In 2007 John Campbell created perhaps the best webcomic ever to grace this collective toilet we call the Internet. It starred a ghost called Paul (until, one day, it didn’t) and featured a cast of miserable characters living pointless lives in a sort of dreamy magical-realist haze. Gary, for example, was a graduate student working in a call centre that handles overflow for Indian call centres. He had no real problems, except that his life was meaningless, and yet he suffered. And all of this was hilarious.
This comic went on for some time, with an air of quiet desperation. John Campbell became fairly well-known amongst the webcomirati; I remember one rather hilarious comic-off he had with the legendary Kate Beaton, over whether she could make a funny comic about Abraham Lincoln before he could make a bleakly depressing one. He had a book with a special compartment containing a dead wasp. He had a number of side-projects, including a documentary of his experiences of taking DMT.
In the first half of 2012, John Campbell created a Kickstarter for a second collection of his comics, called sad pictures for chldren. By any normal standards, this was a complete success; of his $8,000 goal, Campbell raised $51,615 – all in one month. The completion and delivery of the book, on the other hand, dragged on and on.
Over the course of a few days in September, John Campbell posted three updates to his Kickstarter page: I’ve been pretending to be depressed for profit and I’m sorry, I’ve been pretending to be pretending to have depression for profit and I’m sorry, and It is impossible to pretend to do or say anything and my comics have never been about depression. More than any of the individual comics floating out on the Internet, these three updates are probably the best summary of the feel of Picture For Sad Children still in existence.
On 3rd January 2013, John Campbell announced his webcomic biography of the actor Michael Keaton, at michaelkeaton.net. (The only part of this website still operational is a review of the game Horse Master.
The decisions you’ve made seem desperate. Why are you desperate? If you fail to become a Horse Master, what is left for you? Will it confirm what you know? You’re supposed to be something you can never be. How is that possible? People will judge the results of your careful horse development and training. Will they find your horse work lacking? Your father was not found lacking. He built a Horse Master legacy, though not one strong enough to spare you from the risk of failure.
How can you risk so much when you know what the outcome will be? No matter what happens, what trials, what victories you go through, it will still be you and your horse emerging on the other side.
And you are no Horse Master.
The importance of this will soon become self-evident.)
michaelkeaton.net began with the conception of Michael Douglas, followed shortly by the immediate aftermath of his birth on 5th September 1951, where the doctor and his mother each drop him several times. This was a comic except when it wasn’t: there were several instances of out-of-context clips from Michael Keaton’s career scattered throughout. It followed a fictionalised version of Michael Keaton’s life, except when it didn’t: there was a lengthy digression describing the lives of three fish who lived in a lake where Michael Keaton once went fishing, including a psychedelic sequence as one of the fish was caught by Keaton. We learn why he changed his name from Michael Douglas to Michael Keaton – that is, because Michael Douglas beat him up with the words ‘I’m the actor Michael Douglas. You’re not fucking Michael Douglas’ upon finding out that Keaton had moved to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. We learned of Michael Keaton’s early job of working on Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, a children’s TV program. This was a magical realist biography; it ended with Michael Keaton taking on his most famous role – Batman, in the 1989 film Batman, which has overshadowed everything he did before or since in the public mind – in a looping sequence of Keaton flying to England for filming and ‘becoming Batman’ and flying back and having one of a handful of conversations with his wife and then flying to England and ‘becoming Batman’ and there was no definite end to the comic, just this semi-random, inescapable circle.
On 27th August 2014, Birdman premièred at the Venice International Film Festival. In this film Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, who decades previously played the superhero Birdman in the Birdman films, a role which has overshadowed everything he’s done before or since. Thomson hopes to escape from this conceptual black hole by writing, directing and starring in a ‘respectable’ stage production on Broadway, but is literally haunted by Birdman (also played by Keaton).
On 27th February 2014, after months of delays in delivering his books, John Campbell posted an update to his Kickstarter titled ‘It’s over’, starting with a video in which he burned 127 copies of his book – one for each email he had received complaining about the lateness of their delivery. The text of the update was essentially a screed against capitalism, and money, and the idea that people need to be useful or productive in order to be worthy of survival and comfort. It reads like a Tumblr-tinged anarcho-communist manifesto. It’s hard to decide whether it’s bold or a public breakdown (or, possibly, both). Whatever it is, it’s worth reading for yourself.
If you have been skimming this to get the “gist” of it, it is not going to work in my opinion. If you are reading this to summarize it for someone else, please fuck yourself instead if possible.
In the wake of this, John Campbell deleted Pictures For Sad Children, michaelkeaton.net, and his blog. All that’s left of his work are a few scraps on Google Image Search and webcomic review sites.
You’re doing a play based on a book that was written 60 years ago, for a thousand rich old white people whose only real concern is gonna be where they go to have their cake and coffee when it’s over. And let’s face it, Dad, it’s not for the sake of art. It’s because you want to feel relevant again. … You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.
Riggan Thomson doesn’t have a great relationship with his daughter. Or with anyone else, for that matter: he had too much success and it’s poisoned him and he’s trying to expel that poison. He’s trying to do something that he sees as ‘meaningful’, as opposed to the ‘meaningless’ celebrity he gained from being a superhero, but in the end the pointless rich people who go to the big theatres and determine what shows get to run love gimmicks just as much as the movie-going audience do. They love blood. They love action.
I’m certainly not the only one to notice similarities between John Campbell’s work and Birdman. The official website for the movie is birdmanthemovie.com, but in my opinion you should visit the much superior birdmanthefilm.com. Presented as the official promotional website for the film, it in fact contains much of michaelkeaton.net – plus plenty of new material, including a very odd story about Courtney Cox (‘when she’s upset about something an exact duplicate of it appears nearby’). Oddly, it doesn’t appear to feature the ‘become Batman’ section of the comic.
The most striking thing about this isn’t the site itself, but the fact that it so perfectly fits in with the aesthetic of the Birdman film: you can quite easily believe that Birdman is a sequel to Pictures For Sad Children. I mean, just look at the opening of the movie and then have another look at the DMT website:
Was Alejandro González Iñárritu a fan of Pictures For Sad Children? Has he ever talked to John Campbell? Are they, perhaps, the same person? Or is it simply a coincidence – it’s not such a surprise that, given the superhero bubble Hollywood is currently undergoing, two artists would become interested in the man who played the first successful big-screen superhero.
Whatever the answer, whether there’s a direct link between the work of John Campbell and Birdman or not, one thing is sure: this is an excellent film. No matter how hard it tries to tell its audience that they’re a bunch of snobs who simply replace explosions with the sort of meta-fictional nonsense along the lines of casting Michael Keaton as the protagonist in this film, no matter how much it tells critics to fuck off, it still shines magnificently. Riggan Thomson is a millionaire with several houses and no problems except that he doesn’t feel special enough. Sam Thomson is a child of privilege with no problems except her own boredom. And yet they suffer. And all of this is hilarious.