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Eddie Campbell Joins ‘The Black Diamond Detective Agency’

Eddie Campbell is not only comics royalty, with Bacchus, Alec, and a little ditty called From Hell which he co-created with Alan Moore to his credit, he’s also a true gentleman, a raconteur par excellence, and (full disclosure) I’m honored to call him my friend. I first met Eddie through mutual friends at Comic-Con some ten years ago, and though it had been five years since we last saw each other, we were able to reconnect in person at this year’s Con.

Somewhat ironically, however, knowing what Con schedules are like, this interview was mostly conducted via email prior to arrival in San Diego. Thanks to an overzealous spam filter (mine, not Eddie’s) though, plans to publish the piece prior to Comic-Con were scotched, but I hope you’ll find that, like a fine wine, the extra aging has only improved its bouquet… or something.

Eddie’s latest book, and his first western, is The Black Diamond Detective Agency, which First Second Books released a little over a month ago. If you haven’t done so already, check out the nifty promotional trailer that the publisher put together for the book (I love it that publishers are increasingly creating trailers to promote their comics and graphic novels these days), then kick back and enjoy spending some time in the (virtual) company of Eddie Campbell.

CA: Though you’ve adapted other writers’ work into comics form in the past –most notably your alchemical transmutations of Alan Moore’s stage performances– The Black Diamond Detective Agency strikes me as a rather unexpected move even for such as unpredictable artist such as yourself. How did you come to adapt C. Gaby Mitchell’s unproduced screenplay into a graphic novel? Who approached you with the project?

EC: The great songwriter Sammy Cahn used to say: “What comes first, the words or the music? I’ll tell you: Always, always, the telephone call.” First Second phoned and presented me with the proposal. Simple as that. But how often in this business does somebody phone you for a job that doesn’t involve superheroes? I guess that for me was the attraction. It’s a grand old fashioned adventure yarn that stays within the bounds of believability.

CA: Did you find that adapting a screenplay into a graphic novel presented new and/or unexpected challenges? Was the form more limiting or more freeing than working from, say, a comics script or an Alan Moore stage performance?

EC: It was more freeing I would think. There seems to be an awful lot that is left vague in a script, to be made up as the filming goes along. I’ve just been reading the autobiography of film director Norman Jewison and he says something similar. He came to movies from television, where he’d been shooting showbiz specials, for Judy Garland and the like, where every movement and camera angle had to be thoroughly worked out in advance. With movies you try it one way, and if you think of something better, then you reshoot from another angle, or you have to adapt to some unforeseen condition on the set. So movies are scripted with a certain leeway left for adapting.

CA: Speaking of leeway, since you weren’t working with a movie studio (i.e., “suits”), and given your own body of work, I’m guessing you were given a sizeable amount of creative license in creating your adaptation. Was this the case?

EC: I fleshed out characters and added in lots of business of my own and everybody seems to be happy about that. For instance, I had fewer people falling over dead in the gun battle in the rail station. In the kinetic medium of film that kind of thing holds the eye of the viewer better. In a small format comic book you need arresting still images, and fewer things happening.
The Black Diamond Detective Agency panel

CA:Are you generally a fan of movie Westerns?

EC: As a child I was. Not now.

CA: Gotcha. Even so, with Australia as your adopted homeland, I imagine you’ve seen The Proposition? I thought it was fantastic, but it was criminally little-seen in the U.S. despite near-universally rave reviews.

EC: Haven’t seen it yet, but I’ll take your recommendation on board. Australia certainly has the capacity for a tradition of western style stories. It has its own culture of horse and cattle and rodeo and country music. But its film industry has always been very stop-start.

CA: Not being a particular fan of the genre this may not apply, but I’m wondering if working in such a storied genre you found yourself drawing on any particular cinematic inspirations in realizing a western movie on the comics page?

Panel from The Black Diamond Detective AgencyEC: I wasn’t thinking about movies very much while I was working on the book, except every now and then I’d have to look at photos of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen to remind myself that I was supposed to be drawing a traditional American type of heroic figure. I was always straining against that, such as in the business with the eyeglasses that runs all through the story. He’s wearing them in the original script, but it didn’t seem to be well enough worked out, either that or the reasoning was buried under a couple of rewrites. So I introduced an element of neurosis into the psychology of the hero.

CA: Since Black Diamond is largely an “urban” western, I’m curious what you most enjoyed drawing, the early frontier passages of the book or the later “big city” scenes?

EC: I was definitely more comfortable once we got into Chicago. The mine and the small town environment were alien to me. But drawing tram cars and the fronts of public bath buildings, and Victorian period architecture generally (Chicago was all rebuilt in the late 1800s), well I grew up in that kind of environment. Glasgow is a very Victorian city.

CA: Speaking of the urban scenes, I have to compliment you on the seeming wink you gave fans of your work on From Hell with the prominently placed horse-drawn carriage scenes in part 2 of the book. Which begs the question, since the time period of Black Diamond is roughly analogous to that of From Hell (1899 vs. 1888) –albeit set in the comparatively wide open spaces of the American West and Midwest– were you surprised to discover any commonalities in your research between the two books?

EC: It was good to be able to use some of the photographic reference I had gathered earlier. I do enjoy that period. I’ve even got a sense of the shape of the shoes they wore then. The O. Henry adaptation in Fate of the Artist belongs in here too (that was written in 1903).

The Black Diamond Detective Agency cover imageCA: One imagines that First Second’s handsome edition of your book must make for a highly attractive calling card for a screenwriter whose sole movie-related credit listed on imdb is a single story credit (on Blood Diamond), particularly in an era which finds Hollywood more and more comics-obsessed. Do you know if the publication of the book has led to increased visibility of the screenplay in Hollywood?

EC: Mitchell has been working in movies for some time. I think his name is among the credits on Cinderella Man. But with movies, so many different people work on a script. It’s a big factory. But anyway, I think that was the intention of doing it as a graphic novel in the first place, to have a visual product to show around, as well as having a buzz of some sort out there.

CA: With the book being shown around town, has it drawn more attention to your own work? Might we be seeing an Alec MacGarry movie anytime soon?

EC: Well, you never know. More likely the small screen than the big. In fact something is already happening in that department but I can’t say anything just yet. That’s the first time I’ve mentioned this anywhere outside of my own circle.

CA: That’s very exciting news, thanks for sharing the good word with us! Best of luck with the process … are you able to say what level of involvement you’d have in the development process?

EC: I better wait before talking about that. Might jinx the whole thing.

CA: Understood. We’ll look forward to hearing more in the future then. I can’t let you go without asking what’s next on your drawing board? And, as a fan of both your writing and your artwork, will you be returning to both duties with your next project?

EC The Amazing Remarkable Monseiur Leotard will be my book for next year. It’s all about crazy circus people and once again it’s set in the nineteenth century. It spreads its net between 1870 and 1920, covering a lot of ground and historical moments. After that I’ve already got a new project cooking but I can’t say a thing about that yet either. I think I will be a busy bee over the next couple of years.

CA: Excellent, that’s what we like to hear. Thanks for your time and candor, Eddie!

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