Getting the Goat Getters: A Conversation with Eddie Campbell

I’ve followed Eddie Campbell’s work since first encountering his autobiographically inclined Alec stories in Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury’s UK-based Escape anthology back in the early 1980s. More recently I was surprised to learn that aside from his own prodigious cartooning career, Campbell was a dedicated scholar of early American comics. And I was delighted by the long-awaited arrival of The Goat Getters this spring from IDW, which I initially devoured in one big long gulp. Here’s the poop: The Goat Getters covers more fresh bases in comics history, and in more depth and with more thoughtfulness than a 21st century book has any right to do. Among other things, it’s a perfect companion to Krazy, Michael Tisserand’s definitive book on George Herriman, delivering further context and the visual goods that were by necessity in short supply in that exemplary biography.

Mark Newgarden: I loved The Goat Getters. It’s a book about so many intersecting things, as the 19th century gave way to the 20th: cartooning, storytelling, newspaper culture and design, the sporting life, language, and race. Above all it’s a sort of untold history of the comic strip from a vantage point that previous chroniclers often miss, as the Sunday color supplements and daily comic strips became isolated from the rest of the newspaper. I’m curious what your entry point was into this shadow history, what propelled you, and how your research was shaped into this book.

Eddie Campbell: Thanks, that’s a fine short description of the book. Where were you when the publisher asked me for it!

I’ve been collecting all kinds of stuff for years and have developed my own concept of the history of cartooning, of which "comics" is just one aspect. In my head I have always had a sense of the story in it, but I tend to groan when all those "History of Comics" come out and as time has moved along they have got narrower in their focus. I felt it was time to get back and look at the actual material and not just all the history books that have accumulated, in which more often than not the writer is reiterating the conventional old narrative of the previous one. Also, when some of these histories get to joining up the dots, they are seeing only the dots in a narrow window and thus missing the real connections that are invisible to them. So there was a pressing need to see the old comics and cartoons in their context, to see the newspaper as a holistic environment in which cartoonists could be moving this way and that and working in several sections of the paper at the same time and not just the comics pages. If you go at it all without the usual prejudices, a quite different story can be drawn out. Indeed many different stories present themselves.

San Francisco as opposed to New York City emerges as the petri dish of this particular strain of cartooning culture. Can you speak a little bit to the earmarks of this culture and why that city was so important?

San Francisco is the place where William Randolph Hearst was born and owned his first newspaper. Thus, "yellow journalism," the comics, and sports cartooning begin with The San Francisco Examiner. Also, California allowed prizefighting in the years 1900 to 1910, during which time the east coast had banned it, so that boxing commentary flourished in San Francisco quite fluidly. In addition to such accidents of history, personality makes up the rest. Tad Dorgan was a galvanizing figure in the scene. He worked for the San Francisco Bulletin, a paper that could only afford to send one man to a big event when the others—The Examiner, The Call, and the Chronicle—would send at least a serious artist to catch the drama as well as a funny artist to sketch caricatures of famous people spotted there. So Tad was charged with taking care of both angles and he mashed them up in one picture space.

You see, the sports cartoon, as it developed, was typically a page-wide spread containing a number of facetious vignettes on a subject, often with a large serious portrait or full figure of the athlete under discussion in the center of the arrangement. It was an irregular combination of the serious and the funny in the same layout that has no comparison in any other graphic medium as far as I know. The trick was to praise the guy and get his goat at the same time. Thus identified as a particular formal object, it can be separated it from its subject, sport (as you might separate 'comic book’ from the subject of "superhero," to use a comparison that the modern reader might get). And in fact several of the practitioners did this at the time. It started with Tad lampooning the Thaw murder trial that had all of New York atwitter in 1907, all in his spot on the sports page on days when sporting news was thin. This went on for months and became a rousing narrative.

I thought I had a fair knowledge of the players of this era but I was surprised to find myself exposed to the work of so many previously unknown newspaper cartoonists in this book. Who were some of the important "lost" cartoonists you discovered as you pieced together this story?

Harry E. Warren was the most impressive, a great all-round cartoonist who just never happened to draw in the comics section, and I give him a lot of space. We can wonder how he came to be forgotten, with his vivid political images, all those neat little caricatures, and his observations of everyday folk. But to be realistic, hardly any of these people are "remembered," even Tad Dorgan, who was a big figure in his lifetime but still needs to be explained. Another cartoonist worthy of attention is Laura Foster, perhaps the first woman in the U.S.A. drawing regular political cartoons, in 1896 in The Wasp, San Francisco’s leading humor magazine.

Kate Carew is a little better known, but she deserves a book to herself. She came out of San Francisco too. Occasionally we see that little strip of hers reprinted, Mama’s Angel Child, but it is a paltry thing compared to the Sunday interviews she did, a whole page each with text accompanied by caricatures. She spoke to the Wright brothers, Mark Twain, Picasso, and many others, and she had an engaging writing style and bundles of personality.

Many other cartoonists that we are all familiar with such as Tad, Herriman, Fisher, and Goldberg, come into sharper focus as you delineate their intertwined sporting cartoon roots. How did this sports-page background inform their later comic-strip work and ultimately impact the comics field itself?

A thing that is not always noted when talking of Herriman is that Krazy Kat started on the sports page. I've reprinted an early example of The Family Upstairs with the New York Journal's sports-page banner intact above it (sports cartoons were usually shown off across the top of the page). And there are the Kat and Ignatz the mouse playing out their daily drama in the strip under the strip. Rube Goldberg's situation is similar. After the first three or four years he tended to leave the sports subjects behind and draw around any idea he thought was funny, but his place in the New York Evening Mail was always at the top of the sports page no matter what he was cartooning about. There’s one in the book in which he plays around with a news story in which a professor has declared that love-making, meaning courtship back then, should be taught in schools.

You can see that the sports page was aimed at the adult male. It was on the sports page that Tad drew the daily strip Silk Hat Harry’s Divorce Suit. And the colored Sunday comics section was for the kids. Cartoons were done differently in each of the different sections of the paper. The women's pages had the romantic cartoons of Charles Dana Gibson and Nell Brinkley, and I show some of that too. So you automatically have these contrasts of tone. These quite different strains of comics ushered in a new era in which the comics section would come to contain cartoons for people of all ages and genders.

Speaking to the matter of posthumous reputations, of the six major figures that I list on my title page, Herriman and Goldberg have both attracted a biography or monograph in the last six years, because both went on to become giants of the color comics. It’s a mystery to me why Swinnerton isn’t included among the greats, either by [Richard] Marschall in his America’s Great Comic Strip Artists (1997) or in the more recent Masters Of American Comics (2005). And then there’s Tad Dorgan and Robert Edgren, the two masters of the sports pages, in the Hearst and Pulitzer papers respectively. Comics culture tends to reject sport, so their stars will probably continue to fade. Goats may be the only chance you get to see their brilliance.

One of the aspects of The Goat Getters I particularly enjoyed was the tone of your writing. It felt unexpectedly informal at times, atypical of the scholarly work that it assuredly is and almost like an epic tale spun aloud. How did that voice develop?

In my earliest draft I sounded like a bore. I had to take myself by the lapels and say, "Hey Campbell, if this shit gets out you're ruined." So I went in from the first line and injected a strain of mischief and tomfoolery that runs through the whole thing. For example, nobody has written about this stuff before so I had to invent all the terminology, and I hate the way stuff like that can get too serious. So for example, with the strip-under-the-strip effect that Herriman used and several other artists borrowed, I found myself calling it "the lower quadrant." Away with that, I thought, crossing it out, and wrote "the basement."

Unlike academic texts, with me it's all directed toward telling a story, and this one is a big story with a multitude of little stories clinging to it, little capsule biographies in a single paragraph that finish with irony or tragedy ringing in your ear. I felt that with my lifetime experience I could bring to the task a real no-nonsense idea of what an artist is and why he does what he does. This is what drove me to make the book, and also the challenge of designing the whole thing so that the image is nearly always interacting with the text. So even in this nonfiction context I’m cunningly interweaving the words and the pictures. There are little figures running in among the words all through the book. A book about humor should be made with humor.

Furthermore, in the reproductions that have been used (and most of the stuff in Goats has never been reprinted in the intervening century) I have taken care to show fragments of the stories that surround the image, all that extraneous noise of the time when it was originally printed. A really attentive reader might even see a signal in the noise, when seemingly irrelevant events are mentioned more than once, or refer to an event described in a cartoon elsewhere in the book. There’s a hell of a lot going on in Goats, and it is teeming with characters, but it needs to be read like a novel, from beginning to end, and it has an emotional payoff, as we expect from a good novel.

Were you a sports fan going into this project and if not, did researching and writing this book spark a midlife interest in boxing, baseball, or horse racing?

I wasn’t a fan to begin with and I haven’t become one, but good stories are everywhere. I loved the Ken Burns documentary series on baseball. And if I’m in a bar waiting for a pal, here in Chicago where I currently reside, I can find myself intrigued by the NFL on the TV, trying to figure out what the rules are in this nutty sport, and just watching the players and figuring out what their story is.

What’s next for Eddie Campbell?

A book about the Midwest School. There’s another story that needs to be told in its entirety. Everything’s a story, including this interview.

Eddie Campbell studied what he had typed and, with a self-satisfied smirk, clicked the send button.

Mark Newgarden is a cartoonist and co-author (with Paul Karasik) of the Eisner-winning How To Read Nancy. He teaches at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and the Parsons School of Design in Manhattan.