A little over a year and a half ago I got to sit down with Eddie Campbell for the first time. San Diego Comic Con is — as any reporter will tell you — is easily one of the most stressful places to have a interview with someone whose work you’ve worshiped as gospel for a large fraction of your life. However, over the course of our lengthy laugh-heavy conversation about comics and travel —as well as and the breadth and depth of knowledge that comes from a lifetime of creating art — I don’t think I’ve ever felt more relaxed while surrounded by chaos in my entire life.
For those unaware, Eddie Campbell is responsible for the creation of what are likely some of your favorite comics. Best known for his Jack the Ripper collaborative project with Alan Moore, From Hell —which was recently re-released in full color through Top Shelf Comics — as well as Bacchus, a collection of stories about the Greek God of wine and parties; his semi-autobiographical series Alec and, of course, his foray into the historical impact of American sports comics with The Goat Getters, there’s few nooks and crannies that Campbell has not stuck his nose into during his tenure in the comics industry.
After the year we’ve all experienced in 2020 and seeing so many people in their respective creative fields struggle to create amid the chaos, I figured who better to talk to than the person who has not only managed to successfully negotiate a comics career for almost five decades, but has also managed to keep their humor — and, in doing so, helped others do the same — along the way.
While we weren’t able to enjoy a conversation amid the chaos of a comic convention this year (for obvious reasons), I was lucky enough to enjoy an hour long call with Campbell late last week, where jokes, stories, and a wealth of incredible experience still offer nothing but joy during a time of utter chaos.
How have you been doing?
Well the country has finally gone full lunatic! [laughs]
Oh god, yeah, no kidding! But I mean, the last time you and I spoke was…just a few months before COVID-19 hit, I think?
Was it really?
Yup! The San Diego Comic Con the summer before last.
2019! Oh my. I was thinking it was much father off than that but I suppose it’s not. It feels like it’s been a long time since then [laughs]
Oh, I know. It feels like ages since there was a convention at all!
It’s the first time they’ve ever had to cancel one, isn’t it? It’s like this thing — there’s a famous — do you know the Henley on Thames Regatta?
…The boat race in the UK?
Yeah, the boating event. Well they’ve got one out in the desert in Australia on the River Todd called the Henley on Todd Regatta. But the river is a dry riverbed. It’s just dust! They run around with the boats like Fred Flintstone with the feet sticking out! But they have these races where people run the entire dry riverbed in these huge, big ships; these big galleons. Like the Elizabethan galleons shooting cannons at each other…except they’re built up on pickup trucks! [laughs] The drivers are just shooting at each other in the dust. But anyway. They had to cancel it one year because it rained. They had to cancel the boating race because of water. [laughs]
[laughs] There’s a much bigger metaphor there than think anyone could have anticipated! But the no conventions thing really does feel odd. Even more odd for creators, I’d guess. Most folks I’ve been seeing say that it’s been hard to create at all — even as folks who primarily do their work from home to begin with!
Oh, yeah. It’s definitely difficult. In theory it should be really easy because finally you have “all this time” that you can do things with. You can’t go anywhere. So this would be the ideal time to sit home and create books. A few folks are still managing it. Sean Phillips, who used to draw Hellblazer, just keeps creating! I think he’s on his fourth book since lockdown! He just keeps turning it out. Goes for walks in the morning and photographs the beautiful the countryside, and then turns out pages! He tells me he did 308 pages last year.
Good lord! That’s a hefty chunk of time, too.
[laughs] Even allowing for weekends that’s more than one a day. That’s not even counting covers and commissions! That’s just publishable pages. He must live in a completely different mental space from the rest of us because the rest of us are sitting here in a heap of abject horror, incapable of doing anything other than wallow in the existentialism. The human race has come to an end so eh, why create another book? We’re all fucked anyway!
Well I was actually rereading some of your earlier work leading up to this phone call. It occurred to me that when you started up with Alec — and even a bit earlier than that I suspect — that was during some pretty politically unstable parts of the UK’s recent history. That was the Thatcher era! Was it just as difficult for you to create back then during all of that turmoil?
Sometimes I find myself thinking that I’d hate to be starting out just now. I don’t know how they make it work. I don’t know what they do make it work. But then I remind myself that I started out in the late 1970s [laughs]. And back then there wasn’t the mass of independent publishing that we have now. There wasn’t the internet either, of course. There was really nowhere to go. We just used to photocopy our own little pamphlets when we could and called them Zines. Do you remember Zines?
Oh totally! We still have some published around here in Portland comics shops like Floating World though.
Well we used to have just those. We’d photocopy our zines and we’d all get together — an association, even. [laughs] We’d form associations of like-minded artists and we’d hire a single table at conventions; all taking turns behind it trying to sell each other’s work. But when I think back, it was pretty dreary and hopeless. I couldn’t even afford to photocopy my own work. I was pretty steadily unemployed throughout most of my 20’s, you see. So I’d just pester my friends to photocopy things for me. “Just a hundred copies or so, man” and then go to someone else to get the rest of them done and then staple them all together myself [laughs]. I used to have one of those little hand staplers that you’d have to fold out and they had to tiny staples. Back in the day. God, I have no idea how I’d go about doing that now; how to go about making a real living out of it or how to monetize the internet. I have no idea.
It’s kind of incredible seeing how people are able to push their work and make those kinds of connections and sales using things like Twitter isn’t it? It’s fantastic to see.
Yes! And when you go to publishers now you have to basically go there with your first 300 page graphic novel finished. Back in the 80s and 90s there were so many little anthology books that you could get like four or seven pages printed. Or even one page at a time! You could get all of your work done in these flowing segments. Now it feels like you have to conceive this huge monster right from step one. It’s a shame. I feel like most of the people I see having to do that, they could do something so much better if they just had 10 months of doing little one-pagers. It’s just nicer to be able to work out the problems as you go and take the time to do the smaller things and eventually arrive at this big, wonderful thing. Small details fall away when you don’t have a chance to do that I think. Lots of little things like just putting the word balloons in the right places, for instance. Little things make a big difference.
It can’t be helped in some cases, I suppose. Getting published at all, for some, is pretty hard to begin with. Getting noticed after that is even harder!
Right. What can you do when that’s where you’re stuck?
Well there’s always good recommendations, right? At the back of How to be An Artist, you actually made a list — pages worth, in fact — of books that you felt should be read and remembered.
Oh, do you have a copy of the original then?
With the the orange cover, yeah.
Oh gosh, when we reprinted that I threw all of that out. It went out when we reprinted it all in the big Alec omnibus.
Yeeeah. It started out, actually, being published in a comic called Dee Vee which was published in Brisbane, Australia by a couple of pals of mine. We were all appearing in each other’s work. The final chapter I just did eight pages of “Well okay, I guess I’ve explained the story of the graphic novel”, who the major players are and what idiots they were or what nice fellows they were. One or two people got quite offended. [laughs]
Why take out the list of comics altogether though? It was a pretty solid list. You’ve got people like Posey Simmonds and Kyle Baker and Howard Cruse —
I don’t know really. It seemed out of date. That was me basically saying “Here are three dozen books that justify the idea of graphic novels” because, at the time, there was still a lot of argument as to whether the graphic novel was a worthwhile idea, so I decided to provide some to show that they were. I do remember taking Bryan Talbot’s out of there though. I did a little sentence describing each book and I guess he didn’t like my sentence and said I could have done better. So when I reprinted it I just took his book completely out. [laughs]
[laughs] That is impressively petty!
Oh, I can be grandly petty. [laughs] I can be as petty as anybody! “Just because you told me what you write, you’re out!”
It gets funnier considering how many of these people whom you consider — or considered— mates are folks who are now incredibly well-lauded within comic fandom. Including yourself. Is it ever bizarre to see people talking about your work critically, or talking about the work of one of your pals? I imagine being a well-regarded cartoonist yourself and being friends with other famous cartoonist is funny in a way.
[laughs] I don’t think of myself as well-known at all! In fact, often I think that I should do a new book but then talk myself out of it because I don’t think anyone’s going to read it! Not enough people are going to read this anymore and why would I spend all that time making a new book when I could just watch television instead? [laughs].
But, I mean, a lot of the time when you seem well-known, you’re not actually that well-known. You might be doing a book that’s selling two or three thousand copies, but because of the market now some people might say “Three thousand copies!? We only dream of selling three thousand copies!” [laughs] Lately, though, I find it easier to revise. My most recent project was, of course, revising From Hell to be in color. I recreated the whole thing to be a color book when it has always been a black and white book. I spent two years doing it.
That’s a huge chunk of time for something that you’ve previous worked on! Why not just do something entirely new in color?
At this point I just find it so much easier to revise a book rather than start fresh. Honestly, no book is ever really finished, in my mind. Like, I did a book about three years ago in 2018 called The Goat Getters that went off the printer, but before it had even come back from the printer — in my master file; my digital file — I had already changed 70 pages. 70! [laughs] So the books themselves aren’t really the thing for me anymore. The digital file is now the thing. If I want to look at one of my books and see how good it is and convince myself that I’m not a completely idiot or a useless fuck — I don’t look at my books! [laughs] No, I look at the digital file because I’ve never, ever had a book that’s been printed properly.
Ever since I started making books, I’ve never had one come back from the printers and gone “oh wow!” Usually when one of my books comes back from the printer I just want to cry and go to bed and just pretend that maybe if you don’t wake up the book will go away! [laughs] But then you get it out and you never look at it again until a few years later and…well, it’s not actually that bad. By that time you can finally see it as other people see it. It actually comes as a bit of a surprise! Like “Oh, this isn’t bad at all!” But then after you begin actually reading you find a typo and you have to put it back on the shelf and forget about it as hard as possible. [laughs]
That’s the fun of digital though now, right? You can go fix those things!
I just did that yesterday! I saw a typo and I went back and fixed it on the digital master copy, which is in my “black box”. Three terabytes of master file. And now it looks perfect! In digital there’s no misprinted things or badly colored things or typos. But I suppose nothing ever really comes out how it’s supposed to come out.
It always is better and bigger and more perfect and exact to what you envision when it’s in your head, eh?
Never mind my head, it’s always better in the master file! [laughs] But with things like coloring From Hell, I must have spent two or three weeks getting over it from beginning to end. Just solid, sitting down going over everything that I hated and didn’t come out properly. Like some of the grey came out to pink-hued when I wanted them more blue-grey, and I can fix that in the layers. I can fix anything really quickly and that’s just lovely.
The obvious solution here is that everyone wanting the Eddie Campbell Perfect Edition should just come and read over your shoulder.
[laughs] I actually really like the idea of comics on the computer. I think it’s better, honestly. It doesn’t take up as much space. That way when you’re dead they don’t have to come take all of your books and stuff into a truck and try to sell it at secondhand shops or have estate sales. It’s just depressing. Just give three or four black boxes to the people who really love you and your work and have them run people some copies and that would be the end of it. [laughs]
But yes, I really like digitalization of comics. I think it’s a great idea. I just wish that some sites had better resolution because they’re digital comics museums. When I was doing The Goat Getters — which is all about old newspaper cartoons, of course — some of things that I was using were microfilm. They’re never kept well and the pictures are always fuzzy and never really in-focus. I virtually has to redraw a lot of them and trim off all of the fuzziness from the images and sharpen the lines. Just the amount of work you have to do is astonishing.
That’s certainly less of a problem with digital as long as people bother to keep the resolution high enough.
Oh yes. As long as it’s saved at the very highest resolution. But back when that was just starting you’d save everything at 600dpi and now you’ve got to save everything at 1200. By the time this interview runs it’ll be 2400 dpi [laughs]
[laughs] And even still, even the bad quality stuff is such a big difference from what we started with when running images online was a fresh, new concept!
Back in the day we had to do it at a limited resolution because the computers just couldn’t handle that resolution! We had computers where if you wanted a really good picture you zoomed in close and moved it across the screen. And then it took so long to move it across the screen that you may as well go make a cup of coffee while you wait. Nowadays you can just do it on a laptop! You don’t even need a big computer anymore. Just a little laptop. I can do detailed photoshop work at an airport! — which is the worst because someone’s always trying to see what you’re doing. And for me it was always a page from From Hell where it’s one of the murder scenes with tons of blood everywhere.
Oh no! You’ve accidentally turned yourself into the guy that people get scared to sit next to because of great art!
[laughs] Were you a fan of From Hell?
I was! It was very cool seeing it in color for the first time though. I — and I think a lot of other readers — have become so accustomed to seeing it in black and white and grey that seeing the addition of color is pretty wild.
When I did the issues — the ten volumes — in the scene of Mary Kelly’s death, I had gone very light on the blood. When it printed in color, all the reds just disappeared! I looked at it and thought “I’ve had nosebleeds worse than this!” So I went in a added a lot more blood and red. I think it looks terrifying now.
Hat’s off to you, seriously. The color of the blood alone is pretty harrowing. You got it to a nice, rich blue-red.
Yeah, it was really nice. And I wanted to mention —and I had to fight for this really hard — that I had to argue to get the women put on the cover. I really had to fight for that. And they said “Nah, it’s too dark”, but I got my way in the end. I just wanted them walking in the street with the street-lamps and they said “Well can’t we have Jack the Ripper at the end of the street or something?” And I said no, just walking in the London street when they were happy and healthy and before it all went wrong.
That’s a pretty hefty thing to fight for. That’s considerably darker than the original.
Well when Alan [Moore] and I originally released it, we didn’t want people to know it was about Jack the Ripper. I put still life sketches on the cover back in the 1990s. Things like grapes or a melting candle and a cell phone [laughs]. The number on the dialed cell phone was the number for the publisher. It was Kitchen Sink Press and they noticed it right away. [laughs] But we wanted people to buy it thinking that it was a story about real life and the real world every. So often thing about jack the Ripper are horror stories in general. They take place in an environment that is designed to receive and produce horror. Horror…it just works at its best when it comes out of nowhere and you’re not prepared for it…