Pictures for Sad Children: the rise and fall of John Campbell

Article – by Morgan Thistlethwaite

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The story behind Pictures for Sad Children is contentious. Was the Kickstarter scheme that raised more than USD$50,000 merely a hoodwink to swindle fans, or is John Campbell’s very public fall from grace merely the sum of the facts presented?

I first discovered Campbell’s webcomic in 2012, and like many, I became a little obsessed with it. So drawn in was I by the strip and its absurdist tone that, when I learned that I had five years of content to catch up on, I was like a little kid in a candy store (albeit, a little kid with some kind of ongoing mental condition).

Not unlike many other comics I had discovered, Campbell’s comic was captivating. But unlike those other comics, it was not for its artwork, colours, or even laugh-out-loud humour that I am often so fond of. No, Pictures for Sad Children stood out because it was precisely none of these things.

The characters were little more than stick figures, the colour scheme consisted of grey in a variety of hues, and its humour was far more contemplative and underplayed than, “Ha! That’s a funny one right there.”

Elegant in its minimalism, Campbell’s comic spoke to me (and many others) about depression and anxiety—dual conditions I deal with to varying degrees on a regular basis.

Campbell began the comic in 2007 and after five years, it had made quite an impact. You might even think that there was enough content to publish a printed collection. It turns out, in 2009, that’s exactly what Campbell did and it was met with some success. So much so, that in 2012, Campbell set up a Kickstarter campaign to release the follow-up, Sad Pictures for Children.

Campbell planned to raise USD$8,000 to publish and distribute 2000 copies of the 200-page hardcover collection. The campaign raised USD$51,615 in pledges.

In hindsight, perhaps the way this story ends is not all that surprising.

These are the facts as we know them:

May 26, 2012:

1,073 backers pledged $51,615 to Campbell’s Kickstarter campaign.

September 20, 2012:

Campbell posts this update on Kickstarter stating that they’ve been “pretending to be depressed for profit”.

September 22, 2012:

Campbell retracts prior statement with this one stating that they were “pretending to pretend to be depressed”.

October 25, 2013:

Campbell states that shipping has been delayed due to running out of money.

February 28, 2014:

Campbell posts this update stating that 75% of the Kickstarter rewards were met but no further books will be shipped. There is an accompanying video showing boxes of unsent books being burnt.


Since this update, all content on the website has been removed and any trace of John Campbell has disappeared from the internet.

Following Campbell’s online disappearance, a fellow artist and friend of Campbell was able to retrieve the surviving books (about 100 in total) and distribute them to backers still in need of a delivered product.

For anyone looking for remnants of the webcomic, it may still be out there if you can find it, but as these articles (How to disappear completely from the internet, Book burning, webcomics, and the fate of Pictures for Sad Children) can attest, Campbell has done a pretty good job of removing all traces.

Whatever the real story is here, I think it’s worth looking at the big picture. At the end of the day, John Campbell found success doing something they loved doing. Starting out, it’s easy to play the game your own way with little to no regard for what others might think. Success can come at any moment and if you’re not ready for it (mentally or emotionally), you may just find that you’re not be equipped to deal with it. But then, only you can know this and you won’t really know until it happens.

I guess, just look after yourself and only give what you can live without.

7 Comments

  1. It’s a pity. He had/has so much potential, to see so much destroyed in an act of needless self sabotage is so depressing. So few people could accomplish so much as to be able to destroy so much of their work and themselves. I hope he gets better, finds another outlet for his creativity and gets at whatever drove him to this.

  2. The way they handled all of this will always be an inspiration to me. Rich people will always take and take. That is how they get rich. But their success is celebrated. Being rich comes at the expense of others. They can afford to lose $75 and not have a book, because they could afford to spend $75 to support an artist. I have been stiffed well over that, as an artist, and can do nothing about it. But the rich feel entitled and powerful to fight for that entitlement. When I am stiffed I feel powerless, and fighting would further ruin me.

    What this artist did was not self sabotage. It was not pathological. It was fighting back against that entitlement in a desperate act for freedom, using the only leverage available.

    This of the book burning as performance art if you must, because you always demand from artists. We must perform, create product, for you specifically. Disregard the fact that you wouldn’t have asked for product if you hadn’t consumed free art from us long enough to get invested.

    I stopped creating art because it wasn’t healthy for me to have to market it. My art is wonderful, people loved it. I should have been able to live a simple life. My goal growing up was to be a starving artist, but I had trouble even affording supplies, let alone the supplies, skills, tools, space, and transportation to market and sell it. And then, people would commission work and not pay because they didn’t end up using it? Like, they didn’t bother to pick it up from the post office so…?

    So now, I’m back in school to study science, and it is clear that money isn’t real, because rich foundations just give me money on speculation that I’m a good long term investment. That I will make discoveries and inventions that bring them profit eventually.

    So sometimes I like to think about this act of defiance because it smooths my soul, and makes me smile. Someone got free, and it was spectacular.

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