Alex de Campi: Superheroine Sunday on a Monday

Reading Time: 7 minutes
Image: Karen Walsh
Image: Karen Walsh

Sitting behind the table at Terrificon, surrounded by her books, Alex de Campi immediately looks up from her sketches the moment someone stops at her table. Immediately engaging me in conversation, I learn rapidly that she has a five year old daughter who is still too young to come to conventions with her without spinning into a whirlwind of activity. Commiserating with her, we discuss how neither of our children would do well in that kind of situation. We bond a bit over our children’s tordnado-esque energy of destruction, in that way that only moms can.

I introduce myself with the blunt honesty for which I am known among my friends.

“I will be perfectly honest, I haven’t read Archie vs. Predator since it’s not really in my interests, but I have heard so much about you that I would really love to write up an interview because I’ve heard so many wonderful things about you from what I read on the internet.”

Ms. de Campi automatically responded by showing me No Mercy, pointing to the second trade paperback and pulling out copies of the first 4 issues. As I skimmed them, I automatically recognize that they are going to be right in my wheelhouse. Skimming the works that she has on display, I also notice a book called Valentine that has a sign saying, “Kid Friendly.” (Valentine, a book in which Russian soldier in 1812 Russia are attacked by red-eyed monsters, was gobbled up by my son later that evening.) Gathering up all my new books, I complete my transaction and she signs my paperback “To Karen Super mom 4 eva + Godzilla kids.” I tuck my purchases away carefully, pull out my iPad and start asking my questions.

In order to get a better sense of Ms. de Campi, I ask her what brought her to comics as a medium. She looks at me with her intense eyes and responds,

“I got into comics because when I was a kid they sold comics in spinner racks in the drugstore. My mother realized that if she bought me a copy of the X-Men I’d shut up for a while. And Elfquest. And a lot of anime. We had Channel 29 before that became a Fox channel that used to show all the anime. Then I got older and discovered boys and rock n roll and forgot about comics for a while. When I was living in the UK, a friend of mine was moving out of his army barracks and he gives me this big box full of old Vertigo books. I said, “Wow comics are really awesome!” I’d always been a writer. While I was in the UK, I fell in with a bunch of creative people, and they said “you should write comics too.”I think another important part was that manga was becoming much more available and there was finally books about things about things I was interested in. A lot of people poo-poo the importance of representation, and by a lot of people I mean mostly the white men in charge. Punk Storm ruled my world. Jean Grey trying to choose between Cyclops and Wolverine, and (here Ms. de Campi squeals a little bit) Kitty having a little baby dragon and that was awesome. I loved the soap opera element of it.

Then you had manga like Mars. I think it’s really hard core. You have popular girls who are throwing people in to lockers. You have these strong women. When I say strong women characters, I don’t mean throwing punches and swearing. That’s not strong woman characters, that’s men writing what they think are strong woman characters.”

If I had any doubt that Ms. de Campi was the sort of author who would write works with which I would fall in love, this last statement melted any last shred of that doubt. Looking at her with not just the eyes of a reporter but transitioning over a bit into some awkward fangirling, I listened attentively as she continued.

Ms. De Campi articulately continued, “One of the the fun parts of Grindhouse is that here we have a book gore and boobs. But we fly under the radar. I wanted it to be a saucy comic that traditional readers would get, but in those stories, there’s never a part where women or the LGBTQIA community has that moment of release where they can identify with the story. People have said the sex in here makes them uncomfortable because they feel like a peeping Tom. The sex with the male gaze uses the language of pornography so there’s an implicit acceptance that it’s ok to watch whereas we’re not necessarily using that here. [In Grindhouse], it’s not a performative act; it’s just sex that happens between people because they want to have sex. So, it makes the act uncomfortable for the reader. In comics, there’s a lot of the posing that’s based on porn, but we don’t do that.”

Image: Dark Horse
Image: Dark Horse

Few conversations propel me into stunned speechlessness, but listening to Ms. de Campi managed to accomplish that. Her articulate speech matches her straightforward attitude creating an aura of both authority and humility. In response to her comment “because Patriarchy,” I asked whether she has to really think about the changes she makes to stories to be outside the box of tradition. Pausing slightly, Ms. de Campi answers confidently, “I like to say that if you’re not scared you’re not doing it right. You find yourself approaching tropes quite often, and it’s always a weird balance. You back away from the trope or you present it in a new way while also being respectful of what people want. You know the moment in your writing when you fall into it because you go (and here she almost wrinkles her nose) “aahhh” and you want something fresh.”

Listening to Ms. de Campi talk about writing is not just exciting but inspiring. As someone with absolutely no inkling of creativity in her body, one of my favorite parts of interviewing writers is following up with them about their writing process and about what they like to write. When Ms. de Campi discusses her approach to overturning tropes and making changes to the traditional stories, her already rapid speech speeds up just a little bit more in excitement. Drawing on that, I next ask her what creative leap or change she was most excited about in her works. Pausing to think, Ms de Campi admits that it is a difficult question but ultimately responds, “I was very proud of what I got to do with Archie vs Predator. I’m really proud of 12 and 13 of No Mercy because they’re the same scene from different directions but you don’t know that until about halfway through issue 13 when you suddenly realize that you know what’s going to happen.”

Feminism and activism appear to be one of the underlying threads of our conversation. Ms. de Campi mentions several times throughout the discussion of her writing the impact of representation or of wanting characters that she would want to read. Following on that, I ask whether, given this strong sense of upending “The Patriarchy,” she feels a strong sense of responsibility to other women. Quickly, the author responds, “That’s tough to answer because the relationship between writer and audience is a complex one. On one hand, I don’t owe anybody anything, but I write things I want to read. On the other hand, you have to understand what Western audiences expect from a story. I’ll never express female characters in certain ways, but it’s really about me, it’s not about my reader.” This response, for me, is the epitome of what I really enjoyed about speaking with Ms. de Campi. She is a creative pragmatist. Our discussion about Grindhouse had incorporated a lot of this sensibility as well. While she admits that she wants to upend aspects of the traditional horror genre, she also notes that in order to do that you have to “fly under the radar” so that traditional readers still approach your work. She clearly recognizes this tension and that gives her writing even more power. By subverting the traditional tropes and stereotypes while working clearly within the genres, she brings traditional readers as well as new reader  to progressive sensibilities.

Of course, as we had previously discussed our children, I close the interview with questions about parenting and being a mom. My first question, of course, was to find out her favorite part of geekmoming with her daughter. Ms. de Campi notes, “Lego. Lots of Lego. We own a lot of Lego and that’s a lot of fun. Because my daughter’s five, we haven’t been doing a lot of super geeky stuff. I try to keep her from getting too commercialized. But I always try to find something at a convention that I can bring her back. One of my prouder moments was when Archie sent me a whole bunch of comics for promotional purposes. (Here she smiles almost unconsciously) They’re all in her room now, and I didn’t put them there.” As our conversation comes to an end, I ask how parenting had changed her writing. She responds a bit wistfully. “My parenting has really informed things like No Mercy. I think it’s made me realize,” trailing off a bit and then interrupting herself Ms de Campi continues, “I have tremendous parental guilt. I’m a single a mom, and I take care of my mom. I feel guilty that I’m not spending enough time with my duaghter. I mean my kid is really happy, but I don’t have a ton of time to play with her at the end of the day.”

Throughout our conversation, and most certainly at the end, Ms. de Campi proves that she is a strong female heroine. Physically strong, punching women, as she had noted, are just a man’s fantasy of the strong women. Truly strong women are the ones that fight societal ideologies. She is a mom, author, and, as she noted proudly at one point, letterer of her own books. She is the definition of strong female character. She is intelligent, thoughtful, and witty. As a mom, she works to make a home and life for her daughter and mother. As an author and letterer, she works within a male dominated field to subvert the stereotypical tropes that continue to undermine marginalized groups.

For all of these reasons, Alex de Campi is a superheroine in comics, but also a superheroine in real life.

And now, I’m going to go finish the last few pages of No Mercy that I have left mainly because it’s really just that amazing. Thank you, Ms. de Campi for your time, strength, brilliance, and knowing exactly what I would want to read.