Craig Thompson made a splash entering the comics scene with GOODBYE, CHUNKY RICE, but it was the publication of BLANKETS that sent him into the stratosphere of A-list talent. Now, almost seven years after CARNET DE VOYAGE, he is back with a new graphic novel- HABIBI. I caught up with Craig this past July in San Diego, where we talked about the new work, his place in the industry, and comics as art objects. (Hat tip to Brooke Unverferth for transcription assistance.)
MM: This is Marc Mason here in the Comics Waiting Room. Today, I am with writer/artist extraordinaire Craig Thompson. Good morning.
CT: Good morning Marc!
MM: You are here at the Con because after a couple of years off, you’ve been working on a new magnum opus, HABIBI. Tell us a little bit about the story.
CT: Well it’s been more than a couple of years off. It’s actually been seven years since I’ve been in San Diego. But the book is coming out in September, too, so this is like the very tail end of the hiatus. I finished the book last September; it’s released in two months. It’s a 700-page Arabian Nights style fairy tale epic that also incorporates a lot of modern day environmental, political, and religious issues, and I also think it’s a dissection of sexual trauma. It follows two characters, Fidola and Pam, who are escaped childhood slaves. They struggle to survive in this sort of bleak desert landscape. And it’s a landscape of deserts and harems and palaces, but also industry and slums and very modern, industrial clutter.
MM: It sounds – it’s an intense work, obviously. And you’re working with some interesting and sort of darker themes here.
CT: Yeah. There’s a French Algerian cartoonist who is dead now, Aristophane, First Second just put out one of his books, “Zabime”. But he worked on two big projects, and that’s one of them, and everyone describes it as sort of his heaven project. And then he did a book called “Demonic Stories,” “Demonique,” which is his hell project. I think on some level, “Blankets” might have been my heaven project and this is my hell project. And that said, it’s not all oppressive evil or anything, but it’s all darker than “Blankets.” It was sort of like diving into that dark space, and in hopes of breaking through to the other side.
MM: Well, that’s something I think is a commonality in your work. You don’t make work where it doesn’t have something to say. You have something to say each time you step up to the plate. Whether it was “Blankets” or “Chunky Rice” or even “Carnet De Voyage,” you have something to say, you have something on your mind. What got you to what you had on your mind to make “Habibi”?
CT: It’s a great question. Well, one, I agree with you that art has to be born of necessity. At least for me personally it has to come from some very sort of, like a primal and necessary space. And with this book I was practicing, on one level, American guilt or sort of, like a sort of an understanding of feeling like a passive participant in like an imperialistic culture, and then trying to figure out how what we do sort of feeds off the poor. Or, you know, I don’t know. Even being middle-class now, there’s a sense that everything we do, everything we consume, feeds off someone else. Rich doesn’t exist without poor. I think that was something I was processing. I was definitely processing male guilt too, on a personal level. You know, without giving away spoilers and without getting too personal, I mean, it’s just something – I grew up – like the sexual trauma of some people I was really close to growing up really shaped my own perceptions of sexuality. So I was processing that in almost a therapy sort of way through the writing.
MM: Very interesting. Something else that you do in your work, is that you’re not afraid to take us somewhere else. You’re not afraid to take that American audience and show them the world. Where does that come from, from an artistic point of view? Is that something deliberate that you’re doing?
CT: Well, when I was a kid, I always drew for escape. And I actually recently went home to Wisconsin, I grew up in this really rural town, and every time I’m there, I actually found a stash of childhood drawings that I didn’t destroy, but I drew prolifically as a child. And I recognize that I was like a troubled, trapped little kid, and this was my escape to create huge fantasy escapes on paper. But as I’ve matured, I guess, art has become more about ways of understanding and exploring the world, and kind of the opposite of escape – well it’s still escape, but it’s also about expanding my own experience to new horizons, or to new worlds. You know, I travel and stuff, and experiences from my travels of going to developing nations, and like Morocco, Vietnam and parts of rural China, and each one of those trips really like, sort of destroys you, and then you have to piece everything back together when you get back to your old home. It’s like there’s more culture shock coming home. For me, that’s one thing I’m practicing, the culture shock of returning home.
MM: You said you drew a lot as a kid. What kind of stuff did you draw?
CT: Typical boyhood fantasies of spaceships, race cars, Dungeons & Dragons, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters. I recycled every single pop culture thing, I mean, it’s like San Diego Comic Con on paper. All of that.
MM: What’s interesting about that to me is that I think if we were to go around to Artists’ Alley here and talk to people, a lot of people would have similar stories, and they continued drawing similar stories, but you, on the other hand, you went a different direction. You went in a more personalized direction, you went in a more emotional direction. I find that fascinating that you took that branched path.
CT: Yeah, it might be partly because I broke away from comics for a short spell. I had read comics since I was a little kid, but my biggest superheroes phase was junior high when I was at my most awkward and probably most desperately grasping for some sort of like, I mean, I was probably processing early sexuality, conflicting ideas of masculinity or something. But then by the time I reached high school, I kind of like gave up comics for a while because I wanted to be cool, and my version of coolness was of just being a scrawny skateboarder kid, and that was sort of the place I dwelled in for a few years. And when I rediscovered comics, I was coming from sort of a punk rock place. It was that whole 90’s, sort of DIY, post grunge, sort of new attitude about comics, and zines and mini-comics. It was all about DIY. Making it yourself, resisting the man. So that’s where my rediscovery was born out of.
MM: And at this point in your career, a Craig Thompson book is something of an event. When there’s a new Craig Thompson book, the industry sits up and takes notice. How do you feel about that? How do you feel about your place in the industry?
CM: Strange. I mean, “Blankets” I created in a vacuum. I didn’t have much of a fan base then and I never expected anyone to see the book, so I think the reason it’s taken me longer is because I’ve had greater self-consciousness, or self – yeah, I’m much more self-conscious about it. So, I mean, now that it’s happening, now I’m ready. Now it can roll. But I don’t know…and I also don’t see myself in that way necessarily. I do want my books to be events, because they are events to create, but I just feel grateful to be part of the medium and to be, to have peers now who are my greatest inspiration. Like Joe Sacco, you know- actually, Maurice Sendak, I recently befriended him. People like that. People like Art Spiegelman and Dan Clowes. Everyone that I grew up idolizing. The fact that I can brush shoulders with them now is like probably the biggest honor.
MM: Do you feel artistically free at this point? Do you feel like “I can pretty much do what I want to do and I’m good with it?”
CT: Yes and no. Yeah, I think I’ve always made that a priority to do what I want to do and hope that the financial things fall into place, and I’m still in that same place. I mean, I don’t know if financially I’ll be fine in six months or a year. I’m not set in that sort of way. But I kind of disregard that. I’ve always disregarded…I’m like, well, this is the book I want to do, it might take longer, if I have to figure out ways to pay the bills, but it’s still the book I want to do.
MM: Are you already thinking about what’s next, or are you focused on getting this in front of people and talking to them about it?
CT: Both. I’m sure that this is pretty much going to consume all of my time for the next six months, for the promotion. Then, the touring. That’s how it was with “Blankets” – I toured for six months straight with “Blankets” – which might be the longest cartoonist’s a book tour ever. It was international, though. So, touring is going to consume a lot of time. But there are three new books I want to – I’m desperate to start on. And so I’m looking forward to that little stretch where I can kind of hole up in my studio again and get started on new work. And this time around, rather than focusing on one gigantic epic, I want to work on some other projects, and a handful of them simultaneously.
MM: Will we see anything like a gallery showing of any of the art for “Habibi”?
CT: There’s a good chance. There are a lot of galleries who have tapped me already. I might be holding out for the right one. It always makes me…I don’t know, I’m uncomfortable with gallery shows a lot of times. I don’t like breaking up the work. I always think of the book. I mean, I’m into mass produced art, mass art. I think of the book as the art piece. I don’t think about one image, one page, isolated on its own, some sort of gallery, really, it doesn’t’ do it justice. But, I don’t know. I did go to the Crumb exhibit. I don’t know if you had a chance to see that in any city…in Portland, at the Portland Art Museum, for a long time, maybe five months, so I got to go a couple of times. And to get to see his Genesis book, like every single page lined up? It was pretty amazing. And it would be insane and it probably won’t happen that there will be an opportunity to display all of “Habibi” together, but it’s pretty amazing when you can see a comic book in its entirety on display, a graphic novel.
MM: Fascinating. Craig, thank you for taking some time to talk with us today!