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 Three, Craig had just identified some period songs that were appropriate as a soundtrack for Blankets.
M: Okay, let’s see. Okay, so… Back once again to the visual theme. Oh yeah, yeah. Actually, it sort of like comes outta the Christian stuff that we were just going over.
Um, you know, a major part of the book, or really at the end of the book – I mean you don’t go into it as in depth as you do into the character of Craig’s relationship with his faith – you cover the process of growing out of it. Um, at the same time because of the amount of time that you spent on the character’s relationship with God in the body of the book, it’s something that you must still have strong feelings about as an artist.
What’s the status of your beliefs today?
CT: Um, I believe in God, but ah – you know, as undefined as that could be. And uh, I feel very moralistic but I don’t have any pinned down sort of dogma, or anything. And moralistic in the sense of how we should treat each other in the world, not judgmental and you know, you know. And it’s most typical for people I know who are actually, uh, religious or fundamentalist or uh self-proclaimed, separate, moralistic people, are actually not, it’s the other way around.
So, I care about how we treat people and how we treat the environment, you know, sort of a hippy-dippy version of [Mike chuckles]… the world.
[Ed. – From context, Craig actually means he feels he lives a moral life – he meant the word ‘moralistic’ in a positive way, although it’s more commonly employed as a pejorative term.]
M: The corollary to this is that, uh, as people who are drawn to I guess spirituality move through periods in their lives it’s not uncommon for people to move away from organized religion and then back into it. Could you imagine returning to it at a later stage in your life?
CT: No, I can’t imagine that. Uh, my parents would love it! And I can think of maybe a few other people in my life… And in fact I get letters from fans sometimes, that that’s their prayer for me, is that I’ll be led back to the faith.
M: Oh, that’s really interesting, so the book is reaching people still within that mainstream Christianity stuff?
M: That’s really interesting.
Is it something that is – are you aware of people using it in like in youth group and stuff? [laughs]
CT: Um… No I don’t think I have heard of that yet.
M: That would be a pretty brave thing to do, I would think, but uh…
CT: I’m thinking to about why people that leave Christianity are often led back, and a lot of times those are people who more specifically rebel. Maybe they go and indulge in a few things that they’ve been restricted from before. And then they sort of return, the prodigal son sort of repentance. And you know, I don’t think I feel like I share that experience. Like, I feel like most of my, uh, living outside of Christianity has just been as conscientious as uh – sort of – moralistic, you know? I haven’t lived this totally selfish lifestyle. You know, I live with my girlfriend, but I haven’t ever thought of that as, like, scandalous.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I feel as spiritual as ever, except more undefined, so I don’t think I’m going to return to Christianity because I just feel like I’ve kept growing in the same direction.
M: Mm-hm. That’s interesting. That’s – uh – yeah, that’s interesting. Yeah, I uh, I just notice in looking at people around me and through my life that – as people get – as people become fully adults, and have kids and stuff, that uh, sometimes the stuff that didn’t make sense to us as teenagers begins to make sense to us as adults. So, that was sort of the genesis of that question.
Um, let’s see.
Now I’m going to ask you some theology questions. [laughs]
A first for me in my comics interviewing career.
M: In Blankets, you refer, very obliquely, to the basis of the prohibition of the depiction of the human form which is practiced to a greater or a lesser degree under Islam, and which was enforced for a period of time in the early church. In Christian history, that period of time and its’ events is referred to as the Iconoclastic Controversy.
You also employ motifs that relate to these ideas throughout the book, beginning with the blanket of the title itself. Ideas and concepts communicated via abstract imagery, a language of God. You extrapolate the patterns throughout the rest of the book, in particular, associating a labrys form with the power of sexual beauty, the holiness of women.
Another place where the ideas and problems associated with the concepts of image making is explored is in the careful depiction of the art on the walls of Raina’s room. Here you carefully juxtapose a recognizable poster of Kurt Cobain with a widely distributed kitsch image of Jesus.
Eventually, of course, Jesus apparently turns and smiles, offering a benediction to the young lovers. You also provide the image of the young lovers in a tree, in a state of grace. Now, for the specifics.
Is the use of the labrys a deliberate reference to the historical use of the image?
CT: Could you repeat that?
M: Yeah, sure. Is the use of the labrys – that’s the circular form with the notches at the top and bottom –
CT: Oh, okay.
M: Is it a deliberate reference to the historical use of that form?
CT: No, entirely subconscious. I don’t even know what that is.
M: Wow, that’s awesome.
M: That’s awesome!
CT: So I’m tappin’ somethin’, but I don’t know what it is!
M: That’s completely awesome!
Um, well. It’s spelled ‘L-A-B-R-Y-S.’ And I don’t know if you have any pals that are gay, but sometimes lesbians will wear like, a battleaxe kinda symbol.
That battleaxe is actually a labrys. And it’s an abstract representation of the inner lips of the vulva.
M: And it goes back to like, I believe, pre-classic Greek civilization, like Minoan civilization. It’s really old. I mean it’s really old. And the way that you use it in the book – is – I mean – it’s – that’s completely what it is, man!
[Ed. – Okay, this needs some clarification. I misspoke: I meant the labia, not the vulva.
Also, the axe is not only used in necklaces, of course, and it’s used outside of a lesbian context as well; it’s also associated with contemporary pagan symbology. I actually followed up on this a bunch in email with both Craig and a pal who is a doctoral candidate in Minoan archeology and (I think) ancient languages at Oxford – more on that later, as I’m still digesting the information.
Although this is what I learned in an art history class that covered pre-classic Mediterranean civilization, based on what I’ve heard thus far from my correspondent, that interpretation is not based on a documented evidentiary trail. It probably stems from a later linguistic conflation of the word ‘labrys’ and the related ‘labyrinth’ with the word family around ‘labial,’ meaning lip.
It remains a possible contemporary interpretation of the symbol as employed in current pop culture. However, in both the Knossos context and the current pop culture contexts, the form is rarely depicted without a bisecting haft, or handle, to the axe-like form. Thompson’s symbol never employs that part of the symbol. I’m quite satisfied his use of it is not derivative from either the historical or the contemporary context, so it’s possible that it’s too much of a reach to connect his symbol to the symbols I see when I look at it. YMMV, as they say.
None of this information had been gathered by me in a systematic way prior to my conversation with Craig.
It also looks somewhat like the symbol of the wig-shape used in Hedwig and the Angry Inch to signify Hedwig’s transformation into, well, Hedwig, which I also find interesting, and see parallels to Thompson’s work in as well.]
CT: Yeah, that image, that symbol emerged without any of my choosing.
M: That’s completely wild.
M: Wow, man, that’s cool! [laughs]
Well, then, tell me about how that symbol emerged?
CT: It ended up, kinda, you know, on one of the panels, and maybe – nothing specific. I saw it after two or three panels, and like, ‘Ah! I’ve been drawing that like more than a couple times.’ And it became conscious, and sort of kept it and it sort of became part of the ornamentation of a lot of scenes.
And I guess it had a personal meaning to me. But you know only because I accidentally repeated it at first.
M: …And it’s something that emerged on the page for you. I mean, you depict yourself as a mooning youngster – uh, checkin’ out the ladies, toward the end of the book with – you know – you use the visual symbology. It where it almost becomes – Well, it’s explicitly developed before that section of the book actually, but this one drawing here of you at work at a bagel shop.
M: And you know, it’s just obvious that it’s you having the crush on the person that you’re serving, you know? And there – here it is at a party and I mean just throughout. Uh, and it just emerged in the development of the panels as you were working through the book? It’s not something that you have a sort of like a synaesthetic, you know, thing that floats in front of your eyes or anything?
CT: Yeah, no I don’t literally see those. I – You know, the ornamentation in the book became a visual embodiment of how I felt about Raina, and then later, in that scene that you’re talking about, I intended to be a bit self-deprecating, to say that like I was, you know… well, self-deprecating in a sense of like, that, well, I was so casual about that feeling, to some degree. Obviously it’s not full-blown ornamentation, you’ll just see a little paisley or something pooping up here or there. But just like random strangers walking by. A similar experience, on a smaller level. I thought that was hilarious in a self-deprecating way, or sort of an unidealistic way.
M: Mm-hm. I understand.
Um, I guess the other – yeah, just the use of ornamentation, is a motif throughout the book I thought was really interesting. I also noticed that uh, in Raina’s room, she takes down a poster for you to do the wall painting. And that poster is I believe a painting by Gustav Klimt, and I think that the painting’s theme is sort of the cycle of life, there’s death sort of embracing a mother and a child if I recall correctly.
[Ed. – Close but no cigar, it’s The Three Ages of Woman.]
CT: It’s The Stages of Women or something.
M: Yeah, I forget the title of it.
But, uh, so is – was Klimt‘s use of pattern and decoration, was that something that was a direct inspiration to your decision to use it?
CT: No, no. I – as I was working on the book, I was drawn to his work in looking at it. But I think only after the fact, I think until around that point – I think it was that scene where I was thinking of what was in her room – and I thought of that image and I had to run and track it down. And then once I started looking at it – even before I started looking at the book, it was before I’d went and seen the art on the page.
And I’d always heard Klimt criticized for being an ornamental painter, essentially.
But looking at the paintings was a huge part of the deal. I don’t buy the criticism.
M: Yeah, and no, really, it’s kind of a transient criticism.
CT: It’s sort of a pretentious art-school criticism – ‘ah, he’s not real art,’ you know, ‘he was an ornamentalist.’
M: Well, it’s a little bit more – I think historically complex than that but uh the –
CT: In that there was stuff going on, you know, politically, that he wasn’t addressing…
M: Yeah, exactly.
But I thought it was very interesting that you tied, from. . .
[Ed. – Tape cuts off. We discussed Thompson’s use of pattern and decoration, what he refers to as ‘ornamentation,’ throughout the book. I recall him stating that he believes the poster of The Three ages of Women was factually present in Raina’s room as he recalls it. Of course since I didn’t get it on tape perhaps my memory is mistaken. I also recall him telling me that while he sees Klimt’s work as in some ways parallel to what he was attempting with Blankets’ ‘ornamentation,’ he’d settled on the approach by the time he recalled the picture and began to look closely at Klimt’s work. I know someday Craig’ll read this – maybe he’ll weigh in.