Like most great artists, Craig Thompson is almost certainly his harshest critic. Where most of would be, at least somewhat self-congratulatory in the wake of what was, by just about every conceivable account, the massive success of his 540-page autobiographical sophomore effort, Blankets, Thompson has put his nose back to the drawing board, in and begun work once again on his nearly Sisyphean quest to create the perfect graphic novel—nearly, because the post-book boulder seems to roll a little less far down the mountain, each time.
In the time after Blankets, Thompson has battled mental exhaustion and physical health problems, but has managed to launch himself fully into his next massive undertaking, the 600-page Habibi, due out in 2009—that is, the artist says, if he works on it every day. With Thompson’s drive—if his health holds up—that shouldn’t be a problem, and while we know we ought to suggest he take it easy, with skill like Thompson’s so few and far between, even the earliest possible release date seems too far off.
Read: Part One.
When you finished Blankets, did you want to wash your hands of autobiography?
I did, so [Habibi] is not autobiographical, but it has as personal, if not more personal stuff in it than anything I’ve ever done.
What drove you away from autobiography? Specific people’s reactions to the book?
Yeah, that was it, but I don’t really want to go into it…
Was there an initial hesitation on your part beforehand? Did it occur to you that that might become a problem?
No, not really, because I didn’t think that anyone would see the book. I thought it would be like doing my first book, Chunky Rice, which was fairly successful for an alternative comic, something like a couple thousand copies floating around out there. I thought very few people would see it.
Chunky Rice is about a mouse and a turtle on its face, but the book feels very autobiographical.
Yeah, it is. It was about my experiences of leaving my home state, and making the first big move of my life on my own. It was definitely fueled by my emotional experiences at that time, moving away from friends.
Where the animal characters there to veil the personalization of the book?
Initially, I was working on a mini-comic, in which I did all of these autobiographical shorts that were like individual letters back home to a friend, and they would just be about me and that friend. Interesperced between those stories was a cute little adventure story of a turtle. When I moved to Portland, Brett Warnock, who eventually became my publisher, said, “those auotbiographical strips are just for you and your friends, and aren’t publishable, per se, but if you ever want to do a book about this turtle character, I’ll gladly publish it.” I guess it was that prompting that inspired me to do a full book about Chunky Rice. And I guess at that time, I was much more comfortable drawing little goofy cartoony critters.
What occurred between the end of Chunky Rice and the beginning of Blankets that inspired you to do full autobiography and draw humans?
Probably the same thing I’m experiencing now, which is discontent with my work, and a frustration with my drawing style, and just wanting to do something different. I was drawing with a quick, clear brushline, drawing little animals. So, in between, I tried to teach myself something new, and I don’t think it’s until after the first hundred pages of Blankets that I really get it. That was part of the motivation, too: I can only get better, if I sit and draw 500 pages of something. I got that from Lewis Trondheim, who did that with his book, Lapinot [et les carottes de Patagonie]—that’s 500 pages, too. When he started, he didn’t know how to draw at all—or that’s what he claims—and he drew a 500 page book, and learned how to draw over the course of that.
Were you putting pressure on yourself, right after Blankets to do something bigger and better than that book?
Are you still on Top Shelf, at all? Have you completely moved to Pantheon?
I’m doing my next book with Pantheon, and Chunky Rice just went over there, but the rest of my back catalog is with Top Shelf.
Was it tough to make that jump to a more mainstream publisher?
Yeah, it was tough. I’ve got some friends in music who’ve struggled with the same thing. I just had a lot of different views on things than Top Shelf. I did have to start taking care of myself. I’d basically done [Blankets] for free, and had to find a way to sit down start a new book—it’s another story I don’t feel like talking about…
But now you’re completely supporting yourself with your books.
Yeah, for the first time in my life.
What were you doing before that?
Thankfully, throughout Blankets, I was doing stuff for Nickelodeon Magazine. My editor was Chris Duffy. That was a really great gig to have. They pay alternative cartoonists really well. It’s such a great forum for that. At this point, there’s such a backlog of material, but they found other work for me, like laying out Jimmy Neutron strips. It wasn’t as good as doing my original material, but it supported me.
You worked at McDonald’s at one point, right?
Yeah—there’s been a lot of different jobs. That wasn’t one of the best.
Cartooning is such a ridiculously difficult field to break into. Was there ever a point in which you were considering going into something else?
No, I don’t think. I worked these really bad jobs, like working at the grocery store or the department store, out here—I’d get up at five in the morning, and stock hardware store shelves. On the walk there, the buses weren’t working yet, so I just kept saying to myself, “I’m a cartoonist, I’m a cartoonist.” That’s what I did through every job, even as I got closer—when I was doing illustration. I was working as a graphic designer—I wasn’t quite working in comics, but I’d tell myself I was. It was never about necessarily making a career of it. It was just about doing it, in spite of everything else.
Having spent some time as a full-time freelancer, I find that it’s almost easier to get free-lance work done, while working a full-time day job. Is it harder to work on comics, when you have all day to do them?
It might be, actually. That might be true—I wouldn’t want to go back, though.
What’s your daily regiment?
I get up around 5 in the morning, and get to work around 7:30—it’s very routine. I work five or six days a week. I used to work seven days a week, but my health burned out. I can’t do that anymore.
How much longer do you foresee the book taking?
At my current schedule, I’ll finish it by the end of next year. I really, really want it out by 2009. That would require me working, pretty much every day.
Does 2009 seem incredibly far away?
No, I’m sure that it will come sooner than later. I just have to make sure that I’m a happy person, until then.
Do you think you might do some smaller project, in the interim?
Good question. I don’t know. I’m hoping I can do other projects, at the same time, but I don’t know. Every day I’m not working on the book, I’m another day away from finishing it. It might take my full attention.
You’ve done some smaller projects. You did the Menomena album cover.
Yeah, that just recently came out. It was more than just an album cover, though. I spent two months of solid work on it. I did that about nine months ago. I took a break from this project, because I was trying to find a place to live—I didn’t have a stable living situation.
Do you know the guys in the band?
Yeah, they’re buddies of mine.
Is it something you’d do in the future?
No, never again. I turned down lots of offers before. This one is totally an exception, for friends. It was far more time consuming that I would have ever guessed.
So, you don’t have any aspirations as a graphic artist?
I had to do that for several years, so, no. I just want to make stories.
What of the Hollywood version of Blankets?
That’s not the case, now. I think dealing with that is part of what burned me out. It wasn’t even something that I wanted, but I was being pressured into it, from different directions.
I can’t image the Hollywood adaptation being good.
Exactly. I definitely don’t do my books with the intent of their being translated into movies.
Blankets worked so well, because it was so specific to the medium.
Yeah. Good, I’m glad you feel that way. And also, the other thing is, no other medium could get away with telling this kind of an intimate story, especially this emotional.
It was very conscious that it was a comic book.
Yeah. More of that in the next book!
Do you see yourself telling a story in any format other than the graphic novel?
Well, definitely through drawing. I’m still trying to figure out what a graphic novel should be. I still think of my work, and most other comics work as being graphically ugly. I’m working on that. I definitely love illustrated books, and I’m not just speaking about children’s books, either. When my travelogue came out, which was actually a very easy book to do—I actually spent three months on it, and then it was in print. It was very instantaneous. One reviewer said that it wasn’t even a comic book. It couldn’t be defined as a comic book. I thought that was strange. The definition of comics has to be little boxes on a page.
Does your frustration with the medium carry over to your reading habits? Have you stopped picking up other artists’ books?
No. I know I’ve read some good stuff recently…that book, Aya. And there are a lot of really amazing French books. But it’s still frustrating to go to a comics store.
Is it seeing all of the superhero books?
Yeah, that is part of it. I just want art to be more graceful and poetic—I still feel really clumsy, with everything I do.
Even with all of the crap, I feel like, if it’s a good enough store, I can always go in, and find a new amazing book that I’ve never seen before.
Yeah, but if a regular bystander, off the street walked in, would they be able to find that book?
Blankets has landed in the hands of a lot on non-comic fans.
Yeah, a few books end up like that.
What about it appealed to non-comic fans?
I don’t know. I didn’t think it was a univeral story. I’m actually surprised that so many people related to it.