It’s 7 p.m. London time and Eddie Campbell is three drinks deep.
“I thought I’d better have a gin and tonic if I’m going to talk about myself for an hour,” says the Scottish-born creator, best known for illustrating Alan Moore’s From Hell. And talk he does, carefully structuring sprawling, eloquent sentences as he discusses the history of Bacchus, his long-running comic updating Greek and Roman mythology to the 20th century. Top Shelf will publish the 560-page first volume of a long-delayed two-part omnibus collection of the series this month, reprinting Bacchus tales from 1987 through 1992.
Campbell either wrote or cowrote all of Bacchus, and illustrated many of the miniseries and one-shots that comprise its history. Though its titular protagonist is typically depicted as a virile party god, Bacchus’ 4,000 years of existence have decidedly taken their toll within Campbell’s series. The creator says his choices in portraying the character arose from his desire to create an “American comic book,” a genre he says was selling “like wildfire” at the time he created Bacchus.
“In my head American comic books were big, ugly things,” he says. “And I thought, ‘I need a big, ugly idea.’ I need a character with a horrible face, a reason for being mean and some justification for there being a lot of action.”
Bacchus’ craggy visage is first seen in prison as a taunting cellmate calls him “Deadface.” Campbell says it was a rather “lowbrow origin” for a project that would span 15 years of his life.
“After I got done with the first dozen pages I thought, ‘Wait a minute!’” he says. “I started to believe in this thing and I thought I wanted to turn it into a big, picaresque adventure where I could have my characters charging around the world from country to country on ships and aeroplanes, like Jason and the Argonauts or one of those great old adventures of ancient times.”
Bacchus’ first two story arcs function as globetrotting gangster stories with dark wit, depicting power struggles between Bacchus, high-class businessman Joe Theseus and the Eyeball Kid, the maniacal 20-eyed grandson of the 100-eyed giant Argus. But Campbell says he hit his stride with Doing the Islands With Bacchus, a set of 13 short stories originally published in a variety of anthology titles including “Dark Horse Presents.” The stories are set in exotic locales as Bacchus and friends travel through the Greek islands. But the tales take a more reflective tone, particularly with the increased importance of Bacchus’ sidekick, the wry, classical-literature-quoting Simpson. In writing Doing the Islands, Campbell says he hit on what he describes as “the dark, philosophical thing that is probably what ‘Bacchus’ is all about.”
In what Campbell describes as his favorite of the Doing the Islands stories, “The Book-Keeper of Atlantis,” Bacchus accidentally burns the titular character’s stunning library of ancient knowledge to the ground with a dropped cigarette. Decades after most of the Bacchus stories were published, some details of the material seem a little foggy in Campbell’s mind. But he easily cites the first line of “Book Keeper” from memory: “Everything goes from order to chaos.”
“I meant what I was saying there,” he says. “Everything that starts out beautiful ends up stingy. It’s a very cynical story, I think.”
Campbell expresses a fascination with the way mythology provides fictional characters to represent just about any aspect of human nature, particularly the “dirty and strange” ones. His own fascination with myth goes back to his early 20s, a time when he’d consciously stepped away from a career in art. Though he attended art school, he felt alienated by the art world’s focus on abstract and performance art. His disillusionment reached a peak after participating in a performance piece that involved walking down London’s Oxford Street while chained to three other people.
“I thought, ‘What am I doing? How did I get here? What is this all about?’” he says. “I’m a very sort of self-conscious person and I thought this looked a bit foolish.”
He took the simplest factory job he could find, cutting sheet metal into squares and rectangles, and worked it for five years. But he got an education while he was at it. Campbell commissioned a coworker to build him a lectern so he could read while he worked.
“The entire five years that I was cutting sheet metal, I was also reading books,” Campbell says. “Whenever the floor manager would come out and he saw somebody reading the newspaper, he’d say ‘Oi! What the fuck do you think you’re doing?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, what about him?’ And he’d say, ‘You never mind about him! We can’t get anybody else to do that fucking job!’ And that was how I got to do whatever I liked, as long as I did anything they gave me.”
He read books on philosophy and logic, discographies of London dance bands and, most importantly, Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths. Campbell was fascinated by the complexity of the stories, comparing their intricate webs of characters to Game of Thrones. He says the knowledge he amassed became “a trampoline on which [to] jump” when he set to plotting Bacchus.
However, Campbell also contributed his own creations to Bacchus’ modern-day mythos-as in the case of the Stygian Leech, a worm who hitches a ride out of the Underworld and proves remarkably adept at absorbing godlike amounts of power. However, being a leech, it has little interest or ability to wield its considerable might. Campbell says he conceived the character as “a good kick up the arse” to superhero comics, specifically villains like the Abomination or the Iron Monger who are essentially evil versions of the hero.
“I always thought it was the stupidest, lamest idea to create this unique hero and then immediately destroy his uniqueness by creating a villain exactly the same,” he says. “I thought the villain should be the complete antithesis of the hero. So I thought, what was the thing most opposite to a big, handsome, muscled hero that I could think of? It was like a slug, a leech.”
Campbell’s potshots at superhero comics arise from a deep love for the genre, at least in its earlier years. He speaks with great fondness of ‘60s superhero comics and the way they frequently placed superhuman characters in thoroughly human situations.
“When the Fantastic Four were having downtime they’d play baseball,” he says. “There was one great issue where they were in Africa playing baseball and Black Panther, the prince of the Wakandans, played shortstop or something…There’s all these larger-than-life characters doing something ordinary.”
Despite the mythological trappings, there’s plenty of the ordinary in “Bacchus.” At its heart the title is mostly about two men-Bacchus and Simpson-drinking, philosophizing, traveling and swapping stories. Simpson in particular speaks with a hyper-literate specificity that seems to suggest he might be Campbell’s surrogate in this world, but Campbell says there’s plenty of himself in Bacchus too.
“They’re probably the light and dark of my personality,” he says. “That bookish side of me comes out in Simpson, and when I’ve had two or three gin and tonics the other side comes out.”
He pauses, and it’s easy to imagine him taking another swig of gin and tonic.
“This could be as near as you’ll get to an actual interview with Bacchus,” he chuckles.