoke. Looking back on it...I went into such detail about the process because it was an incredibly complex and extremely stressful process, but it's one which I came away from, besides being massively in debt, with a whole bunch of new friends. There are four or five projects that have grown out of the artist collaborations on Ashes. I have a number of people who are buying my other books via finding out about me through Kickstarter. Really the sweetest messages after the whole thing was finished were really proud of me for doing this, and handling it really well. I'm not the world's most diplomatic person, I call a spade a shovel, and I'll use a swear word as well, but that just meant a lot to me. I felt like I've grown as a human being doing it. I feel like I have scars from it, but I'm proud of the scars. It's so hard to get work out these days. Floppies, you can get out, but a graphic novel...financing a graphic novel is superbly difficult. It's very easy to finance things like twenty-four page chunks, where the artist can get a page rate, but if you're paying for 200 pages of twenty-four page chunks, even if you're only giving the artist $100, which is like nothing, which means they'd have to have a day job, that's a $20,000 funding. Most artists couldn't do it on $100 a page, so you're looking at a massive amount of financing up front for a book that may sink without a trace.
One of the reasons Dark Horse could publish the book is that they didn't have to do any of the up-front financing. I'm like "look here's what I did," and they're like "oh, that's really nice, we'll publish it," and they commissioned a new cover by Tomer Hanuka, who's this amazing Israeli illustrator who's just the best. My problem was, I fundamentally write graphic novels. My "happy place" is writing these huge, all-in-one thrillers that don't chop up into...well, that I refuse to chop up into twenty-four page chunks. I refuse to rewrite to this arbitrary chapter length. In fact, the serialized chapters of Ashes online, the shortest one's twenty-four pages, and the longest one was sixty-four pages. I write until the scene ends and deadlines stop. So, my big problem in the future is whether I am going to have to continue to Kickstart these graphic novels, or whether I can ultimately find someone who's willing to pay my artists. I'm happy to take all the money off the back end, I'm happy to letter it myself and make it as cheap as possible, but to continue to fund my artists to be able to sit down and do these pages in a professional way, and do this for enough money to be able to pay their rent and their food. The supermarket doesn't take exposure. The mortgage bank doesn't take exposure. Your kids can't be clothed in exposure.
OH: Did the Grindhouse project come about through the association with Dark Horse and Ashes?
ADC: Nope. Ashes came out because of Grindhouse.
I've been looking to get involved with Dark Horse for a while, they're a really wonderful company. When you're trying to make it as a comic book writer, you pitch to companies, sometimes they don't respond at all, sometimes they give you a nice "no," Dark Horse had always been very nice, looked at the projects, and say "that's not really for us." After a while, you think "they don't like my stuff," and that's not actually good sense talking. That's the voice of self-doubt that every writer has. I have Jeff Parker to thank for this, at one time I had the sads because I was like "nobody loves my work, I'm never going to get published, I keep trying to pitch Dark Horse, and I feel like we can't get a meeting of the minds," and Jeff was like "no, you just haven't found the right project, keep pitching them. Sack up ho! Keep pitching!" [laughs] He didn't say "sack up, ho," because he's much more of a gentleman than that, but that ultimately was the subtext of what he was saying.
It's weird. Grindhouse came about because of Ashes, but the publication of Ashes came about because of Grindhouse.
So, I wrote Ashes and produced it. Massive, massive undertaking. I was essentially editor and production person and letterer for a year, balancing all these artists, trying to keep the book on time, despite the fact that most people were doing this as a favor to me, and it had to take a back seat to other work. Two artists in particular had issues that we couldn't overcome in terms of scheduling. Very important works had to take priority, which I was totally cool with. The work that pays the mortgage takes priority. Someone was affected by Hurricane Sandy and lost a lot of days work, so the book was late. No one cares. Ultimately, no one cares. It's only if the book is good or not. No one remembers when it came out. When did Watchmen come out? No one remembers. Is it good? Yes. Never rush a book.
Then I wrote a book called Margaret the Damned, which may or may not ever see the light of day. It's a very existential horror piece that's partially about the male gaze, it's a re-interpretation of Faust, it's also about the complicity of the reader in what happens in fiction. Ultimately, it's just a really freaky horror story; all the meta stuff you can ignore if you want to. Ashes was very personal, there's a lot of me in it. Margaret the Damned is incredibly personal. And then I was like "ok, I need to start my next graphic novel," and I was totally burned out. I couldn't start the next big book. I was arsing about on Twitter, as you do, and I'm like "should I write this, or should I write this," and I was like "fuck it, I want to write exploitation. I want to write Bee Vixens From Mars," and the internet was like "do that!" Unequivocally, "do that!" Literally in the next twenty-four hours, I wrote issue one, which hasn't changed, other than some dialogue changes and stuff, I thought up three other titles, planned out two of them, (the fourth I was like yeah, Flesh Beast of the Devil Doll, yeah, they're a teenage girl gang and a demon and tits and blood and stuff). Spoke to some artists, Chris [Peterson] was one of them, Chris was the first artist on board. Chris is sitting right here. The people on the internet won't be able to see that I'm sitting right next to Chris. I pitched it as this eight-issue miniseries, and I think the unusual thing about it is: love of exploitation cinema is not a rare thing. A lot of people love these movies, whether it's blaxsploitation, low-budget gore horror from the 70's, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I Spit on Your Grave, Cannibal Holocaust, everyone goes through that phase with these films. Well most people do. Ok, maybe I just did. But people know these films. The giallo films, the early Argentos, Lucio Fulci...so plenty of people have done things based on that in the past, but they tended to be like one six-issue story, like they did one movie. I was doing a quadruple feature. I was proposing four two-issue stories that were totally unrelated. It wasn't like there's a character throughout them, no. It's totally different, the way you'd see four different movies at an all-night grindfest. I pitched it to Dark Horse, and I get a response literally within two hours from the guy who's my editor now and to whom I had always been pitching. It was through budget and approved within forty-eight hours. I think I just lucked out because it was the day before a budget meeting. We had artist samples and it was all kind of together, and the first issue was there, so they could tell what it was going to be.
Everyone pitches differently. I think there's a fascination about comic pitches. I pitch differently. Sometimes all you do is you're sitting in a bar and you're like "yeah, it's a tiger, and he's a lawyer," and people are like "do that, I'll publish it." I think Greg Rucka gets most of his stuff done that way. [laughs] If you're senior enough, like Brubaker can just go walk up to an editor and be like "I want to do a female superspy who used to be a secretary with Steve Epting" and Eric Stephenson will be like [claps hands] "do that!" I'm still at the stage where most of the time, I'll write the first issue, or the whole book, to be sure myself that it's something I'd be happy to put my name on and I'm not writing myself into a corner.
So that gets approved super fast, and I'm writing away on that, and it's super fun. Last New York Comic-Con, Scott Allie comes by my table to talk about Grindhouse, and I have the posters for Smoke/Ashes, and I have some of the pages, and he's looking through them and recognizing the artists involved, and he gets interested, and my editor gets interested, and they take it to budget, and frankly, since there was so little investment they needed to do, since it was done, they said "yes! And we'll make it a bigger book, and do a cover." They were able to do a lot of really nice design work and make it super sweet because they weren't having to pay out a lot up front for it.
So that's how I have these two books out, and they couldn't be more different. Fundamentally, it's all my writing, so if you like one, you'll probably like the other. Somebody once described my writing as "devastating sadness and sheer fucking terror, but also funny bits and action bits." If you like Sam Peckinpah films, John Carpenter...there's a real 70's film aesthetic to what I do, much more so than a modern aesthetic, but I try to do it in a modern way. I don't know if that makes sense.
OH: You've touched on this writerly insecurity, that you hear a lot of creative people talk about. The other throughline here is perseverance –
ADC: Yeah, it's a constant...it's like the angel and devil. You need the self-doubt, because if you only have the confidence, you're a shit writer. You need to always be examining your work. You need to be reading the bad reviews and thinking "maybe I could have given this character more of an arc," or "maybe I could have done this," rather than being like "oh, perfect!" Everything has an element of truth in it. It may not be the spoken truth, the truth may be subtextual, but you need to be aware, and have that doubt. But then you also need to keep pounding away. The race does not go to the best, it goes to the strongest. You just need to not stop. I always say I want to write a book on how to become a comics writer, and it's going to be four hundred pages, and on every page will be two words: Make Comics. Make Comics, Make Comics, Make Comics. Don't wait for people to let you make comics, or tell you you can make comics, or pay you to make comics. Make comics. Don't be like that LA type person where you're like "what have you written," [and they say] "uhhh..." It's really tough. I have trouble finding artists, and I have books out. I have books that are nominated for things. It's hard. It's always hard, and things fall apart for dumb reasons. You always have about ten plates in the air. Your heart is always getting broken, because the book doesn't come out, or the book is different, or the story that you really want to tell is one that's not going to sell, and you know it's not going to sell, but you have to tell this story. I don't think Thomas Pynchon cares about his sales. He writes the books, and if they sell, they sell. You have to write to please yourself, because if you're trying to please those people,[gestures towards crowd], and you're not pleasing yourself, when the book doesn't sell, you're going to be devastated, because you're going to be like "I did this for you, why don't you appreciate it?" They don't appreciate it. If they do, it's a bonus. It's luck, and you should be thankful for it. You can't assume it. So you please yourself, and hopefully [good sales] as well, but if not, oh well. Write another book.
OH: To bring it back to you personally, there are Kickstarter campaigns that don't run into half the problems yours did, and still fail to deliver. As we talk about perseverance, where does yours come from? How was that formed in you?
[hesitates] I don't know. I've always been a fighter. My family's method of communication is arguing with each other. Everyone in my family is really strong-willed, so if you want something, if you don't speak up for it and fight for it, you're not going to get it. Also, I've had a lot of really bad things happen to me, and I've had a lot of weird life experiences. I've lived in Hong Kong, I've lived in London, I've lived in South America. I snuck across the Russian border once. In 1992, the Russia/Ukraine border. Russia, Ukraine, and Poland, there's one part where they all sort of intersect. It was a bad idea. Don't ever do that. I didn't get caught, but that was more through luck than anything else. I crossed the South China Sea on Trans-Oceanic yacht races half a dozen times, maybe a dozen times. I don't remember. So I've done things that are seriously potentially life-endangering, and where the consequences are really huge. The only way to really survive something like that is...I believe really strongly in being a person of honor. If you say you're going to say you're going to do something, you do it. You do it if it kills you. I think that's how the Kickstarter thing happened. I'm $5,000 in debt from the shipping, but I got the books out. And I got the books out within two weeks of them arriving to me. People waited eighteen months...It's a business. Those are your investors. If you don't take care of your investors, they will not invest in you again. You have to remember that. Kickstarter is weird. Some people think of it as free money; it's not. You take care of these people, and they will take care of you in the future.
OH: Ultimately, any system like Kickstarter will come down to the people, but how do you see the place crowdfunding occupies in comics and media.
ADC: I think it's incredibly important. I think like all investment projects, some will be terrible. There have been books I've backed and have arrived and I think "this is actually kind of shit." Including works by really well-known creators. But it gets more work out there. Comics is still not a very diverse place. It's wonderful to see Kelly Sue Deconnick's signing line winding around the block twice yesterday, while [j. Michael] Straczynski sat on his ass at the Image booth with no line at all. That was the most fucked-up thing. Times, they be-a-changing. Kelly Sue, she's the longest overnight success story in comics. She's been at it for ten years. Before Fraction. She's just been hammering away at it. Now everyone's like "wow, where did she come from?" She's been here. It will help people not have to spend ten years banging away at it. The Venn diagram of the direct market comics-buying audience and the Kickstarter audience, I think there's a really small overlap. There are people who buy books off of Kickstarter who have never gone into a comics store. They haven't bought a comic in years, but they see it on the site and they think "that look really interesting. I used to read the X-Men, maybe I'll buy a graphic novel, I hear those are big these days." Because of Image and Dark Horse. I think it's a massive net positive. Like everything, there's a bell curve. Some of the projects will be amazing, some of the projects will be rubbish and will fall apart. You're riding that curve. I truly believe we're living in a golden age of comics right now. There are so many smart, good books out, and so many different books out, and there's so little control. Like it's less of a clique now. You can just do the thing, living in Kansas never going to a comic-con, and you can make a great comic, and get out there and sell enough to cover your costs and then do another comic, and then do another comics. This is because of Image and Dark Horse and the indies, with groundwork laid by imprints like Vertigo, there's just now all these intelligent, interesting, diverse books out by creators who are able to do whatever they want, and can do it without much editorial oversight. Yay comics. Comics are awesome.