Comics have always had a reputation for being bad from you; the industry still bears some of the scars from Fredrick Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, leaving the industry dominated by superhero comics. Over the decades, comics have struggled to prove that they’re a legitimate artform, gaining increasing acceptance amongst the intellectual crowd.
But sometimes you don’t want a Maus, an Acme Novelty Library or an Eight Ball. Sometimes you want something gloriously, unapologetically trashy. Something to turn off your brain and just let your baser instincts out to play.
Enter prolific comic author Alex De Campi and her latest creation: Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight., published by Dark Horse Comics. Proudly billing itself as “Sleazeball Tested, Pervert Approved”, it’s a loving callback to the exploitation cinema and the b-movie classics that inspired Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and it delivers in spades. The first story arc, Bee Vixens From Mars revels in sex, violence and gore and a lack of anything resembling redeeming virtues. And it’s all the better for it.
I talked with De Campi about the origins of Grindhouse and the films that inspired it’s creation.
You’ve had a pretty varied career in terms of subjects — all-ages adventures like Kat and Mouse, political noir like Smoke and its sequel Ashes, and SF like Messiah Complex. What was the inspiration for Grindhouse?
I just genuinely love really trashy old exploitation films. And I’d just come off writing two really big, hard to write books — Ashes, my action/thriller (which was also a bear to produce; it was a Kickstarter project, with several different artists chipping in to create its 250 page story), and Margaret the Damned, my very personal horror book. I was done. I default to long-form graphic novels as a method of writing, but I could not summon the energy to embark on another 250+ page book. So I was just arcing around, as you do, and making jokes with my friends, and kidded that I should do exploitation next — “Bee Vixens from Mars, or something like that”. And the internet’s overwhelming response was, “yes, do that!” So I did. And it has been a total blast from start to finish. Will I break from graphic novels and instead take up doing more trashy, monthly work? Well, ultimately, probably not, but I could see doing a few more stories in this Grindhouse series. Variety is very important to me as a writer. You get stale, writing the same thing or the same format over and over. It’s fun to take breaks! I’m also doing an issue of a My LIttle Pony comic (with Carla Speed McNeil) — people *really* can’t wrap their head around my being able to do these two things at the same time.
And, you know, my grindhouse books aren’t ironic or a deconstruction of the genre or hipster grindhouse or whatever. Nope, they’re straight-up tits and gore, the way nature (and Russ Meyer) intended. I suppose in part they were a reaction to how much the transgressive vocabulary of exploitation films have been borrowed for “legitimacy” by the capes and spandex crowd. I do ultimately blame Alan Moore for this. What was groundbreaking in Watchmen or Marvelman is now common currency for the lazy writer wanting to give their superhero series a “gritty” feel. It’s kind of like the Deutschemark during the Weimar republic, or the Argentine peso in the 1980s… you’d need a wheelbarrow full of notes just to afford a cup of coffee. Now you need to out-gritty the next guy (and it’s ALWAYS guys) in the violence tango. These films used to be fun. These comics used to be fun. I wanted the feel of gleefully reading books with a flashlight under your covers that your dad would confiscate (then read himself) when you were a kid… or sneaking into a midnight showing of some crazy Argentino film or wild Russ Meyer joint.
There was a very fine line to walk, though. To create a book that Comic Book Guy could enjoy because wa-hey, boobies, and gore… but that also as a female writer (and a feminist) I could be OK with. Most people won’t notice that the gaze in the book towards the female characters is not predatory — the women are complicit, and in fact usually in charge. It’s a gossamer thing, this manipulation of gaze, this slight change, this look awry — but it makes a huge difference to how the book feels when you read it. The book makes people really happy. And, you know, for the horror crowd, the little changes in having a woman write it so some of the invasive, penetrative horror happens to men — well, it makes for more effective and unexpected horror.
Going from boobs and gore to My Little Pony seems like it might be a difficult shift to make in one’s headspace. With the wide variety of genres that you’ve covered, have you had any problems with people thinking “Hey, I dug Kat and Mouse and My Little Pony, what else has she written, OHMYGOD?”
Not really. I suppose because personally as a reader, I am an utter failure as a completist. There are some writers I love beyond all reason — Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, John Cheever. Have I read everything they’ve ever written? Nah. I just… don’t. So I can’t imagine people being angry or disappointed because I (frankly, as a nobody, smaller even than a guppy in the “big fish” scale) don’t write all the same genre or type of work. I write for me. If you like it and buy it? That’s awesome. But that happens a year or more after I finish the story. So by the time you get to it… I’m somewhere else.
Grindhouse seems like it must be a gas to write: let your ID run loose and see where it takes you. In the first arc, you have sexy alien bee women taking over a small town. The next arc promises an interstellar prison ship. What influenced you as you were coming up with these setups?
Oh, it’s been a hoot to write, draw, edit… the creative team emails often have us crying with laughter. “Subject: photo reference: pus volcano”, et cetera. But in terms of the stories? I thought up all the titles first. They were based on very popular grindhouse/exploitation subgenres and I wanted them to sound like they could have been films. The alien invasion/sexploitation film. The women in prison film. The rape-revenge film. The girl gang / slasher film. Then I wrote the stories. I did pretty much try to think up the goriest, nastiest, whoa-gotta-put-the-comic-down moments, and also lots of sex. The audience expectations are pretty specific. And the way the book has been embraced by the horror community has been really… humbling and gratifying. The horror audience is an audience that sees probably far more films than any other specialist genre audience, and they really think hard about what makes a good scare, and they aren’t impressed easily. It’s I believe the most cine-literate of all genre audiences and I have great, great respect for that.
The rape-revenge genre like I Spit On Your Grave is always one that’s made me uncomfortable; on the one hand, we’re supposed to be rooting for the heroine to get her own back against the people who’ve wronged her, but the way the rape scenes are shot are so salacious that it always feels like we’re almost supposed to be complicit in the act itself. Has it been hard trying to walk the line between entertainment and straight-up exploitation?
I was talking to someone today about They Call Her One-Eye (aka Thriller), how taken aback he was by the full-on X-ratedness of the rape scene. I mean, you see EVERYTHING… as much as in a porno… and we talked a lot about the filmmakers’ intent. Maybe I’m giving them more credit than they deserve but I think they were trying to mess with people — in a Michael Haneke, you are complicit/Funny Games kind of way. Taking the language of pornography and making it into something just completely revolting. It’s not treated as something “edgy”, it’s just like, we are going to make this as grim as you can take, re-arranging a vocabulary you think you know. I do our rape scene all in the girl’s POV, so rather than there being any ability to ogle her naked body, I am putting you inside her head, so you experience it through her eyes.
In Bee Vixens from Mars, the hero is a one-eyed, inked-up, Harley riding Latina sheriff’s deputy. She’s part of a lineage of gun-toting bad-ass women in exploitation film. What is it about grindhouse that seems to encourage these non-standard heroes?
I am not sure. It’s crazy now because the means of production of filmmaking is SO much cheaper and thousands of times more advanced than they were in the days of those films (Super16 reversal film, etc) yet the product is more homogenous. Everyone’s making films, but they’re all the same. When was the last time a black woman was a solo action hero in a US film? Hell, when was the last time a white woman was? (Hunger Games and Salt, probably.) (Although I still think Angelina Jolie is actually an alien.) In the seventies, you had a comparatively huge amount of female action heroes of all races. Still nowhere near parity, but at least our little bowl wasn’t, y’know, empty. I guess there was change and revolution in the air, and a real anything-goes attitude… and possibly they could get cinemas to SHOW these films. There are almost no independent cinemas any more, and getting distribution costs millions and millions of dollars now… I mean, does Regal *do* midnight screenings? Would their corporate management allow an unrated film to be shown? When Coffy came out, or Cleopatra Jones, you saw it in a cinema. Maybe that’s irrelevant now, but you couldn’t beat the PR from having your film in a cinema as the midnight movie of the week. Then it would be picked up by local TV channels to be shown late-night… scrappy little indies could make these movies on a shoestring, and then go make more because the movie made money. Roger Corman, he didn’t keep making movies because he liked to… he kept making movies because he got paid (AND he liked to). Now there’s no way to make money off your feature, really, unless you’re in “the system.” Creatives in all industries are expected to be kinda OK with never getting paid for their work. So the system’s all broken somehow, and I don’t know how to fix it, and it means that so much of our cinema is decided for us by a very small group of straight white guys, none of whom are willing to take financial risks on giving, say, Michelle Rodriguez an action film. Oh, can’t we have Channing Tatum instead? She’s, y’know… people might not…. hey, we could make her his girlfriend!… guys, y’know, act 2 is kinda weak, I think we need to have more at stake for Channing’s character… I’m just thinking out loud here, but what if she’s like, kindapped? And, like, they beat her up, and he has to come rescue her….
You come as much from a film background as you do comics; how much has that affected your style?
I think it’s helped me script economically, because I can “see” the story in my head. In my more literary/thriller graphic novels, it means I make a lot of use of silence — I’m really good at letting the pictures tell the story themselves. Many writers can’t let go like that. Any sort of storytelling practice, especially with a strong visual component, makes you better at telling future stories.
Clearly you love b-movies and exploitation films. What is it about them that draws you to them? Any favorites to recommend?
What I love about exploitation and b-stuff other than girls kicking ass? Oh, so much. Probably mostly the crazy. I love a lot of the Italian stuff… the cinecittà sets and practical FX departments were amazing. Barbarella: so crazy. (Which I originally watched because I was a Duran Duran fan and they got their name from the baddie in Barbarella.) The giallo films of Argento and Fulci… though I feel like Argento’s descent-into-paranoia stuff has been stolen so much by mainstream comics, and it is so dark, it isn’t what I wanted to do in the series. Still love Argento, though Fulci’s probably my favourite. Fulci’s The Beyond is just SO beautifully filmed and so disturbing. And still, nuts (of course there’s a hot blind woman standing with a German shepherd in the middle of the Pontchartrain causeway where there is suspiciously no traffic. Of course the dude in the mortuary wants to try out his brain scan machine on the mysterious dead corpse…) I love the poliziotteschi (cop/crime dramas) of Fernando di Leo (dig up Milan 9mm)… and a lot of Asian B/exploitation stuff, from martial arts films to THE ADVENTURE OF IRON PUSSY, which is sort of a trans super-spy/hero film. I love me some Cleo Jones… empirically not as great as Coffy was, but the Cleo films were the ones I grew up watching on TV and for me, Cleopatra Jones is still this model of grace and style and just sheer awesomeness.
What other stories are coming up in the series?
The series, which has the slightly unwieldy title of GRINDHOUSE: DOORS OPEN AT MIDNIGHT is four two-issue stories, all written by me, and with different artists for each story. We’ve just had the second and final part of the Bee Vixens storyline out last Wednesday (the book is available from all fine comic shops, or digitally from the Dark Horse Comics app). Issue #3 (out December 4) starts our women in prison story, Prison Ship Antares. Because of course it’s in space. Spaceships make *everything* better. (Also, there’s a really good reason why a bunch of lifers would be in space.) Bad girls doing hard time in outer space, with a female warden who suddenly goes a bit… cuckoo. I love this story because it’s actually got a real heart to it… it has possibly my favorite couple I’ve ever written, and there’s a kiss scene that I just adore. And of course scenes with stuff like a dildo covered in broken glass. Because, hey, this series is WHY the Comics Code was invented. Then we go very dark with the rape-revenge book, where truly horrible things happen to a teenage girl… that’s going to be an interesting one to see the reaction to. Everything about that book is so thought out, so deliberate, from the art styles to the saturation levels. It’s not exactly a topic I ran to with delight (unlike, say, sexy alien bee invaders) but with so much discussion of the trivialization of rape in comics and how some writers basically use it as a shorthand for “villain” or character actualisation, and with it being such a small (in terms of number of films) but influential subgenre of grindhouse, I felt I had to write this. So I was a bit like, fuck you, I”ll roll up my sleeves and show you all how you do this subject. But, y’know, TRIGGER WARNING. The final story is my teenage girl gang films, based around girls I would see zipping around my local university over the summer, with their field hockey sticks, mopeds, and mirrored ray-bans. I was like, these girls would be the most excellent girl gang ever! So it’s a bunch of girls at a field hockey camp in upstate NY, where fracking releases a trapped demonic entity who wishes to feed on them all.
Just between you, me and everyone reading this… you totally have a Grindhouse version of My Little Pony sitting around, don’t you?
What, GRINDHORSE? Sadly not. But Carla does have sketches of Walter White as a pony, and Jaeger from Finder as a pony…