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 . Thompson won a Harvey Award for his debut, the fanciful, yet melancholy Goodbye, Chunky Rice, and two years later, in the summer of 2003, followed up with his remarkable 600-page graphic novel, Blankets.
I generally run the transcripts of interviews and conversations I have with comics creators here, and this is no exception. This conversation lasted about an hour and a half, and the transcript totals around 15,000 words; I’ve divided it into nine parts, which will run daily. Editorially, I’m formatting these for posting by attempting to include links as appropriate. In some cases, I followed up on remarks made in the conversation and have provided summaries of that research as editorial asides.
I have not materially edited Craig’s words, but in some cases I have edited my remarks for clarity and length.
M: Say a couple of words for posterity for me, Craig.
CT: Testing testing 123.
M: [laughs] there we go.
CT: I realized the last interview I participated in, I must’ve been mumbling, because the interpretation of a lot of the things I said came out really bizarre.
M: Well, I will try to be aware of that, and if I hear you’re mumbling, I’ll say, I’ll ask you to speak up.
CT: [ Exclaiming ] Stop mumbling!
M: And if you want, by the way I’ll try to … I’ll try to be like really transparent with this stuff. What I do with these interviews is they’ll be turned into the basis of a brief feature for Tablet here, which is a biweekly alternative newspaper. The feature itself is an 800 word column so it’ll be quite a brief piece. I usually include a capsule review of the most recent work by the person I’m interviewing, and then I publish transcripts of the interview, lightly edited like, for grammar and stuff on my blog.
Because of this transparency principle, if you would like a recording of the interview, or the transcripts, just let me know. I’ll be happy to give it to you.
M: So as I said, I do this column for Tablet . It’s called Ink and Pixels although, so far, it’s just been Ink. And what I’m trying to do with it, is provide coverage of independent comics, specifically that have to do with the Northwest. Although given Jeff Mason’s operation and his use of East Coast people, I try to include them as well. It seems to be working okay.
Initially when I started, I was asking a set of six questions. They’re the same questions to everyone, and the idea was to establish a baseline with these questions, that would be interesting to compare the answers eventually, like in twenty years. In the end that didn’t work out, and I’ve gone to do more in-depth interviews. But I still ask those same six questions and that’s what we’ll start with here today.
I’m very excited to talk to you because I thought Blankets was brilliant.
CT: That’s what I’m excited to see, the twenty years from now compilation.
M: Well, you know, I just recently interviewed Roberta Gregory, and she’s been cartooning for nearly thirty years now, so…
So, who is your favorite visual artist, not just comics, but in the whole world, visual artist?
CT: That’s going to take a moment. Okay, boy, I’m a bad list maker…
M: You don’t have to have performance anxiety, you can just name a bunch of them…
CT: Right off hand the first person that comes to mind is actually a cartoonist, Baudoin, Edmond Baudoin, the French cartoonist.
M: And what works has he done?
And I like Taro Yashima a lot, the Japanese illustrator that did childrens’ books back in the forties and fifties. And he also did some of the first graphic novels I’ve ever seen, about being thrown in uh Japanese concentration camps during, when, um, Communism.
[Ed. – I was unable to find an example of what Craig mentioned here.]
CT: I love Modigliani paintings a lot. But I like old paintings in general, older paintings.
Jim Henson, big influence.
M: Jim Henson! That’s interesting.
CT: One of my favorite visual artists. Jim Henson.
M: Let’s see now. I’m going to need you to spell the French cartoonist’s name for me I think.
CT: It’s B-A-U-D-O-I-N.
CT: B-A-U D as in dog O-I-N.
M: Okay. And has he ever been published in English?
[Ed.- Edmond Beaudoin’s web site may be seen here.]
CT: He hasn’t yet, what a disappointment.
M: What a disappointment. [jokingly] Hear that, Kim?
[Ed. – Kim Thompson, Fantagraphics big cheese #2, is notoriously knowledgeable about European cartoonists.]
CT: I’d be curious to hear what Kim thinks about that, actually.
M: Yeah, well, he – they tried to publish some other European – I actually have asked him about it before, and he gets kinda riled up. [laughs]
CT: Yeah well, he is responsible for translating that David B – Epileptic book, right?
M: Yeah, uh-huh. And he also did…
M: Yes, exactly.
CT: And I don’t know where that’s at right now, but I imagine Epileptic has been fairly successful.
M: Yeah, ya know, I don’t know. I talked – remember the financial crisis?
M: I talked to Kim during that period of time, during the week when they were, like, freaking out because everyone was coming through for them. First of all, they were rightfully cagey about talking to a journalist about what books they had overprinted. But it was clear that they’d made their business judgments based on their aesthetic desires, rather than what they were projecting.
But when I asked Kim about it, “Are you ever going to translate the Gaston books, for example?” because they had done a couple pages of translations of that 15 years ago, in like, Centrifugal Bumblepuppy.
[ Centrifugal Bumblepuppy was a short-lived anthology edited by the now-famed cartoon journalist Joe Sacco for Fantagraphics.]
M: And he really got kinda worked up. [laughs] “Man, we lost all this money on these projects, and I think the American audience just hates French cartoonists.” It was, you know, Fantagraphics grumpiness. It was kind of funny.
CT: I can’t imagine they hate this stuff. I mean I know American cartoonists have been very influenced by the French cartoonists.
M: Well, you know, it could just be that –
CT: Maybe they’re for cartoonists. Maybe they’re cartoonist’s cartoonists.
M: Yah, its hard to say. I mean like the Gaston books, when they translated them, they made Gaston – he speaks this really kind of colloquial French, and so they translated it so that he was like speaking this hillbilly English or something. And they printed it in black and white too, instead of using the nice color seps that come from the publishers in France.
[Ed. – I am aware this is impossible, anyway. I meant, essentially, it’s a shame they were in black and white.]
Which actually – it makes sense. I mean they – most of their stuff is in black and white, it was 15 years ago. I mean, it doesn’t look like a kids’ book, which I would think would limit their appeal. It’s an interesting topic. I hope to speak with Kim about it at greater length, when he’s in a more thoughtful mood.
Anyway, so back to the questions. I gotta watch this stuff, going off into comics minutia.
What’s the sexiest comic you’ve ever read?
CT: That would definitely be a Baudoin book. And since I haven’t officially – there’s only maybe two that I’ve gotten through – I don’t really speak or read French, only to a small degree, along with a dictionary –
CT: That would be Maus.
M: Be generic and say what?
M: Maus? Oh yeah.
CT: Um… or Jimmy Corrigan, that’s too easy too.
M: Well those are both comics that um…
CT: Those are big ones, those are big ones.
Pshooo. I guess I’ll stick with those!
M: Okay, fair enough, those are good answers.
CT: Anybody would say those two. But, there’s a reason for that.
M: Well you may be interested to know that I’ve had at least one response that cited an Expo contribution of yours, that I haven’t seen, about child abuse…
M: …as the most moving thing that they had ever read. Who said that? Tatiana Gill is the woman that said that to me.
Um, what do you think about webcomics?
CT: Um, I think I’m actually pretty ignorant of them. I think they’re great, in the sense that the people I meet that are doing them are being really productive and and excited and it’s a tight-knit community; but I’m pretty computer illiterate, in a sense. I just don’t like computer screens, and I’m always frustrated with my little iMac, and I’ve got one of those 56k modems. I’m not, you know, tinkering around looking at that stuff very often.
M: Right, right.
CT: But in the, what I gather from being at conventions, you know, there’s a lot of energy going on there, and a tight-knit community and a real diverse bunch of cartoonists coming out of it. So, I’m excited about it in that sense.
M: Yeah, it’s interesting to me – I’m someone that really likes dailies, and it’s just revitalized dailies, because, you know, you can have it in color and you don’t have content restrictions and that’s an interesting kind of a side effect. And there’s a real split, I’ve noticed, between people who are really traditionally oriented, like you, in terms of you know, paper and pen, and not really getting along with the computer and generally younger people – although you’re actually about the age that I’m thinking about. It’s fascinating for me to watch, and that’s why the column says Ink and Pixels, ’cause I really want to pay attention to those guys too. Anyway.
Um, So what are your goals as a comics creator? Why did you pick this instead of painting or film?
CT: [pause] Well, I’ve always been drawn to using drawing as a storytelling medium. Initially that took the form of interest in animation. Or actually, film before animation. Realizing my strengths in drawing, I was drawn to animation. But then, once I researched that and learned a lot about the industry and stuff it lost all its’ allure. There certainly wasn’t any individual vision – I mean there are in some cases but…
M: So there’s kind of a financial trend in that sequence you just traced…
M: There’s kind of a financial trend in that sequence you just traced.
CT: Oh, I hadn’t thought of that.