Blanketed by Success: Interview with Cartoonist Craig Thompson
by anna battista
Here's a little riddle for you: The New York Times Book Review and LA Weekly wrote raving reviews about it, Time magazine's website named it the "Best Comic Book/Graphic Novel of the Year", Wizard Magazine hailed it as the "Best Indy Book of the Year", it is just being reprinted for the third time, it's almost 600 pages long and it's a beautiful story about growing up and leaving your family and friends behind. If all these clues don't help you solving this little riddle, then you have missed one of last year's best graphic novels. It's entitled Blankets (Top Shelf Productions), and it's penned by Craig Thompson.
Divided into nine chapters, Blankets includes episodes about a young fictionalised Craig sharing his bed with his younger brother, getting obsessed about the Bible and the Ecclesiastes, falling in love with sweet and troubled Raina, being bullied at school or at the infamous Christian camp to which he is sent every year, and finally growing up, leaving his parents and their faith behind. One of the blankets of the title is the one Craig is given by Raina, another blanket is created by the snow which constantly falls over the characters and in the world they live in, hiding its misery or hiding the characters from the readers' eyes…but the title can be also a reference to the invisible blankets Craig puts up against a world he cannot understand or in which he cannot fit. "On the surface the story of the book is taken from an experience that occurred to me during the first year of high school," Craig explains, "but the whole emotional inspiration for the book was about who I had left behind when I left Milwaukee, Wisconsin and moved to Portland, Oregon. I've been reluctant to use the word 'autobiographical' for Blankets. It doesn't actually appear on the book because enough details have been changed and edited, so it's only deep down a version of my life at that time. There are details that actually happened so it might be right to use that word, yet it seems a little bit presumptuous to use the word 'autobiography'."
Craig worked for three years and a half on his magnum opus Blankets; that's perhaps why he's recently been fighting with tendinitis and just had the first massage of his life. "I didn't get tired of the process but I had lots of doubts: would I ever pan out or give up? I didn't expect Blankets to become so successful," Craig admits, "so I was sort of surprised. I thought it would have been half as popular as my previous work Good-Bye, Chunky Rice, that it would have insulted my existing fans. I also thought it would have been smaller, sort of three hundred pages, but I had already signed a contract with Top Shelf, so I had to write a book for them and they pretty much had it already published. I knew I had the possibility of doing a longer work. If the book had been too long and they hadn't wanted it, then they would have had to break the contract and it would have been a big deal, but I really wanted to do a good graphic novel."
Pulitzer Prize-Winner Jules Feiffer heralded Craig as a "young comics master" and labelled Blankets as "literature"; cartoonist Will Eisner defined Craig's graphic novel as an "intelligent, sophisticated message well told with excellent art"; writer and cartoonist Neil Gaiman described it as a "moving, tender, beautifully drawn, painfully honest" graphic novel, the most important "since Jimmy Corrigan". "Gaiman was a last minute thing," Craig reveals, "I tried to get blurbs from a number of people I had sent out copies to, among them various cartoonists, also Art Spiegelman who turned me down, but showed the book to Benoît Peeters, a highly touted name in the French scene. Benoît later proposed the book to Casterman, which agreed to translate it into French. I wasn't getting any blurbs from anybody, so I sent last copies of the book to Neil Gaiman and to Jules Feiffer, probably a week or two before I went to press and both of them loved it."
Written in a very poetical language (check out one of the last lines of the book, "How satisfying it is to leave a mark on a blank surface. To make a map of movement…no matter how temporary…"), Blankets contains some incredible pages of pure art. Superficially it might be said that Blankets resembles for its main theme Craig's first graphic novel, Good-Bye, Chunky Rice (1999, Top Shelf Productions), a parable about friendship and growing up with two cutesy animals, the turtle Chunky Rice and his mouse friend Dandel, as main characters. Chunky Rice won Craig the 1999 Harvey Award for Best New Talent along with nominations for Eisner, Ignatz, Firecracker and Eagle awards. "I think that revisiting a theme just happens subconsciously out of my control," Craig states, "It was around the time when I was finishing Blankets that I realised I was revisiting the same theme of Chunky Rice. Certainly I think I will leave them behind in my other books and go further on."
While working on Blankets, Craig designed comics and illustrations for Nickelodeon, DC Comics, Dark Horse, Marvel, OWL, National Geographic Kids, and other publications. "I did quite a few different characters for Nickelodeon and I think we carefully pitched them to merchandising, but I don't have to use them anymore, not yet…well, I might once I get to a more desperate point…" Craig jokes, continuing, "I'm working freelance on my own right now, so I have the liberty - for the first time ever - to turn down all these illustrating jobs which is a pretty liberating thing. Before Blankets, it was always a month by month sort of struggle and now I have more time to devote to another book because I don't have to take up any other project that comes my way. The only drawback of working on your own is that you don't have the sort of camaraderie and spirit of collaboration that you have when you're working with other people, you're more lonely working by yourself in isolation. But in terms of having creative control, that's the best thing. I used to get grumpy when I was doing collaborative work for DC or Dark Horse, I sometimes wanted to change the script and stuff like that. So, I'd say that I definitely prefer working alone."
Craig started his career as cartoonist with mini-comics. Among them we can remember the titles Bible Doodles, which includes adapted verses from the Old Testament, a journey into the Apocrypha, and a romance between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and Doot Doot Garden, a collection of Craig's early mini-comics including tales of crack-smoking cockroaches and fuzzy animal slaughter (the latter gives the name to Craig's site, www.dootdootgarden.com, designed by his brother, a web designer who also loves drawing and doing little cartoons). "Mini-comics are the best thing to get started out as a cartoonist," Craig claims. "I used to make photocopied versions of my own books and hand them out freely to potential publishers, sometimes I mailed them to other cartoonists and in this way I built a sort of network of feedback. That's a great way to get your foot in the door and it really worked for me."
Graphic novels have achieved nowadays the status of proper literature and often in the last few years publishing houses which mainly released fiction queued up to buy the rights of particular graphic novels. "I'm very optimistic and I like to think that comics are now considered as literature," Craig claims. "After all, now more than at anytime there are some wonderful comics in bookstores. Joe Sacco, Marjane Satrapi, Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware are all great examples of this new trend. For Blankets I think bookstores beat out comic stores in sales by four times in numbers of volumes sold." Sacco and Satrapi, together with Chester Brown and a few French cartoonists, are all favourites of Craig, whose passion for comics started actually when he was a kid. "There wasn't a specific comic I used to read then," Craig remembers, "usually it was whatever I could get my hands on, but I think my most intimate relationship with comics was through the Sunday paper comics page. That was the most easily acceptable."
There are cartoonists who start their books with a precise idea of what is going to happen to their main characters of their graphic novel all the way throughout their work. Then there are those who start with a glimpse of an idea and develop the plot little by little. "Usually little things come first to me," Craig explains. "For example, the emotional theme of the book and then some of the scenes. There's never enough plot that comes to me in once. Once I know the characters have presented themselves to me, then they sort of dictate me what happens in the story, but the plot sort of happens accidentally. I have a very 9 to 5 sort of routine. When I was working on Blankets, I would do two pages in the morning, then have my lunch and then do some inking in the afternoon."
Craig's works are published by Top Shelf, one of the most vibrant comics publishing houses. "They're really laidback. Whether it's to my detriment or not, they don't make me change anything," Craig reassures us. "I don't get that sort of editorial feedback saying 'Oh Craig, you've got to change this or that.' They just take what I do and publish it…and there is certainly a family atmosphere with them, partly because Top Shelf's Brett Warnock is my neighbour. My girlfriend and I even spent Thanksgiving with him, for example." Even though Craig never had problems with censorship, he's aware of the black shadow it casts also upon the world of comics. "I think it's awful. I mean, sometimes I think that the books that cause the greater scandal are maybe not worthy of that much attention," Craig claims, "but then there are great works of art which go through these sort of problems as well."
Right now Craig is not selling or exhibiting the original art from Blankets. "I haven't hung any of the pages from Blankets yet. I did it with Good-Bye, Chunky Rice, but I tend to shrink away from gallery showings because it takes too much time to prepare the pages and sometimes they also come back damaged and the end result doesn't interest me that much," he states. "I think comics pages are best experienced in print. But there are exceptions: I was at a festival in 2002 and they had two panels of my work there and that was an honour. I also went to the 2001 Angoulême festival, it was an amazing experience, but I didn't have a grounded objective when I went there, I just wanted to see what was that about. I was really excited by French comics and I wanted to see what the scene was like."
The French comics scene seems to have assimilated Craig Thompson quite well. The French publishing house Casterman is indeed working on the French version of Blankets, but there is good news also for other translations of Craig's work. "The French and the Spanish edition of Blankets will be out this Spring," he proudly announces. "In the meantime Coconino Press in Italy is doing the production work for Casterman and if that's good they'll be doing the Italian edition as well. I hope I'll manage to be in Europe by that time since my girlfriend and I would like to spend three months in Italy in March and do a small show in Milan and then go to a Barcelona show as well. I've also been invited to go to London for this Spring and I hope I'll be able to go there as well."
When he's not organising his trip to Europe, Craig is planning his next graphic novel. "I'm in a vague brainstorming, a researching stage right now," he explains. "This one is going to have human characters but it's definitely more fantastic. After drawing a book about myself I want to work with themes outside of myself and the further away the better. This one will take place in a pseudo-Middle East and the main characters are child slaves and there's a romance between a eunuch and a prostitute."
While waiting for Craig's new work, which should be out sometimes in 2005, we can remember what Jules Feiffer said about Craig and Blankets: "Mr. Thompson is slyly self-effacing as he bowls us over with his mix of skills," Feiffer writes, "His expert blending of words and pictures and resonant silences makes for a transcendent kind of story-telling that grabs you as you read it and stays with you after you put it down. I'd call that literature." And if a Pulitzer Prize-Winner says so…