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 Five, we’d begun discussing autobio comics as a genre and how Blankets related to that field.
M: Autobio’s ideology in alternative comics is a lot of times it’s – it’s you know, sort of this transparency, you know, you try to be as honest as possible in depicting your own life or whatever, sometimes to the detriment of the literary structure that’s being presented. But it’s still a literary structure, you know. I mean, Adrian [Tomine] made the decision to draw the comic about this stuff, right? He has shaped the material.
Uh – to what extent did you like, consciously shape and re-form your autobio? How great a degree of difference is there between the character of Craig in Blankets and the artist that invented that character?
CT: Uhhhm. That’s another good question. And important to add to it – the character of Craig in the book is Craig in 1994, versus Craig ten years later.
CT: They’re definitely different characters.
I mean, I have to simplify something. Both in my character and also my life. I took out – I edited so much out. That year of my life – my senior year of high school was actually much more dramatic. Uh, my parents pulled me out of school midway through my senior year to be home-schooled, which was a horrific, horribly disturbing experience for me. [laughs]
CT: And I actually started going crazy during that part of my life and started to hallucinate and uh – I’d see angels and demons constantly. So, I was kind of at the brink of a bad religious experience, and my body started to break down, and I had to go to the hospital for all this stuff, and I was, I was just going crazy. And I cut that all out.
It’s interesting stuff, it probably woulda made a good story. But also, I think it woulda isolated the readers a bit, in that I wanted to touch more on the simple universal experience. And I didn’t wanna tell a story about going crazy. I wanted to tell a simple story about – I mean…
In that year of my life the one comfort was that relationship I shared with Raina, even though it was only two weeks.
M: [stammering a bit] That’s wild. That’s fascinating to me that you had a um like you had an emotional and physical illness that happened right then. That’s – that’s fascinating. Uhm, that’s –
In many cultures, uh, a young person that later goes on to be able to express stuff within the culture that others aren’t, you know, as an artist, will sometimes have an experience like that. I mean in um Native American cultures, the shaman a lot of times would get sick, and then the other shamans, the person that’s already serving that role in the – the – you know, group – would, would, come and identify the – ‘Well, the spirits are afflicting this man, and that means that he’s going to help me mediate the relationship between the village and the spirit world.’ I mean, I’m thinking specifically about some Northwest Coast cultures, may not always be true for all Native Americans, but um…
That’s really fascinating Craig, that’s really fascinating.
[Ed. – In the conversation I referred to Northwest Cost Native American shamans because I studied that aspect of turn-of-the-century and earlier Native American culture in college, and consequently I’ve read more about it in that context than any other; however, the ‘shamanic illness’ is common to cultures all around the world, and to an extent, mainstream American and European cultures make room for shamanic practices only with in the context of either the performing or visual arts; I was quite literally taken aback to hear Craig describe it, clearly without knowing the context that I had for it.]
M: And you’re right, I bet it would probably make a very interesting story at some point, when you’re ready to do that. In the book, though, you do show demons and angels a coupla times. Uh, are those true visual depictions of what it was that you were seeing?
CT: No, no, no, those are their own thing. Sort of a visual candy, in some sense, I mean, they are ornamentation in some sense. Or or or I’m hesitant to – Yeah, the demons and stuff I saw were similar I guess, in some ways that’s how I depict them, but they were just pure – um – they were pure black. Sometimes the closest uh pop culture correlation I can think of is to the Twilight Zone movie with that guy on the wing of an airplane?
M: Sure! With William Shatner!
CT: Yeah! And actually I haven’t seen it in a long time, so maybe it doesn’t hold up, but I’m thinking of that character that was on the wing, like “Oh! That’s similar to the images I was seeing!”
And of angels, they didn’t look much different. They kinda had the same form.
M: Huh. Interesting.
Uh, you know, Roberta (Gregory) actually has a self-published book called Winging It which is about demons and angels coming to Earth; it’s kind of interesting. Anyway. And she started doing it like in the seventies [possibly inaccurate]. It’s, uh, self-published, and so it doesn’t really have distribution – but if you’re ever up here and you meet her, ask her about it!
CT: Okay. Yeah, I’d like to!
M: Let’s see, now, coming back to autobio stuff. You said you kind of fought against using autobio – that’s because you didn’t care for the form generically. Not because you were trying to keep the private material out of the story, is that correct?
CT: Yeah. And I’ve been influenced and inspired by a lot of you know, the autobio cartoonists, you know, the whole gang of Brown and Seth and Julie Doucet and all those were great inspirations, but you know I didn’t feel like any there needed to be necessarily new autobio comics in the form.
Cause they were really exciting at the time, and then I don’t wanna just continue navel gazing, you know. But I was definitely reluctant. I had a lot of awkwardness to it, and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna come off as egocentric, and I’m gonna insult my family, and other people who I’ve been around in my life, you know…’ I wasn’t worried about how I would come off, um, how I depict myself but just everybody that surrounded me, and how to do that gracefully.
M: Right. That’s sort of the classic writer’s problem, isn’t it? Um, um, well, I guess, actually, that’d be a good transition to the obvious couple of next questions: what’d your parents think of the book?
CT: They were incredibly upset at first. I had to share a six-hour car drive with them from Minneapolis to Milwaukee and they just tore into me. And, uh, some of the first issues they brought up were um that they thought that they were depicted like monsters. And they wondered what right I had to take our private life and make it public – but then beyond that, and on a much larger level, “Spiritually awful” they called it, um. They said that it “bore witness for the devil.”
M: [snorts, laughs] Oh Gawd.
CT: …And that it was a testament to the devil. And so this was a pretty intense car-ride. But it wasn’t entirely traumatic, because it was uh therapeutic to finally get this stuff out on the table and talk about all these issues.
M: Uh… yeah!
CT: And a couple weeks later my parents called, and they sort of apologized, not officially, but they said, “Oh, we realize we were being really defensive, and that we don’t have to defend God.” And then they wont on to say that they talked with, you know, friends and stuff. And the friends hadn’t interpreted the book as – as making them out to be monsters. To begin with, they were relieved at that, they started to accept the fact that I’m allowed to tell my own story. That, they still have big issues with the Christian elements, but that’s not gonna change. And I don’t expect that to change for them.
M: Uh huh, Wow, that’s interesting that you mention those two specific things – “Bearing witness for the devil,” that sounds to me like that was a direct quote –
M: Uh, and that they felt they were depicted as monsters. I definitely recall thinking about the way that you depicted your father and I thought, wow, he looks kinda like the Incredible Hulk; you know, I mean, you drew him with a large head and a tiny face.
[Ed. – Interestingly, I’ve seen others also note that the characterization of Raina’s dad is similar in appearance to the Gasoline Alley character Walt Wallet. I neglected to ask if this was deliberate, however.]
M: You know? And then the ‘bearing witness for the devil’ thing; well, as I was reading it, in my mind, I kept thinking, boy, this is gonna be a really interesting reading experience for someone who’s – a Christian person, because – you – you fall from grace, man! I mean, that’s what happens! And you fall from grace by projecting grace into your life or by accepting the world, you know?
I mean, that’s definitely one of the things that struck me as I was reading it. I mean, I’m here in the world, you know, so it’s beautiful. But then I was reading it and I thought, wow, this must be almost a disturbing book for someone of a certain Christian mindset.
Even though it’s beautiful. And that, that may be thing that makes it disturbing, do you know what I’m saying?
M: But, anyway.
Now, the other person – well, the other people that I wanted to check up on – I’ll actually ask about Phil first – uh, what’s your brother think of the book?
CT: He loves it.
M: Even with the – you guys peeing on each other in bed?
CT: Oh yeah, no – my brother’s totally cool.
Uh, and uh, I actually have a sister too.
M: But she’s not in the book.
CT: Yeah, that’s another element that I edited out, like how I was saying I edited out the home schooling and the sort of the mental and emotional breakdown. I took out my sister too because she didn’t figure – so this was a sort of a narrative uh – indulgence, you know, like okay, my sister doesn’t need to be here for the story so I’m going to take her out.
M: Sure, it’s like in The Osbournes.
CT: But my brother loved it! And my sister did too! And the scenes that they were most connected with were uh, punishment scenes. The cubbyhole scene and the sitting on the edge of the bed while parents yelled at me for drawing a naked lady. That was really amazing to find out that both my siblings had experienced the exact same thing of having to be locked in the bedroom and get the lecture. And it was always about really silly things, like I remember, ‘yeah I said shut up at school’ or something, you know.
I found out from both of them naughty things they had done as children that I had never known about and that they had been severely punished for.
It was really funny for all of us at this point.
M: Now, here’s the – well, let’s see. I can ask the – the Raina stuff first and then I’m gonna come back to Phil.
Um, so now you know even though you invest all this time in the book into this relationship with this young woman, it happens in a very brief, compressed time frame, you know, a couple of weeks. And the amount of detailing and attention that you spent on it sort of expands the narrative, you know, so that when you are done reading it you have to stop, and sort of think, well, “This really just happened over Christmas break,” you know.
Um, are you still in touch with Raina?
M: Not at all?
CT: Not at all. As it happened in the book, I cut off contact and so I’d say the ball is out of my court now, I don’t even have the right to renew contact with her.