By Erik Grove
From the inception of this column I always knew I wanted to do 8 question interviews with creators that I found fascinating and wanted to know more about. What I didn't know is that the first one would be with Alex de Campi. As a fan of her work, de Campi's answers really helped me to understand her process and get to know her a little better. I'm very appreciative of her time and accessibility. She was generous enough to give very thorough answers to my (more than) Essential 8 Questions with Alex de Campi!
Erik Grove: I'll start with an easy one. What did you read that lead you to comic books and made you realize the medium was something special? Do you remember your first comic? What was it that stood out to you?
Alex de Campi: My first comic was probably something like Elfquest or Samurai Cat… I graduated to buying X-Men off the spinner rack of the drugstore… or, really, leading my mom to believe if she bought me some comics I'd be quiet for a little while. Then after a certain point, comics ceased to be a factor in my life. Until my late 20s, when a friend was moving barracks and gave me a huge stack of 2000ADs and Vertigo comics, back when Vertigo comics were really something. Although I love, LOVE prose, and I attribute a lot of my ability to write comic dialogue to my love of poetry, there's something about words and pictures working together. I mean, really, don't you think the whole growing-up malarkey is a bit of a gyp? As you get older, the "proper" books have fewer and fewer pictures in them. What a rip-off. Everyone knows the pictures are the best part.
EG: You work in a lot of different genres and formats: the Napoleonic fantasy Valentine you're serializing on Thrillbent.com, the dystopian political espionage thriller Smoke and the follow up Ashes, books for kids and teens, and now the very adult Z-movie celebration Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight. You write in English and French, make films, and have lived and worked all over the world; it's almost impossible to speculate what you might do next. Is any one of your projects closer and more personal than any of the others? Is there such a thing as "the Alex de Campi style"?
AdC: A reader once summed up my own style for me far more brilliantly than I ever could have: "You write heartbreaking sadness and sheer fucking terror". With occasional dark jokes. And a lot of silent panels. And projects… they're all personal to me, or I don't do them. Most other writers, I have learned, pitch a whole bunch of things and continue with the ones that get accepted. I pitch very, very few things, but they are already completely written.
The longer graphic novel projects tend to be the most personal, because long-form work just does that. It's such a journey, especially because you're sitting down and writing it all in one go (even if that "all in one go" is really the course of several years). Ashes was personal. Margaret the Damned, my horror book which, someday, maybe, will come out, is personal. There are a lot of my own experiences and feelings in the noir graphic novel I'm working on, even though it is set in a year before I was born. But it's greatly about US expatriates, and how they relate to the country they are occupying, and I have a lot to say about that. But there are even very personal moments in the Grindhouse books, too. It all has to matter. It all has to come from somewhere that it kind of hurts to go to.
I'm fundamentally, I think, a horror writer. But horror takes so many forms, that doesn't limit me in the slightest. That doesn't mean I will always write horror… as a writer I find after doing a lot of one thing for a while, I'll take another sort of project afterwards that's totally different, as a little break. I also have a young daughter, so I want to write the odd thing she is able to read. And comedy and horror share a lot of the same timing skills, so I wander over there sometimes too.
EG: You've been active and have had significant notoriety in comics for some time now. You're also one of the most critically acclaimed women working in the field. What do you think about the state of the industry for female creators? Has it changed since you started? How do you think it might still need to change?
AdC: It all hinges on what you mean by "industry". If you mean DC and Marvel, eh, it's still pants. They each have their woman writer and so hey, no problems there! Everything's cool now. Even if you widen it to Dark Horse and Image, there's… me and Kelly Sue as "just writers", with series there. Include writer-artists and you double the size of the pool! You've got Carla Speed McNeil and Colleen Doran, too! Woo! Suffragette City! But once you look beyond comics mainly read by 40 year old white men, there are a shit-ton of women (still, mostly white tho) and they are having astounding success. Whither women in comics? If Raina Teigelmeier is anything to go by, straight up the New York Times bestseller list AND STAYING THERE.
Things like Kickstarter and Patreon have made things infinitely better for creators who aren't going to get cushy DC/Marvel gigs anytime soon, too. We can do this. We can get the books out there that we want to, without being told, you can't have a female lead, people won't buy it. It's still an almighty struggle, and success often comes more to the bull-headed rather than the talented, but we can do it. I have clear pathways ahead of me to get books created that I feel tremendously passionately about. That wasn't the case when I got into comics writing — it was all the convention hustle. It's good, too, because I'm older now, and a single mom, so I can't afford to be running off to San Diego to trawl for editors the way the really hungry boys do who would die to write Batman.
EG: Your Kickstarter with Ashes seems like one of the bigger success stories in crowd-funded comics. What was your experience like with that Kickstarter project? How do you think crowd-funding is changing or will change comics?
AdC: The Kickstarter in itself was amazing and I am incredibly proud of the book we produced. All of the crap that happened between raising the money and getting the book out? I could have used less of it. (I had to fire my artist a month after our Kickstarter closed. Then I had to hit my rolodex hard and bring in other artists to do the book. It happened, and it happened with people like Bill Sienkiewicz and RM Guera and Dark Horse stepping in to publish the book as a Dark Horse Original, but the amount of moving parts involved, and all the production, nearly killed me. While the book was coming out I was also plunged into an acrimonious divorce and two of my dogs died. FUN TIMES. 2013, don't let the door whack you in the ass on the way out.) But now? I feel like I could do a Kickstarter again with no problems whatsoever. Literally, every fucking thing went wrong with Ashes that could go wrong and I still produced an amazing book that went on to get gooey reviews in places like the Sunday New York Times Book Review. So, suck it, haters.
But yeah. Kickstarter is a great thing. I literally would not be able to publish graphic novels without them. There is no support for long-form graphic novel work in the industry — it's too big a risk, unless you're willing to draw it all up front for essentially free (to which: NOPE.) Maybe if I were a little less genre and more literary (I totally fall between two stools here) I could tap into that nice First Second or Pantheon money but sadly, I'm not their kind of girl. I have three more Kickstarters planned over the next 18 months. Scripts are written, artists are down, we're on our way.
EG: I very much enjoyed Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight. You definitely seem to have a love for grindhouse cinema. What was your first experience with Z movies? What is it about that kind of movie that interests you as a viewer and fan?
AdC: Channel 29 in Philly in the 70s and 80s used to run all sorts of B and Z movies. I watched them all, with almost no discrimination. I watched a TON of TV as a kid. Like, ridonkulous amounts. And then of course you get to be 13 and you discover slasher films and you aren't supposed to see them but we had VHS then and slumber parties. I love a bunch of things about Grindhouse / Exploitation films. I love the rather loosey-goosey, anything might happen structure of them, especially now that everything is so "Save the Cat!" / Screenwriting 101 three-act structured into the ground. This is also a reason I love Korean and Japanese thriller films because WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!. I love crazy gore (who doesn't?). I love that the heroes are all sorts of people. It mattered so much to me to see female action heroes in films, like Cleopatra Jones and Coffy, when I was growing up. I know we're all supposed to be all post racial and shit now (spoiler: we're not) but for some people that seems to mean we don't even have to try any more and we're all equal so let's just cast a white guy. And that is so. fucking. boring.
EG: As a viewer and fan of classic Z movies myself, one of the things that really stood out to me in Grindhouse is the way you're handling gender and sex. It seems to me that in many of those old films sex was being exploited for thrills and titillation with a "male gaze" and largely male audience in mind. You've definitely embraced sexuality in the book, but you seem to be more consciously using it to subvert and confront gender norms and almost stare right back at that male gaze without flinching.
You've likewise confronted racial stereotypes and LGBT stereotypes without any hint of apology or shame. Is there a subversive element in Grindhouse? How conscious were you about the history of the films as exploitation and then celebrations of subcultures? Were there rules you set for yourself about how men or women or different races or sexual orientations would be presented? Do you think that creators should consider these kinds of things?
AdC: I barely even think about that sort of stuff — I certainly don't go into books with quotas in my head of like, whoops, gotta have a Latina. But it's funny how our views differ — you are all, "exploitation was tits n ass for white dudes!", and I remember all those films as female heroes kicking ass and/or fighting to see if they'd be the "final girl" in the horror story. Same group/genre of films, we take two very different things away. I mean, sure, there's plenty of the film you mention but I think there were SO many more proportionately women-starring films where women had tremendous agency than in mainstream film, even if overall these chick films were in the minority they still felt like a lot. It's like, when your bowl has only two raisins in it (two major action films starring women last year – Catching Fire and Gravity) and suddenly there are a dozen more raisins dumped in your bowl you're like HOLY SHIT!
Plus, so many Grindhouse films were the product of a more rebellious time, the 1970s. There's something subversive about ALL Grindhouse films, because they are giving you what mainstream entertainment won't… whatever that "it" is, whether it's full-beaver shots of female prisoners, or black women starring in action films, or overt homosexuality, or iron spikes being nailed into pretty girls' faces… you can get "it" at the grindhouse. Ignoring that subversive element is what makes for terrible comics. If it's just another white-guy power fantasy? Szzzznnnnnooooore. Everything has to be a little bit dangerous…
As for writing diversity, fuck social justice, if you don't write interesting, varied characters of all genders, sexual preferences, and skin colours, you are just leaving money on the table. You really want to fight ONLY for that 40 year old white straight guy dollar? Ohhhhkay.
EG: What was the creative origin of Grindhouse? Can you tell me something about how it started? Was this always envisioned as a comic series? Did you ever think about making short films of these stories (the budgets obviously being a real challenge)? Did this start as one story or was it always going to be an anthology with different stories?
AdC: Grindhouse started out as a twitter conversation back in October 2012. I'd just wrapped producing Ashes (which had given me a gray streak in my hair, it was so stressful.) I had then finished writing my very personal psychological-horror book, Margaret the Damned. And I was arsing about on twitter, as you do, wondering what the next big graphic novel I would begin would be. I was exhausted, though. So, so tired of big books that hurt to write. And I just threw it out there — "fuck it, maybe I should just write trash — BEE VIXENS FROM MARS". The internet's response was overwhelming — yes, yes, write that! I put a pitch together. Thought up three more ridiculous titles and cobbled together a paragraph of story for each. Wrote the first issue of Bee Vixens. Emailed some artist friends. Decided these had to be fast little stories that got in and got out (Christ, does anyone REALLY want to read SIX ISSUES of Bee Vixens? I think not.) So I came up with what turned out to be this quite innovative format: two issue stories. My own personal anthology series, essentially.
Retailers love it because it's an easy hand sell. It's been great with the comics press because I get reviews for each new story. And I sent the pitch off to two companies. Dark Horse — with whom I'd talked a lot, but never gotten very far — had it approved and through costing within 72 hours. This was before Dark Horse picked up Smoke/Ashes, too. I wrote all the scripts and had them all done by Feb 2013, and we've just been producing the book ever since. Sunday I'll letter the last 2 pages of Grindhouse #8 then I'll be done. Well, not really done — we're hoping to get approved for another 8 issues and a Christmas Annual, but I need a little break.
EG: Finally, what are you excited about right now? What do you have coming up that you would like to mention to fans? What projects are you looking forward to as a fan?
AdC: Projects coming up: my supernatural horror series with Jerry Ordway, Semiautomagic, begins in Dark Horse Presents #4 (November 2014?). If you like J-horror, and loved old-skool Hellblazer, you may love this. I… want to write a lot more stories in this series. So buy it, so I can. I have a couple Kickstarters coming up; the best way to find out about them is to follow me on twitter (@alexdecampi) or tumblr (alexdecampi.tumblr.com). Other things being announced soon I can't talk about yet.
As a fan… I'm so poor, I'm still catching up on stuff that's already come out. Want to buy Ennis' Fury MAX. Still need to pick up the last Young Avengers trade. Looking forwards to The Wicked & The Divine by Gillen/McKelvie. I want Dini's Fishnet Brigade (Zatanna / Black Canary) to come out already. Illidge & Martinborough's The Ren looks AMAZING and that needs to come out already too. I want to pick up more Prophet because I could only afford the first trade and loved it. Ulises Farinas' Judge Dredd: Mega City 2 is a thing of joy and beauty. Yay comics!
Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight #7 is in stores on Wednesday April 2nd. I've read it. It's amazing and might be my favorite of the 4 stories. I strongly recommend picking it up for field hockey camp girls fighting an old demonic horror.
Do you have a book you think I'd like? Tell me about it! Are you a creator that wants to answer 8 Essential questions? Let me know!
Let's talk comics!
Erik Grove lives, writes and talks about comics in Portland, OR. You can go to his website www.erikgrove.com for blogs on writing, short stories, novel excerpts and links to all of his Bleeding Cool works. You can also follow him on Twitter @erikgrove.