Graphic Lit: An interview with Eddie Campbell
He’s done historical fiction, horror, superheroes, adventure stories, sly updates on Greek mythology and (most notably) autobiography. But acclaimed artist and author Eddie Campbell has never once written a book about the circus.
Until now. In his latest graphic novel, “The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard,” Campbell, along with co-author Dan Best, details the life and times of Etienne Leotard, nephew of the famous trapeze artist Jules Leotard, whose work he is forced to continue after his uncle’s untimely death.
It’s a delightful lark of a book, silly and sly while also sincere and moving at times, with Etienne stumbling into one major event after another without ever attaining true fame.
I talked to Campbell while he was in New York City promoting “Leotard.” Here’s what he had to say about the book.
Q: How’s the tour going?
A: It’s exhausting but I’m almost done. I’m at that stage where I’m washing socks in the hotel sink. (laughs) I think one more pair of socks will get me through till Sunday when I’m home with my parents.
Q: How did the concept for Leotard come about?
A: I almost can’t remember where I read this because you never realize the moment of inspiration when it actually happens in retrospect. It’s something that Will Eisner said and therefore I can’t remember where he said it or even if was actually him that said it or Michael Chabon, but he said that all the characters in modern comic books have their antecedents, their prototypes, in the old circus.
I gave this a test, let’s say the Fantastic Four. Obviously that would be India rubber man, the fire breather, the strong man and the girl who disappears in the magician’s cabinet. And all the mutants would be the sideshow freaks. You see what I mean?
There’s a certain type that interests me. Do you remember in the 1940s they started giving the heroes all got to have a midget as a sidekick?
Q: Yeah, like Green Lantern with —
A: Doiby Dickels. He’s my favorite. Or Plastic Man had Woozy Winks. And the Spirit had Ebony White. So my guy Leotard has this midget clown called Zany that follows him around everywhere as his sidekick.
Have you seen the book?
Q: Yeah. I got it twice actually. I just finished reading the color one last night. I had gotten a black and white version earlier.
A: I was annoyed at them for doing that because if ever there was a book that had to be seen in color it’s this one. It’s full of bogus circus posters using the typography of 19th-century circus posters. Every few pages the narrative is carried forward by a double page spread circus poster.
Q: Yeah, the full-color version definitely improves the reading experience.
A: I’m glad you saw that then. I was annoyed with them.
Q: Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like starting with Fate of the Artist you’ve been doing more watercolor work.
A: The first opportunity I had to do that was with the Batman book, “The Order of Beasts.” I remember we sold them the script first and then I thought “right now I’ll approach the subject.” I said to Joey Cavalieri, “Now I’d like to draw it myself,” and he said “Oh.” He did a double-take. He couldn’t see my style in a Batman comic. I pointed out I had drawn eight pages of the X-Men.
I said to Joey “And I’d like to paint it.” And he said “Oh, hold on, we can’t do that. It’s too expensive.”
“No, no. You just give me what you’d give a guy for penciling, inking and coloring it and I’ll give you the whole package all on a disk, all ready. I’ll even put the lettering on." Which we did. We packaged the whole thing in house. They just had to stick a cover on.
Q: What does doing that give you, particularly on a book like Leotard, that using another method wouldn’t?
A: I never really used computer coloring, although I told a lie in that Publishers Weekly interview. Actually I told six lies. The interviewer didn’t seem to know who I was. So I thought “I’ll just lie” and I invented a complete fabric of fictions.
I have to put on a different hat when I try to draw in black and white. I’ve always wanted to paint a whole book and never got the chance until just recently. Since 2004 I’ve done a color job once a year. I just love it. I love to throw the colors around and mix them up. The computer guys, they just throw in one flat color and then muddle it. They have to cause they don’t know what else to do. It’s all purple and blacks in the comic books these days.
Every book should have a different color, a different personality. Int he Black Diamond Detective Agency last year, that was all greens and ochers with an occasional outburst of crimson. That was its color character. This one I wanted to have all the primary colors with the lithographic posters of the period.
Q: Speaking of purple you’ve got that beautiful two-page sequence where —
A: Oh yeah, that’s pure purple. That’s deep. The purple of a mystical midnight.
Q: How did you end up working with Dan Best on the project?
A: Dan’s a lawyer by day. There’s a bunch of chartered accountants and lawyers I meet for lunch once a week. All my pals wear suits and ties. They’re comic book enthusiasts. In fact they’ve all ended up doing comic books on the side. One of them commented recently, "How do you get into comics? Well, the quickest way is to buy Eddie Campbell a drink.”
The idea started as that abstract Will Eisner observation. He had the idea that this could be a book and started finding characters. We had already had the idea for a book that would span the late 19th century. We could have characters Forrest Gump-ing their way through the great historical moments from the siege of Paris to the sinking of the Titanic. There’s a 50-year span there and we find this guy Jules Leotard, who was the original "Man on the Flying Trapeze." They wrote the song about him. He’s not named in the song, but he was the inspiration.
He was the Elvis of his day. He was a handsome man and loved by the ladies. He was the first man to wear the tight-fitting costume in a circus act. And he filled it very well apparently. It later became named after him, the leotard.
But for our purposes, he died at the early age of 28 in 1868 of smallpox. He was like the James Dean of his time. But he was of no use to us. So our conceit is that he dies on page 12 and the book is about his much less interesting nephew. And there’s another tie-in to the modern superhero, it’s a man with a secret identity. He’s got a false mustache and pretends to be the great circus star Leotard.
Q: Is there any basis in fact for the nephew?
A: No, we had to make him up. He was an act of desperation.
Q: Can you give me a blow-by-blow account of how the two of you worked on the book?
A: Dan would just keep supplying me with stuff, pages and pages of characters and directions. I told him at the beginning he was going to have to do it on a page by page basis because I could change the direction of the thing at any moment. He wasn’t to write to far ahead in case I derailed the thing and went off at an angle.
For instance, not being a comics writer of long experience he tended to write dialogue that was too much. And I was shortening it and selecting from it and using the bits I needed. So that I’d used up all the material at one point, far ahead of when I was supposed to.
We had 10 years we had to fill to the next important episode and I thought what are we going to do. That’s when we had the idea of having him go to sleep. He tucks himself into bed and then he wakes up 10 years later like some Rip Van Winkle. Suddenly he’s got Grey hair. That was one way of jumping the 10 years. But that’s how it came about. It was just a humorous solution to the fact that I’d used up all the material.
Q: You’ve done a lot of collaboration but you’re equally well known for working alone on things like the Alec series. Do you have a preference?
A: It varies. I like working with fresh ideas that don’t come naturally to me. I enjoyed doing the "Black Diamond Detective Agency" even though it was kind of an odd thing for me to be doing. It’s an odd book altogether. It’s not quite a Western. I call it a mid-Western. It does take place in Chicago.
I do like the challenge, although I consider my core work, my pure work to be my autobiographical work. That’s the work I’d like to be remembered for. “And he also did these other things.” In fact, I’m hoping to be taking that work to another level over the next year because I’ve got a TV show in development.
Q: I heard about that.
A: Has that gone all around the Internet while I’ve been traveling?
A: I haven’t had a chance to get online in days. A couple of producers came to me. They wanted to adapt The Fate of the Artist.” I think they’d seen American Splendor and said "This is great. We should do something like this.” I think they started to see a way of developing the idea further, of adding to it or expanding it. They just needed something to work with.
So they came to me with the idea of optioning "Fate" and I said “Well, I’ve got all these other books too.” They were overjoyed at this huge fount of material to work with. They had originally approached a network -- I can’t name it, it’s not far enough long yet where they’re comfortable with me giving names -- but they approached the network with a plan.
It was originally only going to be these little five-minute things. The network said "This is great material. This is worth the full treatment." So we’re writing it up as a series of eight half-hour shows. It’s going to be a big thing. We’re in development, which means we’ve raised funding to come up with a script, casting, costing and a synopsis for the whole series. I don’t know how far ahead they are because I’ve been on the road for a few weeks. I’m hoping in a couple of months we’ll be green lit and get into production, but you know how these things go. But it’s kind of exciting. That’s what I really want to be working on.
In line with that we’re bringing out the Alec Omnibus.
Q: When is that coming out?
A: That’s definitely coming out next year. It’s all finished except for a couple of pages that I have to fill in. But it’s going to be 640 pages. It’s everything except "Fate of the Artist" which is in color and with another publisher.
Q: So it’s everything up to "After the Snooter?"
A: Yes, except I’ve added a 35-page book at the end that brings it bang up to date. I’ve got the "History of Humor" in there as well.
Q: Are the small books like "Graffiti Kitchen" —
A: They’re all in there. And they’re in chronological order so you can see everybody growing up like in "Gasoline Alley." You can see the kids growing up year by year.
Q: And Top Shelf is putting that out?
A Yeah. I’m excited about that. We’re calling it the "Alec Omnibus," but we want to see what title the TV show ends up with because it’s got three or four titles right now. It would be great if we could have the book tie in somehow.
Q: Well it seems like every big book that comes out is an Omnibus now.
A: Or what is that Sandman book called. Ultimate?
Q: Absolute. The Absolute Alec.
A: That’s why the first one was called the Complete Alec. It wasn’t that it was actually complete. It was more like, you know how you say “He’s a complete idiot?” (laughter) He’s an absolute fool. I’ll pass that along to the editors.
Q: Getting back to Leotard for a minute, it’s striking how experimental it is. You do a lot of breaking the fourth wall, you put a lot of stuff in the marginalia. You’ve got this four-panel grid structure and then you mess with it as much as possible, depending on the situation. Can you talk about some of the choices you made as opposed to doing a more straightforward narrative?
A: I’d been wanting to do something with — I’ve talked about the uses of the margins in medieval manuscripts in "The History of Humor." Michael Camille, the writer on medieval art had died at the young age of 49 a few years ago. A very insightful academic. But he had an idea in explaining marginalia because why are these grotesques and ugly things and obscenities going on in the margins of these holy books? What’s going on there, what’s the point?
He had an idea that the page is the universe and at the center is everything that’s good and holy. Evil is on the fringes, on the outside. That’s why you have the gargoyles on medieval churches. They’re on the outside. The worst thing you could be in those days was outside the church. To be excluded or pushed to the fringes. The page as a representation as everything.
I decided to try and use that so that in my book life is in the middle and the margin is outside. It’s a symbolic commentary on life or footnotes or the author can be in the margin. Characters once they’ve died can have a life in the margin. They can pop up there to make commentary or get messages to the living. By the time this book has finished all the characters have ended up in the margins. There’s nothing going on in the center. Everyone’s in the margins talking amongst themselves. That was the idea behind it.
Q: You also do some things with your two page spreads like using the music sheets in the beginning or the two-panel watercolor done in the childish style. You break up the basic structure like the newspaper article on Zany.
A: This was fun. This is a real book of fun. It’s a book of novelty and conundrum and imaginative diversions. One of me first reviewers said it was so diverse it wasn’t a story. That struck me as an odd comment.
Q: You mention how Etienne is the lesser nephew and it struck me that despite all his fantastic adventures, he never attains any success or happiness.
A: He’s an everyman. He’s a lovable everyman. And yet he’s loved. The point was he was loved by those around him whereas Leotard — nobody cheered when they realized he was still alive. Until they saw it was Etienne. Leotard’s the famous one, but they held him in suspicion and disregard.
Q: There’s definitely a theme of community or family that runs through the book. Is that something you consciously wanted to explore?
A: Yeah. I wanted to create a lovable book. Having made books like From Hell, which are terrifying and frightening. I wanted to do a book without being sentimental, that would be warm and enduring without being syrupy and saccharine.
Q: At the same time there’s a sorrowful thread that runs through the book.
A: There’s a melancholy, yeah. There’s a melancholy glee through the whole thing.
Q: They board that ship to rescue Zany and of course with their luck it happens to be the Titanic. They have no luck at all. They can’t catch a break (laughter). Is that something you were aware of as well, or was it simply putting the characters through their paces?
A: There’s a theme I always come back to in my work, the theme of fate that no matter what we do we’re screwed. That’s one of the overriding themes in my work. The idea behind "Fate of the Artist" is that I’ve never met an artist or read about an artist that ended up happy. Everyone ends up disgruntled and pissed off.
Q: A lot of your works, especially recently, have focused on the late 19th, early 20th century. Is there something about that time period that fascinates you.
A: No, it doesn’t really. The one thing I’ve never done is the future. I did an Escapist story set in 1939. There was a Batman story set in '39. From Hell was in the 1890s. And of course Leotards in the 19th century. I think once you’ve done it once, people come to you with those ideas. You tend to gravitate one way without having made a plan or a decision to do so. it’s like the characters in Leotard. They don’t seem to make decisions and see them through. They just get dragged along by an uncaring fate as we were saying a minute ago.
It’s not something I set out to do. I don’t have a master plan where I want to write world history or something. One of my favorite subject of reading is artistic biography, so I’m always reading about the past, whether it’s medieval manuscripts or 19th-century French art. My mind is always prying and perambulating and peregrinating around the past so I suppose I’m bound to pick up story ideas while I’m there.
Q: I was just wondering if there was something about that particular period of time versus say the medieval era —
A: I’d much rather be writing about the modern day. What’s happening here and now is what I think I am writing about. I regard these things set in the past as momentary diversions. I suppose to my readers that’s what I do, draw the past.
Q: Does that bother you? Do you worry about being typecast as the historical fiction guy?
A: No, just so long as they don’t forget me. (laughter) As long as I’m remembered for something.
Q: You’ve worked in a number of genres. Is there any type you haven’t worked on yet that you’d like to?
A: No. I absolutely can’t think of any. It’s odd that I end up doing crime and detective stories a lot. From Hell and Black Diamond. The one thing I don’t like is horror. I don’t know why I ended up doing Jack the Ripper. The reason I think it worked is that it wasn’t drawn by a horror artist. If Bernie Wrightson had drawn that it would have been filled with macabre glee. He loves drawing gas lamps and fog and evil things lurking in street corners. I think "From Hell" worked because it was so mundane. There was no sense of it being in a horror film word where everything is dripping with evil. It was run of the mill workaday life in Victorian England.
I don’t think in terms of genre. I always like to think I was existing outside the world of genre. I would never want to be thought of as a genre writer or artist. I’d rather be somebody who told the world something about life and the way we live it whether it’s in the past present or future. A non-genre if you like.
Q: Did Leotard offer any sort of specific challenges different than your past work?
A: The scale of it. In my autobiographical work I’m drawing people in rooms or bars. There’s a human scale even with from hell. Drawing large scale disasters like the sinking of the Titanic terrified me at first. It’s something outside of my range. I had to think hard about how I was putting that one over.
Q: I liked how you had it as a page from his diary.
A: (laughs) I’d like to have done the whole book as his diary. That was the most enjoyable part. The fact that his diary is such a mess because the footnote keeps telling us that it got waterlogged. But it didn’t get waterlogged at the sinking of the Titanic. What the hell’s waiting up down the line?
Q: What about the idea of the circus as a metaphor for life?
A: You could be right. Even when I was doing this book, I wasn’t particularly interested in the circus. For instance at no point do you ever see how a trapeze works or how a tent is put up or the grubby goings on behind the scenes that is supposed to be the life of a circus. Carny folk. You don’t get any of that in my book. My book is really not about that, which I think you’ve kind of picked up on.
I was more interested in circus posters. I wasn’t interested in the nuts and bolts of real circus or whether they were likeable folk or washed very often. I didn’t care. The glossy presentation to the world or the pleasing and entertaining image of the circus. I wasn’t interested in looking behind the facade. I think in a sense you’re right. To me the whole thing was a metaphor for something else.
Q: You mention the TV show and the upcoming Alec Omnibus. Do you have any other irons in the fire?
A: No, that’s enough to keep me going.
Q: You mention in the PWCW interview you had a book that no one wanted to publish.
A: Oh, I forgot to mention that. I’ve got a book which — it’s actually finished. It’s my next color book. It’s called “The Playwright.” It’s about the sex life of a celibate middle-aged man. I can’t find a publisher that will touch it.
Q: First Second doesn’t want it?
A: It’s kind of outside of their range. I haven't even showed it to them actually. They’re tending mostly to kids books. I don’t think they want to go that way. I don’t think it would be a home for this book. I think Leotard will be good for them because it kind of looks like a kids book on the outside. I just hope they still think that even by the time they get to the bearded pirate.
Q: I think they’re trying to bridge the gap. I think they’ve had the greatest success with their younger books but I think they’re trying to have a foot in the other camp as well.
A: I worry that the whole market is perceived as for kids all over again. The whole thing seems to be obsessed with young readers. I’ve never even heard the expression young readers until the last couple of years but I’ve been offered gigs by two different book illustrating scripts by young reader authors that I’ve never heard of before. What’s going on here?
Q: There’s a lot of jumping on bandwagons, and with the manga craze publishers are looking for a quick graphic novel they can put out. What’s easier than taking an established book and get someone to do a comic version of it?
A: The problem is we’re back to where we started. 30 years ago it was the comic book has grown up and we call it the graphic novel. Last month I read in the Christian Science Monitor, the graphic novel has grown up. We’re back where we started!
Q: I have noticed there’s been a resurgence in deliberately making comics for kids. The difference I suppose is now you’ve got educators wanting to make comics for kids.
A: I think that’s a perfectly good thing, I just feel like I’m getting pushed to the fringes again. I spent all me life on the fringes and now I’m getting pushed back out there. That’s my worry at the moment. As I say I’m having trouble pitching this book around. A few places, they won’t touch it. It’s full of masturbation.
Q: I’d think Top Shelf would want that.
A: It might be Knockabout or Top Shelf. That looks like the way it’s going. I was hoping to get an advance offer from somebody.
Q: Do you miss the days of self-publishing?
A: I got out of it because it became too complicated. Once you’re dealing with the book trade you’re dealing with returns, and stuff like that. When it was just printing comic books monthly, you got the order, you printed what you needed, that’s the end of it. Now it’s all complicated. It’s returns and remainders. It’s another world. We always wanted to bridge that gap or make that interface between the comic book world and the book world but it brings up so many complications it’s too much for one guy. You need more diverse expertise. It’s too much for a one-man operation.