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.
Okay switching topics a bit. What's the story with webcomics.com. How did you come to buy the URL from the original owner David DeVitry?
I've wanted that URL for years, but didn't start negotiating seriously until I saw the "for sale" sign go up. I gambled it was deVitry doing the selling, and contacted him directly. After that, it was your standard negotiation. He highballed, I lowballed, we compromised, done.
Webcomics.com's goals are modest. It does just a few things now, but it does them well. It points to what I think is interesting work– and I read and enjoy a lot of work. It produces essays that hold up pretty well to me even after the "blogger's rush" has passed. It has a small and slow, but promising, message-board community. And it's been tracking the best measures of relative popularity for webcomics that we currently have available.
There is clearly some doubt out there about the validity of using Alexa and Compete numbers for measuring popularity or "readership" numbers for webcomics. When I ran a series of such lists for ComixTalk in 2003 I saw a lot of discussion from readers regarding what was right and wrong with the basic approach. My own sense is that this approach has some value as a very rough measuring stick, but has too many problems to support building a ranking system for webcomics around it. Do you think this is the best we can do though? Will the entry of Marvel and DC into webcomics create pressure to build a better mousetrap here?
I think Alexa and Compete are the best we can do right now… the question is whether the best is good enough to mean anything. I agonize plenty over that, and hope I can keep refining my methods, but I'd rather risk being wrong than surrender to ignorance. The webcomics audience is bigger than it was, and that makes rankings a little more difficult to screw up.
I'm not really interested in developing a new, authoritative ranking system, like Comixtalk tried to do with the "Most Read Lists." If someone else's new system does blow Alexa and Compete out of the water, I'll start using it immediately. Though I'll probably always want to use multiple methods, for comparison's sake.
The problem with relying on comics people to fix this is that comics people benefit from vagueness. Toothpaste for Dinner was #4 on just one of my lists, but I see ads for it that say "the #4 comic on the Internet." Scott Rosenberg can shrug and say "Alexa is very wrong" and keep his stockholders more firmly under his spell than if they had hard facts.
Marvel and DC's entry doesn't change that. Neither they nor the independents want to enter a contest that their constituents think they've already won, but that they may just lose. Compete puts Marvel.com ahead of the biggest indy webcomic. Alexa puts three indies ahead of any corporate sites. I'll be interested to see whether Alexa and Compete start agreeing, one way or the other.
You've written for Comixtalk, you wrote and edited webcomics stories at Broken Frontier. What interested you in writing about webcomics as opposed to writing webcomics?
Who doesn't want to know how things work? Especially when those things are important to them and their achievements and sense of being? started my career with the attitude that I'd have to do more than one kind of writing if I wanted to survive. I still try to keep a diverse portfolio, but it's clearer to me now where my talents lie. The current level of activity on webcomics.com, where I'm editing more often than writing, is about where I want things to be right now.
Out of the people you've interviewed what are your favorites? Which ones do you think wound up making the best stories?
Well, I shamelessly interviewed good friends like Maritza Campos and David Willis, so when you say "favorite people" that's what I think of. But best stories? Those would be Dragonfiend, Enigma and Aaron Diaz.
I took more heat for the Dragonfiend interview than I did for anything besides History, but I don't regret it. It seems to me that almost everyone else in our field was trying to reduce Wikipedia, one of the most interesting and important experiments in nonfiction, into a David and Goliath story, and editors like Dragonfiend into one-dimensional Philistines. I wasn't there to promote her. I wasn't there to demolish her. I just wanted to see her more clearly. And I did, and I hope others did too.
Enigma was working for Anna Nicole Smith on a strip she commissioned to satirize herself. His account of her personality was interesting, moving and entirely unrelated to the woman everyone else seems to have decided that they knew. Aaron Diaz was a rising star when I got to him, and it was just fascinating to learn how his mind works. He certainly deserves his rise to prominence.
One of the things you're known for is writing the book A History of Webcomics. What's the status of the book at this point? Is it still selling? How did you make out considering all the time you put into it (columns at ComixTalk, prepping the book, etc.)
The shrewdest move I ever made with A History of Webcomics was to make it an ongoing, editable online series, "The History of Online Comics" covering stuff from a few years ago that had had time for a layer of dust to settle upon it. When the series was on Comixtalk, it worked. The dumbest move I made was to bring it up almost to the present and turn it into a book. If only I hadn't done that. But Antarctic asked me, and I hadn't learned when to say "no" to a paying assignment, especially one so flattering.
I made maybe $1.50 per hour on it, the accompanying politics cost me a lot of peace of mind, reviews were unkind, and I really just don't like the book any more. It can't be selling that well, because I haven't heard from the publisher in ages. I guess I should look into that, but I just want to distance myself from the whole thing.
In an interview with Comicon.com, you listed some of the pioneers you discussed in the book: Hans Bjordahl, Dominic White, David Farley, Bill Holbrook, Charley Parker, Stafford Huyler, Reinder Djikhuis, Heather Havrilesky and Terry Colon. A lot of these are familar names to fans of webcomics but who are Dominic White and Stafford Huyler?
Dominic White created Slugs, which may have been the most popular comic strip on Gopher, during the brief period in which that mattered. There's a nice piece about him by Eric Burns here. Stafford Huyler created NetBoy, the first recorded strip I could find to use anything like infinite canvas, as well as other creative techniques. His site's still up, though it's lost some of the attributes that made it groundbreaking.
At one point it seemed like you were interested in writing another edition of this at some point? Still in the cards?
I had always considered History a work in progress. Obviously things were going to keep happening, and our perspective on older events would shift. If things had gone as planned, the second edition would have incorporated the events of 2006, the third 2007, and so on. And for a while, my response to the book's bad press was to say, "Okay, I'll figure out how to do it right this time." But I got that impulse out of my system over the last year, and realized why it wouldn't work.
One of my strengths as a fiction writer is that I'm always seeing multiple sides of most issues. That's helpful when you've got two characters in conflict, not so much when you have one paragraph to sum up a breathing person. That's what gives the book's writing its strained quality, I think. And I'll never resolve that, because I thrive on examining those conflicts.
But it would have been a political minefield no matter what, because people hate being defined. And I should know, because 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.
Let's talk a little more broadly about the business of webcomics. You worked with Joey Manley quite a bit – having served in the past as the editor of GraphicSmash.com — what are your thoughts on the ComicSpace merger with Josh Roberts and the new company with outside investors? What do you expect to see in the short term from these guys?
Joey is a visionary. He has made a couple of bad calls in his career, but he's smart enough to assess his strengths and weaknesses constantly, and usually correctly. He's been thinking in this direction for years, and has a lot of entrepreneurial experience under his belt. I do not expect him, Josh and the others to rush into anything, so my short-term expectations are low. But I think that by this time next year, ComicSpace's place as the #1 community for cartoonists will be unquestioned, and its biggest competitor will be a section of Myspace or Facebook, not Drunk Duck or Comic Genesis.
I think that's an interesting prediction. It is interesting that as all of these various hosting and community sites have expanded their feature set they have begun to overlap and compete more directly. I'm very interested in what will come out of the new ComicSpace as I have my own thoughts about what the ultimate webcomic website would be both for creators and for readers (those might be two entirely different sites actually). If you got to write the memo for Josh and Joey for what ComicSpace 2.0 would include what would you go with?
ComicSpace is "for creators," I think. Obviously creators ain't much without readers, but in everything Joey and Josh have done so far, the greatest common denominator is developing tools to help creators create, make money and live. If they can stay focused on that goal, then they can use their entire body of work to fuel future efforts. I think that's their best shot.
What do you think the impact of Marvel's DCU is now and what will it be by the end of 2008? Do you think we'll see a DC version of DCU (as opposed to Zuda's focus on new work) in the near future?
This is a tough call. The changes in '07 from the Big Two were remarkable, but what's more remarkable is that they took this long to happen. I think both companies will hold off on further changes until 2009. They tend to move slowly with this stuff. They know this is a destination, but they don't want to drop any of their luggage getting there.
I would love to think that Marvel DCU would affect the content of Marvel Comics, just because that's a new frontier, but since you can't get the latest comics through MDCU, and since Marvel Comics are already written as if the reader has access to thousands of archived comics for backstory, there probably won't be any noticeable difference. When Marvel starts producing original content for MDCU, then we'll talk.
If DC does develop its own version, though, it should call the reader "DCU DCU." Seriously, they'd start a Google war. 🙂
What do you think in general about anthology sites right now? Are you still involved with Teenbit? I think the strongly themed anthology or collective site is a good idea in theory and I'm always curious about how it's working out in practice.
I still read Graphic Smash and Modern Tales. Tim's doin' a great job. But I haven't thought much about them, or done much with Teenbit since setting it up. Though that's okay, because it wasn't designed to be a huge timesink.
The fact that you ask me about "practice" tells you a lot. Nobody's asking how well gamer strips are working out in practice. Some people enjoy searching by genre or subject matter. Graphic Smash and Teenbit are for those people. But friendships and social networking bind collectives together better than a genre-related mission statement, and they draw in the more popular cartoonists, who in turn draw more readers. So "themes" will probably remain a niche.
As web and print and formats in general have gotten mixed up I'd like to hear your ideal roll-out for a comic. Assume for the sake of argument you can artistically make it work on the web or on paper equally well. How do you best go about finding and building an audience for a new work?
Well, you do it on the Web. The Web has been a better channel for new work than print since 1996, and I doubt that's going to change any time soon. When you promote, be true to yourself, and come up with promotions that you think are cool. Not what seems popular, not what you thought was cool a year ago. Don't force yourself, or you'll end up trying to be something you're not. And this is too much of a solitary business for you to ignore that sort of conflict.
Finally, be awesome. Be the kind of comics creator that people rave about. You've seen it done often enough. You know how.
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