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Chat with Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson is one of the most celebrated cartoonists of this generation. He's widely celebrated for his autobiographical work BLANKETS and has gone on to produce many other great stories.

He's currently working on his first serialized project, GINSENG ROOTS, which is yet another book based on events from his past. With only four issues out it has already become one of my favorite projects of his. Luckily he was generous enough to take sometime to talk to me about his inspirations, and why this was the right project for his first serialized work. If you guys haven't checked out his work, now is the time to give it a try. Now let's get to the interview!

RYAN: What's your history with comic books? How/when did you discover comics growing up?

CRAIG: The new project, Ginseng Roots, unravels this a bit. On a family vacation as a child, our parents gave my siblings and I a dollar a piece to spend at a campground gift shop. My brother, Phil, and I bought an issue of EWOKS and DROIDS, and were instantly hooked. Conveniently, that same summer, age ten, I started doing farm work in the ginseng gardens, earning a dollar an hour, to sustain my new addiction.

Ginseng Roots documents that overlap how a decade spent doing agricultural labor in this semi-obscure medicinal herb, was basically what started and supported my love of comics. And doing all that sweat-of-the-brow, dirty labor made me dream of having a cushy job as a cartoonist some day.

RYAN: What were some of your favorites?

CRAIG: My little brother and I read those Star comics for kids for a while, then graduated to superheroes, primarily obsessed with X-books. Louise and Walter Simonson, Chris Claremont, Marc Silvestri, Bret Blevins. We lived in the countryside, near a town of only 1,200 people, so we bought our comics at the pharmacy’s spinner rack. Later, we started mail ordering comics, and were completely swept up in the 1980s black and white boom. Turtles, Turtle knock-offs, anything with funny animals, Usagi, the Tick, and the first wave of manga being translated in the States, like Appleseed and Grey.

RYAN: Who are some creators that inspired you as a young cartoonist?

CRAIG: In high school, I fell out of love with comics. The only thing I would read was Calvin & Hobbes. At the end of that estrangement, Bone and Madmen tempted me back to comic shops. Then, ‘90s indie comics like the Hernandez Brothers, Julie Doucet, Clowes, Chester Brown… But most of all, that wave of Seattle-based Gen X cartoonists like Jennifer Daydreamer, Tom Hart, Megan Kelso, Ed Brubaker, David Lasky. They had a real grunge-y/punk rock DIY attitude that encouraged me to join along. The first professional cartoonist I befriended was Joe Chiapetta from Chicago, who did a surreal autobio comic about being a young divorced father called Silly Daddy. He was a frequent collaborator with the king of mini-comics, John Porcellino. Porcellino's King Cat was a revelation in DIY comics. And his distribution arm, Spit & A Half, was the vehicle that dispersed my own home-made mini comics around the US.

RYAN: In BLANKETS, there are a lot of scenes of you drawing. When did you decide this was the career path you wanted to take?

CRAIG: I was obsessed with drawing since the age of four. Or at least that’s when my parents said that a church missionary showed me how to color within the lines of a coloring book. Age four was the same age I also became terrified of eternal anguish in hell. Ages 6-9, I was fixated on Charlie Brown and Peanuts in the newspaper, then Bloom County. I dreamed of being a comics strip artist. And later, How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way.

In high school, when I fell out of love with comics, I focused on a career in animation. But became disillusioned with that dream, not knowing how I could ever afford to go to animation school. And realizing that in the industry, you’re one of hundreds of cogs in a machine, to realize someone else’s vision. By the end of my high school years, I wanted to drop out of society and “live in a van down by the river”, typical Gen X ennui. That’s when I re-discovered comics as this personal mode of expression for exorcising a lot of that anguish!

RYAN: You say you fell out of love with comics, at that point in your life. Why do you think that happened?

CRAIG: It happened a couple times, there’s two major moments. One was when I was a teenager, being interested in girls and basically abandoning all that stuff. I guess it was also the time in comics, the very beginning of the 90s late 80s, when the Image and speculation boom was reaching its peak. Have you ever listened to Cartoonist Kayfabe with Ed Piskor and Jim Rugg?

RYAN: Yeah, it's funny that you mention that, I just recently got into their work. I went back to the beginning and started watching their stuff. I was aware of the speculator boom previously but I just watched an episode this morning. It's interesting hearing their perspective as told through Wizard.

CRAIG: Yeah, it’s a great podcast. They start their podcast with Wizard Magazine, which was not my thing. That was the era when I quit comics. At first I was skeptical of the podcast, because of its focus on 1990s Image Comics, and the speculator boom that sort of destroyed the industry. But then I realized they were unraveling what initially turned me off comics.

I had also yet to find the books you mentioned earlier, like LOVE AND ROCKETS. I didn't have a well informed comic shop that was displaying stuff that inspired me. Comics felt “over” for me, other than Calvin and Hobbes. I still loved cartooning but I wasn't very interested in reading comic books. That was through most of high school. I had some really close buddies that were fans and they would always try to lend new things. I remember reading DARK KNIGHT and WATCHMEN, but neither of those convinced me to go back to comics. It wasn't until the end of high school, when I rediscovered it as this more DIY medium.

I mentioned all those 90s, GenX cartoonists that were coming out of Seattle. Megan Kelso did this magazine-sized comic called GIRL HERO. David Lasky did BOOM BOOM. Jennifer Daydreamer, Tom Hart, etc., were creating this punk, DIY version of comics. That's what brought me back in.

They weren't about high level “craft” necessarily, but they had a lot of spirit and energy, a punk vitality. And similar to punk rock music, there was a sense of, “Oh, I can do this, too”.

The second time I fell out of love was pretty recently. That's what drove me to do GINSENG ROOTS as a series. Graphic novels have been my career for twenty years now, and I had a midlife crisis, like anybody in any career. I've been doing this for a living for so long, all the ups and downs. I’ve seen all the terrible sides of the industry, had projects fail. All the things that start to wear you down and your enthusiasm for a medium. I reached that place around five years ago.

Doing a serialized, bimonthly 32 page comic book is about tapping into those indie comics of the 90s that drew me back to the medium. It feels like making mini-comics again, like those John Porcellino KING CAT days. Crafting a small, humble, intimate object.

This is me trying to connect to, as is in the name of the title of the series, my roots. To my rural, working class, agricultural upbringing. But also, to why comics imprinted on me in the first place. Most cartoonists recognize that comics were imprinted on them at a very young age, before they knew any better. At some point, you have to reconcile why that attachment has continued late into adulthood. That's what I'm currently trying to figure out.

RYAN: You draw on life experiences when creating new projects, but also do other works like Good-Bye, Chunky Rice, Habibi and Space Dumplins. How do you decide what to work on after wrapping up previous projects?

CRAIG: Each book is pretty equally autobiographical; it’s just that some disguise it more than others. Most of my books are born of boredom or frustration with whatever project proceeded them. After the heavy themes, research and long-gestation of Habibi, I opted for the playful kid-friendliness sci-fi comedy of Space Dumplins. Then, after a decade of drawing fantastical stories, I wanted to get back to something more grounded, even mundane. What could be more down-to-earth than writing about agriculture?

RYAN: Besides your own personal life, where do you draw inspiration from?

CRAIG: Nature, probably, most of all. I suppose, the music I listen to. But then a steady diet of reading prose and looking at art outside of comics. Currently reading Mo Yan’s Life and Death are Wearing Me Out, a sort of Chinese magical realism novel that won the Nobel Prize. Before that, I finished French philosopher Simone Weil’s 1949 The Need for Roots, about reclaiming identity, community, and “the spirituality of work” in the wake of World World II. Zadie Smith’s newest book of short stories, Grand Union, is on the bedside table. Oh, and what I’m most excited about right now IS, in fact, a graphic novel. It’s an advance reader copy of Joe Sacco’s latest book of comics journalism, Paying the Land, about the indigenous peoples of Canada’s Northwest Territories. His book was supposed to debut in May, but with the world in lockdown, I think it’s being postponed until fall.

RYAN: Your current project, GINSENG ROOTS, is right up there with BLANKETS for me, in terms of how much I enjoy it. It truly is one of the most captivating and beautifully illustrated comics I've ever read.What made you decide to dive back into a more personal story?

CRAIG: Thanks so much, Ryan. Getting back to autobiography was reluctant. Initially, I wanted to make a straightforward nonfiction essay / documentary style graphic novel. I felt that in this time of environmental crisis, the most interesting protagonist is nature, or plants. The plant with which I have the most intimate history, is ginseng. And when I started researching ginseng, it seemed plump full of themes around global trade, America’s relationship with China, the changing face of agriculture, the links between the military / industrial / agricultural / pharmaceutical complex, etc.

But when I would tell people what I was working on, their eyes would glaze over. It’s only when I mentioned that I worked with this herb as a farm laborer for a decade of childhood, working 40 hour work weeks through my summers as a 10 year old, that people got interested. My relationship with my little brother, Phil, became the new connecting thread for the whole book. As I reflect on those childhood memories, they become more prominent in the writing. I guess about half of the drawn pages are documentary about ginseng cultivation, and the other half are intimate stories of my family growing up.

RYAN: I'm absolutely loving GINSENG ROOTS. I was kind of shocked, at first, that you went the serialized route, but it's awesome because every other month I get my dose of Craig Thompson work. It’s something I can look forward to and know I'm going to get my money's worth. Talking about GINSENG ROOTS, So much of your work is autobiographical. Do you find it difficult when you portray certain people, do you ever think about what their reactions might be in your portrayal?

CRAIG: Yeah, completely difficult. It's often crippling. This book is almost the worst of them for me. I'm working on issue six right now and it has a lot of intimate family details. That stuff is very nerve-racking. I worry a lot, what my parents will think, because they were not happy with BLANKETS. It’s like “oh, no, I'm going back into that territory”. I'm doing it with good intentions, so I'm hoping it comes across that way.

In most issues, I also have some farmers that I interview. I've done hours and hours of audio interviews with farmers that I grew up working around. Every issue will have these people. The advantage here is that it’s like a documentary recording. At least the words coming out of their mouth actually came out of the mouth. It's not manipulated in that way. But it’s manipulated in every other way. For instance, it’s drawn, not photographed. Are they going to be happy with the way I drew them? You're cutting and pasting, in the same way a documentary filmmaker would. There is the danger of, things can be manipulated. Even though it is verbatim what they're saying. With every issue I wonder what they are going to think of their depiction in this issue. I think the farmers from my small town are actually getting a kick out of seeing themselves represented and seeing their small industry represented. I did an event back there, in September, and it was a really huge turnout. All these people that would not be going to a comic book event, obviously, farmers and working class people. I took that as a good sign. I love this idea that these people are coming to comics that have never considered them before., To answer your question, yes, it’s always nerve wracking. I don't know why I do it.

As I’m doing this, I tell myself that this is the last autobiographical thing I’m gonna do. That’s how it feels every day. Although I love reading autobiography when other people do it.

RYAN: I love your other work, but there's just something about how raw, the autobiographical stuff is. I know that it's coming from you, it's not just a fabricated story, these are real people. I've always gravitated towards stories based on real events. It's probably why I've grown so attached to your work in such a short period of time.

CRAIG: Thank you much. In one of your other questions I mentioned this 90s comic, SILLY DADDY by Joe Chiappetta. He disappeared from the comic scene, but he did this self-published comic, which was about being a divorced father. Kind of mundane, but he incorporated a lot of surreal musings, but otherwise, it's very very down to Earth. Just being a divorced father and raising a child. SILLY DADDY is a huge influence that got me into comics. I just loved the intimacy and the mundanity of it. In contrast to what most comics are known for, like fantasy and superheroes and pitches for Netflix properties.

RYAN: Why did you decide to do a serialized project instead of straight to GN?

CRAIG: Crafting graphic novels is just so isolating. Habibi took almost seven years out of my life. With each new project, I want to do something new and challenging. And though I’ve worked in comics for over twenty years now, I’ve never done a proper comic book. Only long form graphic novels. When BLANKETS was published in 2003, graphic novels were still truly novel and unique. Now there’s a glut of them. And the indie comic book has been displaced. Suddenly, I’m very nostalgic for that more humble form of the medium, the one that imprinted on me as a little kid. I like the modesty and simplicity of a comic book as an object, not presumptuous and demanding like a graphic novel. I like the disposability.

As a creator, it’s nice to have the incremental deadlines, too. Something that needs to get out in the world every other month. Rather than the amorphous half-decade deadline of a GN.

RYAN: You're also working with your brother Phil, he does the back-up stories. What has that experience been like?

CRAIG: That’s the best part of the whole process, receiving the pages he writes and draws. I’m overly critical of my work, so there’s little enjoyment that comes from producing my own pages. Mostly it’s just disappointment. And then months or years down the road, when I’ve had some distance, I can accept, and even enjoy, what I’ve drawn. But that feeling is totally different seeing my brother’s work. For one thing, he hasn’t drawn comics for over twenty years. So there’s something very pure and unpretentious about his style. But most of all, it conjures the feeling of when we were 7 and 10 years old and drawing on the same sheet of recycled computer paper together.

RYAN: Have you thought of what your next project will be after GINSENG ROOTS, or are you just focused on this for now?

CRAIG: Definitely just this for now. Turns out serializing is pretty all consuming. On top of drawing the pages, there’s always covers and production work and catalogue copy and special prints that need to be tended to. I’ve always been pretty monogamous with my comics work. The project at hand gets all my attention, and I can’t consider anything else.

RYAN: With all of this craziness involving covid19, where do you see comics going next? Do you think there will be a shift in the way they are distributed?

CRAIG: I’ve no clue, really. When I conceived of Ginseng Roots, I wanted to serialize as comic books, but my existing publisher, Drawn & Quarterly, had stopped doing floppies, because there was no market for them. Berlin and Optic Nerve and Clyde Fans had just wrapped, and D&Q were stepping away from the losing proposition of indie serialization. So I talked with a smaller publisher, Uncivilized Books, run by cartoonist Tom Kaczynski out in Minneapolis. Even though he was well-established with book distributors, it took awhile for Diamond to agree to take him, and Ginseng Roots, on. Now with the lockdown, Diamond is hibernating, but Uncivilized’s printer and warehouse/fulfillment center are deemed essential businesses and still up and running. So comic shops, who have all switched over to mail order or curbside drop-off, can still order issues directly from Uncivilized. If all of print closes down, we’ll switch over to digital comics, downloadable pdfs. But I’m not eager for that. Ginseng Roots is meant as a love-letter to newsprint and zipatone.

RYAN: Lastly, what is the most rewarding thing for you as a cartoonist, besides doing something that you love?

CRAIG: Meeting readers, hearing their personal stories, and feeling that direct connection. The advantage of doing this kind of personal work is that it sort of conjures the reader's personal stories, too.

My dad was really upset by BLANKETS, because I had taken our private lives and made it public. He said to me, “Your childhood wasn't so hard. What makes you think you're so special to do a book about it”. I said, “You’re missing the point entirely. I don't think I'm special.”

I think the whole point of telling your own story is this idea that gives everybody permission to feel their own experiences. I don’t think there’s anything that is unique about my life. I think by telling these personal stories, that are small and intimate, it becomes more universal for readers to access their own memories and emotions.

When I meet the readers and do those sort of things, that's where it’s most rewarding. Especially when I go to farther reaches of the world, like the Middle East or Asia. How is it possible that fans over there are having a personal connection with this story about a very isolated upbringing in a rural town in the middle of nowhere in the Midwest? That’s humbling to realize these stories can have such a far reach to completely different cultures.

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