When Craig Thompson finished work on his second graphic novel for Top Shelf, his expectations weren’t altogether too high. After all, his first book for the publisher, Good-bye, Chunk Rice, a heartwarming and not-so-veiled semi-autobiographical story revolving around a mouse and a turtle, hadn’t taken the alternative comics world by storm. So why should his sophomore effort, n intimidating 540 pages of full-fledged autobiography, be any different?
When Blankets hit store shelves in 2003, Thompson found himself on the receiving end of multiple Eisners, Harveys, and Ignatz—the holy trinity of comics awards, as well as showers of praise from mainstream outlets like Time. In short, the Portland-based artist had achieved with a single book the sort of praise cartoonists spend bleary-eyed decades toiling behind drawing boards for some small glint of.
In the years following its release, Thompson has done sporadic work, including the travelogue, Carnet de Voyage, and a sprawling cover for his neighbors and friends, Menomena. His life has also been spotted with trials, from the literal, involving Blankets’ removal and subsequent refilling in a Missouri-area library, to far more person issues.
We pulled Thompson away from work on his forthcoming masterpiece, Habibi, to speak about God, McDonalds, and Free Comic Book Day.
How long have you been living in Portland?
What is it about the Northwest that attracts so many cartoonists? Everyone seems to head up to Portland and Seattle.
Yeah, that was sort of my motivation, when I moved up here, ten years ago—not specifically Portland, because Portland wasn’t really the spot, but Seattle, with the whole Tom Hart, Jennifer Daydreamer, Meghan Kelso, sort of scene. There was really vibrant comics scene there, in the late 90s, and somehow it migrated here, to Portland. I can’t say what it is…it’s cheap to live here, it’s a small city, but it’s got lots of culture—it’s got good music, too.
What’s the benefit to living in a cartoonist community? Do you critique each others’ work?
You know, I don’t know if there is a benefit. I was just at that Free Comic Book Day thing, and a bunch of the cartoonist scene folk were there, and it gives me kind of anxiety to be around cartoonists. On the other hand, I have a handful of really close friends, and one of them is a cartoonist, and I really value our time together.
Your name comes up a lot, when I speak to ‘up-and-coming’ cartoonists. Do you make a concerted effort to help young artists?
Not really any more than anyone else in the same position. I don’t feel like I go out of my way, but I can definitely relate to people in their position. In general I do like cartoonists, and I do want to help them, but in my personal life, I feel like I need to balance out my interactions with people that are into other stuff. If I’m holed up at a drawing desk all day, I don’t really want to talk about that in my free-time. I don’t go out of my way to help people—people always come up to me and I’ll help them out with their works, or lend them my scanner, but I’m the one who needs a mentor, really. I feel like I could use a master/mentor for the next phase of my life.
You’ve definitely made it, though—and really because of one book [Blankets]. What do you think it was that resonated with not just comics fans, but also places like Time?
Probably the things that I was reacting against in the comics medium. I was reacting against all of the over-the-top, explosive action genre—I guess alternative comics have been doing that, for a while. But I also didn’t want to do anything cynical and nihilistic, which is the standard for a lot of alternative comics.
Specifically autobiographical books—they always seem depressing.
Yeah, and a lot of that stuff, I love. But other parts of it I just want to throw aside and say, “you should stop doing comics. Learn how to fix yourself and live life.” Those are the things that I’m definitely working on, with myself, and it’s distracting from productivity, sometimes.
How long did it take you to write Blankets?
Four years—well, more like three and a half years.
It sounds like a lot of time, but for 540 pages, that’s not that bad, right?
Yeah, and I wasn’t doing that on any kind of wage. I was working a job, to live, so that was my hobby project. In a sense, I did really well with that book, compared with my project, now.
Did you know when you started drawing that it would be that long?
Yeah. I worked a year on the thumbnail, and had a similar experience with my new book. I did a rough, ballpoint pen version of the book, and reworked that. So I knew what I was getting myself into.
Were you hesitant to get into it? Did you think people would be hesitant to read something that large?
I was definitely worried about whether anyone would care. I also had a vision of it as an object, and I think that might be what appealed to people, too. I’m not a big fan of pamphlet comics, myself. I don’t know what you do with them. I had this book-length project, and I had this vision of something with a big spine and a weight to it. In some ways it was a little bit of a joke—I wanted it to be very bible-like, not small and intimate.
When you say ‘bible-like’ are you referring just to its girth, or is there something more to it than that?
I’m mainly talking about the girth—in other senses I don’t think that it’s bible-like at all. There are some spiritual themes, but that’s really it. I don’t think of it as anti- or pro-religious. I do think of it as spiritual, though.
What’s the difference between religion and spirituality for you? Doctrine? I read somewhere that you considered yourself spiritual, but not religious.
That sounds like such a lame cop-out. It’s hard to pin down. I guess I’m really still trying to figure that stuff out. I think it’s good to have a strong spiritual core, and maybe religion helps people have that. I’m kind of untethered in that sense—looking for a little more stability. I’ve definitely been in a better state, the last few weeks, but I spent the better part of a year being crazy not being grounded, so it’s hard for me to articulate a lot of things, coming out of that haze.
Your new book [Habibi] tackles Islam.
Yeah, it’s definitely a big part of it. One of the motivations was that I wanted to humanize Arabic culture. I was very inspired by Arabic calligraphy and geometric designs, and the spiritual elements of Islam were a big inspiration. It is about Islam, and it’s also about how Judaism and Christianity interact with it. It’s motivated by a lot of political and social issues, but in a more fantastical, allegorical way.
Specifically in the wake of the last six years?
Not specifically, no. Maybe in the wake of the last 6,000 years [laughs]. It is sort of an apocalyptic romance.
Would you have been motivated to write it, had it not been for the last six years?
Um—I have no idea, because it’s been informed by Blankets, as much as anything else. I don’t think the last six years have changed a lot of my overarching political or religious view points.
How soon after finishing Blankets did you start work on the next book?
I finished Blankets, and then I was on tour for almost a year, off and on, and then after that I did Carnet de Voyage. After all of that travel and promotion, I started Habibi, which would have been the tail end of 2004.
How far into are you?
About 100 pages are finished, out of 600.
So it’s going to be another huge one.
Yeah, but it’s even more detailed.
You didn’t want to take a break for a while and do shorter books?
I wanted to take a break. I thought this would be a break, at first. I thought it would have been done, last year. I decided that it would be different enough—it’s not autobiographical, at all. I thought it was going to be a lot more free and playful, but that’s not the case. It’s made me want to—a lot of my life has made me want to stop doing comics, altogether.
That sounds almost strange, because you’re really one of the few people I’ve spoken with who is at a point where they can devote their life to comics.
Yeah, it’s great. I’m definitely grateful for that, but I’ve had sort of a total emotional, psychological breakdown, and then my health really deteriorated a lot in the last couple of years. That’s really been my main focus for a while, trying to get healthy, and that’s really made me a lot less healthy, having that as my main focus.
Will you at least get a book out of all of this suffering, the near future?
Maybe. I don’t know. I think Habibi is kind of about this process, in its own way. If I can emerge from this, I think it will comment on all of that.
[Continued in Part Two].