“I think films should be truthful at the expense of drama,” Eddie Campbell explains. It early on a Saturday, in his side of the world, on this, the second day of the year. An hour-long phone conversation serves a nice reprieve from painting a room of his house.
Somehow the interview has shifted away from a conversation about the layouts of the world’s major cities to a frank discussion about truth. In retrospect it seems fitting, of course. Campbell, after all is in the middle of a big push for The Years Have Pants, a stunning–if slightly unwieldy–omnibus of his much beloved autobiographical, Alec.
Fitting too, is Campbell’s own abstract definition of “truth,” which, like his strip, isn’t confined to notions of strict historical accuracy.
His opinion on films, naturally, extends to comics. And while Campbell insists, tongue firmly in cheek, that “comics are awful,” he certainly has a solid grasp of what he believes constitutes a good one.
“I’m not saying that comics should be about history and the real world,” Campbell tells me. “It might be telling me something about the human spirit that I didn’t already know. But I’ve been around too long for a comic book to tell me something that I didn’t already know. I don’t think I’m going to get that from a comic book.”
And while the artist has, apparently, given up any hope in learning something new from a comic book, he is, thankfully, more than eager to share what he knows with the rest of us.
Why are you up so early, by the way?
We get up at five. It’s this tropical heat. It’s easier to think in the cool of the morning, because it’s summer here. It’s horribly humid—by 10 it’s unbearable. If you’re going to get any work done, you have to do it early in the morning. I go to bed at 9 in the evening, daft as that sounds. I’ve adopted this lifestyle.
As someone who can live anywhere in the world, why choose a place where it’s unbearably humid?
A chain of accidents. My wife comes from Australia.
That’s an accident?
Well, after she had our first baby, she was feeling emotional. She wanted to go home, and regretted it ever since. We were living in London. We were living in the hub of civilization. The first thing my daughter did, when she was old enough, was go back to London.
Do you enjoy it out there?
Uh…I can live anywhere. I live entirely inside my head. So it doesn’t matter physically where I am. As I always say, it’s easier to be optimistic when the sun is shining.
Living in the hub of civilization must have made it easier to collaborate with people, at the very least.
Uh, yes. Another thing I’ll say is, I think it was easier to draw Victorian London when I wasn’t living in London. I was living in modern London. Having lived there, I think it’s easier to imagine the width of the streets and the amount of light there is on the streets. You realize if you’ve lived in a city, that every city has a different feel to it. Suddenly you go to L.A. and you say, “Jesus, the streets are wide!” Where are you, now—are you living on the east coast?
Yeah, I’m living in New York.
When you go to L.A. and you see the streets, you think, “it’s so wide—I might not be able to cross it in time.”
That’s the old cliché, right? Nobody walks in L.A.
That’s right [laughs]. And, you know, every city has a different feel. The light is different, because of the obstacles that are obstructing it from getting into the street. That’s one of the subtle things that I like to capture in my work.
So you think the feel would be similar between Victorian and modern London?
No—but a sense of place is crucial. I would never drawn Tokyo—I’ve never been there. I attempted to draw Chicago. I got away with in The Black Diamond Detective Agency, because I’ve been there for a few days. And I’ve been in New York.
Glasgow, where I come from, is a very square city, made on a square plan. It’s very Victorian, compared to Edinburgh, which is positively medieval, winding, tortuous alleyways. And every city sounds different, because of the way the echoes travel. But I don’t know how you’d draw that.
Melbourne is my favorite city in Australia, because it’s very close to Glasgow in its plan. Everything is either perpendicular or parallel to the river.
You did a Batman book for a while. How does that work, in terms of doing a book in a city that doesn’t exist.
Gotham City? Well, the only Batman book I did took place in London. We wrote another one, but that was up to somebody else to draw. Somebody else was left to worry about what it looks like. The one I drew was cunningly set in a city that I knew very well. In fact, it was about the city. It was one of those mysteries about churches.
Somebody was telling me that the new Sherlock Holmes film is all about a pentagram, and it’s a church that’s marking its points. I think the idea has been stolen several times since we did it in From Hell. In fact, we had already stolen it from somebody else to be honest The idea of churches being linked up in a diagram.
There’s probably even a little bit of that in The Da Vinci Code, I’m guessing.
The second movie, Angels & Demons—I was watching that and I thought, ‘this is exciting.’ The one thing that they threw out of the From Hell movie, because they decided it was too arcane or complicated to get into a movie, yet, there it is in The Da Vinci Code. There it is in this new Robert Downey. It could have a much more exciting movie, had they just stuck with the elements of the book, rather than giving them up as too complicated.
The idea that Christianity and the occult might be linked up.
The stuff of popular fiction. Horrible in the extreme. I hated it.
That’s Alan Moore’s forte, though, right?
Yeah [laughs]. I try to get away from all of that baloney. Though I did kind of enjoy Angels & Demons. It was a fun way to kill a couple of hours, seeing the cardinals being terrorized. But I could never sit through it twice. The pope and his helicopter [laughs]. Sorry, that was a spoiler.
In terms of From Hell, could you remove yourself enough from the original material to just enjoy that as a movie?
The problem is, I don’t really enjoy movies. I watched a movie last night that I missed at the time. It was Geronimo: An American Legend. Matt Damon was in it, from 1993. That doesn’t tend to get rated highly. I think dramatically it’s not very taut. But I completely enjoyed it. As an account of Geronimo’s final rebellion, I thought it was quite good. It had some truthfulness in it. It was truthful, at the expense of drama, which I thought was good. I think films should be truthful at the expense of drama. But I’m sure if I investigate it further I’ll find that it introduced a load of new nonsense as well.
Do you feel that way about comics?
Comics? I don’t read comics. Comics are so awful, I don’t read them. I think it’s easier to say that all comics are shit and deal with the exceptions when they come up, rather than say that 99 percent of them are shit. It’s easier to say they’re all shit and then argue the one or two exceptions.
But do you use the same rules to judge the comics you make as the films you watch?
Well, comics I’ve recently enjoyed—Persepolis. There’s a truth in Persepolis, a personal truth. She’s telling me something I didn’t already know. Or, what else have I enjoyed recently? Chester Brown’s Louis Riel was telling me something that I didn’t already know. I enjoyed reading it. I’m not saying that comics should be about history and the real world—it might be telling me something about the human spirit that I didn’t already know. But I’ve been around too long for a comic book to tell me something that I didn’t already know [laughs]. I don’t think I’m going to get that from a comic book.
So you can’t enjoy one as pure entertainment?
Pure fun? It’s highly unlikely. I enjoyed Asterios Polyp. What else, recently? [Pause]. I was looking at Al Columbia’s new one, Pim & Francie. I saw that the other day. It looks to me like a good read. A lot has been made about it being a book of leftovers and scraps picked up. But I got the sense that, if you just read it, as though it were a novel, from beginning to end, that it would actually make a lot of sense.
In our interview he said that he hadn’t intended it to be that, but people have subsequently begun reading it as such. He didn’t connect the dots himself, but the readers have.
Yeah, I think that’s one of the better books of the year, and I like the sense of it being bits and pieces rescued from his waster paper basket. Made it all the more poignant, I thought. Excellent book.
[Continued in Part Two.]