Throwback Thursday’s “The Art of Business With Craig Thompson” by Lauren Mosko
When Craig Thompson was in high school, he refused to set foot in a comic book store. “I loved comics as a kid, but then I fell out of love with the medium. I wanted to stop being as much of a nerd and grow up a bit and have girls like me,” he laughs. “I had friends who were always trying to sell me on comics or take me to a comics store, but it always made me uncomfortable.”
It wasn’t that he didn’t appreciate sequential art; it was the image of comic books that turned him off. “For one thing, I didn’t think it should be a primarily masculine adolescent form,” Thompson explains. “The stories you can tell [with the medium] could be much more quiet and sensitive and intimate than these terrible superhero and science fiction/fantasy stories.”
He also felt the traditional saddle-stitched binding of comics and the way they were treated contributed to the notion that the material was insubstantial. “I like having books; I like having something with a spine that you can put on a bookshelf,” Thompson says. “That whole collector market of people putting little comic books in plastic bags and keeping them in boxes in their dens, I found really repulsive. I just wanted to break out of that [mentality] and get back to the medium itself.”
Thompson was convinced comics had the potential to reach a much broader audience. He issued a challenge to himself and re-entered the world of comics, with the intent to bend and/or break all preconceptions about the form. He answered his own call to arms with the critically acclaimed and commercially successful graphic novels Goodbye, Chunky Rice (Top Shelf, 2000) and Blankets (2003) and the travelogue Carnet de Voyage (2004), which have earned not only Harvey, Eisner and Ignatz awards but also quite a devoted following among avid comics consumers. In interview after interview, however, Thompson reiterates that it’s really new readers—those more reluctant or skeptical about the medium—he’s trying to appeal to with his work because he remembers that time when he counted himself among them.
Here, Thompson shares his own thoughts on his work, on the comics medium and where it’s headed, and on the sacrifices necessary to create art.
Please talk about your creative process. Has it changed significantly from book to book?
Well, Chunky Rice, being my first book, was just made up as I went along. It was page by page, and I probably got 20 or 30 pages in when it was pointed out to me that the story didn’t have a beginning or an end. It was just floating in the middle of nowhere. So that’s when I went back and I thumbnailed—did like a sketchy version—of a beginning and an end. And that was kind of like a revelation.
I didn’t write out a script or screenplay but drew the first draft in comics form, albeit rough thumbnails. I remember the process being really quick with Chunky. Maybe there was a week when I sat down and was able to thumbnail the rest of the book out. And then things made sense and flowed better for me while drawing, and I was confident about what was coming next.
I spent almost a year thumbnailing Blankets, and when I reached the end, it felt like an end of the book, but it didn’t feel like “the” end of the book. But because things were tied up enough I went ahead and started drawing the book, and when I reached the last chapter I totally reconfigured and rewrote it. I was kind of experiencing it in real time; my life was more directly influencing what I drew and wrote.
With the new book, I’m using that same method of thumbnailing everything ahead of time, but it’s kind of driving me crazy. I’m still not drawing the final artwork and I’ve been working a year and a half or so on the thumbnails. Just editing and redrawing and reworking everything, taking out characters and adding new ones. I haven’t even gotten to the true image-making of the book. Unlike Blankets, which I tried to make more sparse and breathable, the new book is just a lot more dense. It’s taking a long time for some legitimate reasons and some stupid reasons. I think initially I had a good flow when I was writing it, but then I hit a big creative block. I had an epiphany about restructuring the whole narrative in a nonlinear way that kind of salvaged me from that block but it also complicated the whole process. I’d written like 400 pages and then kind of made a mess out of it.
I think Carnet was very refreshing because there was zero editing. It is my diary, straight to paper. In fact, I sent it to press while I was still on the trip. It was back from the press before I got back to the States. And there’s something really fulfilling about the instantaneous aspect of that.
In your Fear of Speed interview, you were talking about Blankets and you said, “When I was writing it, that was me. Now that it’s written, it’s a character.” That’s some fancy psychology. Can you talk a little bit more about that idea?
When I was writing Blankets, I was working so hard to relive those experiences and pin them down on paper, and ultimately I think I failed because the book isn’t those moments. It’s like a paper-and-ink reenactment from watered-down memories. It’s not a reproduction. But at the same time, something new is born, something that has its own life. Some readers who meet me think they can identify with me because they know this character on the pages of my book, which is not really me. It’s the part of myself I choose to depict; sometimes I flatter myself, sometimes I deprecate myself. In the end, anyway, it’s just these clunky drawings.
Any kind of documentation is an abstraction from reality. Everyone who keeps a diary talks about the fact that they tend to only journal during negative moments, when they’re trying to work things out. When they look back they’re like, that doesn’t really represent my life at all. As soon as you try to pin something down in words or drawings, you’re changing it—you have to. That’s sort of the perpetual frustration of artists. In a way, it’s better to do fantasy work like I’m doing now, because it doesn’t have the pretense of being reality, and in some ways it’s more honest.
Talk a little bit more about your upcoming graphic novel, Habibi. You’re obviously pushing yourself again narratively—moving out of your own experience and into the realm of Arabian folk tale. What’s your vision for the final artwork?
On of the things about making comics—and it must apply to lots of mediums, but for me personally—after I’ve spent 100…200…600 pages drawing something, I’m pretty sick of it. That happened with Chunky Rice, where I was sick of the cute little animals with round heads and the slick brush line. I knew with my next book I wanted to do something a little more visually organic, like a looser brush line, and with human beings and with an environment that was more real to me.
But then I went crazy doing that with Blankets. I’d drawn 600 page of myself as a character an of thses mundane Midwestern landscapes, like pick-up trucks and these terrible ranch-style houses and cubicle-style churches. And so with the next book I wanted to do something big and fantastical and epic and outside of myself.
Actually I think I was throwing back and forth two notions of it either being this elaborate, fantastical, make-everything-up, crazy world or do something more socially and politically relevant, a la Joe Sacco. I do think Habibi is kind of a compromise using this Arabian Nights genre. It’s fantastical but it can’t escape the obvious Middle Eastern trappings. It can’t avoid having certain social and political implications. And I think growing up with Biblical stories helps me write things allegorically.
Did you do photo research on the Middle East or will you draw from imagination?
It will be a combination. I definitely got really caught up in Islamic architecture and art, especially calligraphy. I think that was part of the core. There’s something I’d read about beautiful Arabic calligraphy being the music of words and that echoed my own notion of comics being music of drawings.
All I hear is how impossible it is to break into comics/graphic novels. Please talk about your dues-paying experience. How did you come to work with Top Shelf?
I don’t know if it’s incredibly hard to break into graphic novels. A lot of people will send me mail asking how to become a graphic novelist, how to get published, how to get someone to pay you to work on your graphic novel, but basically you just have to make the comics yourself and start shopping it around to publishers. And some of them pay advances and most of them don’t, so even then you’re dependent on if the book sells, then you’ll make some money from royalties.
I became acquainted with Top Shelf when they were just starting out as a company too. I did the dues paying thing when I was king of like their little grunt. (laughs) They had a Kinko’s connection and could get free photocopies, so the publisher Brett Warnock and I would go there after midnight and stay until five in the morning making photocopies and binding comics together. It was a really lo-fi sort of outfit back then.
I worked as a designer for them for a while, designing other cartoonist’s books. And they’d pay me a token $50 here and there; I was definitely laboring towards getting my own book published. With Chunky Rive there was a tiny advance and the book started to d well and make royalties, but it still wasn’t very significant financially. I paid for Blankets by working as an illustrator for three and a half years. And that’s what paid the bills—Nickolodeon magazine.
How did you originally get the gig making copies for Top Shelf? Did you just send them a resume and say, hey I want to help you guys out?
When I was living in Wisconsin, I was working a bunch of terrible jobs but making my own photocopied mini-comics. I was fortunate to have a great distribution connection through this other cartoonist, John Porcellino, who has been doing mini-comics for a long time, 10-15 years, and had a distribution company called Spit and a Half. And so my little mini-comics were able to get all around the state.
Brett Warnock, who started Top Shelf, sent me a letter while I was still in Wisconsin asking if I would be a part of this anthology that he did. I remember the anthology was a real mixed bag; some of it was great and some of it was awful. So I didn’t respond to his letter until I ended up in Portland myself and I didn’t have any friends. I dug up his info and gave him a call. At first he disregarded my call, because apparently he was getting calls all the time from young hopefuls waiting to get their foot in the door. But then he remembered who I was and that he’d actually sent me a letter and we started hanging out. It was a very young time in the company. They hadn’t done any graphic novels; they were mainly doing an anthology. It was really just Brett in his living room, At the beginning of the next year, he joined up with Chris Staros. That’s also when I was signed on.
Did they know you had book aspirations at the time?
Right away when I met Brett, I showed him my work. Of the handful of pages I had, he actually liked Chunky Rice, the turtle character, more than my other work. He kind of pointed out, “Oh I like this guy; if you do a whole book of him, I’ll publish it.” So I had that incentive. It was just going to be a pamphlet-style comic book of 60 pages or so but it kept growing, especially after I sat and wrote out the rest of it. It ended up being a book, and it was one of their first books with a spine.
Why did you decide to get an agent?
Much of that was motivate by trying to figure out what to do with my next book—if I really wanted to do it wit Top Shelf or with someone else—and I was also really overwhelmed with all the business distractions. All the constant interviews and business travel, people needing this or that, tons of e-mails—and so I was asking around like, what do I do? I was getting all kinds of suggestions, and I think it was a writer friend who first said, you need an agent.
When I talked with other cartoonists, they said, no yo9u don’t need an agent, they’re just going to take some of your money. When I talked to people in the writing world, writers and authors would say, you need an agent; that’s a no-brainer. (laughs) So I went through this long phase of interviewing a lot of agents and trying to figure out if I really needed one.
It’s kind of a new concept to the world of comics. I’m really happy with my decision. PJ [Mark] has helped me a lot. I’d talked to a number of people and some that were really nice but [I chose him because] he was familiar with my work and was a fan. It was nice; he said he’d be happy to help me verbally in any way, whether I chose him as an agent or not.
Are there many agents who represent cartoonists? How did you find PJ Mark?
I already had some connections with book publishers and had done a little bit of the groundwork myself, feeling out if they were interested in publishing me, but I still didn’t know how I would go about negotiating a contract or how I would compare one publisher to the other. The editors I was talking to were very helpful. PJ’s name came from two entirely different publishers. There were maybe two or three other names that also came up when I was asking around, because they had represented a number of cartoonists.
In your ADDTF interview, you were talking with Sean Collins about fighting pressure to serialize Blankets. You said, “I guess other cartoonists have a point that they have to make a living, but they’re good artists. They have to make some sacrifices for their art.” I was struck by the passion in your comment, and so I have to ask: What sacrifices do you feel you have made for your own art?
Well (laughs), there was a lot of starvation in those last six years. When I first moved to Portland, I worked some really bad jobs while working on my comics. There was a time when I’d go to Taco Bell and wait for people to abandon unwrapped tacos on their plate. That’s what I was living off of, surviving on. After Chunky Rice was out and had some success, I’d get my free copies from the printer and take them straight to the used bookstore and sell all of them so I could have groceries for that week.
Just last night I was with a friend and walking by this apartment that I used to live in and it was terrible terrible, like ghetto-style. I lived there for five years. That’s where I drew Blankets. It was just this really trashy, noisy, chaotic place. So that’s what I traded to get my work done—a lot of creature comforts.
I expect to be poor again. I feel like I’m in a good upswing right now. Graphic novel is a huge buzzword in the literary industry; I don’t know how long that’s going to last. I expect there to be dry spells again.
There are a lot of things we don’t have access to when we’re artists. But that’s not our world, that’s not our calling. We’re not in the world of material goods and that sort of success. It kind of reminds me of my parents’ Christian upbringing, like you’re laboring for something spiritual.
Even though you work s a full-time illustrator, do you think, with three illustrated novels and another on the way, that you’ve finally found your true calling—as a novelist? Do you even feel comfortable thinking of yourself as a novelist?
I usually just use the term cartoonist, which is an admittedly broad term. It could be a Disney animator, or someone who draws political cartoons for a newspaper, or someone who draws caricatures at the circus. But it has a certain old-fashioned sensibility to it that I like, sort of like a working-class draftsman.
Novelist still sounds a bit pretentious. I feel like I’ve labored so hard against the format that comics were known for and wanted them to be a book form and novel-length comics. I was really troubled by the trappings of comic books, pamphlet form. But beyond that now, I’m comfortable again just calling them comics. At the time I thought it was important to say “illustrated novel” and separate it from all the preconceived notions of the medium.
Do you reject the term “illustrated novel” now? What will the cove of Habibi say: “a very long comic”?
(laughs) I think Habibi won’t say anything. I don’t regret it. I think the whole debate is a little boring and silly. It goes on a lot in the comics community. People are always trying to define the label. But I feel like I can justify my decision to put that on the book; I guess I could have put a “comic book” on the cover and that alone, [being] a huge book, would have challenged preconception. But I didn’t want to use it at the time; I just felt there was too much of a negative connotation to the tem “comic book.”
But I think that’s starting to change. And graphic novel is just like a hip catch phrase, it seems. I was at the Frankfurt book fair with my agent and we saw an advertisement for Chicken Soup for the Soul Graphic Novel. We thought that was pretty hilarious. That someone is very proud of themselves for fusing the two (laughs) into an amazing new form.
You said earlier that you expect to be poor again. Do you think graphic novels are around for a little while or do you think they’re cooling off? I mean, don’t things ever stop being cool when you get Chicken Soup for the Graphic Soul or whatever? Do you think the market is a little saturated already?
There’s definitely room to grow. That won’t be a problem. And it will be good because out of this explosion, there will come a handful of books that will stick around for a while. For a long time, all we’ve had is Art Spiegelman’s Maus as something like a literary graphic novel, and that list has already grown pretty dramatically over the last 10 years. It will continue to grow at some kind of slow rate but there will be probably a saturation point. A lot of book publishers just want to publish graphic novels now and they’re not really discerning what’s good and what’s not.
Comic books are ultimately books, and the book market—it’s kind of unfathomable that it’s still alive. People say every year, this is it, publishing is over, but it’s still going on. And sometimes things come along and revitalize the literary world for a bit. But it’s definitely an old-fashioned medium. We’ve got the Internet and video games now.
So I think it’s past its heyday to some extent. But maybe it will exist in different formats. Maybe it will crossover to more digital comics. Most people I know still love handling an object in their hands, the smell of ink on paper, and again the quietness of the medium. They like that they can let their computers go to sleep and go read a book. So I think that will go on for a bit.
Again, going back to growing up Christian, my parents always had a very apocalyptic view that the world was going to end any day now, and to some extent that kind of feeling persists in me. Every time I hear jet planes going overhead, I’m like, oh here it is. And I’m kind of comfortable with that, to some extent. So I’ll be surprised if the world even keeps going long enough for (laughs) books to be eliminated entirely.
What’s the most important thing you’ve learned as your writing career evolved?
That it doesn’t get any easier. Definitely when you’re a young cartoonist—even before you’re a cartoonist—you have to come to the realization that no mater what kind of crap job you’re working or if you’re going to school or paying school loans, you can’t let those be excuses. You have to just start drawing. And that’s the first big revelation you have and progress you make towards being a cartoonist, just not letting all those excuses get in the way.
I think I still held on to a notion that with more economic freedom, the creative parts would flow even easier. That’s not really the case, or it hasn’t been. There’s still plenty of distractions and excuses you can make for not getting work done. I guess it goes back to that core thing I learned: You can’t make excuses. (laughs) You can always make excuses, but you’ve just got to draw.
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