Memento mori: An interview with Eddie Campbell
Sometime soon (hopefully next week) Diamond will be releasing Eddie Campbell‘s Alec: The Years Have Pants to a comic book store near you. In a year chock full of great, original work and important re-releases and rediscoveries, this has to be one of the most important books of 2009. I know that statement might come off to some as shallow hyperbole, but it’s a risk worth taking.
For the the unfamiliar, Pants collects all of Campbell’s autobiographical Alec stories (except for The Fate of the Artist, which was published by First Second) in one big (hardcover or softcover) volume. Since the early 1980s, the artist and writer has been chronicling his life’s adventures through his barely disguised alter ego, starting as a feckless young man in the King Canute Crowd to the successful cartoonist and family man in After the Snooter. It’s saying something to call these stories his most significant and stellar work, considering he also collaborated with Alan Moore on From Hell and created the elegant Bacchus series. One hopes this new collection (and the new material found therein) provides the opportunity for a re-examination and analysis of this impressive body of work.
I had the opportunity to talk with Campbell late last August over email about the book. This was my second time talking to him and he proved to be as gracious and thoughtful over the computer as the phone, if not more so.
Q: When you first started work on The King Canute Crowd, there weren’t very many people doing autobiography, just Harvey Pekar, Aline Crumb (and sometimes Robert) and Justin Green. Now you can’t walk three steps without tripping over a memoir or two. What’s your reaction to this outpouring of autobiography? Do you feel vindicated by it at all? More importantly, can you see your own influence in any of these books?
A: Spiegelman was there too, as seen in a number of pieces in his recently reprinted Breakdowns book. The underground movement made the personal part of the fun, and it is an integral part of the modern era of comics, which is good thing. I don’t think I had any influence on that development, much as I would like to see my part reflected in it.
Q: I know you’ve answered this question before, but what initially attracted you to doing autobiographical stories (however cleverly disguised)? What was the impetus?
A: I wanted to do comic strip stories about the subtle exchanges in the human experience. The melodramatic and superheroic and anthropomorphic were everywhere. The nearest we had to regular everyday life were the ‘soap opera’ strips, or ‘human interest’ as they have been more accurately described. I actually always liked a lot of that stuff, like the Apartment 3G and On Stage newspaper strips. The soaps were still about the emotional life. Later they would be all about wealth as in the TV shows Dallas and Dynasty. The times demanded something more ordinary, a stripping away of all the baloney.
Once that urge was felt, the best source of ordinariness was my own life. I had in fact done a few stories about ordinary stuff before i figured I needed to get it from somewhere instead of making it up. But once I started narrating with my own voice I found it difficult to go back and do it any other way. All kinds of small but memorable situations seemed to demand to be recorded.
Q: And does that same attraction still hold true today? In other words, has your relationship towards the work (i.e. telling your life story) and your reasons for doing it changed at all over time? And if so, how?
A: I don’t feel that I’m telling my ‘life story’ as though I have done something interesting that everybody ought to hear about. I’m using that material because it fits the things I want to say, the view of the world that I want to communicate. But yes it does hold the same attraction. I find it difficult now to invent fictional narrators to serve the same purpose. They sound too hollow and false to my inner ear. I tried it in The Fate of the Artist with the prose segments, supposedly narrated by a detective. I tried to write straightforward honest prose and found that I could only do it if there was a sense of it being a spoof from the start. In other words, the reader knows the thing is a hoax from page one. In fact, I find now that almost all fiction has this false ring. Right from the first sentence it always sounds false to me. The business about how a novel has to grab your attention with that opening line. It always fails with me. I stopped reading fiction because I never feel that it’s the real thing. I don’t mean it has to be a story that happened or has the appearance of having happened. I mean the words are not real prose. They are pretending to be real.
Q: You’ve worked in just about every genre known to comics, but you’ve always returned to the Alec stories. Why? What does autobiography give you as an artist that other genres, or fiction in general, doesn’t?
A: Going back and reading my other work I usually end up laughing at my refusal to take it seriously, though we should leave From Hell out of this, which of course I didn’t write myself. I’ll start reading some things, having a vague recollection that I played it straight and then this fountain of wicked self mockery will spring up out of the middle of it and I’ll feel that I’m back in safe hands, my own.
Q: Of all the Alec stories you’ve done, have there been any that have been a struggle to do because they hit too close to home, either in your own case or in that of a family member or friend? How did you solve that problem?
A: Not in any big way, though I did manage to catch a few problems before putting the big book to bed. If I were to elucidate individual problems in public here I’d have done as well to leave them in the book. But I should also say that I do think of it all as fiction. It obeys the same laws. It’s autobiographical fiction. Also on the whole I tend to be agreeable embracing rather than mean-spirited.
Q: In your interview with Dirk Deppey, you talked about the “thematic connections” (at least I think that was the term) between the various Alec stories. Can you delve a little deeper into that? How are these stories connected, apart from them all being about you of course? What do you see as some of the larger themes of the Alec saga? Are there any themes that you didn’t see initially but cropped up when putting this Omnibus together?
A: A major theme is something you find in your work that you didn’t know was there. You can’t seed it. Well, you can but it would probably come across as bogus, or as a message that the author set out to force upon his reader. I did indeed find a major theme that I hadn’t really noticed before, one of the great themes of the ages, and that is the idea of the memento mori, which is a moral tradition in art of reminding everybody that they’re going to die. It’s represented by the funeral parlor in The Fate of the Artist, which surprised me, because I didn’t put it there consciously as it was a part of the short O.Henry short story I had wickedly decided to embed in the book. Then there is my earlier book, the Dance of Lifey Death. The Danse Macabre is one the medieval expressions of the memento mori. So the title of the new book, ‘The Years Have Pants‘ is taken from the first line of a comical poem which just happens to function as the reminder of our mortality.
‘…who remembers not the pie,
that each and every evening went,
into a mouth that now lies bent.’ (William Ernest Moenkhouse 1902-1931)
Q: You talked about how you think of these stories as fiction. Can you talk a little bit about how you “polish” the stories as you go so they end up moving from real life to fiction? What do you change, add or take away? Is it a conscious or intuitive process?
A: The simple process of arranging them is what makes them fiction, and that involves the whole range of decision making between conscious and default. By fiction I mean the art of writing stories. True and honest biography follows different rules altogether. Thus it’s fiction as opposed to non-fiction, and not fiction as opposed to fact. It always annoys me when people split hairs over Spiegelman’s work, arguing about whether it can be a “novel” because it’s an account of things that actually happened. He drew himself as a mouse for heaven’s sake. That puts it entirely in the realm of fiction. Similarly, I feel at liberty to show my nightmares physically turning up at the dinner table, as in After The Snooter.
Q: Getting back to the first question, do you really not see your influence in any of the contemporary autobiographical cartoonists? Because I do think it’s there to some degree, as in James Kochalka’s diary comics for example.
A: You think so? That would be nice to think that. You know, I could just as easily have used James’ ‘elf’ persona in the example above, and he has other anthropomorphic characters in there too. I remember Pekar was once criticizing Spiegelman for not being completely realistic, that the mice and cats were a cop-out, but it can be said on the other hand that Harvey sticks too rigidly to the literal path in his neorealist intentions. I thought for that reason that the American Splendor movie was Harvey’s finest moment because of the layers of meta-fiction it laid over the stories. it took it a few notches beyond the literal, freed the whole thing up.
Q: How did the Omnibus come together, both conceptually and physically? Whose idea was it to collect the stories?
A: Chris Staros had been talking about it for ages, while the omnibus idea was happening with other cartoonists, like Eisner, and the Hernandez brothers. The art has evolved to the stage where those of us who have been doing it for that long can compile a half dozen books together in one big package.
Q: How did you go about selecting and arranging the material? I found it interesting, for instance, that you decided to place the stories in chronological order rather than in the order they were published. It makes obvious sense, but I could see going the other direction as well.
A: They weren’t organized that way at first. I originally had a long 86-page section at the back which rounded up short pieces and fragmentary, unfinished works. But I was sweeping through the whole thing once (around the end of 2007… its’ been on the boil for longer than that) and It occurred to me that there was the possibility of arranging it in an epic sweep, and letting the characters age naturally instead of jumping back and forth. I mentioned this to Chris as though I had just discovered the key to safely cloning humans, and he said “Huh? What do you mean? I thought that was what you were doing all along!” Then it was only at that point that I decided to add the whole new 35 page book at the end, bringing things up to date and giving a lot of my favorite characters a curtain call. It wraps the whole book up very nicely.
Q: Since there weren’t a lot of people trying autobiography in comics when you started, who were your initial influences? Who influences you now?
A: There were artists like Crumb and Spiegelman who had done occasional two pagers and the like, but my intention was different. It was to do a whole big story. A novel I guess, but ‘graphic novel’, which should have been very useful moniker, has entered an era of difficulty in which the original intention of the term has been largely redefined by people who are not very bright. It has come to mean a format even though a prose novel is not a format. The original intention was to reflect the fact that novels are the work and property of an author, rather than a company, and are found on a bookshelf rather than a spinner rack or inside a newspaper. Those two principles are the drivers in our period of comics.
The novelists I was reading at the time included Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. I found their work liberating, but for influence on the page I’d be more inclined to direct your eye to Milton Caniff and Gary Trudeau, his early more simplistic style with all the repeated images and speech balloons coming from the White house. I always loved the way people like RC Harvey would get mad at him because he didn’t see it as a proper use of the comics form, though he later went back and changed his mind. RC, Pekar… there always used to be some interesting bun fight going on the comics over some mere technical preference. Hasn’t been a good one in ages.
Q: One of the possible themes that came to me while rereading the stories was that of the Inner Life and how it spills out into our daily “real” lives. That’s certainly true of Graffiti Kitchen, and I think How to Be An Artist deals with the notion of how to make your dreams (becoming an artist) a reality. And of course, in Fate of the Artist we see the inner life having a negative effect or at least rubbing up against our daily lives in an abrasive fashion. Even the issues of death come from interior fears — your “nightmares showing up at the dinner table” as it were.
Of course, I suppose you could make the claim that’s true of most autobiography, but I think most comic memoirs either tend to be all about the exterior life (this is something that happened to me) or the interior (I’d argue most of Pekar’s stuff is about his interior world and thoughts).
Does any of that make any sense? I realize it’s not really a question (and I’m kind of fumbling about trying to describe it), but it occurred to me while doing research for this interview and I thought I’d put it out there.
A: It makes perfect sense. In “Pants” I’ve included a large piece of an abandoned project I drew in 2002 titled The History of Humour. There were thirty pages altogether published in the two issues of my Egomania magazine, (and another fifteen page chapter carefully lettered with one panel penciled when I abandoned it.) I’ve reduced the 30 to 18 for this outing. My idea was that the entire book would take place in the interior world of the mind. First I would set up some ideas with reference to their historical context and then I would start shifting things around, the way things do in the unbounded spaces of the mind. My feeling at the time was that it was veering too close to being an actual academic book rather than a creative work going under the guise of one, so I backed off and started again and this time the result was The Fate of the Artist. When You think about it, it’s difficult to pinpoint anything that actually happens in real world terms in Fate. There’s a chapter in Fate that would have been in History exactly as it is, without any changes. That’s the adaptation of the O. Henry story, Confessions of a Humorist in which Campbell ‘acts’ the part of the protagonist. Fate of the Artist doesn’t appear in Pants because it’s still in print from First Second, but in the History Of Humour you get to see fragments of an alternative version of it. I think my work has tended more in this direction as I’ve got older, and also my technique has become more flexible. I can hop from the real to the imaginary more easily.
Q: I wanted to ask you about the editing process you went through in putting the Omnibus, starting with what you decided to add to the book and why. Can you talk a little bit about it? I can see why “How to Avoid Sex” was included, but was less sure about “The Crow,” other than the father figure is referred to as Mr. Campbell.
A: The Crow was useful, because taking the balance of the whole volume into account, I found it useful to start giving my father that daunting personality earlier in the proceedings. Later when you read ‘My father never hugged me,’ which I hasten to add is ironic and not something I would ever say, you’ve got a better sense of his personality. I threw out some irrelevant pages from Little Italy to make room for it, such as a two pager titled ‘The Video Generation,’ which appeared dated to me now, and isn’t really an Alec page, in fact it was the editor of my French edition who first removed it, so i was following his lead. And a couple of other things like that which I had drawn just to raise a laugh and a buck the first time around. The Crow satisfied a structural urgency in the bigger picture. Along the same lines, there are several places where very minor players were unnamed, but because they popped up in another book which can now be seen close-by in the collection, I’ve gone in and removed their anonymity and lettered the names. This adds little morsels of meaning that wouldn’t have been accessible the first time around, and also more of those fine threads that weave from book to book, helping to bind the whole opus together, making it more of a continuous interconnected universe, which comics readers always love.
Q: What’s the latest with the TV show? Is that still in development?
A: Still in development. Things slowed down because of the world financial crisis. Tv networks have been loathe to take any chances over the last year. But we shall see. I’m meeting with the producers in three days, so it’s definitely still on the table.
Q: Refresh me on what parts of Alec the show is specifically adapting. Are they picking and choosing stories, or are they focusing mainly on a particular book/time period?
A: It’s actually much more than an adaptation. We’re using the assorted books that I’ve done, though predominantly the Snooter and after, as the springboard to make a series of half-hour comedy episodes. This involves coming up with a lot of extra material to expand anecdotes, and also bridges between anecdotes. We’re giving the project a different kind of structure from the books. There are whole episodes that don’t have any material lifted from the books. I see it as a logical extension of my work, and I’m hoping something will come of it.
Q: Let me awkwardly segue back to the Omnibus. Tell me a little about the new “Pants” stories at the end. What prompted their inclusion?
A: I’m always looking for an excuse to add to my oeuvre of real life work, and in the past I’ve always used the publication of a new book as an opportunity to add pages. There were twenty five new pages when I collected How to be an Artist in 2002, and I think five or seven when I rounded up the Snooter material the first time. It’s a life’s work that is always growing. There is always something new to add. If publication of ‘Pants’ were to be delayed for some reason, I’d want to add another sixteen pages. At least.
Q: You mentioned before about the theme of death or “memento mori” running through your stories. Where do you think that preoccupation comes from? Is it just growing older? Or is it settling down and having a family? I know once I became a dad I found myself worrying a lot more about death and illness than I ever had before.
A: It’s not about death really. The memento mori essentially is a reminder that life is short; do not waste it. As for there being an increase in an awareness of mortality after becoming a parent, yes I think that does make us tap into the bigger picture of life, it’s shape and it’s temporal boundary. You used to be at the bottom of the pile, but now you’re in the middle. The people at the top are starting to cash in their chips and new ones are appearing at the bottom. You have to radically reassess what it’s all about.
Q: On that note, one of the things that struck me going through the Omnibus is how much of a family snapshot it is as well and how you start off single and childless and by the end your oldest has left home and your others are fully grown. I was taken aback, for example, by how old Callum had become at the end. There’s also that great moment in Snooter where you note how Hayley was a child when you started From Hell and now you were escorting her to the movie premiere as a young woman. To what extent do you use the books to mull over the passage of time and do you have a conscious point you’re trying to make in those instances?
A: There’s also a phase in After the Snooter where I cast my mind back to my own childhood. Every phase of life is depicted somewhere in the book. As I say in my intro, I was always quite captivated by the passage of time in Gasoline Alley. The idea that comic strip characters can age. This is actually more unusual even now than it was back then, because we now have characters in comic books who have lived over completely implausible spans of time without changing much, except that they are now ten-heads-to-one ratio instead of the natural seven and an half, or whatever it should be. And also the fact that death does not exist in the comic books. Nobody ever dies and stays dead. I think that’s a scam. It allows the modern viewer to vicariously enjoy the most outrageous violence because it has no effect. There is no price to pay.
Q: I liked how the stories in the “Pants” section reflected on the earlier material, like the part with you realizing you wouldn’t be caught dead in a sleeping bag in someone else’s house these days or where you’re confiscating your daughter’s alcohol. Was that reflection deliberate on your part? Did you want to end with a comment on how things have changed for you or did it just come naturally?
A: I felt that it was the task of the last book to create a sense of unity in the collection. So it makes connections and hearkens back to moments and characters who appeared in the earlier works. In one place it even quotes page numbers for convenient backtracking. And there at the end there’s a reflection back to the beginning. I want the reader to come away thinking the whole collection adds up to more than a sum of the parts.
Q: Is there a particular story that stands out for you above the others? And if so why? Are there stories that you find difficult to reread because of the emotions or people involved?
A: Not so much the emotions that are evoked as in my naive interpretation of them at the time. But you can’t go back and tinker with stuff like that. And i wouldn’t want to ruin the earlier reading experience by casting a cynical shadow over it. The reader will get the sense that the parts were written by the author at different ages. And if they are themselves young, I am sure that all in all they will prefer the younger Alec. And if they pick it up four years later they may find themselves identifying with the next one along, and so on. I want that to be an important feature of it all. My personal favorite moments or chapters are probably in the middle of How to be an artist. There are pages in there that are teeming with all of life. Chapter eight sticks out in a quick flip though the dummy of the book that sits on the floor beside me. Situations are laid out thoroughly and precisely and the narrative whisks along without wallowing in any of them. It covers a lot of ground very quickly.
Q: Do you have any plans to do any more Alec/Eddie stories for the foreseeable future? Or are you too preoccupied with other projects? What are you working on these days anyway?
A: I’m taking things easy right now, but the next book out has been finished for a few months. That’s the Playwright, which is about the sex-life of a celibate middle aged man. It’s very funny. These things are taking so long to get published that I may have mentioned it to you when we spoke last year. But I’m starting to think it’s time to start a new autobiographical book. There are a few things that I need to get out of my system. There are bees in my bonnet.