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Some Jibba Jabba With Webcomics' Own Mr. T

I've known T Campbell for a number of years now and we used to kid that he's the hardest working man in webcomics but there's definitely a kernal of truth to that.  This guy writes a lot of webcomics and than he goes out and writes about webcomics as well.  And although he's no longer local to my neck of Virginia and no longer writes for ComixTALK  I thought it would make a good interview to catch up with him as we barrel on into 2008. 

If you haven't run into T before, well, his webcomic projects include Fans, Penny and Aggie, Search Engine Funnies, Rip and Teri, and Cool Cat Studio.  He's got another one out just now called Sketchies (with co-writer Phil Kahn and art ist Ryan Estrada).  He wrote for ComixTALK before writing for other sites as well as turning his History of Online Comics series into a book.  He also spent a number of years editing the action webcomic anthology site Graphic Smash.

Let's start with the basics: Name, rank and serial number?

Some demographers say there have been 110 billion humans on the planet since the dawn of man, so let's say T Campbell, creative grunt, 110,000,000,003.

 

Okay, how about where you were born and where you hang your hat today?

I was born in Virginia Beach and now live in Norfolk, about thirty miles away. It's kind of a "Goldilocks region." Not so fast-paced that the cost of living goes through the roof, not so isolated that I'm ever stuck for something fun to do. Growing up, I figured I'd probably be burning in the hellfire of low-rent New York City by now, but I hadn't figured on the Internet.

 

If I was going to describe you I'd say writer and essayist with a pretty tight focus on (web)comics. Accurate? What do you tell people who ask you what you do for a living?

These days, I tell people I write "comics, mostly" or that I'm a "scriptwriter." I'm going into semi-retirement as an essayist. Alexander Danner is producing more essays for Webcomics.com than I am, I've ended my personal blog and I'm out of journalism.

Don't be sad though, Xaviar! I'm much happier scriptwriting, and more productive, too. I'll be working on five Web series and some odds and ends for Tokyopop by March.

 

What got you into comics initially and when do you decide that writing comics was what you wanted to do?

I always blame the stuttering. I had a speech impediment until my late teens, except when reading or reciting. So I was often teased and marginalized in school. Home life was better: I was the oldest in my neighborhood and the oldest cousin on my mother's side, so I had lots of kids looking up to me because I was older. So I would spend my recesses in school wandering through my own imagination, then go home and lead my friends and cousins on imaginary adventures. I'd rehearse those in my head, so my stuttering problem was greatly lessened when we played those games.

The comics I read as a kid had exciting adventures, and words that I could read back in voices unlike my own hesitant one, so I was always pretty fond of them. I don't think I fully committed to them until discovering Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics while studying film, applying what McCloud was saying to the works of Alan Moore and Peter David, and getting caught up in the formal possibilities.

 

Do you have any other influences on your work that you consciously are aware of?

Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis' Justice League and Roy Thomas and Scott Shaw's Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew! were big influences on Fans. CCAHAZC! was not a polished series, but the raw imagination of it speaks to me even now. It was like concentrate of Kirby. These days, Aaron Diaz and David Willis are exerting their influence on upcoming projects. Gail Simone's emphasis on interpersonal relationships is finding its way into my stuff, too.

I always feel like I'm flunking the exam when I answer this question. I would like to say that my influences are Tolstoy, Picasso, and Anthony Burgess, you know? I do like their work. But I apparently don't like it enough to read it all over and over, like I have with the writers above. Maybe this interview will guilt me into more Burgess.

What I am proud of is that I read widely and voraciously. I think that's important for anyone who wants to be a writer.

 

What are you reading in comics these days?

I have about 300 subscriptions in my Google Reader right now, and most of them are webcomics. Even when I don't like a strip, I feel like I should keep up with what's going on, and besides, I want to vary those recommended comics on Webcomics.com, as much as I can.

But there's a lot I do love. In no particular order: Zebra Girl, Sinfest, xkcd, Erfworld, Girl Genius, Hijinks Ensue, College Roomies From Hell!!!, Shortpacked!, La Muse, Nobody Scores!, Diesel Sweeties, Dresden Codak, Something Positive, The Pain... When Will It End?, Basic Instructions, DAR: A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary, Least I Could Do, and Octopus Pie.

In comic books, I'm catching up with Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, preparing to miss Y: The Last Man, The Brave and The Bold and The Order, and grazing a lot of other books I don't quite feel like recommending. I'm letting the Comics Curmudgeon website be my primary link to newspaper comics these days, but I think Doonesbury has actually improved a lot this year, and writing a "teen strip" means I sort of have to read Luann. (Fa'God's sake, Brad, just man up already.)

 

I want to go straight to your comics work before we branch out a bit later. What do you have in publication right now - either books ready to drop or webcomics posted regularly?

Online: Fans, Penny and Aggie, Search Engine Funnies, Rip and Teri, about half of Cool Cat Studio, and a clutch of guest storylines for Narbonic, Sluggy Freelance, Clan of the Cats and Life's a Croc.

In print: versions of some of the above, plus Divalicious (two volumes), a story in Giant-Size Avengers #1 and the satirical How To Break Into Comics.

I'm scrambling to make tcampbell.net a better guide for people who want to find all this stuff. We'll see if I can get that done before this goes live. And there's a little peek at my Zuda piece floating around online. See if you can find it.

 

What are you working on that hasn't been seen by readers yet?

An every-weekday series called Sketchies with co-writer Phil Kahn and art god Ryan Estrada, about a small, doomed sequential art program at a mid-level college. It's a comic about comics culture like The Rack, and about college life like eight billion others, but what it's really about is broken people. How they grow, how they relate, whether they unbreak themselves or not. Fans is a pro-fan series, this one is... not quite anti-fan, but a very black comedy. That's scheduled to launch before the end of February.

 

You're working on a relaunch of the comic most of us got to know you from: Fans. What's the current plan for this: reboot, redo or sequel and who is working with you on it?

The series is picking up right where it left off, just after a flash-forward that took the characters out of college and into adulthood. With me is my editor and soul brother Greg Eatroff, and the wry and wonderful original series artist, Jason Waltrip.

The conceit driving Fans is that as our world grows more fantastic, it takes a certain kind of mind to defend it, one well-adapted to the fantastic already. Therefore, under certain circumstances, a single science-fiction club might be critical to the world's defense. It's an idea that fuels a lot of escapist stories, from E.T. to GalaxyQuest, but I don't think anyone has taken it as far as we have.

And now we take it further. The college geeks who saved the world now have money, respect, love -- and crushing responsibility as they head up a paranormal branch of Homeland Security. They have to try to bottle this "way of thinking" they've found, and pass it on to the college-agers of today, before they retire or are killed in action. The doomsday clock is ticking.

That's the central plot, but Fans has also been about evolution, imagination and possibility, so I'm expecting lots of story detours and experiments. In our first six months, we'll be doing a day in the life of a mad scientist, and an exploration of the triple marriage between three of the leads. This is gonna be fun.

 

You and Gisèle Lagacé continue to work on the teen comedy Penny and Aggie. How do you keep that series interesting for the both of you?

By throwing new challenges at ourselves. We just did "20 2020 Pennies," a sort of SF story featuring twenty imagined future incarnations of a main character, all talking with each other in the same room. What excites us now is "The Popsicle War," a year-long story and our most ambitious piece to date, which starts [this Friday] February 22nd.

Penny and Aggie is a series about teenage girlhood. Penny is the "popular princess," Aggie is the "liberal artist," and Karen is the "ugly duckling" who turned into a swan, but not a very nice swan. None of the three girls fit their "role" quite as perfectly as they would like. Each has gathered a small coterie of loyal friends. None of them like either of the others.

Karen and her clique have spent months plotting to destroy Penny's group and usurp its place in the social scene. They regard Aggie as a secondary threat, better neutralized than confronted. But Karen might change her attitude if she knew about Aggie's towering crush on Karen's boyfriend, Marshall. This is where it all comes to a head. When the "war" is over, Penny, Aggie, Marshall and Karen's lives will have changed forever.

 

I was also pleased to see the relaunch of Cool Cat Studio which is where most of got to know Gisèl. It's probably less known that you co-wrote the latter part of that strip before it went on hiatus, but now I suppose it's a true partnership between the two of you from the get-go. Is CCS getting the favorable reaction it had in its first run? Have the original fans come back?

This run of CCS has gotten a more positive but less passionate response than its original run, which started out as a simple romcom before moving into daring and strange directions. These days, the biggest CCS fans seem to be coming in from Penny and Aggie or the Web, not from the old rank and file. The series is sure getting a lot of readers in general, though! The last couple months have been quite a growth curve.

 

What's the future of CCS now?

We revived Cool Cat Studio for one purpose: to give it the ending we had wanted to give it in 2002. Gisele and I hate unfinished business. I'm aware it's a little questionable to say this is a definite ending, when I said the same thing about Fans, but I really, really think this is it. We're at the midpoint of our final story now, and it should wrap in June.

"The Best-Laid Plans" is a story title that just puts the central theme right out there: it's all about how you handle major shake-ups and life changes. Some of the plots are science-fictiony and some are more grounded, but the themes and emotions are the same throughout. We're really putting these guys through the wringer. There are some hard decisions ahead.

 

What can you tell us about your project for Zuda?

The Versus Verses.

Poetic, pop-cultural prizefights! Darth Vader vs. Ralph Nader! Harry Potter vs. Gabe Kotter! The Simpsons' Lisa vs. Mother Teresa! All of them speaking in rhyme, the whole time! It's been submitted to the big Z and we're waiting to hear back from them, but Sam Romero and I will be continuing it with or without them. These strips are super hard to write, but super fun to read, and I get to read them before you do. I'm salivating.

 

I hated being defined

I hated being defined as "THE WORLD-RENOWNED WEBCOMICS HISTORIAN." I'm happy to cede that title now to anyone who wants it. I'm a scriptwriter with side projects.

No. He's still the world-renowned T Campbell