Comic revels in weirdness

By David Orlikoff

The Internet is often synonymous with global anonymity. But one webcomic author lives right in our backyard. “Pictures for Sad Children” is self-described as “a bad feeling you get when you are feeling good, or a good feeling you get when you are feeling bad.” The art is minimalist—the highest quality of stick figures—similar to animations by Don Hertzfeldt. The real point is the writing, not that it’s wordy. Author John Campbell grew up in Dallas before attending Wheaton College to study English. He took a break a few years ago from peddling his mini-comics at Quimby’s and headed to Zacatecas, Mexico, to live as an artist. These days you might still catch him at Quimby’s, only now they sell his printed books and shirts. Campbell will be at the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo, C2E2, April 16-18, alongside Marvel, DC and the rest. The Chronicle got to talk with him in his warehouse apartment about the industry, Chicago and how meeting a serial killer can be a good thing.

The Chronicle: You aren’t staying in Wicker Park anymore?

John Campbell: This place used to be a warehouse. There’s still a huge safe in the kitchen. It’s too heavy for anyone to move.… we can’t get [it] open or anything and people have painted over it several times over the years.

The Chronicle: Do you have any idea what’s inside it?

JC: No idea. We have no idea how to open it. It just kind of sits there. But it’s huge—you could definitively fit a person in it. It’s ridiculous.

The Chronicle: How long have you been living here?

JC: … since last June or July. I actually came back from Mexico a year before that. And I was living on the West Side in a big house full of hippies. I lived in the basement and it was really cheap, and we had a garden in the back and communal meals every night. It was really good. It was a great situation—I got tired of living in the basement with no windows, so I went somewhere specifically to get some windows.

The Chronicle: You have windows now. How’s the view?

JC: On both sides of the building it’s a pretty crappy view, but it’s also kind of great. I have a fondness for crappy views as well. Oh look, you can see the highway, how exciting. But I like it. It’s significantly better than never seeing the sun. I think I’m probably a lot more into the sun than my comics might imply. If it’s nice out, I’m looking forward to biking to the beach and writing and drawing on the beach, which is I think maybe not something people would expect from the author of “Pictures for Sad Children.” I love to spend time on the beach!

The Chronicle: How do you go about writing the comic?

JC: I don’t really have many creative habits, which is how I keep going because otherwise I get bored. But I write and draw little things while I’m out and about in the city, or sometimes at this desk, sometimes at the desk in the front room. I have lots of different notebooks that I carry around with me or leave laying around in the apartment so whenever I have something to write down something is available.

The Chronicle: Your latest storyline seems even darker than your previous work.

JC: I’ve been thinking about [the last storyline I did] in vague terms for like a year. I was on the train back from Pitchfork last summer. I was in a mood and just had this one little idea that your job being so bad that being confronted with a serial killer, who is going to kill you in an awful way, is really relieving and [you think] “Oh, this is just a nice, simple thing.” And that concept just kind of expanded little bit by little bit. And then a friend of mine who worked for Google went to a different online advertising company. He would talk to me about how they were trying to market these marketing companies who marketed other marketing companies. And it was so convoluted and ridiculous and I don’t know—I had to make a comic about it, I guess.

The Chronicle: But you have played with similar themes before, people reacting positively to negative situations.

JC: Yeah, I think when things get simple its relieving, even when it’s bad. It can be relieving when something bad happens to you because you don’t have to worry about the complex, maybe bad, maybe good things all around you. You don’t have to worry about “what am I doing with my life?” [In your mind] there’s just “oh, there’s a bad thing and I have to deal with it.” A lot of people like to feed off of drama in their lives and have to always be dealing with something. And I think I mostly don’t like that, but it’s occasionally relieving not to have to sit and stew in your own thoughts and just have something really simple and visceral and right in front of you that you have to deal with and that’s it.

The Chronicle: Why does the woman bark at the serial killer at the end of the strip?

JC: I think in my mind when you’re sewn up inside of a dog body, for some reason you just can’t help yourself from barking.… Like in that storyline there is this one little frame where the serial killer has a dog next to him and the dog says, “bark bark help.” And it’s just a tiny little detail, but there was probably someone sewn up into that dog and they couldn’t help themselves but they could get a help out in addition to the barks.

The Chronicle: Why do you think those themes appeal so much to your audience?

JC: I really try hard not to think about why other people like my comics. And it’s still pretty bewildering to me that other people like my most recent storyline. [It] is really convoluted and strange and not necessarily funny in a straightforward way. And I think I’m mostly thankful that somehow other people have enjoyed the stuff I want to make. I don’t really know how it’s happened, but a little bit of it is intentional and trying to make a comic that’s different so that I can get away with that sort of thing. I don’t feel there are a lot of webcomics, especially not people who are living off of their webcomics, that aren’t doing things like that—things that aren’t funny, I guess. I don’t know. It’s hard to describe.

The Chronicle: Is there also an art to bad drawing and conveying something economically?

JC: Yeah, it takes a lot of work for me because I don’t have any kind of art background. I was never good at art. I majored in English in college and at the end of college [I] started drawing comics. And they were really bad…. And it took years of drawing stick figures before it was moderately appealing art. Or at least bland enough to be inoffensive. You don’t look at it and go, “Aw, oh, that hurts to look at.” Mostly you just don’t notice that it’s there. I’m more concerned with writing in general. I’m totally fine with the art being secondary.

The Chronicle: Are you completely supporting yourself with “Pictures for Sad Children”?

JC: I am. And I’ve been really surprised that has worked and has continued to work, at least so far. The book I put out last year was a huge help…. I’ve sold maybe 1,000 or 1,500 books. A publisher would not feel excited about that, but me by myself, not having to pay any publisher, employees or whatever, that’s totally enough. Like half the money I made last year was from that one book. When I first came back from Mexico, I didn’t know if I could make enough money to live. And that’s part of why I was living as cheaply as I could on the West Side in a big house full of hippies. And slowly, I made enough money to live there and then I made enough money not to live in a basement anymore. That’s pretty much all I’ve been looking for. I actually don’t know what to do anymore. I paid off all my student loans, which is crazy. And now I’m out of financial goals. I don’t know what to do. So I think I’m going to try to keep making money until I come up with some kind of thing, some good positive thing to do with it. Although it’s hard to get the motivation up to make money when I don’t. I don’t have anything. Like I have things that I want; I’m set. I just started buying records a month or two ago because I really like records. And that seems really over the top and decadent and I feel a little bit bad about spending money on records. But I’m giving it a go and seeing if [it’s] something I enjoy.

The Chronicle: Now that you have success, is that constricting? Is there pressure?

JC: I don’t know. There are times when I’ve been pissed off about just having a webcomic…. I still get e-mails from people who want Paul and Gary to come back and who want to see that storyline again. I used to feel bad about it or down about it that I was disappointing these people, or I wish these people would stop e-mailing me. But now I just think it’s funny that someone would be so upset about that, especially since I haven’t worked on that storyline for a good year and a half now. And people still think that sending me an e-mail is going to change what comics I want to write, which is strange.

The Chronicle: Has the industry changed? Is it easier for webcomic authors to make a living?

JC: I think the mainstreaming of the Internet in general just put … more different people there. If I started a webcomic back in the late ’90s, I would need a webcomic that appealed either to software engineers or videogamers, or basically nerd culture. And now the Internet is something that everybody uses, mostly, or that a lot of people use, especially above a certain income level. It’s just [a] broader [spectrum of] people, so the things that you can make can appeal to different people than that one particular strand of nerd culture. And there’s no real way to avoid [it]. I make comics and put them on the Internet—that’s still pretty nerdy. But I’m just a slightly different kind of nerd than that nerd.

The Chronicle: How does that fit in with C2E2?

JC: I’m going to C2E2. It’s three days and it’s going to hurt, and I’m definitely going to bring alcohol. KC Green will be there and he will probably drink with me. If Joey Comeau from [the webcomic] “A Softer World” comes, he will drink with me [too].… But [the] whole culture [of C2E2] I don’t identify with at all. C2E2 is superheroes and Joss Whedon, and that sort of thing that doesn’t really appeal to me. But I know that in those three days at C2E2, I’m probably going to make a decent amount of money. Like I’m there to make money selling books and shirts. And I wish there was a convention in Chicago like SPX or TCAF in Toronto or MoCCA in New York or APE in San Francisco. Chicago doesn’t have one of those for some reason, and I’m not willing to make that happen, so I sure hope someone else does at some point. But people hope that C2E2 is going to be a middle ground. Somewhere between like Wizard World and a straight alternative press convention. I used to sneak into Wizard World with Dean Trip and sit in the artist alley and sell like five minicomics and go out to dinner on the $10 I made. That was fun because I was hanging out with friends, but it was also depressing because the people there were not interested in what I was doing. It’s a different kind of nerd.

The Chronicle: Do you think it’s a victory for alternative comics that Wizard World died?

JC: I think it is a victory for humanity in general. I think that Wizard World, that sort of thing is the kind of culture I don’t really value. I think there’s good stuff that comes out of it, there are writers and artists working in those genres that are talented and making good work, but the whole culture that surrounds it and the vast majority of the work is really hard to stomach. I guess I shouldn’t be slamming c2e2 but I didn’t read superhero comics growing up [because] I wasn’t allowed…. I had an issue of Batman comics that came along with some article of clothing I got at a birthday, and it was just really standard: Joker had some riddles, Batman goes and fights him. And I had … another comic called “The Illuminator,” which was a Christian superhero—put out by Tommy Nelson publishing in conjunction with either Marvel or DC—and it was really bad. Anyways, I think I would probably feel differently about superheroes if I had really grown up with them in comics. But at the same time, it’s also no different from anything else. Ninety-nine percent of it is terrible and 1 percent of it is good. And I just have less patience for it than other things and I’m totally unwilling to wade through the 99 percent of the bad stuff to get to the good stuff. Someone has to force me to read like “The Preacher.” Occasionally a friend of mine will force me to read a comic that I like, like “The Invisibles.”

The Chronicle: Your comic seems to revel in weirdness.

JC: I’d like to think that my comics, as much as they get surreal, have some vague recognizable basis in the strangeness of actual life. I think that’s what would happen ideally. I don’t think my life is particularly strange, but I do feel like my life is weird. I feel like being alive is strange and I want to express that as well as I can.