What does one do when he wants to extend his portfolio beyond “pursuit and revenge fantasies?” If that person is Eddie Campbell, the answer is simple: draw inspiration from real life. In Alec, that inspiration comes from a very personal place–largely from Campbell’s own life. Though even in that largely autobiographical work, seeds can be found in outside sources, be it in the lives of friends, family, or colleagues.
Does writing about your life with some degree of truthfulness make it easier to locate yourself, in a sense?
I’m not doing it to locate myself. The idea is, I want to write and draw something more important than—as Will Eisner put it—”pursuit and revenge fantasies.” But where where do you find that kind of human material? The thing you know the most thoroughly is your own life. You can go out there and interview people and find the material that way, for a grand and humanly searching piece of work. But it’s simpler to use the people you know and yourself, and decorate it with things you’ve read.
There’s lots of stuff in the Alec books that are just stories of things that I’ve come across. They’re little anecdotes or incidents.There’s probably 50 or 60 pages that are other people’s stories. For instance, the whole business, which you touched upon with Al Columbia—the Tundra fiasco. I was only tangential involved in that. I’m living in a different country. I tried to get to the bottom of a story in which I didn’t really take part. A couple of my books were tangled up in it, but I never visited the scene of the crime.
So that’s an example. I’m not really writing my own story there. It was a story that was lying around that I thought was so extraordinary. I actually had the chance to interview some of the people. I exchanged a few e-mails with Al. I was in a position to cobble together what I had heard from a number of sources. Although I’ve had criticisms that I got it all completely wrong, but whatever. You’re always going to get that. but that was an example of me writing a story that’s not my personal story. It’s a grandiose disaster that demanded to be told.
A journalistic way would probably be the best version of the story, but what you’ve got in mine is it from my point of view, with all of the sarcasm and satire and malarkey in which I caricature people. I turned it into an extended cartoon.
Is that what qualifies it to be an Alec story, that it’s told from your point of view?
Yeah, that’s it, essentially. It’s not necessarily a story about me, but it’s told from my point of view. It may well be wrong, but that’s my version, and I’m sticking to it. I did go to a lot of trouble to get other people’s versions of it, though I didn’t have to look very far, because seven or eight years ago, everyone was trying to unravel the story on The Comics Journal’s message board, which is where I got hold of Al Columbia. He got on there and put down his version. I e-mailed him and followed up with a couple of questions to try to get to the heart of it.
There’s a two-page post script [in the omnibus]. I wish I had had that at the time I’d published it. it’s about the decline and death of Stan Drake, in which Al and Bill Sienkiewicz are both tangentially involved. And I was tangentially involved in this particular version of events, because I raises a loud objection to The Comics Journal’s obituary.
They’d used a picture that wasn’t Stan Drake’s. I kicked up a big fuss about that at the time. It turned out that they’d accidentally used a Bill Sienkiewicz panel from Moon Knight, which made a very apt ending for my ongoing thesis about “The Fate of the Artist,” in the modern world. He’d only just died, and already the official record of his life has gone wonky. I thought that was very funny, in retrospect.
For the most part, it seems like you’re very careful not to offend people. You use a lot of false names, and when we were having a conversation earlier about the Al Columbia interview, you said, “I thought my story was very even-handed.”
Yeah. You sounded like you were trying to get a disparaging comment out of Al, but he seemed very disinterested in talking about it.
I used a lot of his own words in there. I tried very hard to be even-handed. The only person, up ‘til now that was upset about it was Steve Bissette. Steve was very upset about me depicting him as a doomed procrastinator, and he wrote me a very long e-mail. But I think he only did that to avoid working.
Do you feel as though you went out of your way to not offend too many
people with the strip?
Well, I think the art of doing these things is that you must make yourself look a bit foolish at the same time. Joe Sacco gets some flak, some times. He makes himself look almost like a racial caricature. But I think he’s tapping into a tradition there. Joe Sacco is this lovely handsome fellow, if you ever meet him, but he does this caricature of himself that he puts in the books. It’s like he’s trying to tap into this universal idea of the fool.
In the ancient history of the kings and courts, the fool is the only one who is allowed to tell the truth and make fun of the king. So he gets to say what he has to say, without ever having to appear to be a player in the drama. He makes himself look like this insignificant character on the edges, which Joe isn’t, if you know Joe. Joe is a very intelligent, brilliant guy. But we understand that he’s wearing a guise here, and that’s part of a tradition in art.
To some extent, in “How to be an Artist,” as long as I make myself look foolish, I can get away with something there. As long as I’m one of the people who’s also make a mess of his career, I can get away with that [laughs]. I made a mess of mine by going to this stupid humid, steamy place where I live.
But very seldom over the course of the book are you an outside character. Most of it revolves around you.
Well, I was using “How to be an Artist” as an example. For a whole chapter there, I was off-stage. But, as it is my story, I come back on and finish it. but most of my books do have episodes where I completely disappear for a few pages. “The Dance of Lifey Death” has many little anecdotes from culture and history that I’ve thrown in there, just because they’re things that I’ve found. You know, the “pajama girl,” or whatever. It’s a story that I found. I show myself finding it, but it’s not my story.
Is it hard to shield yourself from potential criticisms when you are
at the center of most of it?
Yeah. I’d mainly be worried about something that might make my family look bad or embarrass them. The only thing in my favor there is that my wife doesn’t really read my work, and she might never find out [laughs]. My kids have only just started to discover it.
What are their feelings on the books?
My son is starting to be curious about it. He’s seeing parts of his life from an angle from which he didn’t see it before. “This is how I look to adults.” Sometimes they say to me, “it didn’t happen like that.” Sometimes they’ll tell me off. Sometimes I’ll be reprimanded for misrepresting a situation.
How old are they?
Seventeen, 19, 23. If they think I’ve done wrong, they don’t hesitate to tell me, which is a good thing. Because recently my father-in-law did something that got me mortally angry, and I was in terrible turmoil as to how I was going to tell him, and that’s a story I’m working on for my new book.
As a way of telling him?
Oh no, no, no. I ended up telling him and we fell out forever [laughs]. Now it’s a bigger story than it was in the first place. I’m trying to figure out a way of doing it that raises it to a universal level. The inevitable confrontation that a man must have with his father-in-law. Life never ceases to be fullof drama and narrative. There’s always some new one to figure out.
[Concluded in Part Four.]