How Artist Eddie Campbell Went ‘From Hell’ to ‘A Corridor of Change’
BY CORNELIUS FORTUNE
Good comics fuse narrative and art into a seamless dance.
Great comics take you beyond the art, the panels, the word balloons, and plunges the reader into something elevated – a unique experience that isn’t film, literature, or anything you could actually describe. It’s the perfect fusion of words and pictures.
The talented Eddie Campbell makes comics in the latter category.
Perhaps best known as the artist of “From Hell,” a deep exploration into the Whitechapel murders perpetrated by Jack the Ripper, Campbell’s art is easily recognizable. Although he currently works in a variety of forms, Campbell’s most influential work was often moody, complex at times, and rendered in black and white.
His other notable works include “Bacchus,” “Alec: The Years Have Pants,” “A Disease of Language (with Alan Moore),” and “The Lovely Horrible Stuff.”
As huge Hollywood movies riff (and liberally borrow) from the superhero collective of DC, Marvel, and other comic book publishers, independent comic book artists and writers are creating works not easily translated to the big screen: they’re meant to be experienced – and lived – on the page.
Born in Scotland and now based in Australia, Campbell’s work typically falls into this category. He creates stories that can be intellectual, sexual, whimsical in nature, or often unclassifiable. It is work that pushes past the boundaries of sequential art. He goes where the muse takes him and his work has evolved. Even with more than three decades experience behind him, he hasn’t sat still. Not for a moment.
Campbell discusses some things that inspire him, his take on the superhero movie explosion, and what growing older is like from an artist’s perspective.
When did you know that you were in love with art?
I was always an artist in my head, at least from the time I was aware of the concept, which was when I first noticed signatures in my comic books and reasoned that what I was looking at was not in fact real, but drawings that were made by a person. Before that, I was a kid with a crayon.
Was television ever a distraction from this pursuit?
I guess it must have been. I remember my mother trying to coax me out of my room to come and spend time watching television with them. I always had a grand project that I was working on. In my head, I was somebody important. But things never work out the way you hope. Maybe I should just have spent more time with my parents watching the TV.
Were superhero comics an influence? What era?
I followed the ‘60s Marvels as they came off the presses. In fact, I just picked up the big IDW Steranko artist’s edition of “Nick Fury” to relive a year or so of my childhood. Funny to think that he would have been in his 20s when he drew that stuff. I remind myself of this every time I come to a lopsided drawing. He had trouble with a particular angle, the back view of a person talking to characters further inside the panel. Several times he makes a muddle of it. Funny that I never noticed before. He’s such a perfectionist, I wonder what he thought when he signed off on re-releasing that old stuff. If he’s like me, he probably just doesn’t look at it, otherwise he’d have to rework it all. If you start in on that, you end up reliving your whole life over. There’s no end.
You’re both a cartoonist and a comic book artist. What’s the intersection, and at what point do they divide?
I have no idea why they are different things, I’m afraid. Unless you mean that comic books are a specifically American idiom, a genre in which all the characters have a propensity for being super powered and which has taken over the world of entertainment to the extent that virtually every movie that gets made is a comic book movie. Well, that is an interesting place to visit once or twice in one’s life I suppose, but one should never lose sight of the fact that it’s all a bit daffy.
What inspires you as a writer?
Booze, I suppose.
Are your best projects a result of accident, coincidence, research, inspiration, or something in between?
Obsession, I would say. In the beginning, it was the obsession to own and keep a thing. For example, in the days before videotaping, I would watch an episode of the “Batman” TV show and want to keep it and hold it forever, and the only way to do it was to draw out the whole story on paper. I tried to do this every week, which turned out to be very hard work. Much later, it was the desire to preserve a friendship or just a feeling, or a view from the window. Later still, it was the antics of my children, or one of my wife’s charming rampages.
Your lettering style is very distinctive. When did you decide that you would do your own lettering?
Lettering is often the part of the work that identifies it as personal. Often my work has had other hands working on it, but as long as I did the lettering myself, I think most readers didn’t notice. The lettering is the voice of authority in my work, and I have found that readers would rather put up with occasional illegibility than see a typeface.
I love how you use shadows and how you build settings. Obviously, a black and white comic is cheaper to produce than a full-color work. What is there about a “monochromatic” approach to comics that appeals to you?
I’ve been doing colour work for the last 10 years, so I have to imagine myself back in the 1990s for this one. We in the monochromatic comics all felt like second-class citizens until [Frank] Miller serialized the Marv story in “Dark Horse Presents” [which was the inspiration for the “Sin City” movies]. Before that, you had to accept that if you cracked the ceiling and made it into the bigger world, you were likely to face colorization, like DC did with “V for Vendetta.” When Tundra took over “From Hell,” the first thing on the agenda was the colorization of it. So I indicated that it was specially made for black and white, and to colour it would ruin it, which is what a lot of people said had happened to “V.” So yes, black and white can have its own magic. It’s not just waiting for color to be added; it’s a specific aesthetic. We wouldn’t want to see Bogart and Bacall in colors, though they used to add them back in the 1970s.
“Bacchus.” [A collected work that spans over 1000 pages, which “brings the gods and myths of ancient Greece to modern life.”] It’s massive. And beautiful. What sparked this idea and how long did it take to get it going? Were there any challenges?
I found myself yearning to do something on the heroic scale. A sprawling epic. So it was originally coming out as a 24-page comic book, like Dave Sim’s “Cerberus.” I was two or three issues into it before I had a real idea about what I was trying to do with it. Parts of it are quite satisfactory and other parts I can’t look at.
Your research is so impeccable. Alan Moore in his “From Hell” notes points to all the instances where you went over and beyond a simple scene setting. How important is it to get the details right? Do you feel that this is just as important as the technique behind it? How much time do you spend researching a project?
The fretting over that kind of detail has got more oppressive for me over the years. Nowadays, it takes me far too long to get things done and afterwards, I’m so critical of the results that I find it hard to interact with this huge body of work. I need to be caught off guard to have any good feeling toward it. Somebody just posted a photo from the book of a panel with Simpson in the underworld among the twittering dead. All of these dead souls going “twitter, twitter.” I seem to have inadvertently put my finger on the zeitgeist.
“The Playwright” is described as “a dark comedy about the sex life of a celibate middle-aged man.” What attracted you to the project? Would you say these types of stories – middle-aged tales – are lacking within the medium, or does it require more digging on the reader’s part?
My pal Daren White wrote that one back when he was still publishing “DeeVee.” I said, “Oh for heavens sake, I’m going to have to illustrate it for you, as anyone else will only go and ruin it.” We had a time pitching it around the place. “What’s it about?” “A middle aged virgin masturbating his way through his insignificant life.” “And who the hell do you see as your target audience?” “Oh, I dunno, I think there are a few about.” It’s a very sensitive and rewarding story as you know.
It seems we’ve finally gotten past the “comics aren’t just for kids” narrative that was so popular in the aughts. Now that that’s (mostly) out of the way, where do comics go as a medium in 2015 and beyond?
I feel less involved in that argument than I used to be. The medium hasn’t quite worked out the way I wanted it to. Now the movies are all comic book movies, but not a single one of them has grasped the particular quality that made me interested in comic books in the first place. And the serious comics mostly have a never-ending blandness to them. I stopped caring a few years ago. I don’t think I actually know what’s going on anymore, truth be told.
How has your life/work changed as you’ve gotten older? In what way has middle age impacted you as an artist and a person? Has your perspective changed? If so, what, specifically?
I’m probably in a corridor of change right now, and I have no idea where I will come out.
What new Eddie Campbell project(s) should our readers be expecting?
I’m illustrating some of the short stories of my sweetheart, Audrey Niffenegger. We’re putting it together as a book. One such story appeared in the Guardian a year and a half ago.
Collections of Eddie Campbell’s work from Top Shelf Productions can be found here.