Eddie Campbell on "The Black Diamond Detective Agency"

Thu, May 31st, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Justin Jordan, Guest Contributor

"The Black Diamond Detective Agency" on sale now

Most people probably know Eddie Campbell from his work with Alan Moore on the titanic "From Hell," but to me he'll always be the "Deadface" guy. "Deadface" being comics about Bacchus, the God of Drink, cavorting around in modern times and looking very much like a man who has spent the last two thousand years on a hard bender.

Some people would argue that Campbell's greatest work is "Alec," semi autobiographical comics tracing the life of a comic's artist. They're not wrong, either. Campbell has done such different work in so many different genres with so many different styles that being a fan of "Alec" Eddie Campbell is very nearly like being a fan of a whole different artist than "From Hell" Eddie Campbell.

From his beginning in the small press back in the late seventies and early eighties, Campbell has continued to evolve, moving from self-published to the black and white boom to mainstream comics, with an ever evolving style. Fairly recently, he's begun blogging, something he considers an art form unto itself.

His newest project is "The Black Diamond Detective Agency," a graphic novel from First Second Books about a seemingly innocent farmer blamed for a catastrophic explosion and sent on the run in turn of the century Chicago. The book is adapted from an as yet unproduced screenplay, and this adaptation represents another new experiment for Campbell. You might have had a chance to check out the free preview on Free Comic Book Day, or if not, maybe you can scrounge one from your friendly neighborhood comic book guy.

We had the opportunity to talk with Campbell about "The Black Diamond Detective Agency," "From Hell" and all sorts of other things.

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So, how would you describe "The Black Diamond Detective Agency?"

"The Black Diamond Detective Agency" is a great old fashioned shoot-'em- up thriller. I've approached it with the kind of enthusiasm with which that the old sixties wave of French film directors used to approach genre material. Which is to say, that I've put my own personality into it.

How did you end up working on the project?

The producer Bill Horberg was being represented to the publishing world by Judith Hansen, whom I know from Kitchen Sink days, so she approached First Second and somehow my name came up. I managed to keep Bill from getting a look at the "Fate of the Artist" until "Diamond" was in the can, otherwise he might have called the whole thing off.

"The Black Diamond Detective Agency" page 11
Seeing as it involved adapting a screenplay, was it odd being on the other side of the adaptation?

They were quite happy to let me take a few liberties with it. I imagine it will go through a few rewrites anyway, if it hasn't already.

How extensive were those liberties, then?

I didn't want to go changing it just for the sake of being a pain in the ass, but there were several places where the pictorial demands of drawing the book threw up alternative ways of doing things. Actual settings for instance. I changed the location of the gun battle at the center of the book. And also, in one of the previous rewrites, some points of psychological logic had been put to one side and then accidentally overlooked. I had to solve a few problems there. Why did he do this or that? No point in going into specifics at this stage when nobody has read it yet. I also thought the mystery ought to be more complicated, being a long time reader of the greatest detective mystery writer Raymond Chandler. I believe that a book can bear more of that kind of complexity than a movie, because the reader is more at liberty to go back a few pages to resolve difficulties, while a movie moves relentlessly forward.

Did you have to do a lot of research for the book?

Bill sent me a huge box of books on Pinkerton and his Detective Agency and on Chicago and other stuff, so yes, a hell of a lot.

"The Black Diamond Detective Agency" page 12
Did you find yourself being influenced by film westerns when working on it?

I did a bit of chat about westerns on my blog, just for the fun of it, but the book is more of a big city thriller, with the rural stuff at the beginning for contrast, to show better the arrival of "modern times," which is one of the running themes I put into the job.

Speaking of which, you blog quite a bit, what's the appeal?

EC: I think blogging is the art of our times. Most bloggers don't treat it that way, alas. But it has its own techniques and approaches, its own tempo and cadences. You have to create a little story using words images and links, but it must be simple and short. Sometimes it's enough just to show a connection between two or more things that are already out there. Just link them up and add a comment. I feel exhilarated by the challenge of writing something interesting every day of my life.

After doing "Black Diamond," do you have any interest in doing more adapted work?

Not for the time being. Something was recently dangled in front of me and my first thought was, oh god that sounds too much like more hard work.

"The Black Diamond Detective Agency" page 13

"Fate of the Artist" utilized a lot of unconventional artistic techniques, for comics at least. Is that a direction you're moving your art in?

I'd like to, but for the time being it's necessary to alternate that kind of work with a more conventional fare. Before "Fate" I did the Batman book, "Batman: The Order of Beast," you'll remember.

Right. There's an ongoing conversation about the death of singles and the increasing prominence of graphic novels these days. Where do you see the medium heading? Where do think it should be heading?

I think I've moved beyond all that. You're talking about formats, but looking above that, I have stopped thinking of it, "comics," in its ideal state that is, as a medium at all. Crap comic books will be around for a long time of course and I have no interest in them.

But comics as an art? The idea will be subsumed into other things that are happening in the arts. It's neither good nor bad, just inevitable. For comic books to become a significant kind of art they need to cease being comic books. They need to engage in the overall artistic discourse of our times instead of straining to be separate from it. I'm reading Bryan Talbot's new one, his "Alice in Sunderland." It's a great piece of work, but I wish he wasn't so conscious all the time that it must be "comics." That's a withering neurosis that's crept into the field and you can see the beginning of that in "Understanding Comics," to which Bryan consciously tips his hat. I see myself as operating in a separate stream altogether.

"The Black Diamond Detective Agency" page 13
However, it's probably not so much a stream as just me.

This is the second project you've done with First Second, after "Fate of The Artist." Are you going to keep working with them in the future?

There is a third book in the works, titled "The Amazing Remarkable Mr. Leotard." I'm eighty pages into that and it's going well.

And since people will no doubt want to know, any more projects with Alan Moore?

None on that front either. Oh wait a minute, I forgot. We have been talking about wrapping up "From Hell" with a twentieth anniversary special for 2008, a compendium in which we offer a second Gull catchers appendix, mocking recent developments in that area. We'd put a lot of other stuff in it, too, like script extracts and some director commentary type of stuff.

You've been running pages of "From Hell" along with their scripts, and it's obviously still a very popular book, are you pleased with how your work holds up or does it tempt you to pull a George Lucas and start redrawing?

I'm never pleased and as a rule the temptation should usually be resisted. With "From Hell" we've been through it enough times, though. When we did the final big revision in 1999 I found instances where we had the wrong character in a frame speaking and things like that, so we had to draw a new one and paste it over. When I revise, it's usually for clarity of meaning, fixing things that are obviously mistakes. To bring things up to date with how I see the world now would mean constantly revising old work and never doing any new.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Eddie.

"Black Diamond" and "Fate of the Artist" are available now at bookstores and comic shops everywhere. You might find a copy of that obscure "From Hell" book, too.

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