Talking To Alex De Campi About Smoke, Ashes, Kickstarter, Bill Sienkiewicz And Lesbian Exploitation

Smoke-AshTPDark Horse have solicited a combined volume featuring Alex De Campi and Igor Kordey's Eisner-nominated Smoke volume, originally published by IDW, and the Kickstarter funded Ashes by Alex De Campi and James Hodgkins everyone in her Rolodex. Dan McDaid, Carla Speed McNeil, Bill Sienkiewicz, Richard Pace, Colleen Doran and more.

I know De Campi of old, we ended up in the same London pubs through the early noughties, there was an infamous barbeque at my house that managed to survive a flooding, there were the long nights of the Brighton comic convention on the beach with a bag of John Layman's finest… and now we're both parents, on opposite ends of the world and we get to talk when our time zones coincide.

So, given the Dark Horse news, I thought it an opportune moment.

Rich: So, Alex, you're an overnight success in comics. How long has it taken you?

Alex: It's been a long night, Rich. A very long night. It's strange even to me that I now seem to have so much coming out at once.

Rich: Why now do you think?

Alex: But I sit down most days and write for two hours. So all this work that is now finally moving towards publication in some cases has been written years ago. Ashes was written in 2010 and 2011. Margaret the Damned was written last year. My grindhouse series was end of last year, early this year. I don't pitch many things. I have rather a strange working method — probably based on sheer terror that the muse will desert me when I need her most — so I finish the damn book, every word of it, before I pitch it.
And what I lean towards doing are big, 200-page graphic novels without any compromise to serialisation. So they're not in easy 24 page chunks.

Rich: Margaret The Damned…. About a certain ex Prime Minister and what she's up to now?

Alex: No, not about the Iron Lady. But now all I can think about are zombie Thatchers. Thank you from the bottom of my overactive imagination. It's a very personal psychological/horror story about the temptation, suicide, and life of a London woman. It's a very loose riff on Goethe's FAUST — what if Margaret had been tempted, rather than Faust?. But the Devil doesn't show up. Something much, much worse shows up.
It is a really uncomfortable book, like BLOOD MERIDIAN or great J-horror levels of just creeping menance.

tumblr_mksfyxTCej1s7f77no1_500Rich: So it is about Margaret Thatcher!

Alex: She's not from London you berk! The book achieves this menace without recourse to slasher or shock gore (although there are some pretty gnarly body horror scenes). It just works on you slowly but surely.

Rich: So how do you define grind house in comic book terms? It seems so movie specific.

Alex: Tits. No, just kidding. As a catchall, I'd say over the top violence/gore, a strong sexual element, and gratuitous badassery. My grindhouse comes with a healthy side serving of John Carpenter. The series is 8 issues, and that's four complete, discrete 2 issue stories, each one from a different exploitation sub-genre. BEE VIXENS FROM MARS is the alien invasion / small town / sluts one; PRISON SHIP ANTARES is the women's prison film… in space!; BRIDE OF BLOOD is the rape-revenge one; and FLESH FEAST OF THE DEVIL DOLL is the teenage girl gang / succubus one. So: alien tits; prison tits; bloody tits; underage tits. Hm, maybe we shouldn't print that.

Of course there is a very thin line between exploitation and just awful stories but hopefully we walk that line pretty effectively. I love the exploitation genre because weirdly it gave us some of the best and most active female characters in cinema. Coffy! Cleopatra Jones! Her from I Spit On Your Grave! Them from Faster Pussycat! Even Galaxina had agency, and she was a robot!So a lot of this series is girls kicking ass and taking names. It's so over the top. Oh my god it was so fun to write.

Rich: So who have you drafted in to draw these monstrosities?

bee_mondoAlex: We open with Chris Peterson on Bee Vixens, then Simon Fraser with our prison girls, Federica Manfredi for the much darker revenge book, and finishing off with Gary Erskine drawing hot teenage girls on mopeds. By the way, I have all the art, plus a couple lettered pages from Bee Vixens. I could easily do another four stories in this series. I hope to the stars it sells because then I can do the gonzo space story and the blaxploitation story and and and….

I think it will be quite popular. I'm going to toil away on all this big serious thriller novels and then the series I threw off in a couple months of fun will be the one that breaks me through. I know it.

Oh, and Francavilla and Panosian are on cover chores, with Coop doing a variant

I mostly find my own artists for books, and my own cover artists. Now I have editors to help me with that, but it's still force of habit.

Alex: (By the way, my series with Carla is still happening…. I've had TWO big projects spring out of friendships that grew during the creation of Ashes)

IMG_5553[1]Rich: So… before we mentioned this back and forth, you name dropped Bill Sienkiewicz. Hell, it's probably why we're doing this now. How did that happen?

Alex: Well, I have Richard Pace to thank. He knew Bill and put me in touch when we were brainstorming on who should do the last, big, painted section of Ashes. Bill's really fun to work with! A total pro, very patient and responsible. And I did this crazy collage lettering thing all over his pages and he really loved that (it would have been criminal just to slap word balloons onto those pages, I tell you.)

Rich: I remember when they used to use see through balloons and captions… Glad you didn't go that road.

Alex: So I sent him the script for Margaret… and at that point I wasn't sure that, y'know, guys would be interested in the script or find it remotely entertaining. It tends to make women alternately terrified, empathetic and then in tears. But now a few other guys have read it too and it's more a straight psych-horror piece to them but it works on them too.

I asked Bill if he'd be interested in reading Margaret. I never just send people things… unexpected attachments are just rude.

Rich: I'm glad you still like to upset people. My wife has just walked past and reminded me of the vomit in the patio…

Alex: Well if you'd cooked the sausages all the way through… Bill takes about three months to read the book, and then he's like, "I love it, it's so creepy." And then he kinda very gently asks if I'm OK with him doing what he wants with it in terms of maybe adding stuff, changing things, just going with the rhythm of the pages as he's working and I'm like FOR CHRISSAKES BILL YOU ARE BILL SIENKIEWICZ DO WHATEVER YOU WANT! Go forth, son, and go in whatever direction you see fit!

IMG_5552[1]So, Margaret is happening. It will happen really slowly and we don't have a home for it yet, but that script is possibly (along with the Perez project [a thriller comic she's working on with Ramon Perez -Rich]) the best thing I've ever written and I'm just so, so happy it's found its artist and is moving forwards. It'll be Bill's first UK-set work since Big Numbers…

Rich: Any way you can avoid what happened with Big Numbers happening to you?

Alex: Big numbers: I am not cognizant of all the factors involved with Big Numbers not continuing, and it's not something Bill and I have discussed. I'd like to get a larger publisher involved in Margaret simply so they can help manage schedules… we're probably gong to produce less than 10 pages a month, more like 5… unless of course maybe we can Kickstarter or get an advance that lets Bill take couple months off and just nail out the first third of the book. My script is complete… I don't know if Big Numbers was. I seem to recall an interview with Alan where he said that was the last script he ever outlined, so obviously he knew where it was going, but I don't know if that meant Bill had the scripts he needed to hand, when he needed them.

We're going to work on this slowly. It's probably a 2015 or 2016 book; we're still working out a lot of the details though Bill is being really awesome about everything.

Rich: We were part of the whole WEF UK set, what are your memories of that time? And what you were like back then?

Alex: Well, I really only showed up after it was the V. I have really fond memories of that forum. All my really close friends are from those days… I still keep in touch with most if not all.

Rich: More recent relationships have been more fractious, specifically with Ashes. One of the early comics Kickstarter controversies was over your split with James Hodgkins on the book. Now it's being published from Dark Horse, do you anticipate any action, legal or otherwise from him?

IMG_5554[1]Alex: I wouldn't think so. I think he's moved on — he's had a successful Kickstarter of his own with GoldTiger, so his plate is pretty full.

With Hodgkins, it just didn't work, and I think what surprised me about that is I've worked with a ton of very diverse artists and almost always, it works. He's obviously worked with a bunch of other writers and it's worked. So I don't think there's a ton of analysis that can be done or tagging either of us as fractious or difficult. We tried a collaboration. It failed. Sometimes that happens. It was a massive bummer, but life goes on. In some ways I should thank him as so many interesting friendships and projects have blossomed out of the Dunkirk-like boatlift to get that book to safety.

Rich: And are you planning to revisit Kickstarter for future projects? What lessons have you learned?

Alex: I'd do one again. I'd prefer not to until I've completely fulfilled Ashes, though.

 I was looking to Kickstart the rest of Valentine, my long-on-hold webcomic (talking about not finishing things!) but luckily I think we've found a way of funding the series to completion without having to go to Kickstarter.

I can't wait to get Valentine going again. About 12 more episodes left, and I've written half of them. Soon, my pretties. Soon.

Rich: Are you preparing yourself for the task of mailing all the copies out?

Alex: I actually love repetitive, boring labour. I've had so many crappy day jobs where that was all I did, I get really zen about it. And also, I can't wait to just get this all out. I'm probably going to fly out to Portland and send them from DH's warehouse… as ALL the Kickstarter money got eaten up in art cost overruns so it's basically my savings being used to send the books out.

So THAT was a lesson learned.

tumblr_mjclremVfl1s7f77no2_500Also, Kickstarter has improved its UI a lot since then and you can now add on automatic shipping charges.

Every element of Ashes has been such a struggle. I think we've made an amazing book, and it's delighted those who read it so far (we serialised it to backers via Comixology), and it's opened up so many opportunities for me, but oy, such a struggle.

The little voice in my head is now saying, "No shit, Sherlock. Perhaps a 250-page graphic novel was a leeetle ambitious for one's first Kickstater? Just maybe?"

Rich: Talking of publishers, Image put out Valentine, why Dark Horse for Smoke Ashes? And do you have anyone in mind for your next books?

Alex: Dark Horse is very hands-on, and I appreciate that, and actually really need it. They had picked up the Grindhouse series first, and then we had a discussion about Ashes (and it was their idea to do a combined Smoke/Ashes).

It'll be a better book for the proofreading, professional layout, marketing, con presence, distribution, et cetera that Dark Horse can provide. And my editor is super responsive (he provided some very important notes and guidance on the Grindhouse series)…

Also, importantly for future projects, Dark Horse will provide small advances on creator-owned projects which vastly widens the pool of artists I can use. I never have artists who can do Image deals… nobody can draw all these issues and then wait for the money for six months or more. Seriously, take me to Big Rock Candy Mountain where all these artists live! Because everyone I know is subject to the normal rules of economics.

I suppose so many of the Image projects are Shadowline or Kirkman's thing or some side imprint where there is upfront money.. but I just don't know those people.

Rich: One thing I've noted about Valentine is that it is hailed as a complete revolution for digital comics, and indeed forced ComiXology to offer comics like Marvel's Infinite series. ComiXology credit you, Mark Waid credits you as a digital comics innovator, but it feels as if you didn't quite get the traction for yourself to keep going in that fashion. Any chance you can grab any of that momentum back again?

Alex: Valentine will hopefully be moving over to Thrillbent, so going to a much wider audience as it continues…. and then ironically back to Comixology for the collected episodes.

It was frustrating to do all this very innovative work at the time and then see the people picked up to do mainstream versions of it just be the usual white guys the comics industry always employs, but frankly, I'm not surprised. Who would you hire, some random chick, or your buddy?

The most frustrating element was mainly the financial stress of creating Valentine — something a lot of self publishers can identify with. The panels are VERY complex, and done at huge size (9×12), and each episode has 70-75 of them. They take Christine over a month to do… that's two 9×12 full colour illustrations A DAY, plus variations in them for the digital tricks and fizz.

Of course she needs money for that because while she may do it for the passion, her landlord, the supermarket and the phone company do it for cash.

So I self funded 10 episodes then lost my job, and I had just hoped so hard that some transmedia company or Hollywood studio or publisher or something would stop by and go, "Wow, your series has had 350,000 downloads with zero marketing and a website that's never updated? Here, we want to get in on this". Even to fund creation of an app… we had one, but when Robotcomics died, it died.

And there was SO much more we wanted to do in terms of ambient sound, transitions, extras, et cetera. If we had someone to fund the tech dev that comic could have been so groundbreaking. But, no money, and eventually no money even for art.

This is the sort of everyday, boring tragedy that hits a lot of "content" every day. I know I'm not alone. But it did result in Valentine having to go on hold.

I had a baby; I got involved making Ashes and that ate my life for a year. Now things are starting to clear up and we can get Valentine moving again.

Rich: You know what comes next right? Kickstarter? Do you get fed up of that being the suggested answer to everything?

Alex: Nah. The people who suggest it have never actually run a Kickstarter. They're the same people who tell me how awesome self-publishing is. I nod and smile and walk away.

But! Here's the thing. I have sorted Valentine's funding (I think) clear through the end! Without a Kickstarter! We may do one later to print an Ultimate Valentine cased edition, but for now, we found our money!

Rich: How so? Or is it a trade secret?

Alex: The Valentine funding thing still needs t's dotted and i's crossed so until the contract is signed my lips are sealed.

And you know, ultimately, past all this digital stuff and the stress of making it and being passed over for the money gigs because we were outsiders, we're doing Valentine because IT'S A REALLY FUN STORY. So many twists and turns! So much suspense! And that's why we have so many readers. It's not just because we're free. If we were free and crap, people wouldn't download.

We love writing it and drawing it. People love to read it (all people, kids and women too). We just want to finish it. Comics shouldn't be hard! But they are.

As for the upcoming big books (Margaret the Damned; the related thrillers Bad Girls / Rough Boys) we don't have homes for them yet. I'm querying and waiting, querying and waiting… both these projects are less genre comics and more bookstore graphic novels (although they still have action and suspense and stuff), so our pool is a little wider than usual. But still, query and wait, query and wait. I would love to try out one of the more bookstore publishers but they take so long to reply and look at projects and the indie comics publishers are so proactive in going after what they want… I never get around to going through the process with the bookstore folks. I suppose I still have this paranoia that NOBODY WILL EVER PUBLISH ME AGAIN!!! so I am PATHETICALLY grateful at any interest from publishers and tend to just roll over and give them the project because OH MY GOD I HAVE A PUBLISHER THANK YOU GREAT SPAGHETTI MONSTER THANK YOU.

By the way, I don't know if you missed it in the kerfuffle but all of Ashes is on Comixology so if you haven't read the last chapter, have a squizz. it's Guera and Bill, so just for art alone…

Rich: So, all this stuff for Dark Horse… Have they wrangled you into joining them in DHP yet?

Alex: Yes! But we're still developing quite what it will be. In terms of with whom, schedule permitting, I'll be developing a project with Jerry Ordway.

So, my first superhero-y thing! No pressure, kiddo.

I need to finish writing Rough Boys, then I think in May, Jerry and I are going to bounce round ideas and develop our story. My only proviso is that it is something ultimately uplifting and feel good. Maybe a space hero/sci fi thing, maybe a magic hero… not sure yet. Probably less likely a space thing as I don't feel like going up against either Saga or Casanova, thank you very much. Magic's a bit more open.

Rich: So did this come about after Ordway's recent expression of woes or was it previously in the works?

Alex: Dude I was on the email to my editor in seconds after seeing that post. We were both like, WUT? Apparently Geoff Johns was, too. Johns seems like a good egg. But anyway.

I think part of the situation is young creators often don't realise that the more experienced artists are usually total mensches and really approachable. And part of course is the growing squeeze on page rates and young artists willing to draw for comparatively fuckall.

But working with an artist like Ordway? You know how much easier that is for a writer? All the perspective is going to be right. There will be backgrounds. The figure work will be amazing. The visual storytelling will make your words look a bazillion times better than they have any right to.

Rich: And writers willing to work for nothing?

Alex: I'll work for nothing up front if I own it. If a company owns it, it's like directing a commercial… I require generous payment to make up for the amount of rigamarole that is going to happen, and to keep me smiling and saying, "of course I'll change that, again!".
You don't pay me to write the story. You pay me to put up with you.

Rich: So how much do I owe you for this?

Alex: Haha! Always a pleasure. Come for the Thatcher jokes, stay for the puns. Besides, it's actually you in this case who are, as the American slang expression goes, "doing me a solid", though personally I always thought that was something that happened after ingesting too large a proportion of fibre in one's diet.

Rich: So, when are you going to come and get stoned on Brighton's pebble beach again?

Alex: I want to do some sort of signing tour in UK to thank the retailers who pledged for Ashes… finances permitting, hopefully in October. But the finances permitting is a big caveat. Mine are atrocious. It's the thing about doing a ton of creator-owned work but no big company stuff… long wait for the dough, if it ever arrives.

Rich: I'm not feeling guilty. I made my Kickstarter donation…

Smoke/Ashes is published by Dark Horse in September. A preview of De Campi's grindhouse series runs below, Bee Vixens with Chris Peterson and Nolan Woodard, scheduled for October.

Grindhouse01_01-2 Grindhouse01_0203-1 Grindhouse01_0203-2 Grindhouse01_0405-1 Grindhouse01_0405-2

About Rich Johnston

Head writer and founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world. Living in London, father of two. Political cartoonist.

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