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