Smash Pages Q&A: Sophie Campbell on ‘Wet Moon’

The creator of the seven-part graphic novel series discusses the final volume from Oni Press.

I have read Sophie Campbell’s work since the beginning of her career, and as I told her, I still have a battered first edition of Wet Moon Volume 1, her debut as a writer and artist. Since that book came out in 2005, she’s worked on a number of projects. She wrote and drew the graphics novels The Abandoned and Water Baby, in addition to two Shadoweyes books. She’s drawn Glory at Image, Jem and the Holograms at IDW and many issues of TMNT. For some people, her best work, her most intimate and personal work, has been Wet Moon. Oni Press just published the seventh and final book of the series. It’s been a long time coming, but it is a beautiful and perfect ending to the series.

The book doesn’t get enough credit or attention, but I’m far from the only person who loves the books so passionately. Campbell was able to write characters, to craft mysteries with such precision, and she was able to make a series that for the most part was plotless slice-of-life stories about a few months in the lives of these characters and make them so compelling. It is an immense work and even today stands out for so many reasons. Campbell and I have spoken a few times over the years, and I wanted to mark the book’s release by talking with her again.

How do you describe Wet Moon?

I usually think of it like teen angst + Twin Peaks, goth kids + Twin Peaks, something like that. The majority of the focus is on the slice-of-life stuff but there’s a kind of Lynchian supernatural-ness in the margins, too. It’s hard to summarize it succinctly, because the comic itself isn’t very succinct.

When you first started Wet Moon, did you have a plan or an outline for the series? Or was it more of a rough idea of what you wanted to do?

It was more of a rough idea, I rarely planned things out in the early days, it was really by the seat of my pants. And things changed a lot early on, too, like I’d get a new idea or a scene I wanted to do and I’d just put it in on a whim and change the direction of the story whenever I felt like it. The stuff with Myrtle and Trilby was the main thing that remained constant since pretty much the beginning, that was in the plan from the start and hardly changed at all. I started trying to do outlines for it around volume 4 or 5, but no matter how concrete the outlines would get, I’d almost always end up changing things at the last minute.

The first volume is this very ambling kind of slice of life tale. I don’t want to say it’s plotless, but you weren’t interested much in plot. Was it hard to have a story but still have Wet Moon be first and foremost about these characters and their interactions and these small moments?

I would say the first couple books were plotless. [laughs] I don’t think that’s a bad thing or necessarily a criticism, it’s part of what I wanted to do. I’m still not super interested in plot but I did feel some pressure to give the series more direction as it went on, like around volumes 5 and 6, but doing that kinda bummed me out for some reason. Like having such a direct throughline in a book makes me feel unsatisfied and confused about what I’m doing, like I lose sight of things, I don’t know how to explain it. Anyway, having it be mostly about the characters and their interactions isn’t hard for me over the course of so many books, I could do 50 volumes of fun, small moments with the characters and never introduce any overarching story, I think that’s my default writing state. If anything it’s the opposite of your question, in that sometimes the long-running storylines would get in the way of the characters.

Storylines getting in the way of the characters is honestly how I feel about a lot of fiction. You’ve drawn a lot of different kinds of work, but are those the kinds of stories you like reading and watching? Or just the ones you’re drawn to telling?

It depends. I usually don’t watch or read a lot of slice-of-life stories, I watch mostly horror movies and for shows my favorites are Grey’s Anatomy and The Flash, and when I read prose it’s almost always nonfiction (I read a lot of true crime stuff), and when it comes to comics I don’t see a lot of stories similar to how I write but I’d like to read more like that. I can’t think of any truly plotless slice-of-life comics off the top of my head.

Maybe Ariel Schrag’s old books, like Potential and Likewise, which I love, they’re slice-of-life-ish but also autobio so it’s not quite the same. So I guess to answer your question it’s for the most part the type of stories I’m drawn to telling, rather than the types I read or watch. Mostly I just like stuff with monsters and serial killers in it. [laughs]

You made the first five in pretty quick succession and then there were a few years off before you did six. Were you working on the seventh all this time on and off between other projects? Or writing and rewriting it?

What happened was around 2010 I was doing terribly financially and ran out of money and almost had to take a day job, I was considering leaving comics toward the end of that year and trying my hand at working at a bakery. Sometimes I still fantasize about doing that. [laughs] I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to fund Wet Moon or how I’d be able to find time for it if I left freelancing, I have a hard time switching gears and I think if I had a normal job I wouldn’t really do comics much. But then the Glory gig happened, so it was either do that or work at the bakery, and I decided on doing Glory. Also around that time one of my cousins died and then my cat died, and I was depressed and having a really hard time figuring out Wet Moon 6 so it kept dragging on.

I started on Glory in early 2011, while chipping away at Wet Moon 6, which finally came out in 2012 three years after volume 5. And then after Glory, I was still recouping all my financial losses and trying to build up my pool of money, so I didn’t have the stability – both financially and emotionally – to do volume 7 at that time. I would do a little bit of it here and there when I could, I drew a bunch of pages of a version of the book that I eventually completely scrapped so that was another obstacle. On top of all that, depression really killed Wet Moon for a while, I was sort of on autopilot through some of those years, and doing work-for-hire rather than my own stories was easier and let me make money while kinda turning my brain off a bit. Not that I don’t love working on Ninja Turtles or Jem, but there’s a certain part of myself I can turn off when I’m not responsible for the entire comic on my own. There were a lot of rewrites, too, like you mentioned, I was just all over the place with volume 7.

You’ve spoken about how the ending and the number of books has changed over the years. How did you decide this was the end of the story?

I mentioned the key story decision in the last answer, that was a big part of ending the series at volume 7. I had it at twelve volumes for a while, then eight, then ten, then nine, then back to eight again, then finally volume 7 felt like the right place to end it. One thing I was starting to feel uncomfortable with was the age of the characters. That was another big factor in ending the comic. I’d started the series when I was 23 or 24, the characters were around 18-21 years old, but the series only takes place over the course of a few months, so by the time volume 7 rolled around, the characters were the same ages and here I am at 38. I’d sometimes forget how old the characters were and it started to feel weird whenever I’d be reminded of it, so it was either end the series at seven books or have volume 8 suddenly skip ahead in time 15 years or something. I’d still love to do a follow-up someday about the characters in their 30s! But I guess mostly it “felt” right to end it, I make a lot of choices on just what feels right at the time and I try not to overthink it.

You write in the afterword about how your original plans for books six and seven were much “bigger”. What made you see that wasn’t what you wanted to do?

One thing with volume 6 that I mentioned was my cousin dying while I was working on the book. Originally Trilby died, and the rest of the series would’ve been about the characters grappling with that and the story was a sprawling mess of grimness, but with the deaths of my cousin and my cat, it just flipped a switch in me, I guess. I was having so much trouble figuring out volume 6, nothing felt right about it, but when I made the decision to have Trilby survive, everything clicked into place. It became a smaller story and I think it was better for it.

Same with volume 7, it was another sprawling book that at one point was over 300 pages, which would’ve been cool as a final book, a big long epic opus, but again I was having trouble figuring it out until I changed what happened with one particular character relationship. I don’t want to say what it was, I don’t want it to color volume 7 in a different way by knowing what was going to happen between the characters, but it was big enough that changing it necessitated cutting out half of the book. So that one change made a whole chunk of the original book obsolete, and the new things in the story that came out of that change helped me get excited about it and flip that switch to make it all click.

The flipside of that question I guess is, what did you want to do and what did you feel needed to happen in this volume?

I think that was another thing, what I “needed to have” in volume 7. Part of me felt pressured to reveal all the mysteries that some readers really wanted to know – like the mysterious floor spot in Cleo’s room, or what happened to Natalie’s old roommate, or who the real killer was that Agent Wolfe was tracking, what Fern’s deal was with the swamp, etc. – and I do have backstory for all those things. They do have answers. I resolved some of them in the older drafts of volume 7. I felt like I had to, like I owed it to people to explain the mysteries and not leave things hanging.

But at some point I decided that I didn’t NEED to have those things in there, I realized that while Wet Moon has a lot of those unexplained weird things, it isn’t really about that stuff, it’s about the characters and I realized I had to just focus on them. I asked myself, would knowing the secret behind the floor spot really improve the story? What would it add to it to explain what Agent Wolfe was doing or who was writing the “Cleo Eats It” flyers and why? I couldn’t see how those things would improve the book or retroactively improve the first six books. It might even lessen them if I explained it all, since my answers would probably not live up to what readers had in their imaginations. Part of Wet Moon is not knowing everything, the characters can’t know everything and in some cases the characters don’t care about knowing everything, and I eventually decided to delete all the stuff that solved some of the mysteries. When I watch movies or read comics or whatever, I personally always enjoy when things aren’t explained, I like imagining what it might be about or feeling creeped out by an unknowable mystery. I like thinking about who the weirdo guy was that I saw outside last week and how I’ll never, ever know, and that’s okay.

I kept thinking that in some ways, this volume was a callback to the first volumes. Was that intentional?

Sort of! I was definitely trying to get back to what I loved about Wet Moon in the first place, following my whims and figuring out what would be the most fun and engaging for me to do. After I got rid of all the serious mystery plot stuff like I was saying, Volume 7 felt more like the comic did to me in the beginning when there wasn’t any pressure or expectations. I could just do the comic on its own terms and enjoy making it.

You’ve talked about maybe doing a sequel to the series, but having finished this project which has taken up a lot of your twenties and thirties, do you want to make another big project like this? Either in terms of number of pages or length of time?

I’m not sure yet! Maybe someday. I’m always in awe of Japanese creators who do the same comic for like a hundred volumes or something, I love the idea of that and getting to follow characters for that long, but I don’t think I could ever do it. I’d get sick of it. My mind works like that, though, I think of stories and characters in the long-term and I love getting to sit with them and not having to say goodbye, I love the idea of following the characters’ lives, but I don’t know if I have something like that in me. I have a fantasy series I’m planning that could maybe run that long but it’s too early to say. We’ll see.

Has how you’ve thought about Wet Moon and the characters changed over time?

It’s unavoidable as I get older and change as a person. When I started the series it was more of a goof-off thing, I never thought of where it would go or how readers would feel about it or interpret it, so early on I didn’t always take it seriously. But as I’ve gotten older and the comic has progressed and my skills and style have changed, I feel like I have a clearer idea of what Wet Moon is and should be. I look back on a lot of the decisions I made throughout the series and think why the hell did I do that, or I wish I could change that or take that back, but I guess that’s a pretty standard thing to feel toward your own work or things you did when you were younger. But I think nowadays I can accept Wet Moon warts and all, and appreciate the work I put into it.

In your last answer when you were talking about looking back on the series, I was thinking, that’s how I feel about my 20s. Not that Wet Moon is autobio but emotionally does it feel that way?

Definitely. I think each book reflects where I was personally at the time, like emotionally or mentally, and what I was interested in while working on whatever given book. My interests change a lot over the years and I go in phases of being really into something then moving on to something else, as well as just maturing as a person as I got older, that’s definitely present in the series.

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