In very early November 2003, I interviewed 28-year-old Portland cartoonist and illustrator Craig Thompson for my column in the Seattle alternative publication Tablet, Ink and Pixels. I’m running the transcript here in nine parts. Craig’s web site is here. He is published by Top Shelf.
In Part Four, the tape cut off just as we began to discuss the influence of turn-of the–century Austrian painter Gustav Klimt on Blankets. That, in turn, led to a discussion of Thompson’s interest in other artists from the fine-art world.
M: …and this time I’m going to leave it where I can look directly at the spindles.
Alright. Right, so you were in Paris, and you were looking at Rodin stuff, and you weren’t responding to it positively, but then as you grew into more maturity as an artist, it changed your experience looking at art back to where looking at art became a more religious experience again.
CT: Yes. So do I have to define this further?
M: No, I think that’s clear enough. Were you aware of this interregnum in Christian history that you know is called the Iconoclastic Controversy? Is that something that something that you came to the project with, already in your mind?
M: So, that’s also a new thing that I was noting that sorta has parallels?
M: Okay, the gist of it is basically what you outline in the book, that to create a representation of God’s work is sacreligious.
CT: Okay, yeah, well, yeah, I did know about that. I did know about the contrast between the more medieval art and the Renaissance, and the you know – yeah – the depictions being sort of idolatrous.
M: Right, exactly.
Now one of the things that’s interesting is that in the Eastern church, the rollback of that prohibition actually created an explicit exemption for icons. And the theology behind the use of icons in the Eastern church is that if you study the icon, and do it in a prayerful way the subject of the icon becomes transparent to your soul through the window of the icon, and in theory at least, you can have mystic experiences from this.
This is all real strange to Western-type theology[Ed. – this is a fascinating link exploring iconlogy from a sympathetic Protestant perspective], but what I understand of it, it isn’t in the Eastern church. In the sequence in Raina’s room, where the character of Craig is looking at Jesus and has that flashback to a negative time with his parents and then Jesus turns and smiles at him.
You appear to have depicted that exact thing.
Which I thought was interesting.
CT: [hushed] Yah.
M: Um, how much of that specific episode is storycraft, that you invented in order to illustrate your perceptions as an artist of what was going on, and how much of it is just straightforward narrative and recollection?
CT: Well, the painting of Jesus hanging by Kurt Cobain is authentic. And it was the same painting of Jesus – the generic kitsch image, that you know, mass produced – that was hanging in my parents’ room. So that’s authentic. The – Jesus turning around and smiling was more like a way to represent emotionally what was going on, a metaphor.
M: Sure. And I guess the other question I have about that specific little element is did she really have Kurt hangin’ next to Jesus like that?
M: [laughs] that’s awesome, that’s awesome. ‘Cause I remember just kinda looking at it and kinda chuckling, thinking it was like cartoonist’s wit, you know?
Um, all right now, when I’m looking at the drawing style that you have adopted, or is sort of organically your drawing style, uh, the strongest kind of comparison I see is with another kind of cartoonist who is also associated with trying to tell serious stories in a novelistic format, and that’s Eisner.
Is that someone you were specifically looking to in your doing this stuff?
CT: No, not at all, and I keep getting that comparison. And I have no problem with it, I find it flattering. But it’s funny, because I wasn’t looking at his work whatsoever.
M: It’s interesting – your ears are the same.
M: Yeah, they are almost identical. It’s really interesting.
Uh, he uh – one of the tings I thought was interesting about the Eisner comparison, is that his novels – I mean, you know, he came out of the whole forties time-period – his novels are quite brief, comparatively, to this. But he, he takes on pretty serious themes, you know, religious themes, and it’s interesting stuff.
Oh, here’s the comics question, I already asked that. Okay, so what – looking away from comics, uh, were there any authors like prose novel-writers that influenced you in the development of Blankets?
CT: Uh, I don’t know if it’s uh visible but the three that I was most inspired by while working on Blankets were uh Proust, – I read the entire Remembrance of Things Past while working on the book –
M:[excited] Oh yeah!
CT: And Nabokov, I was really obsessed with Nabokov, and Henry Miller. Kind of – at least the latter two are kind of a sexist bunch which is kind of funny. I mean, I remember after I was just obsessed with those three writers, for like a couple years there and then after I got out of that phase, like “Man, I gotta start reading female authors and stuff.”
Uh, but uh, those were my favorite authors at the time.
M: Wow, that’s really interesting.
Um, any earlier Russians besides Nabokov?
I mean, he’s sort of, not exactly Russian, not exactly American –
CT: Naw, I think of him as American.
CT: Um, no. Were you thinking of Dostoyevsky or someone?
M: Um, I don’t know.
[Ed. – Upon reflection: yes, I was thinking of the Big Three, in fact: Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, because of the mix of tender personal characterization, humor, and mysticism. Tolstoy may in fact be the particular antecedent, but of course all three influenced Proust as well.
An aside: who knew dead white guys could have such good web presence?]
I mean like the Nabokov and – the – somehow or other they relate to that tradition in my mind, and I’m more of an art historian and an art critic than I am a literary critic so, my background…
CT: I read uh like three biographies on Eric Gill at the time, he’s uh, an engraver?
M: Yeah, he’s the guy that made the typefaces.
CT: Yeah, that’s what he’s most well known for, is Gill typefaces. Yeah. Uh…
But he was also just a twisted little character. He had this awkward, uh, contrast of being a really devout religious man and also being a real perv. But I find his work really beautiful, a lot of his art – he would do both biblical themed engravings and woodblock prints and and also erotic prints.
M: Mm-hm, mm-hm.
CT: And I like the juxtaposition.
M: That’s interesting. I am gonna ask some questions that have to do with stuff like that a little bit later, I think. But uh, I’m glad to hear it’s something you’ve thought about. I was kinda “should I talk…I dunno.”
Now, Blankets presents itself as straightforward autobiography, right? I don’t know if you saw the thing in the Comics Journal a couple issues ago where Groth is all ranting about, “well, what are you gonna do with the form?” I don’t know if you saw it – it was kind of a controversial essay.
[Ed. – I was completely unable to back this up. I suspected the citation was in Groth’s somewhat controversial ‘Death of Criticism‘ bit in #254, but I couldn’t find it there. As I recall, the remarks essentially criticized some autobio or contemporary realist comics as lacking production discipline and ambition, the one negative trait reinforcing the other. I suppose it could even have been another writer. I’m sure it was in an ish of the CJ, though.]
CT: No, I didn’t – I…
M: It wasn’t directed at you – it was just the adoption of autobio as sort of like this characteristic form for people of uh – for people that are like younger than the Hernandezes, a lot of times, you know.
The other thing that happens in a lot of autobio like in, um, Peepshow for example or even to an extent in, uh, at least Pekar‘s earlier stuff – is it’s sort of about how alienated the cartoonist is from everything.
I thought that Blankets was just about the opposite; it was about being connected to everything. Is that something that you had consciously set out to explore?
CT: Well, the autobio part was definitely really reluctant. And like it wasn’t something that I thought – like – volunteered to some extent to do? I mean, obviously, I chose it, but I was like, not really keen on autobio comics, in some way I was doing one. But yeah, uh, part of my attitude towards a lot of alternative comics in general is that they have too much of a misanthropic quality. And uh, even though I have incredible respect for the cartoonists themselves, I felt a lot of their work wasn’t life-embracing.
So, there was a certain conscious response to that. Like, ‘Oh, stop making comics about, you know, how the fact that you make comics isolates you from everyone else.’
M: That’s right.
CT: There have been times when I – I really like Adrian Tomine‘s work, so I don’t want this to come off as insulting – but I remember reading a specific issue of Optic Nerve where I’m like, ‘Adrian, you need to stop making comics for a while and just like patch up a few things in your life and then come back.’ [laughs]
‘Cause I really felt like, you know, this is really bad for him.
M: Well, and this leads into the next part of that question…