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 Six, Craig had just said he didn’t feel he had the right to initiate contact with the real-life girl the character of Raina was based on, because he’d cut off contact with her.
M: Did you actually burn all that stuff? I mean, both times in the book?
M: Crazy man! Don’t do it again!
CT: Oh, I wouldn’t!
M: Well, good!
CT: That’s the last time I did it in my life, the last time I broke up with someone, to destroy all evidence.
M: Well, you have a responsibility to, to, people in your audience now, too, not to do that. That would be the other thing I would remind you about. Um, now, it’s possible, that that same idea, that you have a responsibility to people in your audience – which you are free to accept or reject as an artist – would argue that you have a responsibility to share the work with her.
Is that something you’ve thought about?
CT: Um, I guess I’ve been operating on the assumption from the beginning that I don’t have the right – as a person that cuts off contact. But maybe I’m wrong. I could be entirely wrong.
M: Well, you also told me that you intended the book as being about establishing and keeping connections.
CT: [pause] uhhh…
M: You can think about this, I’m – it’s just my perspective.
CT: There is another element, that the most immediate emotional inspiration for the book was a different girl. So Raina in that sense represented two different girls. She was on the surface this two-week high-school relationship and at that point in my life she was a long-distance friend that I was longing for. So I’m bundling all of that emotional energy as fuel.
M: And what was the outcome of your um… interesting courtship?
CT: We ended up together.
M: Well, there ya go. So let that be a lesson to all you young cartoonists out there: draw a five-hundred page book…
CT: …and that’s the way to get the girl.
M: And get the girl.
M: Well, it was apparent to me as I was reading it that Raina, um, was more idealized than the other characters in the book. I mean it just – as someone who has also drawn cartoons, although not as extensively as you, she looked to me like you worked your butt off to get the character design exactly the way you wanted it. You have drawn that woman’s face hundreds more times than appears in the book. That’s what I think. And I’m asking you if that’s true.
CT: Uh, it’s true because the girl that I ended up with was the main model. But not in the earlier parts of the book. So there’s probably a point where – and in there is a point where I went back and fixed some of the drawings, but you know, she became my model for the character, my actual physical model.
M: Ssssstealthy! That’s interesting! So, then, were you doing life drawings from your current partner?
CT: [emphatically] Yes.
M: And, a lot of life drawings from your current partner.
CT: Yes. I mean, they are not all reference, but uh, definitely a lot of them were naturalistic poses, where the figure consumes a large portion of the page. Those were drawings where she sat for me.
M: Right. Now, there’s also the difference in the way in which the Craig character and the other character’s faces are drawn; they are generally more cartoony; and her face – I mean, it’s all lines on paper – but it’s relatively more naturalistic.
M: But at the same time it’s a very kind of idealized representation. Um, and there’s like this – Um, the intensity of the emotion that went into the drawing is what I got out of it. That’s what – maybe I was projecting, but that’s what I felt when I was looking at ’em.
CT: Yeah, okay, that idealization was my method of getting the reader to experience, you know, to look at her the way I did.
CT: You know sometimes a friend will have a crush on a girl or something and point her out, and it’ “Oh, you know, okay, yeah, she’s cute enough” but it just won’t connect with you?
CT: So that was the advantage of having drawings versus photos, I can show what I felt with my eyes, even if wasn’t particularly…
CT: But another connection between those two girls, um, would be – my present girlfriend, and Raina of high-school, was when I met my present girlfriend for the first time, uh, there was a connection. Like I connected the two girls right away, and this would have been like ten – seven, eight years ago. And that night I drew a comic about Raina, the night I met my present girlfriend.
M: Oh, that’s really interesting. Has that ever been published?
CT: No, but I think that I’ll publish it like in about three or four years. I’m gonna put out a collection of a lot of odds and ends that nobody else – that no-one’s seen. You mentioned that SPX anthology piece, and I’ll collect that one.
M: Yeah, like that Expo – I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to track it down because those things go out of print so fast.
Um, oh, that’s all, that’s really fascinating. So in a way, because you feel it was associated with your current girlfriend that the necessary act of inclusion, of sharing the artistic production – that’s been discharged.
CT: Well, you know…
M: Or maybe you don’t feel there’s a debt there.
CT: To be frank I would like to be back in contact with the original Raina. Obviously not in a romantic sense but just to to – re-experience that friendship and everything. To get back in touch, in some sense I think it’s creepy enough that I made this book without her permission.
M: Well, speaking of stuff like that, about the same week that I got a copy of Blankets, uh, I think it was – I can’t remember who the publisher is, but I was sent a copy of Unlikely, have you seen that?
CT: Yeah, I love that book.
M: Um, how do you – there’s gonna be – there have to be – comparisons, because it’s young men recalling their first love. Um, how do you feel about that comparison?
CT: Uhm, I’m flattered, I love Unlikely. You know, I hadn’t thought of it myself; but I guess where it leads – we’re distributed by the same publisher, we sit behind the same table at shows, Jeffrey Brown and I. But we are – I remember reading his – and since I have this sort of self-deprecating quality about myself. I remember reading his thing and thinking, “I wonder if Blankets should have been more like Unlikely.”
CT: …which seemed less fulsome – less idealized and ornametal.
M: I understand. It’s also more formal with those single page stories that he adapts for the methodology. I dunno. The other aspect of Unlikely that’s I think different from Blankets is that there’s a strong sense of the reflective mind of you as an artist in Blankets. It’s present in Unlikely but it’s in the drawings rather than in the narrative.
CT: Very understated.
M: Yeah, exactly.
Did you hear um, Jeffrey on This American Life talking about it?
[Ed. – The appearance concerned Clumsy, a prior book by Brown. The link to the audio of the show on the TAL site is to a single RealAudio format file. Brown’s segment begins around 46 minutes in to the show.]
CT: Yeah, I did, and it almost brought me to tears.
M: Well, I thought it was interesting. I thought that the questions he was being asked were – they were legitimate, sensitive questions.
I almost thought about digging it up and asking you the same exact questions, but I decided not to.
But, uh, yeah, I thought it was fascinating. There’s a definite relationship. You guys will probably start a genre now, you know? Marvel will open an arm, sort of you know, the ‘lost loves’ – No, I’m kidding.
CT: Except for the fact that Jeffrey Brown’s next book is a superhero book. For real.
M: Is it still for um the same publisher?