Smash Page Q&A: Alex de Campi

The prolific creator pulls no punches as she discusses her brand-new Panel Syndicate comic, ‘Bad Karma,’ and a whole lot more.

Alex de Campi made a splash writing the 2005 miniseries Smoke and ever since then, she’s been a creator who’s been hard to pin down. Some of that is simply because she’s so prolific. De Campi is a writer who’s worked on My Little Pony and Judge Dredd, Josie and the Pussycats in Space and two Archie vs Predator series. She’s created series like Grindhouse, Kat & Mouse and Agent Boo, comics like Mayday and Bad Girls, Bankshot and Semiautomagic. She created the digital comic Valentine and wrote, edited and lettered the Image Comics anthology Twisted Romance

One theme that has run through much of her work is responsibility. De Campi does not write moralistic stories, but many of them revolve around people taking responsibility for who they are for what they’ve done, only to be forced to understand that doing the right thing is often harder than they ever considered. Omar famously said in The Wire, “a man’s gotta have a code,” and so many of de Campi’s characters live similarly. Or finally make a stand and choose to live by a code, only to find that decision often becomes their undoing. Ethan and Sully in Bad Karma did not return from war better and stronger and more successful, but when they learn that someone is on death row for an assassination they carried out, they decide to do something about it. Their road trip and what follows are dark, funny, incisive and some of the best work de Campi has ever written.

Bad Karma from de Campi, Ryan Howe and Dee Cunniffe launches on Panel Syndicate today, with a new chapter coming out next month.

I joked with de Campi that she’s always working on a dozen different projects, and this year is an especially busy one for her. She’s editing and working on the comics anthology True War Stories, she’s collaborating with Erica Henderson on Dracula, Mother f**ker! and she’s writing Madi, a collaboration with filmmaker Duncan Jones that she can’t talk much about, all of which come out this fall. Meanwhile she’s serializing a graphic novel on Patreon, and her debut novel The Scottish Boy comes out the beginning of June from Unbound.

So tell me about Bad Karma. Where did this idea start?

Bad Karma grew out of a fun little side project of mine called Hells Kitchen Movie Club, in which a couple of superhero characters who were also military veterans would meet up to watch action movies together, on the principle that nobody else wanted to watch Rambo or Death Wish with them. I’ve spent a lot of time in very male-dominated spaces and around military people, and I find the nature of masculinity and male friendship to be an endlessly fascinating, compelling subject, so what started off as just a joke strip accidentally turned into this melancholy, darkly comic meditation on life as a trauma survivor and on the quiet rituals of male support. I was writing it for myself, but it resonated with a lot of people. I’ll never forget throwing in the most offhand reference to one of the characters being on PTSD meds (without actually mentioning they were PTSD meds) and not being able to drink. I thought nothing of it when I did it, other than of course this is the daily reality for this character, but the number of people who understood that I was talking in a subtle way about PTSD and messaged me to say they felt like they were seen for the first time was astounding. 

The eight-panel strips, which I posted on Twitter and which were drawn by Dave Acosta, Ryan Howe, Felipe Sobreiro, Meredith McClaren, and Ro Stein and Ted Brandt, were unexpectedly popular, wildly so, half a million readers so, to the point where other writer friends kept asking me, “What would you do, if you could really write these characters?”

I distinctly remember standing in the aisles of Midtown Comics with Vita Ayala after a signing and sketching out to them the broad premise of Bad Karma: realising long after the fact that someone innocent got blamed for a thing you did, and taking a road trip to rectify that. I then recall sitting in a Queens speakeasy with Jay Edidin and Tea Berry-Blue, and Tea forcefully declaiming over a cocktail that Ethan would be the sort of dad who wouldn’t buy his kids’ presents but got to tape the gift tag on once it was already wrapped. Folks, this is how stories are made: in bars, with your friends. 

I amassed a whole pile of notes for Ethan and Sully and Cheryl, the characters that grew out of HKMC. Snippets of dialogue, sketches of plot, all in illegible scrawl in my trusty moleskine. The trio work so much better as original characters, because they get to have mortality, and consequences, and real disabilities without a superpower as their adaptive device, and the wife and kids don’t have to be dead to actualize the characters’ vengeance. She can just be an ex-wife, and they can be no-custody kids, which makes everything far more complicated about the choices Ethan makes. A lot of my family is from Boston so they became a trio of working-class Southie friends who’d all grown up together. And I was going to write this thing, sooner or later, because I loved my disaster sons. I know these sorts of people; I’ve known them my whole life.

Then the Blade Runner people called and said they needed a screenwriting sample from me so they could evaluate me to write on the Toonami anime. I didn’t have a recent one, or one I still liked, but I had this stack of notes for this weird veteran roadtrip-of-vengeance story. So, very quickly, Bad Karma became a screenplay. I got the Blade Runner gig so I did something right, but please, never try to write a screenplay in six weeks, your brain will break. 

After that the story went out to a whole bunch of friends of mine: several veterans, some of whom have very similar disabilities to the lead characters. Some serving military, who coached me on, uh some stuff that happens in chapter three, and a bunch of very specific Ft. Bragg humour. Friends who were former CIA, to make sure matters of opsec and internal company stuff were portrayed as accurately as possible. Is this story plausible? Of course not. But am I a demon about details? Hell yes.

At the same time, Ryan and Dee came on and we began turning Bad Karma back into what it was supposed to be in the first place: a graphic novel. I think the story’s only benefited from going back and forth between formats because I’ve revised it so, so many times, dropping scenes, adding them, tweaking dialogue. It’s unpopular, mostly among people who don’t make things, to admit a story was one thing and then became another. First, I don’t care, and second, you do what you have to. None of this is easy. It’s a miracle anything gets made at all, especially a nearly 300-page graphic novel for adults.

I could talk all day about Ryan and Dee’s massive contribution to the book, but this story would be nothing without Ryan’s mastery of expression and body language, and Dee’s elegant contributions to mood through palette. This is a shaggy-dog story. It’s an action story, it’s a story about friendship, it’s a story about trauma survival that doesn’t focus on the trauma but instead on the afterwards, the crooked, staggering line along which you continue to move forwards. It’s about hope, and learning that while things may never be okay again, they can still be good. It’s also really, really funny in places.  

You’ve been published by a few different places over the years in a variety of formats. How and why was Panel Syndicate the right place for it?

We actually have a print deal for Bad Karma; it’ll be announced whenever it’s announced. I’ve been experimenting a lot with digital distribution, though. I’m serializing the graphic novel Reversal (a YA urban fantasy with Skylar Patridge and Kelly Fitzpatrick) on my Patreon, that’s also got a print deal. We’re very slowly putting my old series No Mercy (with Carla Speed McNeil and Jenn Manley Lee) on Webtoons, with the invaluable assistance of Claire Napier. 

The truth is that comiXology isn’t it. It just isn’t pulling numbers for me as an independent creator, so I’m playing with digital-distribution alternatives. The high curation of Panel Syndicate is a great attraction to me and is, again, something that comiXology simply doesn’t offer. I’m up there with works by Marcos Martín, Brian Vaughan, Jay Faerber and David Lopez? Nice. Panel Syndicate is the definition of all killer, no filler: every book is great. Marcos would rather not publish new work for a year than put something mediocre on the site just to mark time, and I love that about him.

On the other side, Webtoons has almost no curation, but it has much greater viewer numbers, who are way more skewed towards original digital content. This is a business, and it’s one in a tremendous amount of flux right now, and you best believe I’m trying all sorts of ways of getting my books to readers. It ain’t comiXology. I could give a TED Talk on what that company would need to do to have a strong, successful, high-quality independent imprint but I’m not gonna, because a girl doesn’t get paid to give TED Talks.

The question of pulling in viewer numbers aside, it’s just better for the team to find digital serialization opportunities. When you’re creating a near as dammit 300-page graphic novel, you’re toiling in isolation for so, so long. Even if we don’t make a cent off Bad Karma from Panel Syndicate, even if only a dozen people download it and none of them pay, at least for us as creators we have a little more visibility on the project and tangible waypoints in the creation process. It’s hard otherwise; it really is. 

This is also the first chapter, or the first few chapters. How long is the story and can we look forward to reading the rest of it soon?

Bad Karma is seven chapters plus an epilogue. I think it’s 275 pages in total? And we’re working on it slowly, to the tune of about 3 pages a week. So that’s about a new chapter every 3 months. We have two and a half chapters in the can, so we’ll probably post chapter 2 in a month, and then chapter 3 two months after that.

You just wrapped up Josie in Space from Archie/comiXology and after two Archie vs. Predator miniseries – both of which were insane in different ways – it seems like you write all the really crazy Archie books. Which says something. How exactly did this new series happen?

They just called me up. Whenever I come to Archie with my own ideas, I never hear back from them, but once every couple years they call me and invite me to come kill a bunch of kids. It’s fine; I enjoy it. I think everyone can tell I genuinely love the Archie characters. 

Dracula, Motherfucker! (sorry, Motherf**cker) feels very much like a book I’d expect from you. How did you team up with Erica Henderson? Because I love her work, but having read it, she does things in this book I’ve never seen her do.

Right?! Erica’s fantastic, and I feel because of Squirrel Girl and Assassin Nation, she got pigeonholed into this action-comedy cutesy thing and if you know her she is tiny and beautifully dressed and full of murder and that is NOT her at all. We’ve always been friendly and I knew she was a huge horror fan. And because this is a short book (we’re doing it in that Brubaker/Phillips hardback format, same as My Heroes Have Always Been Junkies) she could fit it in around other things.

I’m weird to work with because I tend to bring an aesthetic to all my projects, and this was all about Japanese superflat art and how you can consider Klimt and late-60s op art in that category as well, and playing with depth or the lack thereof in sequential panels. Plus, kicking 1970s West Coast fashions. I felt the aesthetic was one that Erica would absolutely get and have fun with, and you know? I was right. I didn’t collaborate with Erica so much as I unleashed her. It’s her book, I just occasionally cover up the pretty art with words. 

The other end-of-the-year book from you is True War Stories. First of all, after Twisted Romance, why did you want to make another anthology?

Due to a triumph of hope over experience, let me tell you. I fought for two years to get True War Stories a publisher, so I could get both my writers and my art teams paid. It was not easy. For me it seemed like a no-brainer: take autobio stories of both serving and former military folk and make a high-quality graphic anthology about it so other current and former military folks have something positive and beautiful that reflects their experiences, and people who have no relation to the military can be entertained while also getting a better idea what people in uniform do all day overseas. This will sell! And it’s not about hoo-rah or American propaganda, it’s just about “here are interesting lived experiences.”

Every time I do an anthology project I swear I’m never going to do another, but this one’s actually been a joy. My co-editor, Khai, who is an Iraq War veteran, has been an enormous help. And the stories are all so, so good. I swear I could edit and adapt other people’s autobio stories for the rest of my life and be happy. I think we’re all used to anthologies being of uneven quality but I feel like what we’re doing here is really special, because of the universally high standard we’ve been lucky enough to get. 

Is there anything you can say about Madi and Duncan Jones?

Another big, operationally complex project that’s been really fun! Duncan is an incredibly kind and collaborative creative partner — I mean, we’re both opinionated as heck, but there’s a respect there, and it’s always about what’s best for the project rather than our egos. And I get to work with some of my all-time favorite artists! I’m still not over the fact that apparently I have enough of a profile in this industry that I can contact these super-famous artists and they’ll be interested in working with me. Personally, I feel very anonymous and invisible. Mostly I’m happy with that, because that’s where I’d rather be, just head down, making my books, and I know not that many people have heard of me but apparently the right people have.

Your novel The Scottish Boy is out soon and I know an announcement was just made for your second novel. It’s a different beast than comics, but how have you been finding working in prose?

I love prose. Took me a long time to warm up to it because I kept trying to write like novelists I admired rather than writing like myself. What I’d like to do going forwards is one prose novel and one graphic novel a year. Comics is such a slow process, with so many setbacks, that it’s nice just to go crawl away and make a book all by myself. I have two more novels deep in planning, and I’m a little frustrated right now because I have so many deadlines between now and July I’m not really going to be able to begin my third novel until late summer. I have all the research reading stacked up in a pile, and the books are fascinating, and – I don’t have space in my schedule to read them yet. 

You were talking about the lengthy development of Bad Karma, but this process of accumulating details through research and talking with people and slowly filling up your moleskin, how much is that the way you work on most projects? Or all projects?

I’ve always been very deliberate. It’s probably a reason that I just slowly opted out of monthly comics — I just don’t want to shoot off eight pitches and write what lands. Writing is a big commitment for me. Each new book is a year of research reading and noodling in my notebook and then finally it kind of announces itself as ready to write – and I go and quietly write the whole book, often before it’s even pitched. So people say, “Oh, you’re so fast!” And it’s hilarious to me because I’ve been working on this book for four goddamn years and it’s gone through a ton of outlining and drafts and tweaks – I letter all my own stuff so there are at least two dialogue passes after the art is finished. I just HAVEN’T TALKED ABOUT IT.

I do throw in shorter, novella-length projects like Dracula, Motherf**ker, which have a little less research involved –but still, all the references are correct, because it matters. They still tend to have a specific point to them, like exploring a storytelling technique or experimenting with an aesthetic, or even just trying to write perfectly to a particular artist’s style. I’m very easy to persuade to do a side project; I’ve got two on the go at the moment.

Saying that, Bad Karma was a little heavier than usual on the research side because of the military aspect. It has to be this exact model of binoculars, this brand of eyepro, this MRAP was concurrent to their time in Afghanistan but this other one came later, et cetera. I do as much of the googling as I can so my artist doesn’t have to. 

You said that your goal is to write one novel and one graphic novel a year going forward. But I feel like every time we talk the interview ends up being, “Tell me about the five things you have coming out in the next six months.” So, if you do make two books a year, what do you plan to do with all your free time? Or to be less snarky and more serious, what do you want to do more of going forward?

I want to sleep and spend days doing fun things with my kid and read books that aren’t for research and have enough time to watch an entire season of TV. 

I feel realistically, however, I’ll just fill my free time doing random little side projects with my friends, or writing some trashy potboiler under a pseudonym. The productivity thing is weird. I’m not actually very productive? I’m slow but consistent. I didn’t have a single graphic novel out in 2019, I only had Archie vs. Predator 2. So the book I wrote in 2019 may well come out the same time as one I wrote a different year and everyone will be like, “Whoa, when did she have time to do TWO BIG GRAPHIC NOVELS?!”

The answer is because very frequently I have zero control over when books come out. And sometimes, especially in collaborative work, you have an artist drop out and so you spend a year finding someone else. I always find that’s a blessing in disguise as the new person always ends up being the karmically right person somehow. the more you’ve created, the more at peace you are with the journey. 

I still think the key to what I do is I just go make the book, and I assume if I do a good enough job, at some point in its creation process someone will agree to publish it. Or there’s Unbound or Kickstarter. 

This spring is kind of kicking my ass, though, even by my consistent-workaholic standards, between Madi, True War Stories and Dracula, Motherf**ker all having late-autumn release dates.  

I feel for the sake of transparency I should qualify that I have a nonfiction editing gig on the side which I love (It’s fascinating! People are fascinating). My boss miraculously thinks that the fact that I do my editing remotely and on evenings and weekends is a feature not a bug, and it’s a job that’s stayed busy through the pandemic. I’m extremely grateful for it; it’s reliable money that pays for all of my and my daughter’s living expenses every month. 

Also, over the course of my freelance career I’ve set my life up to be as low fixed cost as possible. I do really well with my books, and there’s a lot of Hollywood money too (another thing I never talk about), but also I have boring, dependable cash rolling in every month. This means I don’t have to take $40/page licensed comic gigs to make rent, or the sort of C-list female-hero miniseries that folks like me get offered. Which is really good from a personal brand management point of view and from a general sanity perspective. I have peers who, before the pandemic, were regularly writing nine comics a month. NINE! I can’t imagine that. The very thought horrifies me. I couldn’t write half that number a month and retain the quality level of my work to a standard that wouldn’t make me sick inside. Also I’d have to watch a lot of TV shows and I just don’t have time for that. 

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