Interview with Grindhouse Writer Alex De Campi
Alex de Campi is a name you should know. She’s one of my favorite comic writers right now with her excellent work from the supernatural Valentine, available digitally at ComiXology or Thrillbent, to her Grindhouse series from Dark Horse Comics. Her miniseries Smoke was nominated for an Eisner Award in 2006 for Best Limited Series. You need to find her back catalog, read it, and watch for upcoming titles because she is someone you should be reading. De Campi was kind enough to find time to answer a few questions for me over email.
WatchPlayRead: Each of your stories has a unique voice that I would not have guessed comes from the same writer. When I read Smoke, it really felt like I was reading Bryan Talbot or Warren Ellis—a British guy for sure, not an American woman. It is an intentional effort to achieve this chameleon quality to your work or does it flow naturally from years of influences?
Alex de Campi: I think it’s more that I’m a magpie. Some writers, they find their voice, and it’s very distinctive, and that’s all they want to do. Me, I throw myself completely into my books, so I do one in one voice, and when it’s done, I’m completely drained and want to do something totally different. That’s what happened with Grindhouse–I’d finished Smoke/Ashes and the also quite horror-tinged (and as yet unpublished) Margaret the Damned, and I was just so weary of writing sad books, toiling away in the rag and bone shop of the heart, that I decided to write eight issues of splatter/exploitation. Now I’m moving back to a more noirish tone in the upcoming Mayday, but also doing a teen adventure/drama, No Mercy.
WPR: Horror elements are a common thread to all your stories no matter the genre. What about those horrific or creepy elements resonates with you?
AdC: My horror is odd horror. It tends to be more existential. I even classify No Mercy (my teens in peril book) as horror, even though there are no supernatural elements to it at all. Of course I can do trad horror, and I make damn good monsters (really proud of the one in “Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll,” aka the summer camp slasher that comprised Grindhouse #7-8). But it’s also fun to do horror that has absolutely no basis in Western myth or legend, such as I’m doing with Jerry Ordway in Semiautomagic (in Dark Horse Presents). And then… I guess I just love really terrifying consequences. I’m incredibly squeamish as a person, so I tend to latch on to little everyday things that might not annoy or scare other people and then pick away at them until they are UTTERLY TERRIFYING. Stories aren’t stories unless the consequences are far worse than we face in our lives. And I’ve had some really bad things happen. Maybe that’s the root of it all.
WPR: Female protagonists are not always well represented in comics. Your female characters are front and center with great characterization and always key to the plot. Are you inspired by real life women and events to shape your characters or are these characters you’ve always wanted to see on the page?
AdC: Sometimes I just want to write characters that would make the eight-year-old me really happy, like Lady Danger [ed. note: she is in an upcoming arc in the Grindhouse: Drive In, Bleed Out series]. And sometimes I just want to hear a female voice. As a female comics reader who loves genre and “mainstream” superhero comics, so many times the female characters are sidelined or are treated in ways that trivialize them. Their reactions aren’t real; they’re plot devices. Sometimes I just want somebody who reacts in ways I understand in books. I’m sure you know what I mean… we call it “time to eye roll.” That point when you try a new comic and then you get to the point where the woman is killed, maimed, “damselled,” or does something so unexpected (throws herself at hero, etc.) that you eye roll so hard you see your own brain. And that’s just counting the books that have viable, named female characters that are anything other than love interests.
WPR: Congratulations on a second Grindhouse series from Dark Horse! How did Grindhouse get started and are you surprised at its success?
AdC: Grindhouse got started by my making jokes on Twitter about wanting to take a break from serious books and write “Bee Vixens from Mars.” The response from my friends was overwhelmingly “DO IT!” and so I whipped up a quick pitch to Dark Horse: “Dear Mr. Dark Horse, pleez I can haz my own exploitation anthology series?” And somehow 48 hours later, it was through costing and approved. I was stunned, and also grossly misled as to how long the approval process *actually* takes at comic publishers. (It’s normally closer to 3 months; can be up to 6.) We published issue 1, with me, a pretty no-name writer (and a girl at that! doing exploitation!) and an artist doing his first big indie gig, and we sold something like 50% more than the bean counters had expected. The whole series was break-even on the actual issues, which is huge. I was equally stunned by the reaction from fans… people GOT it. I hadn’t wanted to emphasize how female-led it was, because I didn’t want to scare off the traditional male audience. I figured word of mouth would get the book to female audiences. And people DID talk about it and they DID share it and apparently there is a massive audience for a big, less-stupid-than-it-looks horror series with lots of boobs and gore. Yay team Grindhouse! Retailers also loved the odd format, with the two-issue stories–lots of jumping on points for new readers and an easy hand-sell to get people to try it out.
WPR: In “Prison Ship Antares” an inmate accuses the warden of cultural appropriation and so many of the female characters have a great amount of agency in your Grindhouse stories. It isn’t always that way in grindhouse or exploitation films. My question for you is: are you writing as conscious “adjustments” to the genre, or adding details that make the stories relevant to today, or is it not all a conscious choice?
AdC: There are so many shitty exploitation comics, and shitty exploitation films. You know, where the women are all hoes… and you want to tap the writer on the shoulder and whisper, “excuse me, your id is showing,” But there are also a surprising amount of exploitation films with amazing female heroines, from Coffy and Cleopatra Jones through to she of I Spit Upon Your Grave and the gals of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! So I’m coming from accentuating what I love in exploitation (the amazingly large amount of great female leads, both white and of color) while still delivering what the classic fanboy loves too (boobs; gore). I’ve never tried to write specific Tarantino-esque homages to certain films or scenes, in fact if my stories overly remind you of a certain film then I feel I’ve somewhat failed. I want it to feel like a crazy, lost exploitation classic you just discovered.
WPR: Are there any Grindhouse stories or characters you would want to go back to and give a longer or new story or mini-series?
AdC: Definitely. Pretty much all of them, actually. Lady Danger (out in a few months) would be the most likely candidate for a miniseries. I entertain this crazy hope the Dark Horse will take over Grindhouse and let other writers play with it, and I can just ghost in about twice a year and do a stand-alone story, a backup, or a miniseries. It’s not likely to happen, but a girl can dream.
WPR: The letters column to Grindhouse had a great exchange of movie references. In your opinion, what are the top five grindhouse films that everyone should see?
AdC: Everyone asks this. It all depends on when you ask me, what I answer… like being asked what’s your top 5 songs. For what? Driving n’ crying along to? Getting ready to out to? Anyhow, grindhouse is a broad church, so I’ll give you five great films. Top 5? Maybe not. But five good ones: Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, Barbarella (of course), Coffy, Cannibal Holocaust, and Thriller (aka They Call Her One-Eye). We probably need a Russ Meyer film too… Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! There should be an Argento…
WPR: References to the B-52s in Ashes made me wonder about your relationship with the band? Do you care to elaborate on that?
AdC: No relationship; I was just making a cheap joke. Valentine wears an Art Brut t-shirt for a good part of the “middle eight” of his series (see Comixology) and I know (and adore) the Art Brut gang pretty well. I reference music a lot in my work… not always out of love. Phil Collins’ “Sussudio” shows up in a climactic scene in “Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll” for example, and that’s not a song I love.
WPR: With Lady Zorro, you are taking on a character with an established world and expectation. Are there other existing characters or universes that you would like to write in?
AdC: I recently got to write Wonder Woman (in Sensation Comics #20 and #21) and that was a blast. I could write Diana forever. It’ll probably never happen but I’d seriously do bad things to be able to write a Wonder Woman miniseries. You know, I’d be interested in writing most of the iconic characters, but I’m not dying to do it. Like, I don’t feel my life won’t be complete if I never pen Batman. (Besides, I already have — an issue of Batman Confidential lies in a flat file somewhere at DC). There are young male writers knocking so hard on those doors… but those characters come with so many limitations. Cross-over events! Ugh. And artists foisted on you who may be amazing and may be… not. So, as the young boys rush in, I remain behind, a little fearful, worried what I might find at DC/Marvel. I am certain my first big mainstream gig will NOT be a female character. I’ll refuse ’em all until they give me a male character or a mixed team. I don’t like that they only give female characters to female writers. It’s not cool.
WPR: What’s next for you in comics?
AdC: April brings both Archie vs Predator (from Dark Horse) and my Image series No Mercy. After that, more Image stuff, and hopefully a Semiautomagic miniseries at Dark Horse. A prose novel I need to get my shit together on. More stories, basically. I have a lot of stories. I’m not anywhere near done yet. Hell, I’ve only just begun.
A big thank you to Alex de Campi for this interview. Her stuff is killer. I can’t wait for more. If she’s only just begun as she says above, then I have a lot of reading ahead me and I will be grateful for it! I hope you enjoyed this interview with Grindhouse writer Alex de Campi. Now it’s time to pick up some De Campi titles (links below) and if you like her work, you can support her through Patreon.
If you’re drawn to the exploitation comics then pick up Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight Double Feature Volume 1 TPB and Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight Double Feature Volume 2 TPB – Bride of Blood and Flesh Feast of the Devil Doll.
Or, I recommend the single issues for the excellent letters column that has great movie recommendations and discussion. Each story is two-issues. You pick a title that appeals to you and try it out without the commitment of of both trade paperbacks. But really, you should buy and read them all.
“Bee Vixens from Mars”
Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight #1 (Francesco Francavilla cover)
Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight #1 (Coop variant cover) (I love this cover–classic Coop!)
Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight #2
Grindhouse: Drive In, Bleed Out issues:
Works to check out:
Archie vs. Predator #1 (pre-order)
Smoke/Ashes TPB (De Campi’s political thriller)
Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman #7
Valentine at ComiXology or in trade Valentine TPB Vol. 01 The Ice Death
Lady Zorro #1 (of 4)
Semiautomagic serial in Dark Horse Presents 2014 #4, Dark Horse Presents 2014 #5, Dark Horse Presents 2014 #6, and Dark Horse Presents 2014 #7