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Sonoma native, New Yorker cartoonist debuts graphic memoir ‘Murder Book’

IF YOU GO

What: “Murder Book” release party with author and New Yorker cartoonist Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell

When: 5 - 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 28

Where: Roche Winery’s Plaza Tasting Room, 122 W. Spain St., Sonoma

Cost: Free. Copies of the book are available for $19.99

When Sonoma native Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell was 7 years old, she’d sit with her cousins at their bake sales and try to peddle — unsuccessfully — her cartoons of dogs and horses.

“I couldn’t believe no one would buy my cartoons,” Campbell said, laughing as she remembered her first experience as a struggling artist.

The New Yorker cartoonist, who was fixated on drawing Charles Schulz’s Snoopy as a little girl, will celebrate the release of her debut graphic memoir, “Murder Book,” Sunday with a book signing at Roche Winery’s tasting room in downtown Sonoma.

The unconventional memoir teases out the dark-humor aspects of murder, from our fascination with true crime TV, while also empathizing with murder victims.

“It’s walking a fine line, laughing at murder, but it’s in no way laughing at victims,” Campbell said. “It’s laughing at the genre. … True crime is like horrible gossip. It’s the feeling you get when you can’t walk away from a car crash. You want to see and know more.”

Asked why she’s personally captivated by crime, the artist weaned on episodes of “Law & Order” and “Forensic Files” said, “That’s what I tried to figure out in the book. My mom and I sit around talking about murder 24/7, so there’s that.”

Sleuthing, Campbell figures, is in her genes. Her mother, Laurie Campbell, is obsessed with crime stories, as was her grandmother, Courtney Vaughan, and her great-grandmother, Annabel Sprague.

After reading studies by psychologists, Campbell concluded there’s something “inherently female” about this obsession with crime.

“Women are potentially more empathetic than men,” she said. “Women watching the news think the victim could easily be them. A, they want to figure out the puzzle piece. The human brain loves a puzzle. And B, they ask themselves, ‘What can I do so this doesn’t happen to me?’”

Some grouse that we consume too much crime, as we’re deluged with morbid details from the Internet, news stories, podcasts, documentaries and crime shows, Campbell said. But, she argued, “People have been hearing about crime stories since the dawn of time.”

But why the humorous approach?

“I wanted to write this book as a conversation,” Campbell said. “That’s what comedy is. We make jokes about something uncomfortable for comic relief.”

The author knows her graphic memoir won’t speak to everyone, but she expects it to appeal to unapologetic true crime junkies who find books like “The Stranger Beside Me” gasp-worthy, both horrifying and fascinating. Written by the late Ann Rule, the book details Rule’s personal relationship with infamous serial killer Ted Bundy.

“My mom has every Ann Rule book in the house,” Campbell said. “And ‘Law & Order’ was a pillar in our household. When I’m watching ‘Law & Order,’ I feel like I’m home. It’s really morbid, but there’s a strange comfort in crawling in bed and watching some horrible true crime.”

The Charles Schulz connection

When Campbell was a kid, a sketch of Charles Schulz’s Snoopy hung in the hallway of her Sonoma home, a gift from Schulz to her mother. Campbell’s grandfather, the late Daniel Vaughan, was Schulz’s golfing buddy.

“I wanted to draw Snoopy just like him (Charles Schulz),” Campbell said. “My mom had me in every art class she could find growing up. My mom put me in cartoon classes. I didn’t know I wanted to be a cartoonist, but if you look at it when I was 5, it was in the stars.”

The precocious cartoonist jokes that her humor was honed by the tribe in her cul-de-sac.

“Everyone was terribly witty and not afraid to make jokes,” Campbell said of her neighbors, an amusing cross section of people. They included a doctor, a fireman, a NASA scientist, a restaurant owner, a pilot and a crass nun who changed professions, finding teaching more suitable.

“Everyone was walking in each other’s doors,” Campbell said. “It was like I had five sets of parents.”

The cul-de-sac and its cast of characters became Campbell’s lens; she began to see humor everywhere.

“When you’re a kid, you think (humor is) normal. But realizing others didn’t have it, you realize how special it was,” she said. “I realize now I’d like to be there half the time. I wish it could be preserved there in my mind forever.”

The New Yorker cartoonist

“Like a little cat, I was looking in the office of the New Yorker,” Campbell remembered of her first visit to the storied magazine that features in-depth journalism alongside social-commentary cartoons.

“I was so nervous. I walked in and handed my cartoons to Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor. I was shaking in my boots. He said, ‘Don’t come back until you’ve done a thousand of these.’”

IF YOU GO

What: “Murder Book” release party with author and New Yorker cartoonist Hilary Fitzgerald Campbell

When: 5 - 7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 28

Where: Roche Winery’s Plaza Tasting Room, 122 W. Spain St., Sonoma

Cost: Free. Copies of the book are available for $19.99

Campbell didn’t listen. She was back the next week with another batch to show him. Undeterred, she submitted cartoons every week for a full year. But she didn’t break through until Mankoff retired in 2017, making way for Emma Allen, his replacement.

The first cartoon Allen bought from Campbell was one she drew on the night of Donald Trump’s presidential win. The theme was “sad packaging” — in a pile of cardboard boxes is one that reads, “Do not bend. Trust me. I’ve tried.” In the mix is a poster tube with the words, “This is the side of me I didn’t want you to see” instead of “This side up.”

Campbell continues to pitch her work to the New Yorker weekly, with each cartoon earning the standard $700.

“As cartoonists, you have major droughts,” she said. “I’ll go months without selling a cartoon to the New Yorker. It’s not an easy game to play.”

When Campbell moved to Brooklyn seven years ago, she worked as a waitress and a nanny and sketched cartoons in her off-hours. But once she began illustrating books, she no longer had to moonlight.

Campbell once thought she was headed for a career in filmmaking, not sketching. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in film studies from UC Santa Barbara in 2013. One of her first attempts at low-budget filmmaking put her in the Indie limelight. She won the Woodcock jury prize for best short film at San Francisco Indiefest for her seven-minute black-and-white film “This is not the end.” For the short, Campbell asked her family members to display signs to identify themselves and their current situations, an honest look at struggle and joy that critics found stirring.

Moving to Los Angeles after college, Campbell said her accommodations were less than desirable. She rented a studio filled with cockroaches.

“I named them all,” she joked. “I’d turn the light on after work and the cockroaches would scatter.”

In Los Angeles, Campbell was an intern with Ed Helms, known for playing earnest and awkward paper salesman Andy Bernard in the NBC sitcom “The Office.” Another internship followed, this time in Park City, Utah, at Slamdance Film Festival, which she called “true indie filmmaking.” She became the manager, but in 2015 when Slam Dance wanted to promote her to director, she declined.

“I felt like I was on the wrong side of the table,” she said. “I’d see artists come and go, and I wanted to be doing what they were doing.”

With the release of “Murder Book,” Campbell finds herself on the right side of the table.

“In writing it, it just came out of me,” she said. “I have a dark sense of humor. It’s just who I am. I’m a bit of an oddball. This is definitely the book I was meant to write.”

Peg Melnik can be reached at peg.melnik@pressdemocrat.com or 707-521-5310.

Peg Melnik

Wine, The Press Democrat

Northern California is cradled in vines; it’s Wine County at its best in America. My job is to help you make the most of this intriguing, agrarian patch of civilization by inviting you to partake in the wine culture – the events, the bottlings and the fun. This is a space to explore wine, what you care about or don’t know about yet.

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