A Brief History of Art:
Look. Look at me.
-The truest PFSC comic.
Pictures for Sad Children is a webcomic created by a person known as John Campbell* in 2007 and burned out in February of 2014.
The comic has a very distinct, simplistic art style with the character essentially being circle-headed blobs with stick arms, and a surreal and cynical sense of humor. There's an archive on imgur, as well in other places around the web if you look.
The first 226 strips focused on the story of a ghost named Paul and a guy named Gary. Despite being dead, Paul has nothing better to do than continue his boring day job and deal with his family. Gary, one of Paul's coworkers, also deals with work, life, and odd family members (who inexplicably have the collective power of Christ). Though following Paul and Gary and their weird aquaintences for the most part, the comic also threw in the occasional non-sequitur comic as well. The later strips dispensed with any kind of over-arcing story and were comprised of one-off random gags, with few recurring characters or plot elements. The world of PFSC is a weird, dystopian, magical-realism stew.
Some examples include:
- An institution that gives every individual a life-changing problem
- A baby that's the reincarnation of a character's college girlfriend
- Ominously positive words appearing on the moon
- Scientists discovering what causes gravity
The comic was a hit in the blooming "lol random" era of online surrealist humor, and its depressing tone was a hit with an increasingly disillusioned millennial fanbase. As far as webcomics go, it was one of the more successful ones, despite the niche content.
The Author - Prelude/Covering my Ass
So before the big drama, I feel I should address Campbell themselves.
First, let's be clear, nobody has any idea who the fuck Campbell is. It's been widely believed since the inception of the comic that John Campbell might've been a pen-name, but it was the one the author used in all auspices connected to PFSC, including live appearances. After 2014, Campbell has deleted their website and social media accounts, so all we have left from the before-times are a few articles, deleted tumblr posts (that still show up on the website), and the Kickstarter.
For all the comic run right up until the implosion, Campbell referred to themselves as a "white cis dude". Then, in the Kickstarter post, while arguing with strawmen, they drop the line:
"You are a damn idiot, what are you going to change Mr. Internet Man
First of all I’m not a "man” I think—
Oh my goddddd oh my goddd shutuuuuupppppp"
This has led tomuch butthurt with people trying to figure out the correct pronouns. Not helped was the fact that someone going by Merry Graves popped in from the aether defending Campbell's gender-change across several platforms, leading many to believe that she and Campbell were the same person and that Merry Graves was Campbell's new name, a supposition fueled also by Merry's writing style, which was similar to Campbell's.
However, Merry specifically denied this in a now-deleted post, though she denies it in the most unconvincing way possible. Merry's entire Tumblr page has been defunct for several years, and all posts related to Campbell and PFSC have been deleted, as have most of Merry's other social media accounts. Somewhere, someone dropped the name Janet Harbinger in connection to John Campbell, indicating that this may be their new name, but all records of this have been lost and the only place where the name Janet Harbinger pops up is on a couple of Tumblr blogs which don't appear to have any connection to Campbell or Graves, and the TVTropes page, which was edited numerous times by people trying to figure out what to put as the artist's name (including, at one point, listing Merry Graves as the artist).
If it feels like I'm putting an undue amount of attention on Campbell's gender and identity, it's because I am. Because neither the name Merry Graves or Janet Harbinger have any evidence of being Campbell's preferred name, I will continue to refer to Campbell as Campbell for the remainder of this node. If someone digs up an archive of Harbinger or Graves coming forward and claiming to be the artist, I will gladly edit this. But, seeing as Campbell was the name under which the comic was published, and the only name I've got attached to the comic in any concrete way, that's the one I'm sticking with.
Okay, we good? Let's continue.
The Actual Drama
Sometime in 2009, Campbell, seeing the popularity of the comic, starts talking about selling physical books. In 2012, Campbell starts a Kickstarter with a goal of 8,000$
Campbell got over 50k. 51,615, to be specific, donated by 1073 backers as of May 26, 2012. The backer rewards were expected to be sent out by July of 2012.
Things get off to an odd start when, in the first update, Campbell says that they were hit by a ghost train that destroyed their computer, and that also they have decided to redo the entire book. Whether they actually redid the book, or if this was meant to be a humorous explanation for the ongoing delays isn't clear, but either way, the comments from backers are mostly supportive, making jokes about ghost trains. In the comments section of the updates, Campbell assures backers that a survey will be sent out when books are ready to ship.
The next update was also off-beat, and caused more of a stir when it came out. In the post titled "I'VE BEEN PRETENDING TO BE DEPRESSED FOR PROFIT AND I'M SORRY", Campbell confesses that they have been pretending to be depressed in order to be a trendy artist. They also accuse several other webcomic artists of also faking depression, and imply that every artist is, to some extent, faking mental health issues in order to be sympathetic, mysterious, or otherwise cool. As can be seen in the comments of the post, the fans on kickstarter, for the most part, assumed this was more satire. However, the post kicked up a storm on social media (twitter and Tumblr specifically), especially as other webcomic artists and mental health advocates who may have been less familiar with Campbell's work assumed the post was serious and took offense.
Following that post came another, "I'VE BEEN PRETENDING TO BE PRETENDING TO HAVE DEPRESSION FOR PROFIT AND I'M SORRY" which cemented that the previous post was satire. Again, the post was mostly well-received by the Kickstarter backers. And in May 27, Campbell continued to fuck around with his backers, announcing that the books would be ready to ship . . . in 2012, the previous year.
As late as October 25 some orders were still being filled. However, in that update, Campbell admits that the money from the Kickstarter was gone, and they ask fans for direct paypal donations to pay for their shipping.
The reason the money was gone? Well, we don't have receipts or anything, but people speculated it could be because of the dead wasps.
Oh yeah, for every book being sent out, Campbell included a dead wasp.
The prevailing theory is that Campbell got the books all printed out and nice, bought a shitton of dead wasps to go with them, then ran out of money to actually ship the books.
There were multiple updates after that, all of which are "backers only," so I cannot see them, but they have titles like "Thank you for buying things" and "$35 BACKERS HELP MAKE THIS END" so we can assume it's more shipping related issues and general Kickstarter progress reports.
Then, on February 27, 2014, it happens. John Campbell lost their goddamned mind.
The first thing of note is the video of a pile of burning books. 127 books, if Campbell's accompanying post is to be believed. One book for every email they received of someone asking for information regarding the whereabouts of their book. In the post they state:
"I shipped about 75% of kickstarter rewards to backers. I will not be shipping any more. I will not be issuing any refunds. For every message I receive about this book through e-mail, social media or any other means, I will burn another book."
They also uploaded a five thousand word screed on the shittiness of capitalism, how poor they were (complete with screencaps of their checking and paypal account balances), how they hated living in a society that expects artists to produce things for a living, and how everyone demanding anything from them is a wealthy white man. Campbell also admits to using kickstarter funds for paying off their student debt, starting a retirement account (which they later tap out), and having to fall back on money the got for selling original, physical comic strips. Campbell says how they've refunded many of the orders and no longer have money to initiate refunds.
"If you would like a refund, please contact a fan of my work directly for your money. This is where the money would come from anyway. I am cutting out the middle man.
I refunded some of the preorders I received through paypal in addition to the kickstarter orders, but I will not be refunding any more.
The backers who gave me the most money received the least "reward" from me. After shipping costs, I "lost money" on most of the books I sold at the $25 level so, backers at the higher levels, you could perceive of yourselves as having “paid for” the books that the “lower” backers currently have, and you could try to get those books that you “paid for" somehow.
You could try to obtain refunds through kickstarter or paypal, through your bank or credit card company. You could try to harass me or inconvenience me or tell other people negative things about me or this kickstarter in the hope that this will affect me negatively. Be aware that each attempt to contact me about this book will individually result in the burning of a book until the books are gone."
Other choice quotes include:
The $75 backers for this project, the highest reward tier, I mean except for the higher reward tiers, so the highest reward tier except for the gap and then the highest reward tiers, well the $75 people are very, very insistent that I not ever forget that they are in the $75 reward tier. They bought the first-class ticket! They are the ones whose tone has gotten the most stern and legal, and they are the ones who consistently mention what reward tier they are in. I can’t help but feel if I had charged other people more money, they would believe, for some reason, that I owed them less. If the tiers had started at $50 and ended at $125, those same people who spent the same amount of money would feel differently about what was happening. Messages from them would be calmer and friendlier, and the stern legality would come from the $125 backers. From my perspective money seems like a messy joke and who is taking this shit seriously get me away from them.
I will not be responsible for the manufacture of any more unnecessary physical objects. The natural world is being destroyed by unnecessary production.
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.
They end the post by saying:
I do not feel a pressing need to establish a form of income right now, but I would be interested in reading ideas about money and I’d love to hear that there are people interested in meeting another person’s needs directly with no hope for reward of any kind. I’d love to read intelligent thoughts about any of these things posted publicly. It’s okay if that’s not how things go. I am trying to figure out what kind of world I live in and what is possible within it, whatever happens I will try to learn from it.
I stopped reading my kickstarter messages in January. I may not log into kickstarter again, I don’t know if I’ll read the comments on this post. If I get a lot of emails I will delete my email address. I’m not sure where I’ll post next or when or what I’ll say or what will have happened, but I look forward to it.
Most people recognized that Campbell was clearly having a mental breakdown. There are mentions in the It's Over post about them getting off their depression medication, and a lot of the language in the post can be interpreted Campbell feeling pressured and cracking under the strain-- something likely not helped by their admitted and increasing use of DMT. This was also the post where Campbell came out as transgender (or possibly nonbinary), so gender dysphoria likely also had a part in the breakdown as well. While a surprising number of Kickstarter backers were more concerned than angry, plenty of people were still rightfully upset.
Campbell then went on to try and erase every bit of themselves from the internet. Interviews with Campbell on other websites were taken down and the original PFSC website was taken down and expunged from the Waybackmachine. It reappeared briefly in 2016, but was then taken down again, and the domain appears to be for sale.
Some of the Kickstarter backers who had managed to get the book began uploading scans of the comics, while others cobbled together what strips they'd managed to save and the archive was born.
For the Kickstarter itself, Max Temkin, the creator of Cards Against Humanity, stepped in and took over the project. After talking with Campbell, he went to Campbell's place and picked up the remaining 100 unburnt books and paid out of pocket to deliver them to backers who didn't receive their books. The final update on the Kickstarter page is Max letting everyone know that there was just enough books for all the backers who responded to the Kickstarter survey to get one, and that they were finally shipped.
The date it finally ended was July 17, 2014, two full years after the initial estimated delivery date.
Aside from the aforementioned brief appearance and subsequent disappearance in 2016, John Campbell hasn't been seen since (at least not in any recognizable form), and Pictures for Sad Children only exists in the form of fan-distributed archives.