“I wanted to deal with characters [that] are in some way made "invisible" in American society,” types Ross Campbell, inadvertent feminist-in-resident at Oni Press Comics and creator of recently launched Shadoweyes. “[Also], I usually have a hard time getting myself really interested in writing guys [and] I think it's partly that we already have plenty stories about men and boys.” The graphic novel author/artist is responsible for a slew of female-centric titles including The Abandoned, Water Baby, and the Wet Moon series, so it was fitting his new, futuristic tale features the headstrong Scout, a would-be vigilante who possesses the ability to physically transform herself.
“At first it's a blessing, because Scout is able to shift back and forth between her superpowered ‘super’ body and her human one… But she soon loses her human form and is stuck in the blue superhuman body,” Campbell notes. No longer able to exist in “normal” society, Scout must subsist on the fringes in darkness, but Campbell is quick to point out how her unwitting “outsider” status also forces her to grow and change as a person, proving to be “both a hindrance and a blessing morally and mentally, too.”
While Shadoweyes may seem a leap from the more reality-based books fans are used to seeing from Campbell, it is still a natural fit for his interest in “invisible” characters: Rylie and Naomi of The Abandoned struggle to survive in an apocalyptic wasteland; Cleo, Trilby and the other goth girls of Wet Moon each harbour a slew of secrets that range from self-injury to possible abortion. He will be the first to admit he enjoys dealing with “characters [that] are in some way made ‘invisible’ in American society.”
Although the titular character of Shadoweyes is at first thrilled by her new anime-esque blue body, she is horrified when it becomes her only option for physical incarnation. Thus, she is alienated because “society won’t allow her to participate because of [her appearance]”, explains Campbell. “That [situation] really interested me and it’s happening in real life, under less fantastic circumstances, of course.”
Exploring “invisible” characters has always been a labour of love for Campbell whose efforts in the graphic novel world first gained momentum with two Oni Press titles – the rock’n’roll family of Hopeless Savages, and the murder-mystery/ghost-story Spooked in the early 00’s – and staked his own territory with the gothic, slice-of-life series Wet Moon in 2004.
Critics gushed over its David Lynch-like undertones, its moments of oddity mixed with blasé reality, but particularly there was marked interest in Campbell’s uncanny ability to portray young women in an unaffected manner: Ectomorphs as well as endomorphs populate the series, some more comfortable in their own skin than others; they rock out front row for their favourite bands (including real-life band Bella Morte); their conversations move fluidly from good-natured ribbing to passive-aggressive; and they experience private moments of loneliness and vulnerability familiar to anyone under twenty-one.
A particularly vivid moment in Wet Moon 1: Feeble Wanderings features main character Cleo critiquing her plump torso in the mirror, pressing her small breasts together, and trying out a seductive look. One can only assume Campbell, a self-described “mostly-straight, white male”, has never fretted over the girth of his hips or cup-size, yet he renders such events without a trace of artificiality. Every natural curve or freckle seems added with gentleness by an artist who truly appreciates the diversity of women.
“I think I have a pretty good insight into how most people are [and] it feels natural for me to write women characters”, reveals Campbell, noting that many of his female friends and acquaintances are fountains of inspiration for the Wet Moon characters. “In my own experience…they tend to have this incredible energy, and emotional outpouring, and vigour…so that’s what I gravitate to.”
As with many protagonists in his stories, characters in the series find themselves marginalized either by choice or by outside circumstances: closeted lesbian Audrey experiences violence by the hands of a girlfriend; anger-prone Myrtle admits to habits of self-injury, and cannot control her possessive habits; and Trilby – thanks to her perpetually supportive boyfriend Martin – learns to embrace her nerdy, comics and sci-fi loving side.
Campbell is vocal about appreciating females in comicdom – his real-life artist and friend Becky Cloonan even makes an appearance in Wet Moon 5: Where All Stars Fail To Burn – but laments “every step ahead is often followed by a few steps back”. He notes an open hostility towards women still lingers in the direct market, citing a possible reason the short-lived, female-centered publisher Minx (a division of DC) didn’t survive past its first year.
“Unfortunately, there are still creepy direct market comic shops that [can be] outright hostile to women,” says Campbell, “so it sucks when the ‘Big Two’ [ie. Marvel and DC] are making attempts to reach girls…[but] the intended audience doesn't want to go into those stores.” He is optimistic, however, perhaps buoyed by the positive response from readers (he receives fan mail from both males and females) and the recent news that the American Library Association listed Shadoweyes on their list of Great Graphic Novels for Teens 2010. “I see a lot of outreach to female readers and creators going on…[and] I do think things are better than they've ever been.”
Things are also better than they’ve ever been for Campbell. Although he has a second Shadoweyes book on the way (Shadoweyes In Love) and a sixth Wet Moon due in 2011 – not to mention an upcoming collaboration with novelist Nnedi Okorafor – he modestly shrugs off his popularity: “Sometimes I think I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.”
With this momentum, he will soon be anything but “invisible”.