The veteran cartoonist talks about his latest work, The Lovely, Horrible Stuff!
Scottish-born, Australian residing cartoonist Eddie Campbell has garnered a considerable international following in his twenty-five years in the comics business. He's probably best known for his work with legendary writer Alan Moore on From Hell, a massive, ambitious comic book that posits a theory about the identity of Jack the Ripper based on royal indiscretions and Freemason influence in London life, as well as his series of autobiographical strips collected in the equally massive Alec: The Years Have Pants. Campbell has been producing work regularly, and his finer works include Bacchus, which is set to be collected by Top Shelf Comix this year, as well as The Fate of the Artist, The Playwright, and many other graphic novels. His latest is The Lovely, Horrible Stuff, Campbell's ruminations on money and its influence on modern daily life. The book is entirely autobiographical, and details his various run-ins with money, as well as a complete history of the stone currency the Micronesian Island of Yap. Campbell took a seat in The Outhouse to talk about his latest work, as well as how the global economic crash of 2008 affected his plans for a television show, and what he learned about commerce on Yap.
The Outhouse (OH): Firstly, where did the idea for The Lovely, Horrible Stuff come from? Why make a comic about money now?
Eddie Campbell (EC): Quite simply, it's one of the grand subjects that up till now I haven't tackled yet. But of course the comic is not really about money. That's just what Hitchcock used to call the McGuffin. It's like the key signature in which I'm playing this symphony. It's a means to an end.
OH: All told, from conception until now, how long did it take to produce this book?
EC: It's difficult to say as I always have to put a thing aside to do something else for a month or two, but it's probably about a year's work.
OH: You use money to tell autobiographical stories in this book. Although you've done autobiography before in the Alec strips, was it difficult being confessional in The Lovely, Horrible Stuff? The chapter about your father-in-law particularly seems like it could open some difficult wounds.
EC: It's really just business as usual for me. As the Playwright said, "I never waste good material." I'm in the art of telling stories in comics form, and if there's a good one lying in front of me, I really do have to make something of it.
OH: You point out the ironies of money, that something so coveted could be the basis of so many problems (thus the title, presumably) throughout the first section of the book. When did you first start thinking about money in this way, and in what ways has your relationship to money changed as a result?
EC: I don't want to pretend to be a philosopher about money, because it really isn't something that interests me. It was the subject for a book. I have no real theory or program on the subject. When I say it was a means to an end, I should point to the fact that it gave me these great seafaring stories to illustrate. Now who could have predicted that? I'll do a book about money and it will lead me to stories about Southsea tricksters calling down typhoons to shipwreck each other. That's not something I foresaw when I started out. In the end it felt like a very real adventure that took me to an odd little corner of the world.
OH: A lot of the stories, although they go through some bitter ups and downs, can actually be very funny. What kind of a tone were you going for with this piece?
EC: It's really all one story, encrusted with episodes. I do actually think of the two halves of the book as one story. Note that they both end in a similar way, even through they are so completely different from each other, as though to say there's no avoiding this disaster. Flipsides of a coin, or a banknote. The grand adventure of life ends with two people squabbling in court.
OH: You detail the occasion of having to start a corporation (which exists only on paper) just to draw a Batman story for DC Comics. In all of your time working in comics, how much of what could be accomplished was held up by arcane matters of money?
EC: Yes, money is at the root of everything. Legalities exist to protect money. I don't think that's what holds things up. It's people and their fears and neuroses. But the comics business doesn't interest me that much. My short lived 'company' and Batman are but two of the absurdities on the daft road of life
OH: There is a story in the book that focuses on your efforts to try get a television show up and running. Is that something you plan to revisit?
EC: Again, another bump in the road of life. It's all an adventure. But I can't see that happening now. It's one of those things that had a window of opportunity. A couple of young and ambitious producers saw my Fate of the Artist. There's a sequence in there in which I imagined that some TV guys had come round the house to shoot something, and my wife just saw it all as a nuisance. These guys thought it was very funny and approached me to actually do something for the screen. A real weird series of events. We developed it for a couple of years, but Then the Global Financial Crisis came down and everything ground to a halt. Again, money!
OH: The second half of the book, about the history of the stone currency on Yap, is a fascinating read. How did that first come to your attention? Was it always part of the plan to include that in The Lovely, Horrible Stuff?
EC: It wasn't part of the original plan. I was well underway when a friend said "if you're doing a book about money you should look into the stone money of Yam" So I Googled it, and it said "Did you mean the stone money of Yap?" I mulled it over for a night then took a plane up there.
OH: Did you learn anything on Yap about commerce that the rest of the world could pick up to make money more lovely, yet less horrible?
EC: Not a thing. We're all well and truly fucked.
OH: How did you come to the design and layout of the book? It's a particularly distilled example of sequential art, and you use a combination of photography and drawing, as well as what appears to be handwritten text for all the lettering. Not many comics look like this one does.
EC: I've arrived at this look by a natural process. I like the bold hand-lettering. In fact, I just lettered the translation of an excerpt, the third one in fact, for the Italian magazine Internazionale. They do a weekly 'Graphic Journalism' two-page spot, which takes the form of a 'cartolino' or postcard. Thus 'A postcard from...' They've had loads of prominent world cartoonists in this regular spot. The arrangement is that they translate it and the author reletters it in his or her own style. It took me virtually all day to reletter these two pages. I'm such a stickler for getting it just so. I do that first and then fit the pictures in the space that's left. This space is small by comic book standards, so to take up the slack I've been colouring in very vivid and bold hues. To get that vividness I've had to give away the watercolours and start using the computer. Once you're in Photoshop it's way too easy to start throwing in collage stuff...photos and so on. So I guess that's the genesis of the current Campbell style. But it's an evolving thing. It's been different in every book i've done. That's yet again another adventure.
OH: Your work, while still discernible as Eddie Campbell Art, has certainly evolved over the years. How would you describe this evolution in your style, and what factors have informed these changes?
EC: An artist or a musician is always trying to recreate the thing he sees or hears in his head. It's that simple really. I'm always trying to draw the comic I can see. I want it to be a thing in the real world. The problem always is that before I'm finished I've started to see a different one in my head, but I'm committed to finishing the one that's been started. An artist worth his salt is always falling out with the work long before it's finished. His life becomes the onerous task of having to complete things he has already advanced away from. By the time he comes to do interviews about it the thing is looking very old hat indeed. There's a poor sap sitting here now being required to talk about money and it's the last thing on his mind.
OH: What kinds of influences did you have as a budding young artist? What is your relationship to those influences now?
EC: It all seems so long ago. One always regrets mentioning these things. They follow you around like a bad smell. In an early interview I said Henry Miller was a big influence. I regret that now and I wish I'd said it was Steinbeck's Tortilla Flats.
OH: From Hell is probably your most visible work. What do you feel is its place in your oeuvre nowadays? What are you memories of working on that piece with Alan Moore?
EC: Funny you should mention it, I'm right now working on a book titled The From Hell Companion. I'm speeding through it so merrily that I haven't had a chance yet to become disenchanted with it.
OH: Going back to the idea of confessing yourself through comics art, was the decision to use an "alter-ego" in the Alec strips a way to make that process easier? Did that allow you to write autobiography in a way you couldn't otherwise?
EC: Not really. I just thought it was something you were supposed to do, like Kerouac did. And he regretted forever not being permitted too use actual names. You come to realize that nobody cares enough about comics to ever know they exist or become offended by them. But I should say that I don't think of it as 'confessional'. As a brought up Catholic boy, I know what is meant by 'confessional', but I have never thought of that as applying to my work. I'm a story teller. Sometimes one is driven by a need to tell the stories that are nearest to hand.
OH: Bacchus is set to be collected by Top Shelf later this year. Are there plans to return to that character and world in new material?
EC: No, Bacchus is done. It's a closed thing. The comics industry doesn't understand the idea of the 'closed form'. What DC has with Watchmen is a unique thing. I don't think they are smart enough to know it. They'll screw it up.
OH: What's next for you? What else can we look forward to from the mind of Eddie Campbell?
EC: I'm thinking of writing a history of comics according to Eddie Campbell. Actually, I already see it in my noodle. It's a matter of doing the work and getting it out into the real world. That's all.
Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch