This “Palmer’s Picks” marks the first time I double-dipped. I did it with good reason, though. My original profile of Eddie Campbell ran way back in Wizard #15, almost three years before this new one saw print. Also, Campbell was launching the monthly Bacchus comic through his new self-publishing venture, so it was a perfect opportunity to revisit his work. Plus, this time I would get to interview Campbell.
I was finishing up my junior year of college and living in a rented house off-campus, which made it a little easier to conduct phone interviews. (As you might recall, dorm life in the ’90s wasn’t really a good environment for lengthy phone conversations.) Campbell was based in Australia at the time, so it took a little bit of coordinating to find a good day to conduct the interview. Thankfully, Wizard reimbursed me for any phone calls I had to make related to producing “Palmer’s Picks.” Long distance to Australia was pretty expensive!
Campbell was a pro, so he knew the realities of publishing and lead time. He sent me a letter in November of ’94 to announce that he was launching Bacchus in May 1995, which gave me more than enough time to make room in the schedule to ensure that this issue of Wizard would coincide with his first issue. Once I let him know that I was able to feature Bacchus in an upcoming column, Campbell followed up with a package containing a generous helping of background material to help me prepare for the interview: an ashcan of Bacchus #1 (complete with a great pen and marker sketch), copies of the new material from issues 2 and 3, and the script and pencils for the Bacchus Color Special (an excellent one-shot written by Campbell and painted by Teddy Kristiansen that has been left out of the subsequent Bacchus trade paperbacks).
Unlike a lot of self-publishers who started around the same time, Campbell stuck with Bacchus for a decent run. The comic kept a monthly schedule until it ended with issue 60 in May, 2001, with a few skip months here and there. When an issue of Bacchus was not on the stands, Campbell filled the gap with other releases, like paperback collections and related one-shot comics. And Campbell was smart enough to use the monthly series as a way to build an evergreen trade paperback program. His Eddie Campbell Comics published nine volumes reprinting the entire Bacchus storyline, as well as four books of Alec, his autobiographical comics. These would eventually get packaged once again by Top Shelf Productions as a two-volume Bacchus collection and the Alec: The Years Have Pants omnibus.
Since the final goal was having a library of graphic novels, Campbell made a lot of art changes to the older material reprinted in the Bacchus monthly in order to bring it up to the quality of his newer pages. Right from the iconic first page, you can see that quite a bit of work was done on the faces and figures, with extra attention paid to Bacchus since he was the star of the show. Despite all of these cosmetic touch-ups, Campbell wisely left the storytelling intact—he didn’t redraw and rewrite entire sequences that might alter the story. And he didn’t touch my favorite part of the first page: the Bacchus world balloon in panel one that’s placed behind the prison cell bars. It’s a simple visual trick, but it lets you know right off the bat that this wasn’t an ordinary comic and that Campbell was thinking about the conventions of the artform and was willing to mess around with them in new and creative ways.
Changes were also underway with “Palmer’s Picks.” While I had finally settled on an interview format for the column, I decided to rework the “Recommended Reading” sidebar beginning with this issue. In previous installments, that section would dole out the hard facts of whatever cartoonist I was focusing on—what comics were in print and where to get them. With this latest “Palmer’s Picks” all of that information got relegated to a short “FYI” sidebar and instead the “Recommended Reading” list became a way to highlight a few other notable comics unrelated to the main feature. It made a bit more sense and cut down on a lot of redundant information.
These first picks are a little uneven. Sam Henderson‘s Magic Whistle is definitely the best of the bunch by a long shot. Joe Zabel and Gary Dumm put out some entertaining mystery comics beginning with the one-shot Bulletproof that I highlighted here. But Hilly Rose, despite some nice art, was another one of the many mid-’90s self-published comics that looked to emulate the success of Bone by merely copying the formula of having realistically-drawn people interacting with cartoon characters. The recommendations in subsequent issues were a little bit better, but a couple more clunkers snuck in here and there.
Campbell’s New Myths
By Tom Palmer Jr.
It’s safe to say that comic books by Eddie Campbell are the most understated and unpretentious comics published today (Eddie as a person is another story). While most artists hit you over the head with blatant images and obvious symbols, Campbell takes the subtle approach. His comics appear simple at first, but there is always something going on deep below the surface. Even the name of his new self-publishing imprint, Eddie Campbell Comics, is an understatement. Perhaps a name like “Really Good Comics” or “The Best Darn Comics from a Master Craftsman” would be a little more appropriate.
Bacchus, Campbell’s most enduring character, is also a study in modesty. With Bacchus, the God of wine and revelry, Campbell has updated Greek mythology and combined it with a motley gang, including such memorable personalities as the Eyeball Kid, Big Ginny, and Joe Theseus. These stories, running the gamut from action-adventure to superheroes and everything in-between, are the closest Campbell will ever get to a mainstream comic.
Campbell acknowledges that, like all great characters, Bacchus has gone through a few changes from his original conception. “When I started, I had this idea that what comics needed and what the market seems to want is a big ugly face—the image of death on a living figure. I actually found that after two or three issues, the character of Bacchus became this great big emblem for me, a symbol of earthy common sense in the face of all of the other foolishness of the modern world. So he became a kind of profound figure that could express a great variety of complex thoughts. He’s such a straightforward character that he cuts through the confusion and complexity and states it quite simply.”
Campbell has stuck with Bacchus since his original appearance in Harrier Comics’ Deadface, and he now has over 700 pages of Bacchus material that he plans to combine with new stories in his first self-published comic, titled (oddly enough) Bacchus. For those of you with an aversion to reprints, you’ll be happy to know that Campbell is updating the old artwork. He explains that much of the material has been fixed up, “to bring it up to my current standards. If you look at stuff you did six years ago and it didn’t embarrass you, I think there would be something wrong with you. If you didn’t advance in that time, you should be rethinking what the hell you are doing.”
The brand-new material in Bacchus starts in the second issue with “King Bacchus.” In this new chapter of the mythos, Bacchus has become King of the Castle and Frog, an English pub into which all sorts of different characters wander. This story allows Campbell to try his hand at spoofing the modern comic book industry. Aside from wry lampoons of Hellblazer‘s John Constantine and Cerebus creator Dave Sim, Campbell plans to take a shot at a certain writer with a peculiar dream fixation. “I’ve got a character, who looks like Neil Gaiman, as the royal mythographer who is called upon to rewrite Bacchus’ mythology for the ’90s. It’s going to be ‘Bacchus Year One.’ Bacchus gets lost in the painting on the wall of the pub for quite some time, and meanwhile, they replace him with some big muscular guy with armor and guns and whatnot: a Bacchus of the ’90s. A writer looking a bit like Neil Gaiman has been hired to rewrite the mythology, and I’ve got him holding his head in despair all through the thing.”
The creator also plans on having fun with Prohibition and the anti-liquor movement in America. When Bacchus gets drawn into this etching on the bar wall, he is chased by Mr. Dry, “a cartoon symbol during the Prohibition era for the anti-saloon movement.” Campbell also offers a general political parody in “King Bacchus,” through the parliament that runs the Kingdom of the Castle and Frog. “Bacchus has tried a new idea: he’s put the intelligent people in charge. And when it all goes wrong, he says, well, it was an untried concept.”
Eddie Campbell himself is also jumping into an “untried concept” with self-publishing. He needs some way to finance his monthly venture, and it just so happens that his From Hell series (a painstaking reconstruction of the Jack the Ripper murders in collaboration with Alan Moore) will soon be on the big screen, courtesy of Oliver Stone and Touchstone Pictures. Campbell’s monetary portion of the deal is quite important. “I tried to time it so that my share of the option money would help me through this period, where I have to pay two or three printers’ bills before I get any money back on the deal.”
Despite all of the money gained from the movie deal, Campbell might have to fight an uphill battle to find a place in the market for Bacchus. “Everybody’s biting their fingernails and pooin’ their pants all wondering what Marvel’s going to do now. On the other hand, I may have picked the right time, because everything that’s wrong with the business is wrong in the mainstream. It’s not the hangers-on that’s got it wrong. It’s the bloody mainstream, with its speculator frenzies and its rather unimaginative and repetitive product.”
Luckily, Campbell has quite a few friends in the business to give him advice. Chief among these acquaintances is self-publishing guru Dave Sim. He jokingly refers to Sim as his “court advisor. The man in the know.” Sim happens to be the one that pushed Campbell to self-publish, and, in Campbell’s eyes, is quite a dangerous man. “He may have ruined my mind. I may never survive this. By the end of the year, I might be divorced and penniless. And it will be Dave Sim’s fault.”
If self-publishing doesn’t ruin him, Campbell might dig an early grave as a result of a Cerebus/Bacchus story that will see print in the premiere of Bacchus. “Sim and I spent five days holed up in a hotel suite to produce that. We had two rooms. We were going to do all the drawing in my room and he could smoke and sleep in the other one. But when we were talking up the story, I’d followed him through and he followed me back, and there was smoke everywhere! It was terrible! I think I may get lung cancer because of this!”
Tom Palmer Jr. is a freelance writer from New Jersey who refuses to grow up.
FYI: The first monthly issue of Bacchus is out now at your local comic shop. If you have trouble finding a copy, you can write to Eddie Campbell at
PO Box 230, Queensland, Australia 4064. Eddie is not handling mail orders directly, so he will give you detailed information on where to order Bacchus. In other words, don’t send him any money. You should also be on the lookout for the Bacchus Color Special from Dark Horse Comics. Also, write to Kitchen Sink Press, publishers of From Hell, at 320 Riverside Drive, Northampton, MA 01060.
Eddie Campbell’s Recommended Reading: Just in case you’re curious, here’s a rundown of Eddie’s favorite comics right now: Cerebus by Dave Sim and Gerhard (Aardvark-Vanaheim), Steve Bissette‘s Tyrant (SpiderBaby Grafix), Dylan Sissoon’s Fillibusting Comics (a one-shot parody of Understanding Comics from Fantagraphics), Two-Fisted Tales (the EC reprints of the 1950s series from Russ Cochran), and X-Men: The Early Years (reprints from Marvel).
Tom’s Recommended Reading
I’m trying something a little different this month. I find it almost impossible to mention all of the quality comics being published right now, so to compensate, I’ve expanded the Recommended Reading list to briefly focus on two or three top-notch comics that have nothing to do with the featured creator. I’d like some feedback on this little change, so please drop me a line at Palmer’s Picks, c/o Wizard Press,
151 Wells Ave, Congers, NY 10920-2064.
Bulletproof: If you think all true-crime comics have to be dull and plodding, then think again. Expertly paced and impossible to put down, Bulletproof (by frequent American Splendor illustrators Joe Zabel and Gary Dumm) is a true-crime comic that will definitely surprise you. Send $5 to Known Associates Press,
Box 18959, Cleveland Heights, OH 44118-0959.
Hilly Rose’s Space Adventures: Throw together Terry and the Pirates and Bone, add a dash of drama and satire, and you’ll have something that comes pretty close to B.C. Boyer’s new self-published comic. Hilly Rose is a well-crafted comic that promises tons of entertainment. Write to Astro Comics,
3822 Lolita Ct., Chino, CA 91710 for more information.
Magic Whistle: After reading Sam Henderson’s minicomic Magic Whistle, you will laugh so hard that you’ll burst an internal organ. Sam has had cartoons published in Heavy Metal and Nickelodeon Magazine, but Magic Whistle is by for his most entertaining work. Make sure you are over 18, and send $2 to Sam at
14 Bayard St. #3, Brooklyn, NY 11211.