Comics Creator Column #01: Alex de Campi and “Ashes”

by Tauriq Moosa

SmokeThis will be the first in, so far, a four-part series where I will be (reviewing the work of and) talking to comics creators. My aim is to provide an insight into the medium and the creative process, as well as exclusive interviews with some of the most talented people in the medium. This is mainly aimed at comic writers, rather than artists since that’s what I am (trying to be). In many instances, this is also an obvious plea for you, the readers, to help support this industry via the very creators who are doing the hard-work to produce quality. If you’re fed up with stagnant stories, stale characters and stereotypes (i.e. so much of the superhero genre), then these are the very people we need to be supporting.

The comics industry is a strange beast. Some view it as squatting in-between word-exclusive prose books and full-motion films. Lately, it has been the latter that’s been appropriating comics’ offspring – with Watchmen, Spider-Man, and The Walking Dead all appearing on the silver or television screen. Yet, viewing comics as nestled in-between prose and films is too simplistic a view of the medium, which has, for too long, become entangled in the webs and capes of superheroes. Indeed, many simply equate the comic medium with the superhero genre, which is like equating fiction books with only Dan Brown’s, um, ‘writing’. This does not mean the superhero genre is bad, but that the medium is not limited to one genre. Whether it’s the horror and drama of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Alan Moore’s complex investigation into psychopathy, Jack the Ripper and the history of England in From Hell, Neil Gaiman’s fantastical Sandman, or, my current focus, Alex de Campi’s mature, dystopian and elegantly-narrated Smoke, we have amazing stories wonderfully placed utilising the full extent of sequential art and words.

Comics elicit awe and wonder in the way art as a whole is (sometimes) meant to. It can be as simple as beautiful artwork – open any page of Gaiman and McKean’s Mr Punch to view the genius of Dave McKean – or amazing narration – Jamie Delano’s writing in John Constantine Hellblazer is better than most novels I’ve read. But, truly, it is the mixture of the two that shows what this medium can do. Alan Moore’s work uses everything the page offers to highlight his themes. Whether we are watching the Earth from space, as the narration compares the spinning of the earth to the idea of not having a hold on life (as he did in an issue of Swamp Thing); or whether we are watching a young man read a comic about pirates while, in his reality, men of power try usurp people’s freedom (in Watchmen); Moore and his art team utilise economy of words and illustration to tell powerful stories.

The friction of words and pictures ignites many themes. The trouble is, if not used correctly, it can therefore also completely destroy them.

ALEX DE CAMPI, writer on the Eisner-nominated Smoke, “sat down” with me (i.e. replied to my annoying emails) to discuss our favourite medium, its merits and failings, and provides important insight that we new creators should take into account. We also discussed her new project, Ashes, which has gotten praise from some comics giants, like Mark Waid, Gail Simone, and David ‘Co-Creator of Watchmen’ Gibbons before it's even been completed.

TM: Let’s start at the beginning. Why should people care about comics? Why do you?

ALEX DE CAMPI: Comics are uniquely suited to external narrative: symbolism, subtext, surprise, silence. And with everyone telling us their internal narratives all the time via blogs, twitter, et cetera, it's lovely to have all that shut up and be sitting there staring at some lovely art, on the edge of your seat, wondering what is going to happen next. Comics also suit the way we consume entertainment today — brief, serialised, exciting. Easy to pick up and become immersed immediately… to get away from whatever the world has weighed you down with, to a brighter, more exciting place. I love comics because I am a very visual person. Stories in my head come with images. Of course I also love films, but a film is a very demanding thing. It is going to tell me exactly how long I can look at things, and how fast I must progress through its narrative. The film is in control of time. In a comic, I am in control of time. I can progress slowly through a lovely or particularly meaningful page… I can go backwards. I can skim forwards to discover, in breathless anticipation, what will happen. Of course the creator can suggest how fast I move through the comic, by making more or fewer panels per page, but these are only suggestions I can ignore as I see fit. The pacing of a comic — the density of panels, the amount of dialogue, the cliffhanger at each page turn — is a great and subtle art and when done well lends so much to the drama and suspense of the book. There is so much to love… and as a creator, I love collaborating with an artist. It makes the creation process less lonely, less inward. And when the book is being drawn, it's like a holiday every day when you open your inbox to discover the gift of new pages, that nobody else has seen before — your word made pictures.

TM: I know exactly that feeling of receiving art from your creative partner; and I’m sure many comics writers are nodding in agreement now. But how did you get into comics as a fan? How did you come to be a creator (published by IDW, etc.)?

ALEX: Back in the day, comics were really cheap and you could buy them in spinner racks in the drugstore. They were a great way of shutting kids up. I was a noisy child so Mom knew if she took me to the drugstore and let me pick out some comics I'd shut up for a while. I liked bad DC fantasy comics (Arion, anyone?) and the X-Men… back when there was only *one* X-men comic.

Then, when I was in my late 20s, I hadn't read comics in years when my first husband brought home a huge stack of 2000ADs and some Vertigo stuff that a friend had left behind when he moved. They were really good… the original LUCIFER mini, some PREACHER, HELLBLAZER… and I got back in to comics. I've always been very visual so I loved how a good writer/artist combo could create moods and subtext by the juxtaposition of words and images.

I'd been a writer all my life but mainly journalism and nonfiction, then I fell so in love with comics I started imagining my own four-colour stories. I actually had a fairly easy time getting published… I wrote up pitches for various stories and sent them off, and got a great number accepted: by IDW, by Tokyopop, by the French publisher Humanoids. I even had a series accepted by Marvel, but it later fell apart. Of course that was back in 2004/2005, when everyone had more money than sense and the boom was going to go on forever.

TM: Is there reason to think either the comic medium or industry is suffering?

ALEX: No. For once, it isn't. There's a large and diverse group of creators; there is more for women than ever before; and via digital, people can access comics even more easily than back in the drugstore spinner-rack days. Of course, the mainstream is still kinda poopy but then mainstream everything is kinda poopy, isn't it? In a prose publishing industry where [Nobel Prize Winner – TM] Snooki's autobiography exists (and has gotten massive marketing support), frankly the fact that the American mainstream comics are by and large misogynistic, culturally blinkered and not kid-friendly, is small beer.

There needs to be a more central place to find a lot of the good independent work, and there need to be more publishers embracing independent genre graphic novel work (which could be as successful as genre fiction like Twilight or Hunger Games, especially among young women) but that will happen. The industry is always 10 years behind the readers, it's in the nature of complex organisations to be stodgy and slow moving.

TM: Your miniseries from IDW, the Eisner-nominated Smoke, is an amazing comic. It's one of the few comics I've reread and my ammo against non-comics readers (what's the term for such people?). “This,” I say, showing them comics like Smoke and Mr Punch, “is what makes comics unique and beautiful.” Can you tell us about the work you've done in the past?

ALEX: The past for a writer is a land that is difficult to revisit. When I finish a story, it's like locking a pretty, ornamental box and putting it away in an attic. But I shall blow the dust off some old curiosities for you. Smoke was a short series, circa 150 pages, from IDW. It was a sci-noir, a thriller/conspiracy piece about a soldier and a journalist who become caught in a government attempt to game the oil markets. It's out of print from IDW, but you can get all three issues for a total of $2.97 from Comixology. Although looking back on Smoke there are parts of it where I feel I was trying too hard, it's a good summary of what I like to do as a writer — fast, suspenseful thrillers with not a small amount of the Western to them, and a fair amount of pitch-black humour. Smoke was meant to be a longer series, so there are things at the end of Issue 3 that remain obscure.

I then did two series for Humanoids, a French publisher — they ran into financial troubles so sadly neither of those series was ever completed. Messiah Complex was a great big space opera starring a teen girl who becomes a political pawn in a very great game; and Chromaland is about a little boy who accidentally is nominated as the hero who will save The Land of the Imagination. Two more series for Tokyopop — now out of print as they had financial problems and have essentially shut down. This time, the series were for younger readers, and I did get to finish them. Kat & Mouse was a turbocharged Nancy Drew for tweens: two misfit girls solve crimes/problems in their posh east coast private school using SCIENCE. Agent Boo was just insane, it was mental sci-fi for really little kids.

There were also a few other projects that were written but never saw the light of day — an Amazing Fantasy run for Marvel, a Batman issue for DC, an Escapist story for Dark Horse.

TM: Many are excited to hear about Smoke's sequel, Ashes. What can you tell us about it?


ALEX: Ashes is a behemoth of a thriller novel that picks up five years after Smoke ended. It has the same two lead characters — the soldier and the journalist — and a few supporting characters make a re-appearance, but the book is more or less stand alone. What is it? A sprawling, British, psychedelic Western. Our heroes, five years later and considerably the worse for wear, are reunited when the consciousness of a 15 year old boy with a grudge against them, is accidentally uploaded to the internet by the US Military. Complications ensue. The book itself is also quite formally ambitious as well as having an overarching metacommentary/literary theme, but frankly I don't want that to be too noticeable. It's not a work that's going to try to bang you over the head and say “Look! I Am Clever! My Author Has Read Books!”, because I hate that. Don't you?

TM: Yeah! [Erases all the long-winded discourses on 17th Century Parisian architecture from latest script]

ALEX: I did steal a good joke from Edward Albee, and there is a nice reference to my favourite film (Cocteau's Orphée) but nothing really obvious.

The book is going to be a beast to draw, though. Thank goodness for Jimmy Broxton and his prodigious artistic talents! We hit it off immediately, and he is really on the same wavelength as me. We sorted out the cover design in about a day… both of us felt a comic book style cover was inappropriate for the book, so we have the red circuit map of death instead. Jimmy has to draw one section of the book like a Winnie the Pooh illustrated story… another in the vein of US illustrator Howard Pyle's King Arthur books. And then there are the sections that require being painted in oil over a text collage. And all of this works. It's for reasons in the story that [these variations] make such sense; you probably won't be overly conscious of our formalist pyrotechnics. Or if you are, we've failed.

In order to provide Jimmy with a minimal subsistence living for the year it will take him to draw the book, and to support a lovely deluxe 1,000-book print run as Kickstarter rewards, we're trying to raise $27k. We're over 50% of the way there, but pledges are slowing, and I fear we won't make it. We're asking people to spend $15 to get the book to them serialised digitally chapter by chapter as we finish it, or $30 to get the digital version plus a lovely, numbered hardback. So all we really want people to do is buy our book ahead of time. We'll ship it anywhere, for free.

Then of course there's some awesome but more expensive rewards, like 10 books with hand-drawn and hand-coloured covers (each book's cover will be unique, and we take requests!). Five pages of painted art are available (well, three are left — two have been pledged for). This is actually pretty special, as Jimmy works entirely digitally so there are only 12 pages out of the entire book that will exist as physical objects. These dozen are from the book's climactic end, which is fully painted, in oils. Jimmy doesn't really sell his art or do conventions/take commissions, so this Kickstarter is a very unique opportunity to get some art from what hopefully will be a pretty legendary book. Oh and if you have a bunch of money, you can even be immortalised as a fictional character, with your likeness and name being given to an important secondary character. We're also quite upfront about the film rights and the trade printing rights being available for pretty much all markets. Interested in them? Contact us.

TM: In other interviews, you said that you had refused comics publishers for Ashes. Your reasoning was very sound. Could you explain it for those who are not aware?

ALEX: It's easy to get published in comics. [Er… Really? Wow. OK – TM] Getting a book made is tough (as nobody pays advances or page rates any more for indie work), but getting it published is easy. You just have to finish the book completely ahead of time, and present it to the publisher. They publish it, and send you some money six to nine months later.

However, many publishers want to take 50% of all your rights in the book (including film rights) in return for… publishing that finished book which they had no hand in making. Not in exchange for advancing you money so you can live while writing/drawing the book (they don't do that); only for taking your completed book, calling up the printers, and calling up Diamond (the US comics distributor). I don't think that's right . Lots of people accept deals like that because they are so desperate to be published, or they're young and don't know better or like 99% of comics creators they don't have an agent to protect them, but that still doesn't make it right.

The publisher is getting a very important something for nothing — no up front expenditure or risk, or indeed commitment to the team/book. And if, heaven forefend you question those contracts, or bring in an agent or lawyer to negotiate them, the publisher just… stops…. talking. It's like they know they are wrong and are scared when an expert's eye is shone on their grubby, unfair, little contracts. I've had this same conversation with so many indie creators, and not a few agents — the embarrassed silence one gets in response when attempting to negotiate with those comics publishers.

I'm happy with publishers not giving an advance, if they don't expect a share in rights. I'm actually happy with giving up rights, if the publisher pays for my artist and me to be able to afford food and rent while we make the book. But if you give me no cake? And no pie? Than you shall not have my book, sir.

TM: It's good to see that you'll all for independent creators, like myself and others… Or rather talented ones. Anyway, every published comic creator is faced with this question, so I'll put a disclaimer before it. Robert Kirkman's advice to new creators is to consider yourself as “sucking” at the medium first, so that you can obtain critical feedback to improve (this way, you don't start off thinking you're the next Alan Moore or Gail Simone); Alan Moore's advice is more optimistic, thinking that “someone” will notice your “hard work” (whatever that is). Concerning writers in particular, what tips do you have for aspiring comic creators in this current climate of wary (to put it politely) publishers?

ALEX: Your first thousand pages will be terrible. (Mine were. I have entire books, and four or five screenplays, that I will never allow to see the light of day). Maybe all of your pages will be terrible. But you must remember when you craft a story that it is, indeed, a craft, and you must go to labour at it every day. And first you will apprentice, and then you will be a journeyman, and maybe, just maybe, one day you will be a master. You are not above the work. Blogs, emails, and twitter do not count as writing exercise, any more than playing-card houses count as architecture — long form fiction is a craft unto itself. Go to it, with your heart bright and glad. You are also not above criticism. In every critique, no matter how mean-spirited or (so you think) baseless, is a grain of truth. You must be sensitive enough to find that grain, and brave enough to go on despite what finding it has done to your ego.

Don't make convenient choices for the script. Write your characters into situations that you truly don't know how to get out of, then work your way out of them. Make sure your characters have real reactions to events… have the reaction you honestly would have, not the reaction you think a fictionalised better version of yourself would have. That fictionalised better version is a bullshit person who nobody will believe.

And lastly, as you write, you will — or you should — become aware of patterns in your stories. Why is the woman always beaten up? Why does your hero always talk in a certain way, come from a certain class, have a first name with one syllable and a surname with two syllables? Why is the bad guy always the government? Et cetera. Writing is a method of self-analysis, and you will play out in your stories certain things which disturb your subconscious. Look for those patterns, figure out what you (or your psyche) are searching for by writing them so frequently, and then write them so well and so truly that you need not visit them again. The more you write honestly, the less you dream, for the less the subconscious must toil. But be careful. Yeats was right — “I must go down to where the ladders start / To the foul rag and bone shop of the heart”. That is where stories begin. Be honest. Be hardworking. And listen… to others, to yourself.

So to reiterate, Alex de Campi’s advice for writers is:

(1) Write your nonsense stories out your system.

(2) Actually sit and write, treating it as a craft. FaceBook fighting is not writing.

(3) Take criticism as a criticism of your work and not you, despite how it feels. You are not perfect, everything can be improved. It will take someone other than yourself to usually find where you need to improve on that.

(4) Operate with realism not convenience, since the latter is detectable bullshit.

(5) Be aware of patterns in your writing.

TM: Many answer simply NO to this, but do you have a writing “process”? I've never had one myself, but I'm always interested in good writers' methods (even if it's to say they don't have one).

ALEX: I circle a story for years, turning it over in my head, jotting notes, making false starts towards it. Then one day when I am quite not expecting it, the story tugs quietly at my sleeve and says, “I am ready to be written now”. Then the actual work begins, chopping a path through the uncharted jungle from the beginning, which I always know ahead of time, to the end, which I also always know ahead of time. In the middle, there be monsters.



Thanks to Ms. de Campi for the amazing insights into all aspects of comic creation. I’m sure I’m not the only one that will view this as invaluable and brilliant advice, as I attempt to integrate myself in this strange beast. You can find out more about here at her website. I think she did an amazing job in this interview.

Importantly, I hope that if you value quality and beauty in your creative mediums, that you will help Ms de Campi and artist Jimmy Broxton with their Kickstarter project for Ashes. Instead of spending money on the tripe from Hollywood or all the bad comics out there, why not invest in the actual, talented creators directly? Everyone benefits and we can, through measures like this, attempt to help our beloved medium.