An Interview with Sophie Campbell

A lot of her fans know Sophie Campbell for her recent work, from the relaunch of Glory at Image Comics with writer Joe Keatinge to the recent Jem and the Holograms series with writer Kelly Thompson. Jem in particular struck a nerve with a lot of fans and led to a profile of the book and its creators in The New Yorker. She’s also drawn a lot of comics for the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in their current incarnation at IDW.

She got her start at Oni Press where she drew Too Much Hopeless Savages and Spooked before launching the graphic novel series Wet Moon in 2005, of which there are now six volumes. She also wrote and drew two volumes of Shadoweyes, a dark science fiction superhero saga, which was reissued by Iron Circus in a new edition. That’s not to say that her career has been entirely smooth. She was involved in both Tokyopop–which published one volume of her proposed three volume series The Abandoned–and DC’s Minx, which published her graphic novel Water Baby.

Throughout her career, Campbell has been interested in questions of intersectional feminism, though as she admits in the interview, she only learned about what that meant in recent years. From the beginning of her career she was interested in and concerned with depicting a broad range of people. Wet Moon was always an unusual book, but from the start it had a tone and an approach all its own, and though her work has changed over the years, all of Campbell’s work remains recognizably hers no matter whether she’s writing her own projects or working on licensed properties.

Has Wet Moon changed a lot from the initial pitch you made to Oni?

The actual pitch was pretty similar except that it dealt more with the main character Cleo’s abortion and her relationship with Vincent, but Oni thought the subject matter was too heavy for a first book. In the final book her dealing with that and that whole backstory was pushed into the background. It’s only stated explicitly in the fourth book. I think it works the way it is, it was spiritually the same and a lot of the story is pretty much the same in the final book.

myrtle2016The first books seemed very surefooted as far as what you wanted aesthetically and tonally.

It was mostly me goofing off and drawing a bunch of stuff I like. I wanted it to be this slice of life story where nothing much happens. Obviously it’s deliberate and sure footed in the sense that you don’t accidentally draw a comic, but I don’t think I had a lot of awareness of what I was doing until I continued doing it. Things became more clear as I got older and I was able to decide more consciously what I wanted to do. Early on it was me going, here’s a bunch of characters that I like and here’s a bunch of things that I think are fun or silly, and I threw it all together and refined it as I went along.

Now you plot things out more?

I don’t really plot it out that much in advance. I know my characters and I know how I want them to look and how I want them to act, I have a better handle on the tone, so it’s easy for me to write as I go. You say it seemed really sure-footed, but to me it just seems like this nebulous blob where I don’t really know what I’m doing, but most creators look at their stuff extra-critically. I wish I could be like Bryan O’Malley or someone who comes out with his first book and it’s fully formed–to me. To him I’m sure it’s not. I’m sure he feels the same way that I do.

I’m sure you do feel that way, but rereading the books you manage to find this tone that combined drama and comedy, the pace was slow but deliberate, it was slice of life and you manage to combine those elements really well.

I do feel like I had the pacing down pretty quick. I don’t remember how detailed my script was in the old days, I think I tried to make it a little more understandable because I had to show it to editors back then. I can see how it flows in my head but when I write it, it doesn’t always come together until I get to the visuals. Once I started drawing the first book, I knew how the pacing needed to be. Maybe that’s the one thing I just knew in the beginning. I like to think I’ve gotten better, but I think the tone and the pacing have remained pretty constant since the first book.

Now when you write the books you don’t script them out in detail?

I like to know how many pages a book is going to be. Sometimes I’ll change it but I like to know a ballpark estimate, that’s the biggest thing. The panel descriptions are mostly just dialogue so I know how much is going to fit or how much has to fit in each panel, so overall it’s really simple because I don’t have to write it for somebody else, it doesn’t have to be detailed. I also don’t draw the pages in order, I jump around, I think about the book as a fluid state so it seems pointless to me to be very detailed in the beginning. Through each step it’s always changing, I’ll get rid of things, I’ll move panels around, I’ll add a page or cut a scene. It only solidifies at the very end when I send it off to the publisher.

Do you have an ending in mind for Wet Moon?

It keeps changing! I was going to do one certain ending, but then I wanted these two particular characters to stay together instead of breaking up and so I’m overhauling Volume 7 and scrapping all this stuff that I drew before. Because of all that, now the original ending I had doesn’t work anymore. Maybe eight or nine will be the last book? I thought I might periodically come back and do a short Wet Moon story here and there, that would be really fun. Just short little fun stories about whatever characters I felt like working on at that particular time. One thing I’ve been joking about for years is Wet Moon 2099. I could end the current series at Book 8 or 9 and come back a few years from now and do Wet Moon 2099. [laughs]


So the town has turned into a bayou or it’s completely underwater?

Exactly! Before the official pitch to Oni, Wet Moon was much more sci-fi, it took place at an art college on the moon and some of the characters were mutants and half-human or aliens or whatever. [laughs] Sometimes I wonder if I should have stuck with that. But that could be Wet Moon 2099.

I had been following Wet Moon and then I remember that you were of that generation that signed up with Tokyopop.

[laughs] Yes, I was!

You did one book of The Abandoned, and I think your response and others to Tokyopop has been pretty well documented over the years, but as far as making the book, was it very different from working at Oni?

Not really. Both Oni and Tokyopop pretty much left me alone. My editor at Tokyopop who was pretty new at the time, he didn’t really do any editing, we hardly ever talked to each other. In the beginning he suggested I change the story so the zombies came from a necromancer instead of an apocalypse-type event. I told him that was really stupid and he just left me alone after that. [laughs] I think he got fired over what happened with my book. The red spot color that was their idea ended up costing more money or something and I think it was a production nightmare behind the scenes. But besides that, they left me alone. [laughs] Things didn’t get horrible until after I finished the book.

Tokyopop had this vision of “Original English Language Manga” and they were excited and were suddenly publishing dozens of titles and then everything went South very quickly.

They pulled the plug on all of them. Their contracts were shitty, but at the time I knew what I was signing. I’m sure there are some kids that they bamboozled, but I was like, they’re going to own half of it which basically means they own the whole thing because I can’t do anything with fifty percent of something, but I really needed the money and I needed to move out of my parents’ house. [laughs] But when I signed it, how could I have known that they were going to pull the plug down the road and not do what they said they’d do? I guess that’s the part where I got “tricked,” but I don’t think even Tokyopop saw that coming.

You imagined something like Alan Moore’s relationship with DC where they sell the movie rights or make merchandise you hate, but they cut you a check.

Yeah, I guess that’s what I thought. When I signed it I imagined doing three books and they’d make some stupid TV show or something but meanwhile I’d have my own apartment. [laughs] I didn’t have all my eggs in the Tokyopop basket so it wasn’t a huge obstacle for me career-wise. I was upset about it but I just kept going and worked on other things.

You did another Wet Moon book, and then you wrote and drew a book for Minx. Another example of grand ambition which did not match reality.

[laughs] That was also a complete failure. It was similar to Tokyopop in some ways where they clearly just did not understand the readers. They were like, “okay, girls really like these manga books and they’re a certain size and they’re black and white. What do girls like? They like romance! They like real life relationships!” That seemed to be the extent of their thought process. Originally my book was more horror and they wanted it to be more slice of life so I toned it down, which is fine, but the thing that they missed is that a lot of the manga that people really got into was fantasy and action and adventure and sci-fi. The female readers that they were trying to get were not going to like these books which basically all had the same plot–this vaguely outsider girl is in a new place and meets somebody she gets a crush on. There wasn’t a lot to grab onto. You can’t just go in and claim a whole shelf at Barnes and Noble or expect to nab the same readership overnight, so they were stuck selling to the direct market which was obviously going to be a disaster.

I remember seeking your book out because it was yours and for the most part, it felt like you.

Even though there was a lot of editorial direction, doing that book was pretty smooth sailing. I didn’t fight with Shelly [Bond] or anything and I had a fine time doing it. The actual production wasn’t a disaster. The book itself was maybe a disaster, but that’s a whole other thing.


At what point did you start drawing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?

I did some covers and frontispieces for Mirage back in 2007 and I was going to do a Tales of the TMNT issue, but the Viacom sale happened. Dark Horse was going to get the license but lost it to IDW, which I got in trouble for mentioning online, they reamed me out for doing that. I really thought after it fell through that I could talk about it publicly, I didn’t think it would be a problem [laughs]. I know better now. Anyway, I was going to draw the new Turtles book for them but it fell through. Then IDW got the license and Dan Duncan got the job, I was pissed and went on Twitter and was like, “that was my book!” [laughs] I guess me being a grouch on Twitter caught their attention or maybe I was on their radar before that, but they approached me to do the Leonardo micro issue. That summer after I drew that issue, they offered me the main job on the ongoing series and I turned it down, I felt like I was too much of a fan to do it. I had a lot of trouble on Leonardo and decided that I couldn’t go through that every month, I was too emotionally invested to deal with it. But they ended up getting me back when I found out they were going to do Northampton, I couldn’t resist that, and I’ve been there ever since.


Then you drew Glory at Image in 2011-12. How did you get that job because I don’t think most of us expected you to draw a monthly superhero book.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to do a monthly series but I was in dire financial straits so I had no choice. [laughs] They needed an artist for Glory and Brandon Graham sent them my way, I thought it was a joke at first, that Brandon was just messing with me. [laughs] Brandon knows everybody, he’s basically built my whole career for me. I got the Minx job and some of the Vertigo stuff I was working on because of him, he introduced me to Shelly Bond, and he’s friends with Eric Stephenson so when the new Extreme stuff was being put together, Brandon was there at ground zero and got me involved. It was far outside my wheelhouse but I think it worked out well. I had a lot of fun doing Glory, it was a fun challenge.


So because of TMNT you had a relationship with IDW, how did you end up drawing Jem, which I don’t think is a comic anyone expected to see.

[laughs] I had done some Jem fan art several years before and it never really occurred to me that there would ever be a Jem comic at any point. When I found out it was happening I contacted my Turtles editor and demanded he put me in touch with who was editing Jem.

Did you have to fight hard to get the job?

No, not really. Kelly Thompson and I were up against a few other people, I don’t know who, but I just knew we would get it. I had a feeling. Kelly was bent out of shape about it, though, I mean that was her first big thing, but I wasn’t worried about it. I just knew in my gut it would work out! [laughs]

Most people don’t make a comic and then have someone write a gender studies analysis of the book in The New Yorker. When you read that did you go, yes, someone gets what we’re doing or were you like, well that’s interesting?

I was a little surprised that it happened. To some degree, I believe in death of the author, but it was really cool seeing them interpret all this stuff and analyze it and treat it like a serious thing. We were asked about gender studies texts and whether we were playing into so-and-so author’s ideas about gender. I was like, I’ve never read that, I don’t even know who that is. [laughs] I think the analysis–while I agreed with all of it and it was super awesome–went deeper than the level I was thinking about a lot of the stuff I was doing. [laughs] I can’t speak for Kelly but I definitely wasn’t thinking about it that deeply when I was doing it. I just wanted to draw big hair and cool outfits. I’ve since read a couple books like Julia Serrano’s book Whipping Girl which is one book the author of the article talked about. I loved the article but I’m not as knowledgeable as it maybe made me out to be.

You say that, but as a longtime reader I would argue that your work has been about issues of intersectional feminism from the beginning.

I’ve definitely become more aware of it as I get older. I’ve talked about this in other interviews where people ask me if there’s a social agenda with what I’m doing, and it’s yes and no. Yes because I’m thinking about that stuff so it can’t not have that aspect to it. Some decisions–just to have a fat character for example–are inherently political and you can’t avoid it and I think there’s some responsibility to be aware of it. But I didn’t really start thinking about that kind of thing until partway through my career. Looking back, now I can see how my work fits together with intersectionality and feminism, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I was like, “this is what I want to see, this is what I want the characters to be like,” and that was the extent of it. I tried to do what I wanted to see in comics, and what I saw in the world around me. But since having learned so much in the past however many years, I can look back at my work and see it more clearly.

One of the things about Wet Moon that appealed to so many readers was that you were telling stories about characters who didn’t look or dress like characters in other comics.

I knew it was different, but I wouldn’t have been able to articulate why it was different or why that was important at that time. Now I get it, but at the time, I was like, my friends are different and have different bodies and different backgrounds and different races, so that’s what my work is going to be like. I wanted it to be real on some level and real life has these things in it so that’s going to be in the comic as best as I could do it. Obviously I have blind spots, but real life has different kinds of people in it and I wanted Wet Moon to reflect real life to some degree.

And you were probably not expecting to be recognized for Jem, either.

It didn’t occur to me. I ran into some trouble on Turtles because they didn’t like that I drew April too curvy and I knew that was a possibility of that happening with Hasbro. I didn’t know how they’d react to me making this character skinny and this character fat, because in the cartoon the characters all looked the same, so I thought maybe the powers-that-be would want me to stick closer to that. I didn’t really know what to expect, but I also didn’t really care what their reaction was going to be, I always shoot first and ask questions later so to speak, so I didn’t ask them if I could make Stormer fat, I just did it. And then I was pleasantly surprised when they didn’t say anything about it. They hired me to do what I do and I did it, and it worked out great. I knew there were going to be fans who would complain the characters were too different from the show, but I was just doing what I always do and I had to be true to myself.

Did you have a say with Jem in how the book would be colored?

I’m rarely happy with colorists on my stuff so I wanted to hand pick who it was going to be. I wanted to be involved and talk to them. We looked at a bunch of people and I was pretty involved early on with Victoria, she brought her own sensibility and played off the early preliminary art I had done for the basic look and she took that and did her own thing. It came together really easy. She’s awesome.

In the concert scenes in Jem, you really play with the layouts in these one or two page spreads. How does Kelly write them and how much is just you going crazy?

There are certain beats that need to be hit in those scenes and I take those and then do whatever I wanted with the panel layouts. Sometimes I’d take the panels Kelly wrote and I’d combine them or get rid of panels entirely and fit them together another way. The concert scenes were what I felt like at that particular moment, I would do thumbnails but I wouldn’t really plan it out until I was sitting down drawing it. Kelly knew what I would do after a while and toward the end she’d be much looser with it because she knew I would disregard things she wrote. [laughs] Kelly would write: “Page whatever–Concert. Go nuts.” [laughs] Kelly wrote all the song lyrics, but I hand wrote the lyrics onto the page. Sometimes I would ask her to edit the lyrics down if there wasn’t enough room, since my hand lettering was on the large side. It was mostly me just going crazy and trying to make everything fit together.jem-16-p12-13-v2-music

Issue #16 was your last issue. Why did you decide to leave the series?

It was time to move on. I felt like after twelve issues I had to go back to Wet Moon, I was burned out drawing Jem, I wanted to draw other characters, and I was just dying to write my own stuff again, to draw my own stories. I had debated coming back for the Misfits series, though, but ultimately I decided it was time to go. I might come back and do a special issue or something next year, and I’m also co-writing one of the Misfits issues and doing a cover for it. But yeah, it was time for something else, drawing the same characters over and over again for over a year, however much I love them, gets rough. Some days I miss it already but I think I made the right choice.


What are you working on now? What comes next for you now that Jem is over?

I’m back working on Wet Moon 7 right now, very slowly. And even slower that I would be otherwise because I scrapped all the stuff that I’d drawn in the past couple years, so I’m trying to regroup and catch up to where I was. It’s so great getting to work on my babies again! I have more Turtles coming up, too, I’m doing issue #66 of the ongoing which will be out in January, as well another story next year but I can’t talk about that yet, it’s top secret. I also may be doing an Image book next year but I can’t talk about that, either [laughs]. I’d be writing and drawing that. We’ll see how that goes. And then hopefully I’ll be able to get back to Shadoweyes! All that will take me through 2017 and into 2018. I try to plan out a year in advance.


You did two Shadoweyes books. Did you have plans for more?

Maybe four? I have the next book written so that’s a good start, I’ve been writing draft after draft for it, I’m on draft like number eight, I think. I did the Shadoweyes reprint with Iron Circus and it was really nice getting a reset button because it had been such a long time since the last one came out in 2011. After I did Shadoweyes In Love, I basically almost ran out of money and had to put Shadoweyes on the back burner. I really miss working on it.

Will you ever return to Mountain Girl?

I really want to! I pitched a new version of Mountain Girl to a publisher a few years back and they didn’t want to do it, so I had to shelve it and work on something else. I’ve been talking about doing a digital version of it with one publisher, but now this Image book might happen so I don’t know when I’m going to be able to do it. I have too much stuff. I wish I could just do a book that ends and it’s over and not have to worry about a volume two. [laughs]


You like alternating between doing your own books and working with other people on different things?

I like to alternate with my own stuff too, Wet Moon and Shadoweyes and whatever. That keeps me from getting it a rut and it keeps me from getting bored. I get burned out from drawing the same characters every day for a super long time, like I was saying before. I think it’s good to change it up. Doing the licensed stuff is nice because it’s much more structured, I can do my own thing for a while and then I do Jem or Turtles and it’s like I don’t have to think about it quite as much because I have a boss who sets a schedule and I’m working with people who keep me on task as opposed to working by myself where I often veer off in another direction or get distracted That’s another reason I like to alternate, it’s always nice to go back to my own work after working with a writer and a boss, I can do whatever I want and it’s like coming home after a long trip, in a way.