Alex De Campi Talks Smoke/Ashes/Grindhouse/Writing Life – Adi Tantimedh's Look! It Moves!


Adi Tantimedh wrote from New York Comic Con;

smkash1p1I've known Alex De Campi for at least ten years now and I remember her plans back when we both lived in London to write comics and make films, and her talking about writing her original graphic novel Smoke before it was published back in 2005.

In the intervening years, she launched the first iphone-based serialised comic Valentine before anyone in the West even thought about publishing comics on the phone or tablet, shot videos with various bands, moved back to the US, gone through a marriage, a birth, and is now re-emerging with more comics projects. After a tumultuous Kickstarter campaign, her continuation of Smoke has been published by Dark Horse, bundled with Smoke in a single graphic novel Smoke/Ashes to present the complete story, and her new series Grindhouse, which offers a cheeky take on B exploitation movie genres is now out as well.

All this gave me an excuse to interview Alex to catch up with her thoughts on comics, publishing, and the Writing Life. True to form, Alex holds nothing back.


SMOKE was originally published back in 2005. It came out of your experiences living in London and creating a dystopian near-future spy thriller in a corrupt world partly informed by 9/11. It follows a British tradition of conspiracy thriller. How did it come about?

I've just always loved spy/mercenary thrillers. James Bond, Simon Templar, Harry Palmer… heck, even WILD GEESE. and was interested in how, as our world becomes more technologically sophisticated, the "lone smart man with a gun" becomes… obsolete. So I wrote a story about an archetype facing obsolescence. It had a lot of things I loved in it. In some ways I look back at it now and realise that I didn't write a spy thriller at all. I wrote a western, which is of course a genre obsessed with its own obsolescence. It wasn't set in the American West, but you can set a Western anywhere. People just choose not to because they're too literal. I think you can see the Western influence most clearly in the train station shoot-out in Book 2 of Smoke, but it's pervasive. It was a love story to the genres that had formed my interest in telling stories.

It was meant to be a much, much longer story but at the time, the publisher was switching over to focus more on licenced properties so the series fell victim to meh sales and a changing focus for the imprint.

ashes-1Your portrayal of Rupert Cain the government assassin and Katie Shah the journalist out of her depth is different from most comics but follows a tradition in British TV drama in that they're never really in control or become superconfident hero types. They're constantly under threat and there's a sense they could be killed if they took a step wrong. Care to talk us through the process of creating and writing them?

Turgenev wrote that there are only two characters in Western fiction: Hamlet and Don Quixote. Hamlet is the strong man who believes himself to be weak. Don Quixote, then, conversely, is the weak man who believes himself to be strong. I am firmly in the camp of the mopey Dane. It's no fun to write indestructible characters. It's a common power fantasy for insecure male writers (hence its popularity in comics — let's write some tooled-up badass who never gets beaten!) but then all you end up with is a hollow fantasy, like porn, that might thrill you as you watch or read it but leaves you with nothing afterwards. Addictive, but ultimately unsatisfying. So as I describe above, I saw a whole genre reaching its sunset. When we have remote-control drones and CCTV everywhere, how much sense does a human spy running around with a Beretta make? None, really. There's no need for them. So I wrote Rupert, who isn't a genius, and who does shitty black-bag jobs for the government as a price for keeping his mouth shut about something that happened a while ago. It's a bad job. He has no control. These people ultimately don't. And they don't retire. He's aware of all these things, and like the rest of us, is just trying to keep it together for a little longer. I wanted Rupert and Katie to have a resonance with normal people's lives. They are heroes of the book, but they have banal things happen to them and make mistakes and occasionally act like complete and utter cowards. And of course if there's no threat to keep the book moving forwards, and give them a reason to act, there is no satisfying narrative. I felt Smoke was a bit frayed in that respect; for me, Ashes is a cleaner, more confident book.

smoke-540x825Did you always plan for it to be a series that followed the characters as they got into hotter and hotter water?

Yes, but I actually threw out all the outlines I did in 2005 when writing Ashes. So there are a couple threads at the end of Smoke that are not picked up in Ashes, but with a six year gap between ending one book and beginning to write the next I couldn't go back in time to exactly when Smoke finished and continue seamlessly from there. That felt like… I mean, who would even remember Smoke? Who would care, if some nobody writer picked up the thread of an out of print book? I felt those characters needed some sort of continuation/ending, but what took me so long to get around to writing Ashes was I couldn't figure out how to do it right. Giving myself permission to throw out all the old ideas and start with something set five years after Smoke suddenly cleared the decks. I started. Had no idea where it would go, but I started. Took me another two years to finish it.

How much of the next chapters did you originally plan before ASHES?

Oh, tons. I didn't even look at them when starting Ashes. I can barely remember what they were. Stinky, as a character, did appear. I think he was the only one who came through to Ashes unscathed from the ruins of my Smoke outlines.

GHDOM #2 PG05What made you finally decide to use Kickstarter to get the rest of the story published?

Nobody funds genre graphic novels. Or, if they do, the amount of rights they claim are simply criminal. They'll publish the graphic novel, but they won't pay you to produce it.

Genre graphic novels are sort of a broken format. It frustrates me, because my default setting is complete, long-form work. But retailers hate graphic novels. People don't buy them… unless they're a collection of something previously serialized. Sure, Darwyn Cooke's PARKER books have done well, but everything else has tanked. People will buy 10 crappy floppies, spending $40, and hate 9 of them, but they won't stump up $29 on a graphic novel. Broken. Format. I don't know how to fix it. Kickstarter seems to be part of the answer, because people are interested in longer form work and (as I discovered) very patient when that work ends up nine months late and a little different from originally planned.

You altered your original plans and had different artists draw different chapters to the new story. Did you also alter the way you wrote those chapters?

I didn't change a single panel. I had always assumed the book would have to be drawn by different artists — really, who has time to draw 250 pages on a crappy indie rate? Plus, several parts of the book require a very specific style different from the main narrative. I was surprised when I found someone with talent who DID have time to draw the whole book. So though it was murderously disappointing to find out that person wasn't a good fit collaboratively, at a certain point I just shrugged and went back to Plan A.

GHDOM #2 PG06ASHES brings the characters' story to a conclusion. Was this always the ending you planned?

I always knew there would be no continuing after Ashes. It was going to end conclusively. I didn't have the ending in mind when I started, but then one day it just stepped into my head and revealed itself, and it was like, "of course, that is how it must end". Then I just had to get from where I had started, to that end. I'm at the point in my writing where I've stopped outlining. I begin writing and go for about 30 to 50 pages and by then I know the ending. If it's a noir book, I might sketch out some of the middle, or if (as I am doing now) it's a Dark Horse Presents thing that has to be serialised in 8-page chunks. But in general: I wing it. Sometimes that means I have to put stories aside for 6 months or so while they work out where they are going, but I'm really happy with the way the stories end up. Well, I am briefly happy with them, until the sheer crippling terror of creation comes washing back and I resolve never to look at them again. I haven't even opened my copies of Smoke/Ashes. Once a book is made, it's dead to me. I don't go back to it ever.

So how was NYCC this year for you since it's the culmination of what you started last year?

I was only down for a day and a half, due to family commitments/crises. I dunno. I was expecting an earth-shattering Kaboom. I had assumed that the process of producing my books would become easier for me now that Smoke/Ashes and Grindhouse were out, and the rather horrifying takeaway from NYCC was that no, things are not easier, and the next book will be just as much of a fight to get out there as Smoke/Ashes was. I have two graphic novels I'm taking around — a noir piece with Ramon Perez, and of course the practically unprintable (except in Japan, perhaps) Margaret the Damned, and was pretty much reminded how much nobody wants original graphic novels. It kills me, because BAD GIRLS (the noir one) is probably the best thing I've written yet. Super-tight, dark noir that takes place over about eight hours on one night in Cuba. It's just so hard to get books made. Sometimes it makes me feel immensely hopeless. I've got all this small stuff going on which should make me feel great, but the books I really care about… I can't push forwards on those.

GHDOM #2 PG07How was the reader and fan response to SMOKE/ASHES?

I mostly know from the Kickstarter backers and a few reviews… people seemed to really love it (with the usual couple critics who either liked Smoke better or didn't get it at all, which is all to be expected). But it's a very slow burn in terms of sales. I'm somewhat numb, actually. Ashes was such a battle to get made. Horrible, horrible things happened to me while Ashes was in production. I got divorced, ending a truly awful relationship that had destroyed my confidence in myself. My dog died. I was so broke I could barely afford groceries most weeks. Plus, managing the stressful fallout of breaking with the original artist, getting new artists on board, and then production-managing all of them as they sailed past their deadlines. Then, lettering the book. Really teaching myself how to letter, because I couldn't afford a letterer. Commissioning covers for the series. It was just so much. Dealing with a couple retailer backers that were really unhappy with me because of the delays. Then sending the books out… I had managed to get my shit together and save up a few grand/pay down my credit card in preparation for the shipping, but then it still wasn't enough (each overseas book cost $30 to send, when backers generally only PAID $30 for the book.) So I'm back to no money and my credit card is at limit. And I still owe Dark Horse for the printing. So mostly I feel like a punch-drunk boxer, just sitting sprawled against the ropes. Critical reception is almost the last thing on my mind, though it means a lot when people write in and say they liked it.

GHDOM #2 PG08Since this was the first big project of yours that got published? How does it feel to finish it?

It's hard to remember how I felt when typing the last line of Ashes, since it was two years ago now, but I can say I'm proud of that last page. They are the right words to end on.

Between this, VALENTINE, the comics you did for Tokyopop, then filmmaking, shooting pop videos and having a kid, how do you feel your writing has changed over the years?

It's quieter, more humble, and more honest. I used to try to be flashy for flashiness' sake, to impress people. Now I just write what's right for the scene. It's a lot tighter. I also don't care a ton what people think. I'll be sad if a lot of critics slag off my work (I'm not a stone), but honestly by the time the book is actually on sale I've written it so long ago (usually, over a year at least) it's only connected to me by the most delicate filament any more.

GRINDHOUSE is very much consistent with your fascination with genre and sense of humour. I remember when you started talking about it and pitching it. Do you think it's like a fresh start after the closure of completing SMOKE/ASHES?

GHDOM #2 PG09After ASHES I wrote MARGARET THE DAMNED, my 5-act existential horror thing. After the psychological toll Ashes had taken in both its writing and production, and what was going on in my life at the time, plus the brutally personal horror of Margaret, I was just done. I couldn't face writing anything that… mattered. Kieron always says I write my books like if they are the last thing I ever write, I'd be OK with that, and it's generally true. But I just needed to do something that was lighter, not so personal, not so tough. And lo, Bee Vixens from Mars. It is probably destined to be my most popular work. I had finished all eight Grindhouse scripts in February of this year (yes, I work far in advance) and in March I had recovered enough to sit down and write Bad Girls. Right now I'm in another weird place, and not sure what I'm going to do next. I'll probably remain in existential crisis until either Margaret or Bad Girls finds a home. Those both being up in the air, it upsets me terribly.

And there's the MY LITTLE PONY series with Carla Speed-McNeil next. Any other projects after that apart from the ongoing raising-a-kid one?

GHDOM #2 PG10My daughter loves the My Little Pony series… Carla (another MLP fan) and I had been planning a series, but it had been pushed back several months (in fact, it's still not approved) so we found ourselves with unexpected time on our hands. Again, a fun diversion. Lauren Faust did such a good job with those characters and that world, it was great fun to be let in to play with them for a bit. What's on the writing desk right now is a Dark Horse Presents thing with Jerry Ordway — a horror/supernatural piece. The first six-episode segment is done, and I've finished four out of either five or six episodes of the second part. Jerry hasn't started drawing yet. And I'm re-lettering Valentine and writing new episodes ahead of its relaunch on Thrillbent in December. Plus my part-time job and single-mom duties. So I'm exhausted and broke all the time. But hey, if you can't starve, don't be a writer, eh?

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About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.
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