From Wet Moon to Water Baby with some trips to the mountains and zombie territory in-between, cartoonist Ross Campbell has become a popular name in independent comics. Standing alongside names like Bryan Lee O’Malley and Corey Lewis, he emerged in the mid-00s showing a style refined from years of study at home and at the Savannah College of Design, with his own experiences living in the South and being a voracious reader of comics and books combining to make a unique kind of work. Although he’s almost exclusively done his own work, he has popped up in company-owned books such as the stint in DC/Vertigo’s House of Mystery. But in his next book, he’s stepping even further out of known territory: superheroes.
The two-time Eisner nominee is taking to superheroes without taking away from the personal, emotion-soaked comics he’s become known for. From his southern teenage saga of Wet Moon to the zombie-fied The Abandoned to the off-kilter road trip book Wet Baby, Campbell has recently completed his first superhero project: a graphic novel with SLG Publishing called Shadoweyes. Described by the cartoonist “as his most personal story to date”, Shadoweyes follows a young girl and would-be street vigilante who emerges from a coma with bizarre powers that could be described as both supernatural and superheroic. Campbell’s entrance into the superhero genre brings with it the author’s penchant for emotional discourse with the process of becoming a superhero and dealing with it.
Newsarama: So Ross, how would you describe this upcoming book Shadoweyes?
Ross Campbell: It's part teen angst melodrama, part Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, part brooding antihero, and part personal rumination on aspects of society and morality, centered around somewhat of a character study of Shadoweyes herself.
I pitched the book as a "superheroic reverse-bildungsroman" and I think that's still pretty accurate, kind of a coming of age, over the course of the 4 planned volumes, of somebody who happens to be a gloomy, superpowered, non-human vigilante, and instead of being assimilated into society she is forced out of it and rejects it. despite Shadoweyes being a superhuman creature and the world being futuristic, it's all very low-key vigilante crimefighting type stuff, no world-saving or even city-saving, really street-level. Even though it has elements that are atypical of the genre I'd still describe it as a teen superhero book.
The story is mostly about the main character Scout, who mysteriously gains the ability to transform into an androgynous blue super-tough creature, dealing with the changes in her life and in her identity, her shifting moral code (or lack thereof), and figuring out what sort of hero/antihero she wants to be. And also figuring out what to do when you're a blue mutant alien creature living in a world full of humans, so there's some stuff in there about being an outsider in society, whether it's by choice or being forced to be one against your will because mainstream society doesn't accommodate you.
That stuff is always secondary to the characters, though, and the story is driven by them and about their relationships and feelings. I love superheroes but I feel like for the most part I don't get much emotional or interpersonal content in most of the material I've read or seen, or there are always things left out because they're inconvenient and in favor of the big drama or action and we hardly ever get any small moments or idiosyncrasies of the characters, so I wanted to do something that while it still has a lot of the trappings of the genre, instead focuses on different things. I guess it's sort of combining my conversational, character-study-like way of writing with gritty superhero stuff born out of me being a big sucker for brooding dark heroes.
Nrama: The titular character of Shadoweyes was a would-be vigilante way before she got her powers. Can you tell us about Scout’s motivations for getting into it like this?
Campbell: She does it simply because she wants to help people and animals. She doesn't have any pivotal life-changing event or tragedy that affects her or loved ones; the tragedy of what happens to people is enough to motivate her. And when she gets her super-powered form it only motivates her further because she has this newfound power to do more, and her motivation sort of changes a second time when she finds herself forced into a position where being a vigilante/superhero is the only thing she's able to do. At that point even though she's still motivated by love and anger, even if she wanted to do something else she wouldn't be able to.
But yeah, initially it's just because, for her, it's the right thing to do. I didn't want to do a character with one of those singular, usually tragic, events that forms them into a superhero/vigilante that so many characters have; not that there's anything wrong with that, but I didn't want Scout to be motivated by anything like revenge or the death of a loved one or have some big event that changes her thinking, I wanted her to be aware from the get-go. I didn't want her to start off complacent and be jolted into heroism by tragedy. I don't think it should always take something like that to spur somebody into doing good (or into putting on a mask, as it were).
Nrama: After Scout’s transformation, she’s pretty alien-looking. How’d you come to the design you use here?
Campbell: Her design is based on a character I created in I think 6th grade, a character called Razerback who looked kind of like a tiger-striped lizard-like pointy-headed sexy Ninja Turtle or something. I created her back when Image first hit the stands and was blowing my 12-year-old mind with their angry anti-heroes who had symbols or shapes over their scowling eyes and everything was extreme and angsty and snarly, so Razerback was very much a product of that, this take-no-guff vigilante with a bad attitude and shrippy claws. I'm totally a child of that era of comics, good or bad (I guess most people would say bad, heh). so after Razerback, over the years I did a bunch of other variations on her design, and she's still a character who's close to my heart so I knew that if I ever did a superhero comic it would either be about her or a character who was similar to her. Shadoweyes started out looking much more like Razerback's original design which was thinner, taller, sleeker and more feminine in a conventional human way, but I ended up with a different look, bulkier, big feet, bigger muscles, squat stature, and a more androgynous look with no breasts and not much traditional visual female coding. She was also originally grey-skinned with yellow eyes, but then that changed to purple with green, and now finally she's blue with lighter blue eyes mostly because the neon RGB purple/green scheme didn't work in CMYK printing.
Nrama: You’ve always had a knack for creating a very vibrant and interesting cast of characters, from Wet Moon to Abandoned and Water Baby. What can you tell us about Scout’s friends, Kyisha, Sparkle and Noah?
Campbell: Kyisha is Scout's best friend, an intersex girl who is also broody like Scout but in a more smirking, cynical, dry humor kind of way. She starts out in the homebrewed neighborhood watch group Crimewatch with Scout but soon quits and busies herself with volunteering at a local homeless shelter/food kitchen, so she also helps people but in a different way than Scout does. Kyisha occasionally shows a violent side when pushed to it, and sometimes uses her kickboxing skills to enact it. Even though the two of them are friends, Kyisha harbors frustration, jealousy and resentment toward Scout.
Sparkle is a bubbly, boundless, wide-eyed gamer nerd girl with terminal cancer who tries her damnedest to break through Scout's obnoxiously dark facade. Sparkle forces herself into Scout's life, including inviting her over for dinner, making her play the magical pony warrior card game Pony Master (because who better than Shadoweyes to be the final member in your local Pony Circle?), and even trying to be Scout's partner as the pastel-colored hero Swirlysweetstarshimmer. Sparkle is all into sci-fi and fantasy so naturally when Shadoweyes shows up on the scene, she is enamored and when the two finally meet, Sparkle latches onto Scout and never lets go. The changing relationship between she and Scout is a big focus of the series.
Noah is an angry, hunky bad boy with irritable bowels who Scout has a secret crush on despite him being Kyisha's boyfriend. Noah is inspired to take up arms after his junkie thief mom is beaten up by Shadoweyes, and he hits the streets. Being a crowbar-wielding vigilante becomes an outlet for his rage and he and Scout form a tenuous partnership, made complicated not only by their conflicting ideas but by nebulous romantic feelings.
The other important characters are Max, Scout's dutiful, hyper-aware mom who knows her daughter better than Scout knows herself; Lizzy, Sparkle's arts-n-craftsy mom who graciously welcomes dark avengers into her home; and a nameless, mysterious, physically- and emotionally-mangled mute girl who Scout digs out of a local mass grave, and who quickly becomes entangled in Scout and Sparkle's lives.
Nrama: One of the most interesting and down-to-earth real moments from reading the advance of Shadoweyes was Scout and Kyisha discussing what Scout’s superhero name should be. After years of reading comics, this scene really hits home at superheroes as some sort of adolescent fantasy. Can you tell us about this idea of people dreaming to be superheroes and what attracted you to doing Shadoweyes from this angle?
Campbell: That element is definitely there now that I think about it, yeah, but I actually kind of feel like Shadoweyes is maybe anti-superhero-fantasy in some ways because it's so unglamorous and cumbersome and mundane having to come up with a codename, an identity, a look, an approach, rather than most characters who seem to have theirs handed to them and then burst onto the scene ready to rumble. But maybe being tasked with those things is part of the fantasy, too, like I think if I was determined to be a vigilante I'd be really fired up by the name and costume parts.
When I wrote that scene I wasn't thinking much about that, though, I was more thinking about how it would really happen, how Scout would really come up with those things. There has to be a point when a new superhero needs a codename and they don't have some convenient backstory element or easily-defined superpower to base it on, so what do they do? They read through a thesaurus, or bounce ideas off of a friend, going through a lot of duds, until they come up with something good. The naming scene in Shadoweyes is also basically a shortened version of how I really came up with her name, [laughs]
I haven't read every superhero comic ever so I'm probably missing some key examples, but as far as I know where a character's superhero name comes from is usually either never addressed or it has some forced origin. And some of their names are so ridiculous or awesome that I feel like it potentially says something about the character, in terms of creative sensibility or how/why they made it up, but that never gets addressed; I think that’s because writers these days seem to think it's unrealistic or silly for a hero to name themselves so they usually have the name come by way of the news or something or some convenient event in the hero's past. But for some reason it can't just be a name the character simply makes up because they like the sound of it, or if it is that simple we never get to see that.
I'm not sure if this is in the original comics, but I liked how in Sam Raimi's first Spider-Man movie Peter initially calls himself the Human Spider, which seems so much dumber when the suave Bruce Campbell comes up with "Spider-Man". And I like what that says about who Peter is and I liked imagining him going through possible names and what other stupid ones he came up with (and the costume sketching montage was also a great touch).
So I wanted to do something like that, rather than Scout acquiring the name in the interim we don't get to see, or having it be a throwaway scene you want to get past so you get to the action. And like I was saying not everybody has some convenient event or superpower where they get their name, so I didn't want there to be any cool origin for how Scout gets the name; she simply picks it because to her the name sounds awesome and badass. I'm willing to bet that's what most creators think when they name their characters, so why can't the character have an opinion like that? Why can't Logan just be Wolverine because he thinks wolverines are cool?
I'm not sure I really answered your question, but I guess Shadoweyes is a combination of those things, the adolescent fantasy part and the reality of how it might be. It kind of starts off like a fantasy, Scout really fired up about it, but then when it starts actually happening and coming together she finds maybe she's bitten off more than she can chew.
Nrama: She’s biting into a very big city – a futuristic one at that, called Dranac. Can you tell us about the setting here?
Campbell: Dranac is a compacted maze of buildings and metal surrounded by a desert wasteland, in a sort of "low-tech" dystopian future, where it's obviously this futuristic time period but there isn't any big high technology: no flying cars, no cure for cancer, teleporters, and the technology is mostly incongruous. It’s a place where people still use VHS tapes alongside laptop computers and digital cameras with paper newspapers. I wanted to do a setting where it looks like technology has run amok but in the most unhelpful direction, like the opposite of Star Trek. a big sprawling mass of meaningless metal and concrete that's been built on top of itself over the years, like the designers and architects of this world are just spinning their wheels because they don't have the resources to build anything useful, but what does get built is within a confined space that cannot expand and only turns into an architectural mess.
The thing that got me to go in that direction originally was I wanted to do a setting where I could make the rules, where I could make up laws or exaggerate existing laws and culture, where I could make up fashion styles, where I wasn't beholden to any real world place. I don't think any real city is smothering or labyrinthine enough for the story, except maybe the Kowloon Walled City before they razed it, so I created my own. I was also itching to do something totally different from my other books, which have all been set in the American South. Unlike those books, there is no vegetation in Dranac, no real soil except the blasted-out desert that surrounds the city, so it's a big change for me visually.
The particulars of how the city came to be aren't explored, at least in this first volume, but it's meant to be in a timeline where America has fallen and dissolved so the confines of North America don't exist anymore, and Dranac is some kind of last outpost. In some of the panels that show the desert wasteland around the city, there are burnt-out buildings and old abandoned cars, just a suggestion of the past. Most of the setting elements are like that, just hints; little things like all the faucets in the comic have big clunky filters on them and it's mentioned a couple times that there's a water shortage and the "water" people have to use is some kind of synthetic liquid, or that Dranac's dead aren't buried in cemeteries but rather tossed into huge garbage dumps because there's no soil to bury them in.
The biggest way the characters are affected by this setting is that they can't leave the city; there's just nowhere else to go. There's an arc later in the series that takes place in the closest thing Dranac has to a suburb, but even there they can't escape, between the walls around the city to the endless wasteland beyond them.
Nrama: For this new project you’re working with SLG. They aren’t known for their superhero books, but your comic isn’t your typical superhero comic. Why’d you partner with them for this?
Campbell: I've been looking for something to do with SLG for a while but I either didn't have anything or didn't have the time, so this was a great opportunity. When I have a project I want to do, I pitch it around to multiple publishers, and I had a couple other options but I went with SLG because they're great people and they were the only ones who seemed to jump at the idea and express active interest in it, and that's really encouraging for me. Going with them was also for the reason you said, that they aren't known for their superhero books (except the awesome Street Angel which is kind of superhero-like). I think at SLG, Shadoweyes won't get lost in the shuffle amidst 50 other superhero books.
Nrama: How many pages will the Shadoweyes book end up being?
Campbell: The first book is about 190 pages. The subsequent books will probably be shorter than that, though.
Nrama: How long have you been carrying around the idea of Shadoweyes? I remember you posting about it on livejournal for years now.
Campbell: Maybe 2005? Back then she was called Shadowknife; when the comic started coming together I changed the name because it sounded too much like Corey Lewis's awesome Sharknife> That version had more fantastical superpowers like a shadow form and a confusing x-ray vision-like ability to see "through" shadows (whatever), but I scrapped all that stuff because it was too hard to define, and the book isn't really about the powers. Anyway, she's been around for a while, yeah, even before I started putting the comic together. Before that the character was in a tabletop role-playing campaign (which is the aforementioned Razerback's secret origin, too) we used to do, so I was able to do a lot of her personality development through that, and I loved the character so much I knew I had to do something with her.
The story has gone through a lot of development and changes and obstacles, so it has a lot of baggage for me but that just makes it more personal. I think this is probably the most personal thing I've done so far, even more than my Wet Moon series. Sometimes I doubt the material like I do anything I create, but it really sets my heart aflutter.
Nrama: You made your name in comics outside the superhero industry with works like Wet Moon. What made you want to jump into superhero comics, Ross?
Campbell: I grew up on stuff like the original Ninja Turtles (I don't really consider them superheroes but they were really inspirational for me so they're on the list), X-Force, WildCATs, Spawn, and scary or misunderstood heroes like Sleepwalker and The Maxx. I've dabbled in ideas over the years, so even though most of my stuff is slice-of-life or horror I always knew I'd do a superhero book eventually. I've had tons of ideas for characters and stories, and I guess Shadoweyes was the first one I felt like I had to do, that I really had something to say with. I think a lot about social ills and helping people and morality and that sort of stuff, and I wanted to pour all those thoughts into a book and it never seemed to have a place in my other projects… but I knew a superhero book would be perfect and the more I thought about the idea the more fired up I got. I think I still want to do a team book at some point even though those seem all the rage, I'm not sure what I would be able to bring to the table with that, but right now I wanted to stick with the solo character.
Nrama: With each consecutive book, I’ve seen your art style develop and get tighter and tighter. Some artists’ styles seem to get so a certain point and stay there, but I see you constantly developing. Is this just a subconscious thing as you draw more, or are you actively looking to refine your work?
Campbell: It's both. I’m always trying to improve and throw out things that don't work for me and develop the things that do and try new things, but it's also often unintentional. M skills and style change so fast that sometimes by the time I’m done with a book, the early pages looks totally different to me than the pages I just finished. It's actually pretty frustrating for me; it’s like I’m constantly battling myself, swimming against the current simply to produce something consistent, to stem this bursting pipe of progression and make it into a manageable stream. I get a lot of complaints and confusion from fans, sometimes even anger, so that can be discouraging but it's definitely better than stagnating or plateauing, right?
Nrama: A select few have gotten to see a big sneak preview of this book in the form of a 50-page mini-comic you gave out last year at Comic-Con International: San Diego. You’ve done several mini-comics over time, even while you’ve been published by majors such as Oni, TOKYOPOP and DC. What draws you to mini-comics and continuing to do them?
Campbell: I wish I could do more mini-comics! I love having something small at conventions, like an extra freebie you can only get from me personally, and I love being able to put out my own stuff without anyone hovering over me or watching what I'm doing. I wish I could do more just plain "fun" comics, though; my Mountain Girl comics started as me just goofing off between big books, but it turned into something bigger and I got more serious about the story so I stopped doing those in favor of planning a graphic novel format version, and then the mini I put out last year was just the first 50 pages of Shadoweyes because I was just dying to draw it. So I think the next one I do will have to be me going back to doing a simple one-off story just for fun. Of course that'll probably turn into a big project, too. I just can't help myself getting attached to the characters and expanding their story!