Ross Campbell Talks Curvy Girls, Sexy Boys And Warrior Women [Sex]
When ComicsAlliance first decided to devote a February fortnight to highlighting great sexy comics and the great artists who produce them, Ross Campbell was the first creator I thought of. Not only has the cartoonist a master of the female form, he's also one of the few artists who celebrates that form in the myriad of ways it appears in reality, from the curvy girls of his Wet Moon graphic novel series to the steamy sexpots of The Abandoned and Water Baby to the formidable warriors of Mountain Girl and his brilliant redesign of Rob Liefeld's Glory.
Campbell took some time away from his drawing board to talk to CA about his body of work from The Abandoned to Glory, how he draws characters the way he does and why he draws the characters the way he does, covering everything from "bad cheesecake" to "Fraggle eyelids" in the process.Campbell's comics career started at Oni Press, where his first work consisted of some sequences for Jen Van Meter's Hopeless Savages. From there he drew writer Antony Johnson's graphic novel Spooked and launched his own Oni series of graphic novels. Wet Moon (currently on volume 5 and counting). In 2006 Tokyopop published his zombie comic The Abandoned, part of the publisher's ambitious OEL manga program that included the original iteration of Brandon Graham's King City and Becky Cloonan's East Coast Rising. In 2008 Campbell produced an original graphic novel for DC's short-lived Young Adult/female-focused imprint Minx with Water Baby. In 2010 he began his sci-fi superhero comic Shadoweyes, serialized on the Web and published in print by SLG Publishing.
Even with Shadoweyes and Wet Moon as ongoing concerns, Campbell jumped into the monthly superhero comic game with Glory, part of Image Comics' revival of Rob Liefeld's Extreme Studios properties that also include's Brandon Graham's Prophet. The prolific Campbell has kept even busier with contributions of short works to such varied comics as DC/Vertigo's House of Mystery and Archaia's Fraggle Rock.
ComicsAlliance: Is it fair to say that you're more interested in female protagonists and characters than in male ones? Why is that?
Ross Campbell: I am, yeah. It's both a writing and a drawing thing, mostly writing though. I like to write female characters because I feel more of a connection to them and I usually relate to women more than I do to guys. I like writing male characters, too, but with them I find it harder for me to get into their heads, and when that happens I don't feel as much of a connection when I can't relate to the characters. I don't know, I gotta work on that because I want to do a bromance comic!
And it's also simply that overall I like drawing ladies more than guys. I'm more drawn to them. I also really like drawing more androgynous or ambiguously-gendered sorts of characters.
CA: I first encountered your work in The Abandoned. I was really struck by the main character, Rylie, who isn't standard comics issue in any way: She's black, very curvy, has piercings and punk rock hair and is, apparently, a lesbian (or bisexual). Can you tell us a little bit about her creation, how you came to settle on her visual markers and character design?
RC: I don't remember much about the creation of The Abandoned and its characters, even though it wasn't that long ago... about seven or eight years? I guess that's kind of long. I don't know that there was much thought behind Rylie's design other than I liked how she looked and how the design meshed with who she was. I knew I wanted to have a black girl hero who was into deathrock and stuff like that. She came together really fast, the way she looks in the comic is almost unchanged from the very first sketch I did of her.
CA: On rereading The Abandoned, I was also struck by the fact that it is full of sexy women, but that no two of them look anything alike. Like, it's hard to imagine very many of them being able to share clothes, for example. Was designing a cast with such a wide variety of body-types of your goals when you set out to make that book? Or did it evolve more organically, as in, "I already drew a girl like this, so now I should draw one like this?
RC: It was both. I knew I wanted a broader range of characters than my Wet Moon cast, so I tried for more diverse designs, types of characters I hadn't tried to draw yet, but, at the same time, that's also where my style was headed so it came very much on its own, too. It was an organic extension of what I had been doing in Wet Moon Volume 1, like The Abandoned was the next step in me branching out with character range.
CA: The Abandoned was a horror story, and yet there's a lot of sex in it. Not in-panel sex, but certainly the suggestion of sex. There's a lot of revealing clothing, exposed flesh and even lusty characters. Was that a tone you were going for in your art and in the story? More generally, how do you as an artist calibrate, for example, how sexy something should be, and what's appropriate for what story?
RC: Horror and sex have always gone together in a lot of ways, sex and death and all that, so that was me trying to do something with that. Part of what I wanted to do with The Abandoned was have the zombies -- who are mostly old people because it's everyone 23 and older who gets zombified -- on some level lusting after the young living characters, so I tried to give the cast different kinds of sexual charisma both physical and personality-wise. Both with the ladies and the main male character Ben, and then put them in a muggy, swampy Georgia environment and make the whole thing seem steamy, but in an uncomfortable, almost gross way or something, like adulthood's obsession with and hunger for youth and how that can be a destructive, slimy thing-that sort of idea.
I think I failed, though, and it ended up just being a bunch of hot characters fighting zombies, which is kind of boring to me. I always feel like I set out to do something and overestimate myself and when it comes to the execution I end up biting off more than I can chew.
The calibration thing is a tough one, especially for someone like me who doesn't know what I'm doing half the time, but I'm learning more about that as I get older. I don't know if I have a good answer for that question. I think a part of it can definitely be quantified, you can analyze and critique something and its visual cues and subtext, but another part is more of a gut instinct thing where it has to "feel" right for the s tory and tone and who the individual characters are. The context has to be right.
CA: Shadoweyes has a similarly varied cast, in terms of body types and shapes and so on. Are you seeking to represent real people who may not see themselves in comics -- specifically superhero comics -- very often, or is it more personal in that you don't want to draw the same characters or types of characters over and over?
RC: It's both. I want to get a lot of kinds of people into my comics and I want to see a bigger range of characters in comics overall, so I try to do what I can on my end with the level of ability I have. Shadoweyes being a superhero/antihero/vigilante story was also a factor, too, like you said, I wanted to do a superhero thing with some characters who seem more true to life and who never show up in a very homogeneous genre.
There are some similarities among a lot of my characters but I try to make them each different enough physically and mentally and in how they act. I want to at least approximate real life in some way. Even though Shadoweyes is a futuristic sci-fi vigilante thing, that real-lifeness is still a factor. Nothing wrecks believability than when all the characters have the same face or body... not to mention I get bored drawing the same face all the time.
CA: Water Baby stuck out to me as your work with perhaps the sexiest art. That was for a Minx book, and the audience for that imprint was meant for teenage girls and YA readers, although I think it's safe to say Minx didn't connect with that audience in the big way DC originally planned for. Was there any back-and-forth with your editors on that book regarding the character deisigns and costuming and suggestiveness of the artwork?
RC: I still love the Water Baby characters, but that project was a mess in my opinion. I'm still pretty embarrassed by it. Some of it was just out of control. There were a few problems on that book. One problem was me, obviously. I feel like I didn't have any awareness of what I was doing at that point in my life. I didn't set out to draw some big cheesecake book, I wasn't sitting there drawing it going, "These characters are so hot!", it just came out in this particularly sexed-up way. Even though the result is the same, not intending that is worse than purposely intending [the work] to be that way because at least if you intended it then you're thinking about your audience and you're aware of the merits and flaws of what you're doing and the potential problems with it. I just didn't see it that way until I finished the book and could look at it more objectively and see what it was. Toward the end of drawing it I actually had a big freak-out about the sexiness in the book and didn't want to finish it so nobody would ever see it, but that didn't work out, of course, heh.
RS: Another problem was that originally I didn't fully understand what Minx was supposed to be. I knew it was a girl-geared line so that should've tipped me off to begin with. I'm to blame on that one. Why would you do a book like Water Baby in a line like that? But when I was drawing the book in 2006 I hadn't seen any other Minx books; I had no frame of reference and, for some reason, I thought the line was supposed to be kind of edgy in an older reader way and I wanted to do characters based on some of the raunchy girls I've been friends with over the years, these oversexed, slovenly hippie type girl characters who are all hanging out in their unwashed clothes. But when the first Minx books came out, like Plain Janes, I was like, "Oh sh*t, that's what this thing is supposed to be like?!" and I realized I'd made a huge blunder.
My editor, who I should mention was great and fun to work with, was really into what I did on the book, though. She actually encouraged the sexiness at times. She liked the characters being all saucy or whatever. Nobody ever told me to rein it in or anything like that but I still take full responsibility. I sure could've used a wake up call before it was too late though, haha.
All that said, though, despite being rightfully ripped to pieces in reviews when the book came out, in recent years I've heard from a lot of women and girls who love the book and characters. I wish I could erase the book from existence but it's always nice to hear from girls who connected with the characters. I think a lot of that comes form the two main characters being black and brown girls who are portrayed as sexy and cute, which there isn't much of in comics or other media.
CA: I've heard -- mostly secondhand -- that you've decided to dial back on how sexy some of your art is. Is that true, or a fair characterization? Is it a matter of context, or are you uncomfortable drawing women like you did in The Abandoned and Water Baby in the future at all? I ask in part because I think you're really good at drawing sexy ladies.
RC: Thanks! But yeah, it's true I've been scaling it back. The first reason is that those books were done a while ago and I'm not the same person who drew that older work, I'm interested in different things and have realized things about myself, so my work changes. My style has always been constantly in flux, so stylistic changes and new directions aren't anything new for me. I didn't alwasy draw like I did in The Abandoned or Water Baby so I'm just coninuing to change.
The second reason is a few years ago I was having an artistic crisis of faith -- which I have a lot of, lots of doubt all the time -- but it led me to being more aware of what I really wanted my work to be and how I wanted it to feel and look, and just what it all meant. The kicker came when around that time I started reading a lot of feminist and sociology writings which really reinforced how I was feeling about my work and helped me articulate and identify it. It was like the car of my work had been careening around and I was finally able to grab the wheel and steady it before flying off into a ditch or something.
The sociology stuff opened my eyes not just in terms of my work but in terms of society. It's like taking the red pill in The Matrix and you see the patterns and constructs all around you, and how you yourself factor in, and once you see that you can't un-see it. I really care about people and I want my books to help them in some way. That's what I set out to do and hearing from readers who have been helped or inspired by my work in personal ways reinforces that and reminds me what I'm doing, and I want to do that rather than add more logs to the sexualization fire.
Anyway, I'm trying to give my characters a more "natural" sexiness, if that makes any sense since they're cartoon characters, rather than the overtness in The Abandoned or Water Baby or some of my Wet Moon stuff. I think, at least with the types of stories and characters I like to do -- which have a certain realism to them while still being cartoony -- that it's also problematic to take all the sexuality out of the characters. That can also be dehumanizing, so I'm trying to find that line.
Finally, I can't say anything for sure, I don't know the future, but I can't see myself drawing characters like I did in The Abandoned and Water Baby again. I like how my characters are turning out nowadays so much better. And also I'm just not that interested in or attracted to that sort of super-sexy stuff anymore, at least for female characters. I find myself thinking about drawing more hotted up male characters. I don't know if that's hypocritical or not.
CA: We at ComicsAlliance, and online fans in the comics blogosphere in general, talk a lot about how mainstream superhero comics tend to get things wrong when it comes to "cheesecake" art or imagery that's supposed to be titillating but instead often comes off as gross or dehumanizing or offensive. Sometimes it's the context (as in all-ages superhero books with characters from kids' cartoons in decidedly adult situations or portrayals), sometimes it's the lack of skill employed in rendering the scene, sometimes it's because the artist and writer don't seem to be on the same page.
In your opinion, how does one get something like cheesecake right? Is there a trick to drawing sexy women that reasonable people can agree is in a positive light, rather than a negative light? If you were advising a young artist who wanted to draw superhero or genre comics some day, what would you tell them when it comes to the female form?
RC: Man, I don't know. Tough question... It seems to me to be a hard thing to explain or lay out for somebody because a lot of it is so abstract, but at the same time it's also really simple and clear when you can identify it and point to examples of successful and unsuccessful (and even then your mileage may vary).
I think I would suggest to the young artist, who I'm guessing is a straight dude in your hypothetical situation since that's the group who seems to have the most trouble with this, to read some sexism theory stuff and go from there. First understanding the basic ideas of why "bad cheesecake" can often be problematic is maybe the best way to start, understanding the concepts and figuring out the cultural and artistic places this stuff comes from and what it conveys or reinforces. I think another thing that would help is to have the artist draw more from life than other comics or things like that. A good thing to do is distill your own style down from real people instead of looking at and imitating other superhero artwork.
CA: Let's talk about Glory. The starting point for that character seems to be a Wonder Woman-like analogue, and past portrayals of the character have been very much in the vein of '90s "bad girl" art, with a Barbie doll-like figure and so forth. Your Glory looks radically different. Can you walk us through your design a bit? Did you and your co-creator Joe Keatinge talk about what she should look like, and why?
RC: Both [Glory writer] Joe Keatinge and I wanted Glory to look like a real-deal warrior, that was the main thing. I liked the aspect of Glory that she wasn't human, she's part superwoman Amazonian something-or-other and part demon demigod, so why should she even look like most humans? I wanted her to look the part. I thought she should look like a warrior demigod whose day job is fighting monsters, she should have ridiculous muscles like most male heroes have but which are usually denied to female heroes, and she should be super tall and majestic like she's not built for Earth at all.
I've seen some people say she's too masculine or that I took all her sex appeal out, but I don't think I've don that at all. There's more than one way to be a woman. Glory is still feminine in her own way, and sex appeal doesn't have to exclusively be a supermodle bombshell in a thong or something.
I was more conservative with her design at first but once I got the job I started pumping her up and exaggerating her even more into what I thought she should be. Joe has been awesome through all of it. We've pretty much been on the same page and his suggestions are always great, and he's been cool with me pushing Glory's look.
CA: Have your received any feedback from Liefeld himself regarding your Glory design? Have you been pleased with reader reaction to your Glory?
RC: Rob seems into it, which is great. I really, really appreciate him letting me do what I've been doing with Glory and letting me have fun with the character. I can't thank him enough! I've been surprised by the positive reactions so far, not because I think what Joe and I are doing isn't good, but I'm kind of a pessimist and this Glory stuff is new territory for me, a totally new audience, and I didn't know what to expect, especially doing such a radical departure from the original character. It's been really encouraging so far.
CA: How challenging is it to go from working on a comic from your own writing to working on something someone else has plotted and scripted? As the artist, do you generally feel free to design or redesign everything in the script, or do you leave a lot of that up to the writer, or does it depend on the project and the script?
RC: Joe leaves most of the design work up to me, other than suggestions here and there, so I'm mostly free with that, which is nice. The biggest challenge for me is that when I write my own stories, I can write to my strengths and weaknesses, I know what it's going to look like when I write it. But working with another writer, that comfort zone isn't there, so sometimes I'll get a script from Joe with something I've never drawn before in my life and I have no idea how it's going to end up or how to pull it off, coupled with material like Glory being pretty far from my usual stuff of teenagers sitting around talking about their feelings.
It's new territory for me, but it's a fun challenge.
CA: How challenging was it to go from drawing human beings to Fraggles?
RC: Fraggles were so hard to draw! I really wanted to do it because sometimes I get sick of drawing humans all the time, I jumped at the opportunity to draw something with no humans in it. Fraggles seem simple at first glance, but translating the puppets to drawings was hard for me mostly because of facial expressions. The puppets don't really have different expressions, it's all about body language and tone of voice for them, so I found if I gave the characters too much facial expression they started not looking like themselves anymore. And one big thing is that some of the Fraggles don't have eyelids, they have Kermit the Frog eyes where they're lidless eyeballs stuck on their haead, and that works for puppets but when I tried to draw one of the lidless-eyed Fraggles with a mad or sad expression and have eyelides suddenly appear, it looked all wrong. Tough thing to get around.
CA: From where we sit, it looks like you're working on Glory, Wet Moon and Shadoweyes simultaneously, as all three seem to be ongoing. Can you walks us through your work a bit? Are you juggling all three, and making time for other work besides, or is that simply how things are being published, and you've already completed, say, Shadoweyes?
RC: Nothing's been totally completed, no. I've been alternating books since I started doing comics. I did Spooked, then Wet Moon 1, then The Abandoned, then Wet Moon 2, then Water Baby, then Wet Moon 3, et cetera. A couple of them I've done back to back, like Wet Moon 4 and 5 and Shadoweyes 1 and 2, but overall I try to alternate. Sometimes I think maybe it was a mistake to start Shadoweyes when I haven't finished Wet Moon, but I have so many characters I want to write that I can't help it!
Glory is a totally new thing for me; I've never done a monthly before, so it's been difficult juggling everything and I'm not sure how this year is going to go with Glory plus Shadoweyes 3.
CA: What do you have coming up in the future, that fans or readers interested in checking out some of your work for the first time can look for?
RC: Wet Moon Volume 6, which was finished in December 2011 and is good to go, will finally be out October of this years, so that's big. That's been a long time coming.
Then I have the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Leonardo micro-series/one-shot issue, written by Brian Lynch, coming out in believe April from IDW, which I am super-pumped about! I've had a few frustratingly close brushes with TMNT over the past few years, and things finally aligned with this Leonardo issue. It's a dream come true to not only finally do a Turtles comic, but an issue that's right up my alley: It's full of ninjas, Turtles in trouble, Leo being emotional, and I get to draw garbage and debris, which I love doing.
For people unfamiliar with my work, I'd recommend checking out Shadoweyes, which is the series I'm most proud of right now. It only has two books so far so it's not a big undertaking, and it's also easy to check out because I run a page of it a week for free on shadoweyes.net.