Alex de Campi tells us why horror fans make the best comics readers

The versatile comics writer modestly calls her recent string of successes 'fairly exciting.'

 

Aja Romano

Internet Culture

Published Aug 6, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 5:23 am CDT

Archie vs Predator may not seem like the kind of title that can be a game-changer—or even like the kind of title that should exist at all—but when I ask writer Alex de Campi about it over lunch at Comic-Con, she just laughs and tells me the comics horror crossover has done more for her than anything else in her long career. 

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“People are lining up for me to sign their books!,” she said. “As a fairly small indie creator, that’s really exciting.”

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De Campi, who worked on last year’s Friendship is Magic tie-in for IGW, pulls out her phone to show me what she’s been doodling—a My Little Pony Predator pony. It’s a very good drawing, but I don’t instantly recognize the character because the familiar mane of thick Predlocks look so incongruous on a cute little pony. It’s a clever way of illustrating, indirectly, the uncanny valley of horror and cuteness where de Campi seems to be most at home.

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As the Princeton-educated writer who worked on series as diverse as Sensation Comics Wonder Woman, late night gore-fest tribute Grindhouse, and Tokyopop’s charming Kat and Mouse, de Campi has proven the perfect foil for the Archie friends and their alien jungle foe. Last month the series came to an end with Betty and Veronica putting aside their squabbling and facing off against the Predator as the hapless Archie watches adoringly from the sidelines. It was the kind of role reversal fans have come to expect from de Campi, who’s as much a fan of tropes as she is of subverting them. 

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Her independent series from Image, No Mercy, takes on a terrifying wilderness disaster in the wilds of South America, where cultures clash as much within the circle of teen survivors as they do in the unforgiving landscape. 

“There’s no budget in comics other than the artist’s time. 24 pages of crowd scenes and they won’t speak to you ever again.”

We sat down to talk to her about the burgeoning world of independent comics, the reason horror fans make the best comic readers, and bad movie royalty.

How are you?

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I’m very well. This has been a good Comic-Con for me because Archie vs Predator has done a tremendous amount for me. People are lining up for me to sign their books! As a fairly small indie creator, that’s really exciting. And word is getting out about my other books as well. I don’t have a big Marvel or DC series under my belt to give me a reader base, some of whom might come over to the indie stuff, some of whom might not. But Archie vs Predator has been an incredibly lucky book for me.

Why do you think that is? Is it the Archie side or is it the Predator side?

It’s both together. You say Archie vs Predator and people are like, ‘what?’

And they’re doing Sharknado now.

Yes! Because the Sharknado guys saw how much Archie/Prediator blew up. They’d been talking to Archie about potentially doing it for a while, and they were dithering and dithering, but then Archie/Predator came out and was like, boom! And they were like, OK now we want to do this.

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We never realized how big it was going to be because it was this very lowkey thing we were doing. And then they announced at last year’s New York Comic-Con and it was the announcement of the con, everybody lost their minds about it. We were all somewhat shell-shocked. And then suddenly we had like 20 variant covers for Issue No. 1. We don’t normally do this! I have a Paul Pope variant cover for Issue No. 3, that’s incredible!

I feel like it’s revived interest in Archie too.

Archie has revived interest in Archie through a lot of things. There were a lot of folks who grew up reading some Archie and then fell away from it, and Predator Archie appeals to everyone’s sick sense of humor. And we worked really hard to make it a good Archie book. Reggie’s a jerk, Dilton builds things that go wrong, Archie trips over things and has heart eyes for legit half the issue, in every issue. Betty and Veronica are frenemies. It’s just fun, you know! And it’s also a really good Predator book, in that we’re balancing the interests of both fandoms with a shit-ton of gruesome death! And everyone’s like, well how does this work? It’s just a teen slasher book. It’s Camp Crystal Lake, it’s Michael Myers, except the campers are the Archie kids and the killer is the Predator.

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Courtesy Dark Horse Comics

And we put in lots of Easter eggs from Predator (the movie), because I personally think Jesse Ventura’s performance in that film was the greatest thing of all time. There’s a law about B movies in that if there’s a pro wrestler starring in it you should see it. The film careers of Jesse Ventura, Esq., and R. Roddy Piper, Esq., are legendary. You can actually argue that Hell Comes to Frogtown is the ur-Mad Max: Fury Road.

It seems like Grindhouse and Archie sort of seamlessly bled into each other.

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Good choice of words! Grindhouse is a 16-issue series from Dark Horse. Each one is a different exploitation horror story all written by me, everything from creature features to teen slashers to rape revenge stories to blaxploitation to kung fu, all the Z-movie genres. It ended up being a really popular book because it’s not a reinterpretation or a hipster Grindhouse or meta-Grindhouse, it’s just, sleezy movies are fun.

Grindhouse vol. 1

Grindhouse vol. 1

Comixology

It was really successful, it was one of the most successful Dark Horse creator-owned series that year. And that got me Archie vs Predator, because they were like, ‘Who’s twisted enough to make this work?’ One of the joys of the book is that it’s done in the Archie house style, so it’s done by longterm Archie artists like Fernando Ruiz on pencils, Rich Koslowski on inks, Jason Millet on colors—and they are doing the work of their lives. People who don’t do art might think it’s really easy to draw Archie, but it’s very hard to make things look that easy. It’s also very hard to draw comedy that easily.

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“These artificial online communities are like these artificial island villages in Dubai that are all full of beautiful, empty houses.”

So you have Archie with its own house style, Grindhouse with its own range of tropes, and No Mercy, which is creator-owned. Do you write differently for all these different aesthetics?

Yes. For something like Archie, there’s a house style and then there’s like the main action in a panel and then like background dialogue, which Fernando’s really doing. Some of the funniest bits in the book are stuff Fernando adds in the background. He’s most comfortable with about five panels a page, to be comfortable on the page and not feel too crowded, so I try to keep it to that. With No Mercy, not only am I writing for the way Carla [Speed McNeil] draws, I’m writing for only two characters on the page at one time instead of six characters with jokes about all of them. And No Mercy is generally more immersive into the teenagers’ world instead of the social media. In Archie the key thing to remember is that they’re always friends. Even when Reggie’s being a tool, he’s their friend. The Archie guys had to push that on me a couple of times, like, no, that can’t happen, Betty and Veronica are friends, they would not do that. In No Mercy they’re not friends, they don’t know each other. There’s a lot more of that weird teenage stuff where they’re still inventing themselves.

No Mercy #1

No Mercy #1

Comixology

And in Grindhouse, we just call it our bad ideas book. It’s the best bad idea I’ve ever had. It’s a trashy sexploitation horror, but it’s also not a book where as a female reader or a queer reader or a person of color, you read it and are like, ‘Fuck you.’ We all get to that point occasionally where we’re like, really? So while it is in incredibly bad taste and totally gratuitous, the women kick ass, queer characters are heroes, there’s never cheap homophobic jokes or hopefully any racism. A lot of the Grindhouse films were really right on. There were more black female heroines in 1972–1978 than we’ve had in all the years since. I give you the career of Lady Pam Grier.

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Grindhouse vol. 1, "Bee Vixens from Mars"

Grindhouse vol. 1, “Bee Vixens from Mars”

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Since Grindhouse you’ve gotten into this horror-thriller groove. It seems like there’s something in the water with this resurgence of horror.

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The horror fandom—once you start writing for the horror fans you want to keep writing for them. They’re a great group, they’re really educated in their genre, and they love new things and want to seek them out. And that makes them really unusual in comics where people can be really slow to try new writers or new series and move out of their comfort zone. You see that in people who like superheroes—they might try one Image book by Mark Millar but they’re not really going to try the rest of them. Whereas horror fans, they’re like, ‘Ooh, is that gonna scare me in new ways? I’ll try that and that and that.’

“It’s a very welcoming community and most of the female pros will always help you out. It’s not a zero sum game.”

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And it’s always a huge female fandom as well, because of final girls. Women can direct a few million-dollar films and you’re not getting the oversight you’re getting in a hundred-million-dollar film where they only want ‘one of the gang’ to do it. In a lot of horror films, for whatever reason, women are given agency in the film, whereas they’re often not given agency in other genres of films. Witness the merchandising whitewashing of Black Widow. All of the really tasteless like ‘I’m training to be Batman’s wife’ T-shirts.

But I think even just in comics there’s been a renaissance in the last year. Is that just a reflection on the overall moment?

It could also be a lot of people coming out of superheroes and not wanting to do superpowers but wanting to do supernatural. There’s a fantastic element or weird fiction element to all of those things. There’s still not as much of people tackling stories without any supernatural element. Looking at the Image comics list, there’s Jason Aaron doing Southern Bastards, which has no supernatural element. There’s most of Ed Brubaker’s work. There’s me. And I can’t think of anyone else who regularly does stories with no supernatural or non-science fiction elements for Image. I think horror and sci-fi are easy for people used to doing big-concept superhero stuff to think about. There’s also no budget in comics other than the artist’s time. Twenty-four pages of crowd scenes and they won’t speak to you ever again. They’ll leave little hangman nooses with you in it in the back of the crowd scenes.

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And also potentially some who write for the [potential film] option. I don’t know that anyone actually does that. Maybe Mark Millar does.

When you were young, did you think, ‘I want to grow up to write comics?’ I think most people think, wow, I want to do that, but I don’t think most people think about how that’s going to break down. Are they going to do the art, the writing, the ink, the pencils?

“There’s more and more people trying to get a piece of that tall comics dollar. Let’s roll in our Lamborghinis with our crystal.”

Oh, yeah. I grew up reading [Chris] Claremont’s X-Men. I’m old enough that there were still comics on spinner racks in small local super-markets. I would draw little superheroes—I can draw a mean Storm. I can draw pretty well. For my directing work I’ve done a lot of my own storyboarding. I can draw My Little Pony anything. I’ve got My Little Imponytor Furiosa! If I work hard at it I can draw. Here’s My Little Han and Chewy.

Chewy Pony!

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Chewy Pony’s adorable. So I don’t draw well enough to be able to draw professionally and it would take me a long time, but I can visualise it, and directing music videos and commercials, which I don’t do as much now that I live in Maine—but doing storyboarding helped me hone my storytelling skills. And think about pacing, camera work. A lot of it is down to the artist, but I can suggest things. I always write very full scripts—page 8, 6 panels, high-angle view, gas station, etc—and then tell the artist they can ignore everything as much as they want.

I feel like No Mercy is a different beast from everything else you’re working on now.

There’s no supernatural element to it; No Mercy is very melodramatic, but it’s all things that could happen in real life. It’s been a fun limitation. I think one of the interesting things is how well we keep up the drama when they’re no longer in ultimate peril. The first three issues are essentially less than 24 hours in their lives, and beyond that it continues to be terrifying. It’s also about the consequences of traumatic events. You don’t become a bat. You don’t become a vigilante. You generally have PTSD and won’t leave your room. For some of them it just never ends. Normally it’s like, they’ve been saved and now the adventure’s over. Actually, no, it’s just beginning.

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No Mercy Issue #1

No Mercy Issue #1

Comixology

My next projects are more fantastical. But that’s kind of how I roll, I write a bunch of real-world stuff then I’m like, I’ll go write a space anime.

Are you actually writing a space anime?

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Dan McDaid and I have wanted to work together for a while, we worked together on Smoke/Ashes. We want to do a space epic, inspired by all the anime I watched growing up like Gatchaman and Space Battleship Yamato, Robotech. But it’s also a story about dealing with aging parents. 

I think ultimately the reason I get away with so much cross-genre stuff is, I write solid character arcs and very realistic-feeling characters, so whatever the window dressing is on that, whether it’s the teenagers in peril in No Mercy or Deputy Garcia and Wayne in “Blood Lagoon” in Grindhouse, these are real people and you kind of know instinctively what they would and wouldn’t do.

Speaking of Japan, let’s talk about Tokyopop and this rise of self-publishing.

If you read the piece I wrote on Tumblr, contracts were always an issue, but they’re ultimately a sideshow. The issue is strategic mismanagement. If you read what future Tokyopop is going to be, it’s like nine scattered different things, and if you notice, not one of them says, ‘We want to publish quality comics.’ It’s like, we’re going to do this! And then we’ll stand on our heads! And then we’ll have this YouTube viewer! None of it is, ‘We have a commitment to quality books.’

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Pop Comics is basically, you publish your own thing and then we do ad-supported platforming and everyone makes money, yay. They’re doing self-publishing, Comixology is doing self-publishing. Amazon obviously already is. 

And you can just put a webcomic online and run your own ads. There are a lot of great successful webcomics out there. Space Mullet is one of my favorites. There’s a new one called Necropolis I’m really into. Kill 6 Billion Demons is still the greatest webcomic in the world and I love it so much. Many people have tried to be like, why don’t we have all the webcomics in one place! People have been trying this for 10 years, but they never really work.

“Ultimately you just have to make comics. You don’t suddenly become a comics creator by being validated by being published by a company.”

It’s basically Keenspace, which worked because they had a community but failed because they had no revenue support.

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Or if you want to have the discovery and be in a community, there’s Comixology Submit, which is really easy to do. And Comixology is like, we’re just the distributor, you have complete transparency and your book will be sold next to Wonder Woman.

Does it say something good about the industry as a whole that these websites are popping up?

You’re going to be transcribing this like, what was that long pause? Long shrug. Small whine. I feel like there’s more and more people trying to get a piece of that tall comics dollar. Let’s roll in our Lamborghinis with our Cristal.

All these places are having trouble finding audience share. I think it’s almost better for people to self-curate and just have a list of webcomics or things they get off Comixology Submit. All these comics community things, I can’t think of one that’s really been successful and lasted. If you’re going to do something and not be paid for it, don’t give it to a third party like Tokyopop, whatever they’re saying. You’re better off just starting your own site, updating when you can, and then when you get enough run a Kickstarter for your print costs! Do a little print run and go to conventions and hang out and meet people in meatspace. These artificial online communities are like these artificial island villages in Dubai that are all full of beautiful, empty houses.

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So what does the lay of the land look like for a new female creator coming into the industry?

It’s pretty good. It’s the most welcoming it’s ever been. People have to remember that the industry is not a monolith, it’s a lot of overlapping subgroups, some of which barely speak to each other. Some people move fluidly through them, some people will only work with the Big 2, some people never will. Raina Telgemeier has her own publishing thing, she’s been on the New York Times bestseller list solidly for the last five years with at least one book. If you look at the graphic novel bestseller list, the last time I looked, eight out of 10 books were created by women or had a woman on the team. 

So we’re here, and we’re here in great diversity. We are multitude. There are queer black female webcomic creators. There are trans female artists and writers who are very high up in the industry and widely accepted, and are beloved. There are cis white chicks, always a lot of those. There are very large queer communities. Wherever you identify in the female spectrum, there is room for you and there are people who’ll support you. It’s a very welcoming community in general and most of the female pros will always help you out, because we don’t look at it as a zero sum game. They’re not gonna get my gig. People are gonna hire me because of this special thing I do. 

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So we all help each other. But ultimately you just have to make comics. You don’t suddenly become a comics creator by being validated by being published by a company. You already publish comics, and then your creating comics any way you can then ultimately gets you a gig with the main publishers if you want that. There’s a great anthology community where a lot of people have started out. There are so many ways in. Just draw your thing, put it on the Internet. Make sure your name is watermarked on it, so when it gets Tumblr’d… [laughs] it doesn’t get erased. Says the gal whose Wonder Woman story had like 200,000 notes on it and no creator credit. Part of me was like, rats, no one’s gonna buy that issue, but on the other hand it was really validating that this one standalone Sensation Comics story I did had so much appeal.

Like I’ve almost been reblogged as much as a cat GIF!

Screengrab via Comixology

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*First Published: Aug 6, 2015, 11:00 am CDT