FREQ #12: Sophie Campbell Wants More of Everything
Interview by Laura Hudson
While mainstream comic books have often been criticized for their hyper-idealized, objectifying and sometimes interchangeable drawings of women, the work of Sophie Campbell has often felt like an antidote: full of diverse, stylish and unmistakably distinct female characters. She made her name in the comics world with Wet Moon, a graphic novel series about a young queer woman growing up in a small Southern town, Shadoweyes, a sci-fi series with a shapeshifting female hero, and Glory, a relaunch of the ’90s superheroine that traded in the character’s swimsuit model physique for a muscular female physicality rarely seen on the page.
Campbell made her first big splash outside the comics world in 2015, when she was hired to redesign the classic ’80s cartoon Jem and the Holograms for a new comic book series. The cast reimagined by Campbell and writer Kelly Thompson has included gay, trans and fat characters, and Campbell herself came out as trans shortly after the release of the first issue. With her run on Jem behind her, Campbell is illustrating a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series and generally making the world of comics a more interesting and beautiful place. FREQ talked to Campbell about coming out, redesigning women and the complexity and importance of representing the underrepresented.
FREQ: You’ve been working in comics for a long time now, but it seemed like your redesigns and art for Jem and the Holograms put you in the spotlight in a whole new way — and just as you were coming out.
Sophie Campbell: That definitely put me on the map, so to speak. Suddenly, people were talking about me in a way that they hadn’t before — me on Jem and and me separate from Jem. People were doing news stories about me coming out, which was kind of weird. Only the first issue had come out, and I expected it to ruin the series. I was bracing myself for it to be career suicide, but it worked in the opposite way. I got this flood of offers and work from all these publishers! Now everybody wants me to be the token trans person on their panels! [laughs] It just worked out really well. All my editors have been amazing, my colleagues have been amazing, my fans have been great. There have been some gross people as well, that’s to be expected. But I thought everything was going to be in shambles and it’s really been the complete opposite of what I expected.
FREQ: One of the things that makes your comics stand out is the distinctiveness and diversity of your characters — not just in terms of gender but also race, sexual orientation and body type. What shaped your outlook on that?
SC: When I started my career, I wasn’t really thinking about it. It was just something I did, and it came naturally to me. I would look at all my friends and they would all be different, and I wanted to have some level of believability and realism in my stuff so it came from that. Also, it’s boring to draw the same bodies and faces all the time. I get bored. [laughs] There wasn’t a conversation happening about it at the time, and then as I went along and more people were talking about it, it made me more aware. I realized what I was doing, and I doubled down on it. It also made me more aware of my own shortcomings. I’d suddenly realize, oh, these two characters have the same face, or the same body! And I’d try to change it. Now I’m definitely super aware, and I realize both what it means to people and how it’s this default political statement, even though it’s what I’ve always been doing.
FREQ: It’s weird that the existence of people can be interpreted as a political statement.
SC: Yeah, it took me a while to understand that. It didn’t occur to me at first.
FREQ: When you set out to redesign the characters from Jem for the comic, how did you think about it?
SC: It was mostly me doing what I do and not thinking about what the powers that be were going to say. I looked at the clothing from the show and translated that to my own sense of fashion. I didn’t think too much about each character’s body type or face ahead of time. It was whatever I felt like drawing at that particular moment. I totally go with my gut. Sometimes with that approach I have to be careful, because maybe there’s unconscious biases infecting what I’m doing, which has happened to me in the past. So you have to be aware about it. But at the same time it’s very of the moment. Who is this character? What do I feel like drawing? And where that meets in the middle is the design.
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FREQ: How you do feel about representation and particularly trans representation in the comics world right now?
SC: It’s pretty abysmal. Maybe there’s something really amazing out there that I don’t know about yet, but I feel like the only time I hear about trans characters is the negative stuff. Sometimes I’ll hear about good stuff and I’ll check it out and it won’t speak to me at all. Of course, the things that I don’t like might speak to other people. I think now there’s definitely this broader conversation about it, and a lot of new creators coming into comics through webcomics, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. And even if there is a comic that someone [marginalized] could connect to, those kind of comics can be hard for people to find — they’re not always very visible. And if somebody doesn’t know about it, it’s not going to help them. If there’s some poor trans kid who feels alone, there could be stuff out there but they can’t access it.
FREQ: Do you get a lot of feedback from readers who see themselves in your work in a way they haven’t before?
SC: Since day one, that’s been a thing. People really relate to Cleo from Wet Moon, that’s a big one. They tell me how much the characters mean to them or my how my work helped them through bad times. It’s really great. It doesn’t get better than that. But I kind of envy these fans who write me about how they really identify with my characters. I wish I could have that. I’m still hoping that I’ll read a comic and see one that really speaks to me on some level. I tend to gravitate towards misfits or monster-y characters like the Ninja Turtles, so I’m always on the lookout for characters like that.
FREQ: Have you thought about creating the trans character you’ve always wanted to see in your own work?
SC: Maybe when I get over the shellshock of the Blaze reaction. When Blaze [came out as trans] in issue 12 [of Jem], there was a huge backlash towards that because her narrative wasn’t perfect. I wanted it to be kind of messy, but some people hated it. Not that those criticisms aren’t valid. I definitely paid attention to them and took them to heart. But if there were more of everything, Blaze wouldn’t be so in the spotlight. I think doing it in [creator-owned] work rather than a licensed comic would be better. Then I can have five trans characters, and one could have a shitty coming out story, and the others don’t have to. But I don’t think I will ever try to get a trans character into a licensed thing again.
I don’t know what the answer is except more everything. Now, if there’s a trans character or disabled character, so much weight is placed on those particular characters because there’s not enough of them. I kind of want queer characters in shitty movies, because straight people, white cis het people, get to be in shitty movies all the time. They get good and shitty superhero comics, they get that leeway to be good or bad. And there isn’t that leeway for everybody else.
And the trick is just more, because then one representation won’t have the weight of a thousand representations on it. More everything, that’s my motto.
FREQ: You’ve dealt with a lot of criticism of your work on Jem coming from a lot of different directions. How do you sort through what to disregard and what to take to heart?
SC: There were a lot of people who hated what I was doing [on Jem] at first, but I just got stubborn and that negative stuff made me double down on it. Jem fans who said, “Why are there gay people in this?” — that sort of negative comment only makes me feel stronger. But then there’s criticism that makes me take a second look. It’s always good to have reactions that make you think again about what you’re doing, and reactions outside your circle that you weren’t expecting, as long as they’re constructive. Doing something so personal and having this character with issues that are really similar to my own issues and having it ripped to shreds was kind of a sobering experience. It was a trial by fire, but also a learning experience, and in that sense I’m glad it happened. I came out the other side as a better creator.
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