Comic artist Sophie Campbell has a chat with our art writer Rai Jayne Hearse about the highs and lows of the arts industry, art tackling bigger political and social issues and whether art as a medium can heal.
First things first, tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get started as an artist?
I’ve been drawing since I was little, and actually in high school for a time I wanted to be a writer and write novels. I was still drawing during that time of course, and eventually went to art school but I didn’t get serious about art as a career until maybe my junior year of college. My first professional commission was in 2001, I did some illustrations for White Wolf Publishing’s game ‘Exalted’, and this enabled me to go full-time as a freelancer in 2005.
What was your first comic book?
It was an issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but I honestly can’t remember which one! I was reading comics before I got into comic books, though, I liked newspaper comics like ‘Calvin & Hobbes’, ‘Bloom County/Outland’ and ‘For Better or for Worse’.
How would you describe your art style to someone who hasn’t seen your work?
That’s a tough one. Something along the lines of; cartoony realism with a little bit of manga, featuring lots of punky girls with awesome hair and a range of body types and looks. Something like that! It’s hard to strip a style down into a description.
What have been your highest highs and lowest lows whilst working as an artist?
I’d say I have four highest highs; the first of which is Oni Press agreeing to publish ‘Wet Moon’. Number two was getting a gig at Tokyopop which allowed me to finally get a place of my own. Number three was when ‘Wet Moon’ volume 6 finally came out, it was a long road up to that point. And lastly when I got to draw the Northampton storyline for IDW’s ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’.
I have a few lows too (in chronological order again); the first one was Tokyopop running off with the rights to the book I did for them (Tokyopop was both a highest high AND a lowest low, I guess!). Second was my time working at Vertigo which while it did result in me getting paid, it also resulted in zero published work and left me exhausted, heartbroken, and with no artistic confidence after about three years of constant rejection and “you’re not good enough” nitpicking. Sometimes I don’t think my artistic self-esteem has ever totally recovered, as melodramatic as that sounds. Number three was me almost running out of money around 2010 and my career nearly collapsing, I thought I was going to have to get a day job, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I knew if I did that my comics output would drop off to nothing. Number four was working on the Leonardo solo issue for IDW’s ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’, it was amazing getting the job and it was my first TMNT comic so I was very excited, but it ended up being rough working within the confines of licensed work, not helped by the fact that I can be a stubborn diva. I was losing sleep because I was so stressed out and I wasn’t happy with the final product, which happens sometimes in work-for-hire stuff. It comes with the job and you have to learn to let go sometimes, but it was my dream since I was 10 years old to draw TMNT and it was pretty crushing that it wasn’t what I had hoped for. I almost didn’t come back to the series later on, but I’m glad I did!
Are there any particular social issues you like to address, explore, or challenge in your work? and if so why these in particular?
Definitely! Gender is a big one. Gender roles and how gender is perceived and felt, whether within the context of the story like in ‘Shadoweyes’, or a sub-textual element like in Glory. Sexism is another one, homophobia, and sometimes issues on race. I try to have these things experienced or discussed by the characters in a literal way, rather than metaphors which I don’t feel generally work for social issues.
How do you think art affects our mental health? Do you think it can heal?
It absolutely can heal, both for the artist and the viewer. For viewers – if the artist’s work speaks to them on a personal level regarding their experiences, or has characters that represent the viewers situation in some way, identifying with work can be a very positive thing for people regarding of how they see themselves and that perhaps they’re not alone. Even if those things aren’t present and the work is simply fun and engaging on a basic level, that’s really positive too, if it makes you laugh or the story is exciting or even something as simple as a really cool character design, that’s all stuff that makes me smile or inspires me. All of it gives people something to relate to or grasp onto or see themselves reflected in, that I think can be very healing. All this goes for the artist too, but with extra things – for me there are feelings of accomplishment and saying something with my work, expressing feelings through my work or simply having fun drawing and feeling attached to my characters, that’s really rewarding for me. I also think for some artists they can be negatively affected by it. Sometimes I get so frustrated with what I’m doing that it drives me crazy and makes me anxious and tense. I get over it and move on, but maybe there are artists out there who don’t.
Do you think women in the comic book / art industry are treated any differently to men? How are they viewed? Has this changed / is this changing?
Women are definitely treated differently than men in comics through varying degrees of course. Women are treated differently in society overall, and the comics industry is part of that society, there’s no real way to escape it. Comics aren’t a utopian bubble or anything like that. It also depends on where you look within comics, there are circles or scenes where things are generally great, but then others that are cesspools of misogyny or institutionalized sexism, filled with readers and professionals that make other traditionally sexist fields look downright progressive. I think it’s changing, though, little by little, although sometimes I feel like it’s one step forward two steps back. I think it helps a lot that other avenues have been opened up besides big gatekeeping publishers, like webcomics and self-publishing, spaces where women are in control. Comics right now are going through a lot of growing pains as more and more female creators are doing their own comics and having great success, and bigger publishers are starting to become more aware of sexism in their material, which is all great but it brings out the angry entitled male fans who think women are ruining comics. They’ve really come out of the woodwork recently and often react aggressively because they’re used to being catered to, but I hope that will be squashed eventually as comics continues to grow.
I know that coming out as transgender for anyone is a terrifyingly brave thing to do. Do you think your experience of this has influenced your work at all?
It’s hard to explain because I don’t mean to say that I ever felt restrained in my work before, but I feel freer with my work now. My work started to change a while back when I began to accept to myself who and what I was, when I’d only come out to a few friends it was freeing to admit it to myself and realizing what my problem was and what I should do. I still struggle with it, though, it’s an ongoing struggle. For years leading up to me finally beginning transitioning, I felt unexcited about my personal work like ‘Wet Moon’ and ‘Shadoweyes’, I was too depressed to work on it and instead focused on work-for-hire projects where I had a boss motivating me, a clearer structure, and work that didn’t involve my own characters which I felt like were too close to home. But now I feel more excited to get back to my personal comics and characters, and I’m having way more fun drawing now and exploring a softer more “fun” sort of style. Maybe that comes from just feeling happier now. Another thing is that as soon as I came out, I wanted to have Trans characters which is something I’d thought about doing over the years but never did, but now I’m excited to do it. The first thing I did was create ‘Blaze’ a Trans girl for ‘Jem & the Holograms’.
Have your fans reacted differently to how you expected or not?
I didn’t know what to expect but I’m also a pessimist so I was expecting some negativity, but it’s been the complete opposite. I can’t believe how supportive everyone has been! I was sure I’d lose fans and be committing career suicide, but in one day I got like over a thousand new Twitter followers and climbing, all sorts of interview requests and some fans actually crossing out my name on their personal copies of my books and writing in Sophie with a marker, it’s been so great. I couldn’t be happier with the response, it’s so encouraging and makes me feel accepted.
Who are your comic book hero’s / influences?
Bill Watterson, Kevin Eastman, and Peter Laird are the ones who got me into comics when I was little. Other creators that have inspired or influenced me over the years are Becky Cloonan, Jillian Tamaki, Erin Watson, Ariel Schrag, and Masakazu Katsura.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?
Professionally-speaking, hopefully still doing comics and being more financially secure. Personally-speaking, I’d love to have all my transition stuff figured out, like my name to be legally changed. It also might be cool if I was romantically involved with someone, some sort of partner.
You can view more of Sophie’s work on her Tumblr page
Words: Rai Jayne Hearse
Image: Sophie Campbell