Eddie Campbell is well known as the artist of Alan Moore's iconic Jack the Ripper novel, From Hell. He is now published by First Second and is proving to be one of the most unique and creatively brave comic artists and writers at work in the field today. His autobiographical account, The Fate of the Artist, was written as "an investigation into his own sudden disappearance." Told in a kalediscope fashion with multiple styles and forms of art and lettering throughout, it included entries as diverse as interviews with his daughter and "Honeybee", a comic strip study of a long term relationship. Fate is a graphic peek into Campbell's inner workings - a very revealing look at how an artist thinks and develops a story.
He has followed that novel up with The Black Diamond Detective Agency, a story set in the late 19th century. It begins with a horrific train accident that sets a group reminiscent of the Pinkertons after a suspected terrorist. Nothing is as it seems in in this western/thriller/mystery and Campbell plays fast and loose with both timelines and setting. I was stunned by the artwork in Black Diamond - the painted colors fairly bleed off the pages and the emotion he packs in some of these scense is devastating. It is the sort of novel that has the power to transport readers to a whole different place and time, and should intrigue teen readers eager for a fast paced tale with a strong emotional kick. I have read a lot of comics in my time but I can honestly say there is nobody else out there doing the kind of work that Eddie Campbell excels at. His novels are a feast for the senses and should put to rest - finally - the whole notion that illustrated books are anything less than literary.
I understand that Black Diamond Detective Agency is based on a screenplay, but I'm wondering if you did any specific research to get the time period right. You explained in an interview at Newsarama that you "studied crime fiction by reading Chandler" and I'm curious as to whether you took a look at how the Pinkertons did their job to use as a model for the guys in the Black Diamond Detective Agency. And have you always been a Chandler fan or did you turn to him when you started on this book?
EC: Bill Horberg the movie producer and owner of the BDDA project sent me a big box of books for reference. For example there was an old antique book from the 1880s all about new developments in crime detection, there was a biography of Pinkerton himself, assorted books on Chicago and the midwest during the period of our adventure. there must have been a dozen books altogether. I supplemented that with a few of my own on the history of steam locomotion. And as for crime fiction, well I always collected crime and westerns when my contemporaries were following Science Fiction and sword and sorcery. I remember I used to buy the sci fi books like the other comic book guys were doing, then at some point I realized I wasn't reading any of them. I never got that whole sci-fi fantasy thing at all. But i've read all of Chandler and all of Hammett and I always loved watching old 'noir' movies. So this project was attractive to me right from the start. In the comics biz you're not likely to get offered this kind of thing more than once. For a long time westerns have only existed if they're mixed up with zombies or cannibals.
The Black Diamond Detective Agency is a really intense adventure novel - it's a serious adventure to me; one where the stakes for so many of the characters are much higher then you will find in typical young adult adventure stories. But the book is right there with Garage Band, Sardine and Tiny Tyrant on the First Second site. Do you think the book will resonate as much with teen readers as adults? What do you think they would identify most with in the story?
EC: I've never thought of young readers as being a separate kind of human being. When I was a kid I read comics as well as all kinds of books which i suppose you wouldn't normally find kids reading, such as histories of art and biographies of artists. Nowadays I do much the same, and when I talk to my own young 'uns, I always feel that I'm talking to versions of me at an earlier stage of development. If there's a different species of reader I'd say it's those that are more likely to read the Wall Street Journal and the stock market projections. Everybody else reads stories, whether they're made up or biographical, and the ingredients we like are more or less the same. The centerpiece of the book is a big complicated shoot-out at a Chicago rail station. I think everybody will get a thrill out of that. And there's a difficult romantic thread running through the story too. We all love a plateful of that.
The relationship between the photographer/artist Sadie and suspected killer John Hardin is particularly poignant - was this something you expanded from the original script? It humanized Hardin for me - heck Sadie seemed to humanize the whole story (as did the mute detective, Carl). Was there any character that you felt was particularly critical to making this big sprawling crime story more personal for the reader?
EC: Yes, that relationship with Sadie was important to Bill Horberg. While he let me have my way with many of the ingredients of the story, he held me to that one. But making Carl a non-speaking role was my own idea. I felt the book needed a few elements that were pure comic book, that couldn't be replicated in the movie. So the first time we see Carl he speaks in the color red. His word balloon is blazing crimson. And each scene after that in which he appears he makes an important non-verbal contribution. I stumbled on this by accident. I was struggling at the beginning to make all these male characters different from each other, and when I noticed I had drawn Carl with a likeness to the old movie comedian Harpo Marx, whose schtick was that he never spoke, he was a silent player in the talkies, he wrote his own part after that. So yes, he's probably the most immediately appealing character in the book.
Switching gears a bit, the way you craft your recent books (both Fate of the Artist and BDDA) seems to be almost a class in unleashed creativity. Borders are lost, lettering styles change and particurlarly in FOTA, you even mix the art format, from photography, to old style comics to your classic painted drawing. Are you more comfortable with fewer constraints on your form and what do you think switching formats contributes to the story?
EC: I think this is a period in which the book is becoming a very lively medium, with novels interpolating visual material that is not just added on like illustrations used to be, but integrated, like Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Umberto Eco's the Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, or playing around with typography as in Danielewski's novels. The graphic novel needs to enter into this spirit of unfettered invention. It has much to contribute to the general culture. But to do so it must first stop thinking of itself as a separate medium with all its own rules and procedures. It's time to take part in a much bigger exchange of ideas. With Fate my original intention was to write a novel, but somehow I ended up drawing all over it. I couldn't help myself. I've never thought of there being constraints, and with the internet and ordinary people writing blogs, the notion of constraints retreats more every day. Anybody now can play around at home with fonts and colors in a way that wasn't possible thirty years ago, and drop a picture into the middle of a prose text. We do that without thinking about it. But then when we come to books, we see most of them still operating under obsolete limitations.
Some reviewers seem to spend a lot of time getting caught up in genre assignments for titles -especially graphic novelists. (How many articles have I read in the past couple of years that start with "Comics aren't just for kids anymore!") How do you feel about graphic novels being classified as separate from literature?
EC: I think that for the 'graphic novel' (a term I no longer have any affection for) to advance, it must evolve into something else. The comic book field has arrived at a state in which the readers are mostly adult, and the writers and artists are attempting to graft what they imagine to be adult sensibilities onto an immature medium. That is the prevailing mentality, and within that milieu, works of real value are unlikely to be adequately recognized. But they are also unlikely to be recognized outside of it, where a crippling conservatism prevails among the establishment, as we saw last year when Gene Yang's American Born Chinese was up for a book prize in the young reader's category. Young readers, who are much less conservative than adults who would speak on their behalf, must have wondered what that was all about.