Talking to Eddie Campbell About Monsieur Leotard
Eddie Campbell on Monsieur Leotard
After chronicling the modern-day adventures of the god of wine and revelry, adapting his own youthful misadventures and artistic development, exploring a possible Masonic ritual and Royal family cover-up of timeless proportions, spinning yarns of Batman and the Escapist, and bringing a thriller screenplay to comic book form, there’s one thing to know about Eddie Campbell’s comics: you’ll never guess what’s next.
Eddie Campbell sat down to discuss, via email, his upcoming book The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard with Newsarama. Read on to find out who was the real Leotard, what is experimental comics and what is just homogenized comics, and how circuses have informed nearly ever comic book you’ve ever read.
Newsarama: Eddie, what inspired the story of The Amazing, Remarkable Monsieur Leotard?
Eddie Campbell: It was a line in an interview somewhere but I can’t recall now whether it was Will Eisner or Michael Chabon. The gist of it was that all the types of heroes in modern day comic books are prefigured in the various types of circus performers. For instance, take the strong man, the fire-eater, the India rubber man and the girl who disappears in the magician’s cabinet, and imagine these as the precursors of the Fantastic Four. And all the people in the freak show would be the mutants that we have come to expect in our pictorial reading. This was an observation I made one lunchtime to my pal Dan Best who wrote an Escapist story that I illustrated in 2005 for the Dark Horse series. Dan started looking into the possibilities of the idea as the basis for a book. It was Dan who found the details of the story of Jules Leotard. He’s the original ‘man on the flying trapeze’ and the originator of the tight fitting costume that is named after him. In the book he is called ‘the amazing remarkable Leotard’, but we had to put ‘mister’ or ‘monsieur’ on the cover to avoid a misreading. We didn’t want little girls picking it up thinking it might be a story about a magical dancing costume. Well, we don’t mind that so much as little boys NOT picking it up for the same reason. And also there’s a naughty scene with the tattooed lady.
NRAMA: Naughty tattooed ladies will always get boys to pick a book up! Etienne and his companions make for an interesting, if unlikely, family unit. Was that something you intended when you started writing this story?
EC: Yes, there is an enduring sense of companionship that extends through the piece. I doubt very much that any of it reflects real circus life, any more than comic books reflect real life generally. That was never my purpose in the book. In fact I’m not sure that I had a purpose outside of ‘telling a story.’ But let me say that I’m glad you called it a story, because the one or two reviews we’ve had so far seem to be going to some length to tell the reader that it’s NOT a story in any conventional sense. That sounds nuts to me. What is necessary for it to constitute a story then? A scheming villain? Comic books have become so conservative and constricted and unimaginative that they run along rigid metal rails. I wanted a book in which every page would be unpredictable. I wanted a free and fluid articulation of story and idea.
NRAMA: Um…, well it’s certainly a story. Not sure which reviewers missed that part of the book. At what point during the development of the story did you decide to string Etienne and his crew’s story through moments of history, such as the Franco-Prussian War or the Titanic’s voyage?
EC: I can no longer recall. I’m not really interested in the Circus for itself, so we needed a bigger canvas to paint the story on. I do remember that when we decided to go that route we realized that the original Leotard wouldn’t able to carry the story because he died in his twenties. He was the James Dean of his period. So we invented his much less interesting nephew and we were off and running.
NRAMA: Speaking of Etienne being less interesting than his uncle, there’s a theme that Jules Leotard names right in the beginning, saying to Etienne, “May nothing occur.” I found that interesting because things are constantly occurring thereafter, often dangerous or tragic events, and there’s a question of do you want an exciting life that brings pain (the characters are witness to war, murder and the Titanic disaster, after all), or a quiet life without much excitement. Was that dichotomy something you wanted to explore?
EC: I came across it from a friend, as a wishing of good fortune which I believe originated in Ireland. The idea that a happy life would be one in which nothing happened. But I've never been able to find a written reference to it. I guess it's another of my contemplations of the unmanageableness of fate.
NRAMA: You seem to enjoy historical settings, with From Hell, Black Diamond Detective Agency, and now this. Is there anything that consciously appeals to you about period pieces, or is it simply a superficial coincidence that connects a handful of your books?
EC: It’s a default thing in that I’m not interested in the futuristic or science fiction or fantasy, so writers with historical stories have come to me. I’ve been asked on various occasions to revisit Victorian England by other writers and I’ve declined. I didn’t want to get stuck there. Ideally I’d prefer to be writing and drawing about what I see around me in the here and now and that’s what my best work has been about, as in The Fate of the Artist and After the Snooter.
NRAMA: I feel like with your last few books, and it’s more noticeable in this one, that you’re experimenting with techniques and styles – drawing figures over top of a music sheet background, or the use of carnival-style posters, or large blocks of text accompanying a single illustration, for instance. Do you see that as an evolution of your work?
EC: I don’t think so. This was a book about circus characters so it needed a big poster-like presentation with lots of bright colours and spectacular pictorial and typographical effects. Black Diamond was a gritty detective story so that had a very muted palette with occasional explosions of violent red; From Hell has a humdrum procedural rhythm and everything is black and sooty. Every book should have its own style and presentation. It’s just that the way the comic book business is run has led us to expect a narrow homogenization of style.
NRAMA: You collaborated with Dan Best on the script for this book. How did Dan get involved with this project?
EC: Dan is one of my pals that I meet in a bar for lunch once a week. Sometimes we run to two or three hours. Dan’s a partner in a law firm and Daren White’s a chartered accountant (he did a couple of Batman stories with me), and Lee Slattery’s a bank manager (Everybody loves the Lizard Man), and they all like to dip their hands in the comic book world on the side when they can find the time. Nicki Greenberg (The Great Gatsby ‘graphic novel’) came up from Melbourne recently and was astonished to find that my crowd are all these business guys in suits and ties instead of scruffy bohemian characters.
NRAMA: What did each of you bring to the writing?
EC: Once we had worked out the shape of the thing Dan kept digging up information and reference and feeding it to me while I improvised it onto the pages. I’m sure he named all the characters. We occasionally got into disagreements, like as to whether there are piranhas at the precise place where we needed one of our characters to jump off the boat in the swamp in Guiana, and whether we should disregard the facts anyway; and how exactly we were to get through the tricky business of dealing with a distasteful racist situation that existed in the late eighteen hundreds when ‘savages’ were exhibited in what were called a ‘human zoo.’
NRAMA: What are you working on next?
EC Next year Top Shelf will be releasing my Big Alec Omnibus. I’m putting it together right now. Since I last mentioned this on my blog, I’ve thrown out a couple of the short reprints and drawn brand new material instead. The present count stands at thirty completely new pages of work in a book totaling 640 pages. Seeing my real-life work gathered together like this will be a big event for me.