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 Seven, we’d just discussed the possibility of comparisons between Thompson’s book and the work of fellow Top Shelf artist Jeffrey Brown.
M: Now I gotta go back to talking about [Thompson’s brother] Phil briefly. Now, this is kind of a weird question, and I really debated whether I wanted to ask it or not. But I think it’s important that I can ask. You can just say, I don’t wanna talk about it or whatever.
Um, you touched on Eric Gill earlier; you mentioned the mix of devout religiousness and you said, I think, ‘he was a sick little perv’ or words to that effect. I would probably say, ‘perhaps he was more interested in fetish sexuality,’ as a way of getting around you know, putting a value judgment on the behavior or the desire.
CT: Are we talking about Eric Gill?
M: Yes. Okay. But I’m leading up. I’m pussyfooting around.
CT: I would definitely place him in the pervert realm, though. Because, see he, I believe, yeah, he had sex with his own children.
M: That’s pretty perverted.
And here’s the question that I’m kind of avoiding asking. You depict you and your brother urinating on each other in bed. You sleep together throughout your childhood. It’s depicted without any sexual overtones. But, you do put him in Batman Underoos, which has that Batman symbol, which looks like the labrys symbol that we talked about earlier!
CT: Oh, wow! Another subconscious thing!
M: And, you know, fetish sexuality in adults, is something which in my experience of friends that are interested in it, a lot of times is associated with having experienced abuse as kids. And watersports is, um, you know, a well-recognized subset of fetish sexuality.
M: Can you talk about this in general terms? I’m not wanting to invade your privacy exactly, but…
CT: No, No no no!
But I’m totally milking that for the full humor angle.
M: Oh yeah, I don’t thin-
CT: I mean, I really don’t – I don’t get watersports. I mean whatever floats someone’s boat. But, uh, um, and like you said, there is probably that very obvious connection with those sort of childhood experiences.
CT: But it truly doesn’t have any appeal to me. But poop and pee are very funny.
M: Certainly, can’t go wrong with poop and pee. And add a monkey in there and you’re, you’re good.
CT: [laughs] I wish I could elaborate more.
M: Yeah, I couldn’t figure out how to fully frame the question, really. Essentially, there’s this subtext where you’re showing this forbidden activity that can have sexual overtones; you don’t show it in a way the does have sexual overtones; and that would be the end of it except for the Batman symbol. That was the thing really made me kinda start scratching my head, and think ‘boy is there something else going on here’?
CT: A lot of people have found it very specifically controversial to them. They’ll be like, “This’ll be the scene. This’ll be your Judy Blume scene, this’ll be what gets people outraged.”
M: [laughs] I hope not!
I don’t know, God. Well, with any luck you’ll get banned and get some press, but I don’t know.
CT: They’ll be burning it along with Last Temptation of Christ.
M: [chuckling] yeah. Yeah, well. You know, if you had Jesus come out of the wall and have sex with the both of ya, then maybe, you know. Next time, you won’t make that mistake again.
Um, well thank you for bearing with me on asking that question. It’s definitely – it’s like, the pieces are there. But it just seemed like it was something that sort of happened organically without – I don’t know.
CT: Yeah, I wish there was more, but…
M: Uh… Let’s see. Um, oh yeah! To what extent, moving away from asking about the reactions of people in and out of your life to the material, to what extent were you aware of shaping the story? I mean, did you, like, write fifteen drafts of it and uh, get the screenwriter’s manual to have you know, first, second, third acts? I mean, how much effort went into the shaping of the story itself?
CT: I spent a year. Just writing. It was a lot. Especially compared to the Chunky Rice, which was a sort of stream of consciousness. But I spent a year doing real detailed thumbnail forms and then went through at least two specific edits, and even after a year of fiddling with it, the ending still wasn’t quite right, but I just started drawing final pages. And once I got back to the ending after two years of drawing, suddenly the ending was finally ready, presented itself. But I mean I’m doing this all part time too, I mean, I had to pay the bills, I had to work.
M: Yeah. Now, um, in terms of like script and thumbnailing, your process is to thumbnail and take notes or to thumbnail with a typewritten script, or script and then thumbnail, or what do you do?
CT: I did really detailed thumbnails of the whole book. Which, you know, some cartoonists were, “Just publish these! These are completely…” they were almost finished, and they were legible. I did ’em that way so I could show ’em around and get some feedback from people. I definitely won’t do ’em that detailed next time.
But uh, my process was pretty much – like in the morning I would do an even quicker thumbnail, which was totally illegible if I were to look at it like two hours later, even to myself, but if I really quickly took those really illegible thumbnails and transformed then into more detailed forms then I knew what was going on.
M: Uh huh, uh huh.
CT: But I would have a jot, like just a blob, a scribble, and somehow I would know what the character was saying, what was happening. For a couple hours, and then it would fade.
M: And so…
CT: So there were two versions of the thumbnails, but one only existed, literally, for hours.
M: Right, right.
CT: The other one had to sit around for a year.
M: And you, then, don’t have an independent, just-prose script that you’re using for reference. That’s embedded in to what, I guess, the second draft of the thumbnails probably?
CT: It all comes together at once.
CT: Not separated.
M: Let’s see – we talked about that, yes, okay – Um, in Blankets, how much penciling do you do? Because you’re relying so heavily on the brush; I was just curious about how penciled the pages are.
CT: Uh, actually, fairly penciled. I would pencil two pages in the morning before lunchtime; and then ink ’em in the afternoon.
M: And do you work with a blue pencil or just a regular lead, or…
CT: Yeah. Just a regular pencil. Actually, I don’t use barely any white out or anything – but uh, but I also make a mess of my pages with the lead underneath. I’ll just make a mess of panels and then go back and erase it.
M: Right. I think that’s something that we have the luxury of doing now because of digital repro, I mean, it’s something that you couldn’t do fifteen years ago.
Um, how many pages a day were you trying to do when you were working on it?
M: So it’s pretty much two years of solid work then.
CT: And there’d be like three months on end where I couldn’t touch the book; where I had so many freelance-work illustration projects just to pay the bills.
M: Sure. As far as I can see, with just one like brief exception, you – it’s completely hand lettered, is that correct?
CT: Yeah, that’s the one thing I hadn’t done with a brush. I did that with a Micron pen.
M: And do you use Speedballs at all [brass-nibbed dip-ink pens, an illustration standby]?
M: So you just – what brushes do you use?
CT: The number two or number three. You know one of the kind of uh Winsor Newton sable-synthetic blend, the four or five dollar brushes.
M: Sure, sure. Are you picky about the hairs? I mean, can you use a camel brush?
CT: Well I kinda trash my brushes, and then they start to work better, you know?
M: Oh, interesting, because you get the edging on the line probably.
And here’s the other thing – you know, brush is – it’s like the hardest of the ink mediums to master. Um, what led you to it?
CT: Um, right from the beginning, when I was getting interested in comics, this would have been like in community college – which I only attended for a year – but a friend had me do a strip for the newspaper, and so, “Okay, I gotta figure out how people do comics,” and I got all the cheeseball books out of the library, and I initially was ruling my panels and using like an Eames lettering guide to do the lettering. And a lot of those things I abandoned quite quickly. I’m like, “Ohh, I can’t”.
You know I tried the lettering with what, a Speedball 2 and it’s just like, I can’t letter with this – hate using rulers and stuff to get all these straight lines. But uh, from the beginning I was like –
You have to use a brush, I’m supposed to! Say, a Number Two Winsor Newton sure is an [inaudible] brush!
I never graduated to that fine of a sable but uh – but so I started with a brush, and that helps, because I had several years under my belt before I even started on Chunky Rice, of working with a brush. And by the time I had finished Chunky Rice, the slick line that I was employing in that book got boring. Because I had enough control of the brush where you know it could be as slick as I wanted it to be and that’s why I broke loose with Blankets and started heading down the expressionistic angle.
M: Yeah, there’s a – the breadth of expressive brushwork in the book is fab. And at the end there’s a couple of scenes where you go from this really heavy brushed thing to this really light linework that the contrast to show the emotional state of the character – it’s a shot of you in fact I think lying in your bedroom or something – yeah that’s it – oh, you’re sitting in your bed, sitting up – is just very effective. It transforms from I think a dream sequence – you know where I’m talking about?
M: It’s really nice.
Alright, so the book’s title is Blankets. The obvious blanket is the blanket you were given by the character of Raina. And then there’s also the blankets that you and your brother share, in bed, and then there’s the blanket of the snow that lies over everything, during Christmas break. Are there other blankets that I’m missing, or is that it?
CT: Well, there’s other metaphorical blankets – since I was initially, you know, thinking of Blankets as things that we cling to for security or comfort, right away I was meditating on those themes.
You know, romantic relationships, family, religion – et cetera. Whatever it might be that’s our security blanket.
M: Fair enough. Oh, let’s see – looks like we did all the good stuff here – we talked about Raina, talked about Craig.
I think that’s about it for now. Do you have any questions for me at this point?
CT: I was just curious what your educational background was.
M: I have a degree in art history, um, I have been an avid comics reader since around 1982 or ’83; I was exposed to comics a little bit when I was a kid growing up, but not a lot. Um, my parents would bring ’em home, but if they’d look at ’em, like a Conan book, they might take it away, you know. [chuckles]
Um, and uh, I experimented with being a cartoonist, but I’m not a storyteller, and so I moved away from working in comics as the medium and uh the longest kinda sustained comics thing that I did was like a daily four-panel for an alternative – it was actually monthly – back in the Midwest where I grew up. I did that for a year or two. I pretty much got to the point where I knew what I was doing technically, but then I just – stopped.
And so I figured that that was a – an indication that that wasn’t the medium that was for me. But I still really love it, and know a reasonable amount about it. I kinda moved away from it during the dot-com time period because I was working on websites and stuff, and came back to it recently when I was realizing that one of the things that I enjoy is doing critical stuff; and there is an opportunity, working with comics, to do the critical work exactly like we did in this conversation here, where I’m speaking to the person that I have these analytical questions about.
Which is a really different – and I think a worthwhile way – of looking at literature…
CT: You do a good job.
M: Well, thank you.