By Chloe Maveal
I’ve been a fan of Eddie Campbell and his work for ages. He’s always been one of those writers with whom I grew up reading and helped shaped my way of looking at comics (as cheesy as that may sound). So obviously that means that when I had the chance to interview him at San Diego Comic-Con this year, I basically spent the entire time having a whole fan moment—but, in my defense I’d say that I rightfully should.
A veteran of the comics world, Campbell is best known for his Jack the Ripper collaboration with Alan Moore, From Hell; as well as Bacchus, a collection of stories chronicling the life of the Greek god of wine and revelry. Campbell has also been known for his semi-autobiographical series Alec, which was collected in an omnibus by Top Shelf Productions.
More recently, of course, Campbell’s focus has been on re-releasing From Hell in full color, as well as focusing on the history of American sports cartooning with The Goat Getters: Jack Johnson, the Fight of the Century, and How a Bunch of Raucous Cartoonists Reinvented Comics published through Top Shelf, for which he was nominated for an Eisner for Best Academic/Scholarly Work this year.
Needless to say, the man has had quite the career as far as length, but also the breadth of viewpoint of his creative endeavors—and I was all about the opportunity to nerd out and find out more of what was behind that.
Chloe Maveal: Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me. I’m a massive fan, you have no idea. I grew up with your Alec comics and it means so much to be able to talk to you today.
Eddie Campbell: Well thank you!
Maveal: To start, I have to ask: You’ve done so much work and you’ve dabbled in so many types of writing and illustrating in recent years. So when you meet fans like myself that are still attached to reading things like Alec, how do you feel about having switched your creative focus and still have people come to ask you about work that is easily thirty years old now?
Campbell: I reached a point where I seemed to have lost he continuity of my own story. It was the point in which I got divorced, my life had taken a strange turn, and the story seemed to be broken. It’s almost like I’m looking at the work of somebody else now. So if somebody said to me about my [autobiographic work] “Don’t you feel embarrassed about this?” Oh well that didn’t happen to me. That happened to some other idiot.
Maveal: Like it became uncomfortable to write from a place so personal?
Campbell: Yeah. It’s strange. I did The Goat Getters which is a historic study. It’s a very funny book. It’s mad and full of humor and real people and real stories but I feel much more comfortable with it because it’s someone else’s stories. They’re not mine at this juncture. I’ve become a more sensible person. I can’t remember why I felt so arrogant that I thought my story was interesting.
Maveal: You also started doing a color version of From Hell in the last year. Is that also a venture that you didn’t expect would come back up at this point in your career?
Campbell: Yeahhhh. That’s also very strange revisiting that corner [of my life]. But it means that I don’t have to create something new I don’t have to look at myself in the mirror. I’m at a strange turning point where I don’t want to deal with my own foolishness.I want to do something that is totally objective such as studying a historical thing— or even just coloring From Hell is just objective. I know how that story goes and there’s no surprises. I can just deal with the technical problem of putting colors on it.. but that’s not what you want to hear, is it?
Maveal: Not at all! I think that’s actually pretty perfect. But it does make me wonder about…well, why From Hell? So many of your past works deal primarily in monochrome— was there a creative or emotional reason why you chose to color this as opposed to something like Bacchus or Alec?
Campbell: No, no it was an entirely pragmatic reason. They wanted to do something new with From Hell. They wanted to reissue it in parts to put some extra DVD Extras kind of thing into it. And honestly I can spend the time on it because I know it’ll sell. I know it’ll sell because its been selling for twenty years. Coloring it isn’t going to make it not sell.
Maveal: It’s certainly been doing well so far.
Campbell: They wanted to do something with it and I thought “Well that’s quite backwards. Can’t just reissue it in parts again. You have to make a completely new thing of it. Really the only thing to do is to color it.” And there was a silence in the meeting room and I thought I should break the silence so I said “Look I’ll do two pages and if you think it works then let’s go with it.” So I colored two pages and everybody was really happy with it. Well, I don’t know if everybody was happy with it. In my head I saw them running out the office high-fiving each other and fist bumping because they get to sell another Alan Moore book. Plus they just published my Goat Getters so I better give them something that actually sells, haha.
Maveal: The Goat Getters was a really deep, niche dive into the early twentieth century cartoons. You said in the introduction to the book itself that the inspiration on it own was these early 20th century comics existing, period. How do you even start in the process of researching something so niche?
Campbell: The thing is…I’ve been doing it for about thirty or thirty-five years. I’ve got all of these binders on a multitude of subjects, and when I get new information I file it in there loose leaf or with those plastic wallets. I had one on American sports cartooning so the story has been building and rearranging I thought “Well this belongs here and these are lesser figures so we’ll put these people here and that goes there—“ and then the thing just took shape. I already had the book, it just needed to be assembled and written.
Maveal: It was just organic right from the get-go?
Campbell: It was just something that had happened. I always thought that someone else would do this book. Bill Blackbeard or…or Bob Callahan but they’re both dead so I thought “Well Im gonna have to do it because everyone else is dead. But once I got started I thought “I’m the only person who knows the story.” So once I got going, I realized I knew nothing…but you have to have the arrogance to get started. You have to have the arrogance to THINK that you know just to make the start. Then once you start, you find the story. You run around and make it work. I mean Ive got other books that may never come about but this one took me about five years to do it because it was a lot of visiting. I had to go to San Francisco three times to delve into the microfilm in the library…and also New York, Chicago, and The Billy Ireland Museum.
Maveal: That’s…a lot. What was it like to travel around that much for the sake of getting that information? Especially when, at the time, it seems like it was just for fun.
Campbell: I was living in Australia at the time and I’d have to find some reason to be in America. Like, I did a book with Neil Gaiman, “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountain”. It started out as a performance which we did at the Sydney Operhouse. It was like comics combined with performance and it was such a success that we did one other place—I think it was Tazmania— and then we sold the idea as a book. To promote the book we were going to do a tour starting in San Franciso; then we went to Carnegie Hall. Two shows in London and one in Edinburgh. Then we did it again in Melbourne. I think we did it seven times the whole show. But since I was in San Francisco and New York anyway, I arranged to spend a day or two at the library going through the microfilm for The Goat Getters. I’d take it all away on a thumb drive PDFs—which is very difficult to print from stuff that you get because it takes a lot of restoration. Microfilm is a shitty mess. It’s an awful lot of work removing scratches and stuff to even get something that you can reproduce. Most of the pictures the book are microfilm. Some of the best ones are from newsprint from he Billy Ireland museum. But the short version is that I was in these places already…so why not?
Maveal: Can we expect to see more of this in-depth historical work from you? Are there any future plans for new books?
Campbell: I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it! But I’ve got another book of history. I haven’t sold it yet, you see, but it’s about the greatest woman cartoonist. That’s all I’m saying, haha.
The majority of Eddie Campbell’s works, including The Goat Getters, From Hell, Bacchus, and Alec, are available through IDW Publishing.