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 Two, I’d just spoken with Craig about Blankets’ resemblance to another huge book – The Bible. We joked about a special edition release of Blankets on onion skin with gilt edges, and I continued the thought in a more serious direction.
M: Yeah, I uh actually grew up in a religious family too, and so it was interesting to read about your sort of embrace – I mean, I rejected it but I mean I thought about it a lot before I did that. And uh, one of the sort of side-effects of being in a religious family was that some of my earliest exposure to comics was through comics that were specifically associated with the church. I was wondering if you had exposure to materials like that too.
M: So you saw the Jack Chick stuff through church?
CT: Well, no, through the Christian bookstores. Not the small pamphlet-style ones but the bigger ones.
M: Boy, I don’t think I’ve ever seen those. Are they collections of the pamphlets?
CT: No, they’re entirely different; they’re more like highly rendered, superhero style stuff.
M: Highly-rend – that sounds fascinating.
CT: And that Mexican artist did all the artwork.
CT: The Jack Chick artwork.
M: I actually knew a guy named, uh, Crevo, who was like this punk-rock artist that got born-again around he was like 19, and then ended up doing Chick comics. He was just – crazy stuff. He had this like total nervous obsessive line quality – it was just perfect for Chick’s stuff. It was weird to realize that this was being drawn by this guy I had, you know, done cough syrup with. It was very strange.
[Ed.- Although this is definitely what I was told as a teenager, I was unable to find any web references to this later part of the artist’s career.]
So, uh, Al Hartley and…
Oh, I wanted to specifically ask about these two Christian graphic artists that I remember seeing when I was a kid. In the “Today’s English” version of the Bible, you know the sort of plain English version?
M: Good News, I think it was published as? Do you remember those drawings that are all throughout it?
CT: No I didn’t. I have the version of ‘Good News’ that came out in the seventies, and it had all those great images of people in their bell-bottoms.
M: Oh yeah, I remember that one; and they’re like sort of more commercial-arty lookin’?
CT: Yeah. That’s very seventies.
M: The artist I was thinking of, her name’s Annie Vallotton and she’s anonymous in that version of the book, but the drawings are beautiful and very evocative, and there’s sort of a line quality in them that made me think of your work, so I thought maybe you’d seen them.
And then the other one, I’m not quite sure if I have the right source on this, but there was an artist that did this sort of ambitious thing where it’s basically the Bible in like Prince Valiant-style detailed drawings.
CT: [emphatically] Yeaah! Those were awesome!
CT: And they released them in that sort of dime-store…
M: Yeah! Like almost digest-sized. They are collected and you can get it and stuff. But I can remember those things kind of like really kind of like having an impact on me as a kid.
You mentioned Al Hartley. Do you remember The Cross and the Switchblade comic book?
CT: That sounds strangely familiar but no.
M: Yeah, I think that was a Charlton one, which I think the Christian Archie ones were, but I could be wrong about that. Anyway.
[Ed. – The book, as it happens, is an adaptation of a seventies flick starring Pat Boone and Erik Estrada – “Ponch” from ChiPS – and is by… Al Hartley! It wasn’t Charlton, and neither were the Christian Archie books. It was Spire.]
CT: In another interview, it came up that part of the lure of comics, you know, the one medium that I grew up with that wasn’t censored by my parents. It was sort of the one medium I had control over. Like all the music and television and movies was really highly monitored. But this slipped under the radar. They were kind of this sort of, uh, creative awakening.
M: Let me fast forward to the questions that I had about that, if I can find them. I did this whole elaborate outline here, tried to group everything together. Well, I can just ask it verbally, I guess. Um, so so – you just told me that it was something that wasn’t censored by your parents. In the scenes that you show of you and your brother as little kids sleeping in the same bed, you’re wearing Spider-Man Underoos – or I’m sorry, the character of Craig in Blankets is wearing Spider-Man Underoos and his brother is wearing Batman Underoos.
So, did you guys read a lot of like standard-issue Marvel and DC when you were kids?
CT: Not a lot, no. Probably at that time, we were buying, we were picking up the Star Comics line. Do you remember those?
M: I don’t.
CT: They were like a Marvel, uh, full-merchandising line of kids comics. And we were picking those up at the corner drugstore in the small town. And it would have been like, you know, Muppet Babies. . .
M: Muppet Babies, oh yeah, okay.
CT: It woulda been like Saturday morning cartoons adapted for uh, [for cheesy?] comic book format. Amazingly enough though, that had great artists like Marie Severin doing all the Henson-based properties.
M: Is that sort of the route that Henson as a visual inspiration came to you though, then?
CT: No no no, it’s definitely the real-life Muppets.
M: Right. Heh, the real-life Muppets.
CT: I pursued the puppetry career for a while there too. Yeah, well, puppetry. That’s better than animation.
M: That’s interesting. I didn’t know about that. Do you know my friend, or, the music of my friend Jason Webley from up here, by any chance?
M: Nope? Well, never mind then. ‘Cause he is very strongly influenced by puppetry as well. But anyway.
CT: Music influenced by puppetry?
M: Yeah, he uses – uh – He’s this real kinda interesting character. Who uh, eh, I shouldn’t go into great detail in describing it because of the time and stuff, but his music’s great. He does these elaborate sort of performance art things and puppetry can be a part of what he’s doing, sometimes, especially at the more elaborate shows that he’ll do up here usually in Spring and Fall.
He tours up and down the West Coast and he’s played in Portland before and so I thought maybe you knew him. But anyway.
So, coming back to where I was in my outline here.
So, generally speaking, to what extent did you encounter visual materials in a religious context that moved you toward pursuing what you’re doing now?
CT: Outside of a religious context?
M: No, no, within a religious context.
CT: Uh. I don’t think there was anything specifically within the Christian world that was inspiring to me.
M: That’s interesting.
CT: I mean I was a hardcore Christian, I was definitely a firm believer. And I was really into, uh, Christian Rock for a while.
M: Stryper, brother! [laughs]
CT: Like Christian speed metal, Christian punk rock. [laughs]
M: There’s great Celtic Christian punk band from Chicago – I can’t remember their name – something “Boots.” Oh well. Still listen to any of that?
[Ed. – I was grasping for the name of Ballydowse, who apparently lack a website at the moment.]
CT: Uh, I’m sure that there’s probably a couple bands there that, uh, you know that are still aesthetically appealing – actually, I am working on a Blankets – I’m not actually doing any work, but um, a friend of mine here in town is working on a Blankets soundtrack.
M: I was gonna ask that question – lemme see if I can find that actually. But so you’re not doing it. Is it gonna be released? Do they have a deal and stuff?
So basically, it’s another Tracker album, but it’s all done as the soundtrack to Blankets. And I’m gonna you know embellish the CD and stuff with some illustrations and comics similar to what Seth did with that Wee Man album?
It should be really exciting, with some like orchestration coming into it.
[Ed. – I couldn’t find a reference for the record Craig mentions, so it’s possible I have the name wrong.]
M: Oh, that’s interesting.
CT: With some like French horns and cellos, trumpet, piano…
M: Oh, that’s really interesting.
CT: So I’m excited about that, and at this point still, there’s no lyrics, instrumental.
M: So are you thinking about literally like a soundtrack, like for a film?
CT: No, I don’t think any of us are thinking of it literally – it’s an interpretation or drawing inspiration from the book.
M: I understand.
CT: We’ll record an album and I guess I’ll draw inspiration from the album to create a package for it. But John grew up in the Christian rock movement – he was in Christian rock bands and stuff. So that’s another fun connection.
M: Well, that probably makes it really emotionally satisfying for him to work on in relation to the piece then.
M: Now, here’s the questions that I had about the soundtrack, it was a completely different tack.
Uh, Posters for bands from the Pacific Northwest cover the walls of Raina’s room. Again, I mean I’m sure that they’re from different places as well, but it’s obviously really important. Let’s say you’ve been asked to make a compilation album to serve as a soundtrack for Blankets. So, as a compilation, you’re working from existing material. What 16 songs would you select? And I know you’re not gonna be able to answer that right off the top of your head. But you know, name two or three and I’ll try and follow up with you and get the other sixteen in writing at some point.
CT: Okay. Well, when I met Raina, I was getting out of my punk rock stage a bit and mellowing out, you know, the grunge era? So I remember her introducing me to The Cure, with Just Like Heaven. And I was a really big Dinosaur Jr. fan at the time, and on the Fossils album they had also covered Just Like Heaven. So both those versions of the song would have to be core to the soundtrack, Dinosaur Jr. and the Cure’s version.
Um, and we were really into…
Um, a little bit of Pavement in there. And uh, I remember really liking Little Earthquakes, Tori Amos album, too. That would be the album that would clash with all the punk stuff. Um. Those are just a few off the top of my head.
M: What one additional song would be the hidden track?
CT: Hidden track. Um… I think – I have this feeling it would be an Arcwelder song. Did you know Arcwelder?
M: I don’t think so.
CT: They were a Minneapolis band, I don’t know how much they spread beyond there. But, or maybe a Secret Stars song. God, trying to remember the names of these songs… Um, Not Moving. There’s a good kind grungy nineties sorta feel to it. Not Moving, by Arcwelder.
M: If the opportunity arose, would you be interested in actually developing such a project?
CT: Uh, sure, for the fun of it, yeah.