The Story of Amelia Earhart Retold in Graphic Novel
Derry~Londonderry's Joe Campbell retells the aviator's story in comic book form. 'These stories can now emerge'
When I was a boy I read comics. The Beezer, The Dandy, and The Beano, of course, but my favourites were The Victor and The Valiant.
They had characters like Alf Tupper, the Tough of the Track, who won races in borrowed pumps and on a diet of fish and chips. Then there was Captain Hurricane, who could capture an entire Japanese machine gun nest by himself, often using only his bare hands.
There were also true stories in the comics that I read. Stories of Francis Drake circumnavigating the globe, or Nelson dying in Hardy’s arms, or General Wolfe scaling the Heights of Abraham to defeat the French. The stories were simplified and often biased and politically incorrect, encouraging as they did a sense of imperial might and legacy.
But the medium was magic. A comic – or, nowadays, a graphic novel – is the perfect medium for stories of heroes and daring and derring-do. Jaws can be chiselled, eyes can be steely and glinting, and thoughts and words can be captured in bubbles. A comic is fast-acting and evocative, but the picture is still, so it lingers.
On a crowded shelf in Foyle Books, in Derry~Londonderry’s Craft Village, there sits a pile of copies of The Story of Amelia Earhart, The First Woman to Fly Solo across the Atlantic. They’re gathering dust. It's a shame, because it is a delightful book, which would bring pleasure and wonder to any child who read it, and probably evoke happy memories for any adult.
But it’s an important book too. The story is written by Felicity McCall, and the artwork is by Joe Campbell. Campbell is 55-years-old and has lived in Derry all his life. As a young boy he lived close to the quayside, and remembers containers being unloaded and ships leaving the Foyle.
He also remembers reading the same comics as I did, and loved without judgement or realisation the stories of battling marines and intrepid Spitfire pilots. He lived through the entirety of the Troubles. Like many boys, he copied the pictures he saw in the comics, but unlike many others, he saw a talent for and a love of art emerge. The thought of a career as an artist was quickly crushed from within, however.
'The Troubles beat that out of me,' Campbell admits ruefully. 'I couldn’t see myself pursuing a career in the arts while the whole city was going to hell in a handcart.' The landscapes he painted in the fields around the city sat uncomfortably with the scenes of destruction he saw daily within it.
But he has never left Derry. 'Going away always felt like it would be permanent.' And he anticipated a feeling of guilt too, at the thought of leaving a city that needed people to work for it, rather than desert it.
Committing to Derry has brought sadnesses at times. Campbell has seen his work – including stylish Caravaggio copies – on public display in bars around the city; and he has seen those works burned and destroyed along with the buildings, casualties of the Troubles, still lives lost.
Committing to Derry has, however, seen Campbell installed as artist-in-residence at Greater Shantallow Community Arts. It was as such that he produced his book about Amelia Earhart in 2007. The book is important not simply because of the heroic story it tells, but because of where it comes from. It’s a Derry story that doesn’t involve the Troubles.
As Campbell himself says, 'These stories can now emerge.' They can tell of a Derry that the rest of the world might not recognise, and they can connect Derry with the rest of the world, after too many years during which the city has felt a sense of exclusion. 'We need to join the human race,' Campbell asserts. 'We have to become part of things.'
The means of the book’s production is key also. Digital technology means a democratisation of the artistic process. An artist doesn’t have to go begging for patronage or sponsorship if he or she has access to technology. Campbell works from photographs he takes himself, then draws from the pictures to produce natural but stylised images for the graphic books he creates in Shantallow.
As artist-in-residence, he can show others the same processes, and encourage their artistic expressions and aspirations. He is keen to stress the need for the people of the city to become integral parts of its future, rather than bystanders. 'If Derry wants to become a beautiful place, a cultural centre, the people must make it happen.' He talks of Florence in the 15th century, when the citizens were all expected to contribute to the development of the city.
To mark this year’s Earhart Festival, which ran in Derry from May 18 – 26, a second edition of Campbell’s book was produced. Published by Derry's own Uproar Comics, and glossier than the first edition, it includes A Day in May, a collation of eye-witness accounts of Earhart's dramatic landing in Gallagher’s Field on the outskirts of Derry.
The first edition was remarkable for its use of colour – especially in illustrating the affectionate nickname that Earhart gave to her plane, the Little Red Bus. The new edition’s graphics, however, are all in black-and-white, which arguably heightens the drama and tension of the story, as well as its timelessness.
The lone heroine, battling against the odds and the elements, armed only with her courage, is captured completely by the boxed images. And the thought bubbles are wonderful. 'That does it! Paris is out! I just need to find an airstrip and put this crate down!' Earhart thinks as her aircraft teeters above the Northern Irish landscape. It’s so innocent and intrepid and pure.
2013 has been a landmark year for Campbell. He also exhibited another work as part of the Earhart Festival, Distant Fields, in a spectacular presentation of probably the world’s biggest comic book at Shantallow Library. The huge comic strip is currently on show in Derry's London Street Gallery until June 8.
Distant Fields tells a ghostly tale and is based on the true story of three brothers who fought in World War One. The brothers were from Derry and were Roman Catholic. The detail looks to break down barriers of prejudice and assumption that exist to this day, but it isn’t the key point. Like the Earhart story, it is universal, and tells of humanity, courage, fear, hope, and loss, and explores echoes of Derry’s past.
Those echoes will also be heard when Campbell’s next project comes to fruition. In this, he will turn to the recent past, to 'examine the mess that hasn’t been mopped up'. He plans to approach those of a similar age to him, people over 50, and invite each one to 'tell us your story'. Each narrative will then be turned into a small graphic book.
While some have described the comic book format as being too frivolous – particularly when it comes to telling true stories – the unusual choice of medium could work in Campbell's forthcoming projects favour, as it will perhaps surprise readers grown accustomed to books and newspapers and television.
In addition to his role as artist-in-residence, Campbell is also a Community Engagement Officer, liaising with the UK City of Culture 2013 organisers to ensure the development of events and projects in Greater Shantallow. He is also shrugging off the inhibitions that suppressed his own art as a young man, using a medium he fell in love with as a child.