“With the Alec book,” Eddie Campbell tells me in the fourth and final part of our interview, “I’ve made something very elastic. At the end of the book, you still believe it’s me, even though I’ve thrown some outrageous curve balls.”
Campbell’s masterwork, Alec, not only helped define the comics diary strip, it helped explore the genre’s elasticity. Alec is largely autobiography, sure, based on Campbell’s life as an artist, but it’s also a work that flirts with plenty of fictional devices, as the author utilizes anything he can pull from his bag of tricks to present the story the best way he knows how.
It’s something that Campbell says he still struggles with to some degree, working with real life stories that test the boundaries of the comics medium.
You were speaking before of adhering to the old adage of “write what you know,” in order to start out. But at the beginning of the book, you—
Talking of that, before you ask that question, I just wanted to add to what I was saying earlier. I’m currently wrestling with a very complicated story. It’s so complicated that I know that, looking back at myself in the beginning of the book, there’s no way I could have told this story then. In 1980 I didn’t have the narrative ability to tell something as complicated as the story I’m just about to put on paper. I drew myself going for a drink, and the funny things that were said that night, and then me falling asleep on the grass on the way back home. That was about the limit of the complexity of a story I was able to tell at that time.
Is there an easy way to describe what precisely is so complex about the story that the you of 28 years ago couldn’t have written?
What is complex is that the conflict is not happening between two people who are facing each other. It’s happening between two people who are living 1,000 miles from each other. So, I can’t imagine even being involved a conflict like that 30 years ago. But as the world is getting smaller, and I’ve gotten bigger, I can get into an argument with someone that lives far away over something crucially important that people are going fall out over.
How should I draw a conflict between two people who aren’t in the same room? The graphic vocabulary of the comic book has not evolved beyond two people with large fists, hitting each other. That of the political cartoon is all about simplifying complicated political things. That may be more useful to me in trying to figure this out. Because that actually deals with more complicated scenarios. A political cartoon doesn’t take place in real space. It takes place in an imaginary space that is a graphic idea. Each element in it isn’t an element in real space and time. I’m wrestling with these things.
I wouldn’t have had the technical ability as an artist—or the philosophical grasp of all of these different modes of art to be able to dismantle them mix them all up and recreate my own language from the bits and pieces. It’s like setting all of the things up for a recipe on the kitchen bench. They’re all different, and somehow you’ve got to take a bit of this and a bit of that and mix up a dinner from what you know. It only existed in disparate parts, ingredients, and I have to take all of these and I have to make it seem like the most natural thing in the world that all of these things spill out in a sequence. Nothing must appear that doesn’t belong. They have to run together smoothly.
I’m working on that, right now. It’s a big book about money. Actually, it’s not that big. It’s kind of a small book. When I issue it, I might issue it in tandem with one or two other things. But it’s called The Lovely Horrible Stuff. It’s another autobiographical thing.
In terms of taking these disparate ideas and turning them into a cohesive narrative—isn’t one of the benefits of Alec the fact that you get to be the vehicle for the storytelling?
It’s a benefit, yes. The first-person narrator just means that I’m going to draw myself. But there are many areas of writing, art, music, or whatever, where what’s coming out is an expression of the artist. It’s just that, in a comic, you can’t avoid drawing yourself, when it’s in the first-person. I wrestled with that in the beginning, and I tried to create a fictional character that would stand in for me. In the end I gave up and just said, “this is Eddie Campbell.” I thought it would make it easier, but I should have just said from the beginning, that this is Eddie Campbell. It doesn’t make any difference.
You’re not fooling anybody.
Even when I draw outrageous falsehoods, such as Bruce Wayne becoming the Snooter and climbing in his window and sticking his finger up my arse [laughs], it’s still me. Even when I draw extraordinary falsehoods, you can see these things. It doesn’t stop me from being me in the book. The person reading it says, “that’s a bit outrageous,” and then he goes onto the next piece. It’s the suspension of disbelief. With the Alec book, I’ve made something very elastic. At the end of the book, you still believe it’s me, even though I’ve thrown some outrageous curve balls.
What’s next on your plate?
The Playwright. It’s written by Daren White. He’s worked on a bunch of things, including the Batman book you mentioned earlier. It’s the kind of story I like to do myself. It’s the stuff of real life. It’s about the sex life of a middle-aged celibate Englishman.
It’s about Morrissey?
I threw the word “celibate” in there. To me “celibate” is a monk who’s avoiding sex. Technically this guy isn’t a monk who’s given up on sex. Actually, he wouldn’t mind having it. So, I tried to change that to say, he’s not so much celibate as English. It’s a comedy of manners between the sexes, as it were. It’s one of the most vividly colored things I’ve done. I’ve got all of these gray and brown books. I wanted to do one vividly covered, before I’m finished—before I’m found out and they take my pencils and computer away from me.
Isn’t that a bit ironic, doing a vividly colored book about staunch
Yeah [laughs]. I thought I’d color it the way it’s not. Make it look very Mediterranean and brilliant, underline the thing by saying its opposite.