Who Are You?: An interview with T Campbell (Penny & Aggie, Divalicious!, and others)
If you spend any time with webcomics, chances are you’re going to run into something written or created by T Campbell. Mr. Campbell’s flagship work is the high school drama Penny & Aggie (reviewed here), which he co-created with artist Gisèle Lagacé. Yet, this comic writer has done much more: Rip & Teri, Search Engine Funnies, Cool Cat Studio, and the long-running Fans! Along with artist Amy Mebberson, he created Pop Star for the “Rising Stars of Manga” contest at TOKYOPOP, which would later become the comic known as Divalicious! T also co-created the webcomic transcription tool Oh No Robot with Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics.
I contacted T by e-mail, and he was very gracious about answering several questions I had, including a few about a project that he nowadays regrets: his book, A History of Webcomics.
The Webcomic Overlook: You wrote A History of Webcomics, which was published in 2006. Now, I haven’t read it, though I have followed its progenitor, the History of Online Comics essays at Comixtalk. What in the world compelled you to take on that project?
T Campbell: Idiocy? Hubris? Maybe I was just tired of being moderately respected by my peers.
Just as well that you’ve read those essays instead of the book, because they were much better-received, and, to my mind, much better. The book took the idea too far, and I wound up alienating a lot of people I respected, all for a project that I can’t even look at today. I still sort of like my old fiction, where the amateurishness gives it a goofy charm, but if I could burn every copy of that book I’d be happier and live longer.
WCO: I keep trying to imagine how you managed to compile the information for your History of Online Comics series, and I get a headache… especially when I think about the material from the earliest chapters. How in the world did you manage to gather that information?
TC: Though I looked at books and magazines, most of my research came from the Internet itself, and from interviews. (The Internet Archive is great for recovering lost information, up to a point.) If you do get a copy of the book, you’ll see it has a thick endnotes section. That’s one of the few things I still like about the book: at least I cited my sources and made it easier for someone else to do a good book when the time is right. They should have been footnotes, not endnotes, but oh well.
One of the criticisms of the book that I have come to agree with is that I didn’t rely enough on interviews. If I absolutely had to do it all over again, I would have socialized more and exercised more patience. And published around 2020.
WCO: Even though it’s only been 2 years or so since the book was published, things have changed a lot in the world of webcomics. Are you considering publishing an updated edition?
TC: Good God, no.
I was thinking about it when the book went to press, which is why it’s labeled “v1.0,” but that was when I was still deluding myself that the problems were minor.
I did a couple of webcomics-coverage projects in the years after History: the “Blowing Bubbles” podcast interviews, and an earlier version of webcomics.com. They were not earth-shattering, but they were a big improvement. But by that point, not many people cared.
These days, I’m happy to focus on scriptwriting, and readers seem happy for me to do so, too.
WCO: When you interviewed with Hello Koala a while back, you mentioned that you went to the Savannah College of Art & Design, but realized that you couldn’t draw. This is going to sound harsh, but why did you enroll in art school?
TC: I was trying to (1) develop at least some rudimentary art skills and (2) surround myself with potential partners. I was disappointed to find that the program, and many of the students, seemed to regard scriptwriting as sort of an afterthought. Not all of them, certainly– there were nice and smart people there. But the ones most in need of a scriptwriter were the least self-aware. That was the late 1990s, when the Image Comics launch was still fresh in a lot of people’s minds. Things might be different now.
Still, I don’t regret going there. I learned a lot, in and out of the classroom.
WCO: What was it about that Image Comics launch that inspired you? Were you hoping to do superheros back then, or was it the general sense that independent creators could now control their own destinies?
TC: What I mean is that Image Comics seemed to inspire a mini-generation of cartoonists to call writing secondary to drawing, as a few of the Image creators did in their early days. Bad news if you’re a writer looking for collaborators, no?
I suppose their independent success did make me more sanguine about independence, but my role models in that period tended to be an older generation of indies– the Pinis, Dave Sim, Colleen Doran, Terry Moore, Scott McCloud on Zot!
WCO: Talent aside, lack of artistic proficiency is not such a huge barrier in the world of webcomics. Given the chance, would you ever consider writing and drawing your own strip?
TC: I like collaboration a lot, for the same reason people like marriage: I think being part of a team makes me a better individual. That said, it’s good to try different things, and I have considered it. I once registered a domain for an idea I had that would have run from January 1-December 31, 2008, but I couldn’t get it to work. Maybe in 2010.
WCO: Let’s talk about Penny & Aggie. You and artist Gisèle Lagacé had structured the strip to appear in papers, but realized that they wanted to censor too much of it. Online, you’re more free. However, as the internet becomes more and more the primary source of information, do you ever fear that pressures will cause you to censor your online comics?
TC: Oh, hey, yes, let’s talk about something I’m proud of.
The Internet’s never going to be as restrictive as the newspaper market is. But I think that as more and more people turn to the Web, at some point, it may be more profitable to hold back a bit, and do a strip that someone’s grandmother can read. Hard to be sure– I certainly didn’t see xkcd coming.
But webcomics is a big place, and getting bigger. So long as there’s room in it for the kind of stories I want to tell, I’m a happy camper.
WCO: A major storyline in Penny & Aggie involved one character’s realization that she’s a lesbian. What sort of reactions did you get from that storyline?
TC: Mainly positive ones. We did get one reader who left as soon as we revealed one of our male characters were gay– lesbians were fine, but that just crossed the line, you understand.
WCO: Of your works, I’ve mainly read Penny & Aggie, so I always associate your style with Ms. Legace’s drawings. Here’s an excerpt from your interview with The Hathor Legacy: “Gisèle Lagacé’s sensuality allowed me to approach the topic of sex much more openly than I had in the past.” I noticed Penny & Aggie took a more serious turn that coincided with Ms. Lagacé’s artistic change from Archie-like drawings to something more similar to manga. Did your writing steer her in a new direction, or did her art inspire you to try more mature avenues?
TC: Chicken or the egg? If you read 2001 Cool Cat Studio, then you’ll know that sensuality has long been part of Gisèle’s artistic vocabulary. I think I was the one who said, “okay, let’s stop kidding ourselves about getting into newspapers,” but if I had waited a month, Gisèle might have said the same thing to me. We’d been trying for a year: it was pretty clear that we weren’t getting anywhere on that front.
WCO: Which is a bigger challenge to write: male or female characters?
TC: Whichever gender you’re not is going to be the bigger challenge to “get right,” but I seem to take to women and girls pretty naturally. And I think there’s a certain freedom with female characters. When you write about them feeling horny or being powerful warriors, the audience sympathizes more quickly than when you write the same things about males.
WCO: Of all the artists you’ve worked with, who would you say contributed the most in developing your own storytelling skills?
TC: Probably Jason Waltrip, just because he got there first, when I was in my most rapid phase of development. I try to keep learning, but you’re never going to learn as much as fast as you do in those first few years.
WCO: You seem to have a natural affinity for teaming up with artists who draw manga style. Do you have any favorite manga writers/artists?
TC: Hmm. I guess you’ve got something there, though I haven’t thought of it that way often. I think a lot of the storytellers who are not focused on DC or Marvel right now… and some who are… are looking to manga for inspiration, so it’s just natural that artists I meet will show manga influence.
I’m not nearly as well-versed in manga as I’d like to be, but among what I have read, Maison Ikkoku and Death Note are stand-out efforts. I like a lot of Takahashi’s work– I named a character after her, after all– but Maison is her strongest piece to date.
WCO: You also wrote Divalicious! for TOKYOPOP. Did you have to make any changes in your writing style for what I assume is a type of fan raised on translated Japanese comics?
TC: It was my first work for the trade paperback format, and I spent a lot of time adjusting to that. At times, my instinct was to script a little too densely for Tokyopop’s audience… thankfully, we worked with an excellent editor, Bryce Coleman, who helped me dial it back just a little.
The other strategic adjustment was my decision to make the stories feature a lot of songs. I think (hope!) the original English-language songwriting gave Divalicious a kick, an authenticity, that English-speakers couldn’t get from a translated Japanese-language story on the same subject.
WCO: I know it’s tough to pick a favorite child, but which of your webcomics do you like the most?
TC: Whichever one I’m working on at the moment.
WCO: Finally, I know you like to be referred to as “T”, no period. Why?
TC: The same reason you like to be referred to as “Larry,” I suppose. [laughter]