Though cartoonists are increasingly feeling art-world love, it usually takes years of toiling away in relative obscurity until achieving enough publishing recognition for galleries and museums to notice. Not so for Jessica Campbell, who burst onto the Chicago art scene right out of SAIC, becoming a Newcity Breakout Artist in 2015, just a year after earning her MFA. She soon joined the artist roster at the well-regarded Western Exhibitions, and earned a solo show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2018.
Comics are but a part of her artistic practice, and she’s just now publishing her third graphic novel, “Rave,” and her first with a major publisher, the legendary Montréal imprint Drawn & Quarterly. Her new book is the coming-of-age story of Lauren, a teenager grappling with the cruelty of adolescence, including body-image issues, mean (and nice) girls, and confusion over sexuality and sexual orientation—all grappled with under the heavy hand of oppressively religious parents.
Campell recently relocated from Chicago to the hometown of her husband, the cartoonist Aaron Renier, in Green Bay, Wisconsin, where there’s “some illness in his family, so we moved to help out.”
I corresponded over email with Campbell, who was in France for the world-renowned Angoulême International Comics Festival.
Talk about the genesis of the story. It has the visceral authenticity of memoir, but based on what I know of your bio, I suspect it’s not. What or who was your inspiration?
It is not strictly autobiographical, but draws very heavily from personal experience. I think the Lynda Barry-coined term “auto-bi-fictional-ography” applies best here. I wanted to tell a story centered around the conflicts that arise when someone from an intensely religious background and upbringing is confronted with people of other beliefs and backgrounds. Specifically, this story centers around Lauren, who was raised in a Pentecostal/Evangelical/Charismatic household but attends a public school, which was my experience growing up.
Originally, I had intended to include text in the margins, which is something I did for a comic about Emily Carr that I produced for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2018. My original intention was to have a kind of running inner monologue for Lauren that expressed the things she felt unable to speak aloud, which I think would have given her more personality in some ways. However, as I was working on the book, I realized I wanted her to function more as a somewhat stoic avatar on which readers could project their own feelings. She’s very repressed, insecure, uncomfortable in the world outside of very specific instances, which I think is very much my own experience of childhood/adolescence/early adulthood, though I do not think of her as me, exactly.
The other characters and the story line are all amalgams of people I know, my own experiences and things that happened around me. I think a major benefit to working in fiction is that I don’t feel one-hundred-percent beholden to the truth and can add in or take out facts and anecdotes to make the story work better.
I don’t think you name the place, but it reads as very American, suburban or rural. Does Canada have these religiously oppressive spaces, too? How did you get such a keen sense for how they do their thing?
OK, so, actually, this is one-hundred-percent set in my hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. However, I never directly mention that fact in the book, as I wanted it to have a kind of “every town” feeling to it, which I thought might make it easier for readers to envision themselves there. There are oblique references (street names, a really specific Starbucks in a part of town called Cook Street Village, bus stops modeled after those in Victoria, etc.), but it is in no way necessary to know that to understand the story.
Those kinds of oppressive religious spaces do exist in Canada, but it’s more rare than in the United States. The church I was raised in, for instance, was started (or led at an early stage) by a man named Harald Bredesen, who was Pat Robertson’s mentor. So the attitudes of people like Pat Robertson (i.e., like the quote about feminism that I open the book with) were rife in that environment. What really differentiates my upbringing from those of other people I’ve met in the U.S. from evangelical backgrounds, however, is that I attended public school and exactly zero of my family members or friends (outside of my immediate family and people from church) followed the same religious practices I did. So while I was in some ways being indoctrinated to believe things like “girls and women were put on earth to serve their fathers and husbands” (a direct quote), there were many other ways of living that were being modeled for me by my friends, family and community.
I’m really grateful for my upbringing in some ways because I know that there are some wonderful people with strongly held religious beliefs. I think it’s easy in our society to feel intense polarization or, like, a sense of “us-versus-them” that encourages us to vilify anyone who doesn’t hold our identical beliefs. However, it becomes problematic/totally untenable for me when one’s beliefs are hinged on the infringement of others’ rights. There are certain things that are inalienable truths: all genders are equal and full human beings; people have the right to love who they love; we should be allowed to do whatever we want with our lives and bodies so long as we aren’t hurting others; people shouldn’t starve when there is a surplus of food; we shouldn’t allow people to die of preventable/treatable illnesses, etc. All the recent anti-LGBTQ legislation pushed through by the Christian Right, for example, makes me totally sick and I can’t imagine being part of a religion that is consistently defining itself by suppressing human rights. Also I don’t think Jesus would be down with that, LOL.
I loved/hated the way the church co-opted the idea of a “rave” which in many ways could not be more opposite than the spirit of raves. Was this a real thing or made up?
Christian raves were a one-hundred-percent real thing in the nineties!! I think I only attended one, maybe two? But I remember them being very much like how I described them in the book. The one I remember began with some horrifying slideshow about child soldiers in Africa, then prayer, and then rave music. There were no drugs as far as I was aware, but also I was a giant nerd so no one would have offered me any if there had been, haha.
I was struck by the way your panels and spreads work as independent art in a compositional way. Could you talk more about your creative process with comics?
My process for making comics has evolved over time. I felt like the pacing in my last book (“XTC69”) was off (things were paced too quickly), so I wanted to adjust that for this book. For that book, I’d started with an outline, then written and thumbnailed the book simultaneously. Many of my favorite cartoonists (like Chris Ware and Lynda Barry) do not thumbnail their work, so I figured, if it works for them… But it does not work for me that way, haha.
In talking to my friends Nick Drnaso and Anya Davidson about two wonderful books of theirs (“Sabrina” and “Lovers in the Garden,” respectively), I found out that they had both started with a written script, so I decided to go that route for this book. I think it helped me immensely, largely because it allowed me to slow the pace down considerably and it added another layer of editing possibilities, so I could adjust dialogue, easily move scenes around, etc. Comics are notoriously difficult to edit because you can’t just add a panel in here or there; you have to add in entirely new pages, sections of the book, etc.
And you’re correct that I do think about each page/spread in a compositional way! That’s because of one of the peculiarities of comics: we experience each page as a designed composition first, before we read the story. In fact, as many cartoonists before me have said, comics function more as a kind of graphic design-plus-poetry than illustration; we are reading the pages as designed things, and then reading each individual panel. On a page, for instance, with six nearly identical panels where a character is sitting next to a phone, the reader gets the sense that time is passing and that this character is waiting for a long period of time. In my book, there are a few sequences like that, and that design choice is meant to convey the affective experience of waiting for your crush to call. I have such vivid and heartrending memories of that, and I think that comics are a medium that can convey that so much more immediately and effectively than any other.
You have an equally, or maybe even more active career as a “fine artist” with shows at museums and your Chicago gallery, Western Exhibitions. Do you treat these as two distinct parts of your artistic life or do they all run together?
I studied painting and drawing but was always interested in comics, and spent many years working in bookstores and publishing (for a long time for Drawn & Quarterly, the publisher of “Rave”). I started making comics in earnest while in grad school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and I think there’s a really rich history in that school and in the city, generally, of people who move in between the comics and art worlds, or are at least referencing/drawing from the other world, if not participating in it directly.
I really tried to bring these two facets of my work together for my Chicago Works exhibition at the MCA in 2018/2019, both by making an installation that functioned in a narrative way (drawing on pre-comics narrative traditions like religious fresco painting) and by making a comic as the catalog for the exhibition.
However, I do think that comics and studio art (or fine art/carpets/whatever) function in a fundamentally different way. My comics are narrative, which means they are meant to be read, the images are meant to be clear and direct and to propel the narrative. They exist in reproduction (ideally in print for me), and thus are disseminated and engaged with really differently than studio art. My studio work is not meant to be as direct. While I’m often (or always) thinking of many of the same issues, I think that some ambiguity or room for the viewer to interpret the work as they will is really important for the studio work. There’s also a material component to it: the color, the shape, the texture, the size, the sense of touch from the artist… It’s totally different from reading a comic.
I have many friends who are strictly cartoonists or strictly painters (or other kinds of visual artists) and I’m often really envious because I feel like I am a “jack of all trades and master of none,” but fundamentally I just really enjoy facets of both visual art and comics (and am interested in trying other media like video, sculpture, prose writing etc. etc.), and I think I can’t help but follow my interests.
What happened when you Asked Jeeves? The nineties references were fun to spot but very lightly applied…
Haha, Jeeves would always deflect the personal questions! I do remember spending a lot of time as a child in the early days of the internet trying to goad Jeeves into offering up personal information, and going onto chat rooms posing as lonely single women looking for love (aka catfishing), which is disturbing in retrospect.
Like the geographical location, the time setting is meant to be inferable, but not overpowering. However, considering the size of the desktop computer and lack of smartphones, etc., the time period is probably more obvious than the location.
A virtual book-launch event is planned for May 5 at Women & Children First.