Monday, January 30, 2012

Getting Scary, Cheery and Chatty with Jill Thompson

Words: Christopher Irving
Pictures: Seth Kushner
          “It’s nice that there are nice people in my industry,” Jill Thompson notes. “I like to think I’m one of them, and treat anyone who comes up to me as a friend. If you’re nice enough to come up and like my work, how could I ever possibly be anything but gracious?”

            Jill’s appreciation likely stems from the helping hands she’s had through her career in the comics, the other artists and writers who have pushed her to evolve from artist to full-blown creator.  P. Craig Russell, whose fantasy-based comic book art has been a presence in comics since the 1970s, and whose guidance helped mold Jill into one of the most successful and diverse cartoonists dealing in fantasy today.

“I used to pose for Craig Russell all the time when I lived in Ohio,” Jill says of her college days. “I’m a ham, and two I have been in improv troupes before, so I had no problem doing that. Craig would have a lot of friends model for him, but when he needed a villainess, he’d call me because I’d really overact and be expressive. For his Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight story ‘Hothouse,’ I was this evil doctor, or someone who was manipulating Poison Ivy. Then my friend Jeff, who was one of my improv mates, was also in it as my hired muscle. We came over one day and Craig really loved the fact that we were really over the top with it, and he got stuff he didn’t get before, from people who weren’t always that comfortable.

“He used me for operas and other things, like Brunhilda and Ring of the Nibelung saga; that was so funny, because he had me in this goofy makeshift costume. It wasn’t like he had actual chainmail, so he got a t-shirt that he cut up in pieces and just drew chainmail on so he’d know where to put the bulge, and he had a ratty blonde Halloween wig, and someone had a Thor helmet with wings on the side of it.

“So, first he dressed me up in these weird rags and put a wig on me (he had to shove my hair up under it, and my hair was a lot bigger and longer than it is now), and then he jammed the helmet on my head on top of that. Then they put me on a horse to get some other photos. I think I had a sword. Our friend Jay had a farm and had a horse. ‘Who would be willing to put all this crap on and sit on a horse for ten hours while I take pictures? I’ll call Jill, she’ll do it!’

While Thompson is most known for her hyper-expressive work on creator-owned books and top fantasy, she cut her teeth on superheroes, drawing Wonder Woman for a year, hot on the heels of artist George Perez.

“Out of all the artists who’ve drawn Wonder Woman in the past, I’m perhaps one of the few who is comfortable saying ‘I have worn a bustier and know how it works.’ I’m just saying ‘I don’t know about any of those guys,” Jill jokes. “I like drawing the human figure: Steve Rude, Craig Russell, and Paul Smith are some of my greatest influences. Steve Rude introduced me to Andrew Loomis. I love Dan DeCarlo. There was a beautiful body language where, even if something was cartoony, it was realistic to me because people stood with their weight on one leg. Things were natural and they made expressions; they acted well, and it wasn’t a standard look for shock or anger. There were subtleties that were going on in that work that made reading comics a lot more emotional for me.

            “John Byrne is one of my favorite artists and X-Men was my first superhero obsession. People say they don’t see any of these influences in my work, but these are people I went crazy over and studied, and couldn’t get enough of anything they did. I wanted to bring that type of sensibility to a heroic character. George Perez drew heroic comics and I loved his work. I was a huge Teen Titans fan.”

            Wonder Woman is a character who’s had just as many bad artists on her as good, and Thompson’s work ranks amongst the best.

“It can be the sexiest and most revealing costume possible, but to me it has to look like real clothes and not just be lines drawn on a figure,” Jill notes. “Right now my brain is buzzing with people who offend me as an artist and as a woman, too. I don’t mind a super-sexy costume. I think that’s sexy, and what looks sexy on a woman doesn’t look sexy on a man. I look at every costume and go ‘You have to fight in that and be able to run in that.’ While I can run in high heels, it’s really not so practical. But I wanted there to be some realism in their body language and be heroic.”

The 1990s was a pivotal decade for comics, both good and bad, as the breaking of boundaries in the 1980s was giving way to series aimed at a mature audience and only sold directly through comic book stores. Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman had been critical and commercial successes for DC Comics, and the decision was made to include them in a mature readers imprint: Vertigo Comics.

While working on Wonder Woman, Jill was unaware that she would soon play a part in Vertigo’s history, something she owes to a thoughtful editor.

“I had an editor named Dan Dordlin at the time, and he was editing the last bunch of Wonder Woman that I did,” she remembers. “Apparently, Neil had been interested in my work for a while and he had wanted me to illustrate the ‘Brief Lives’ storyline. At the time, I guess he had thought it would be a three-issue story. I was under an exclusive contract for Wonder Woman at the time, and my previous editor had kept saying ‘No, she’s under contract. She has to do these issues.’

“Then the editorial staff changed and Dan looked at my work, and had talked to me plenty of times on the phone. He was extremely familiar with Sandman, and he told me ‘You know Neil Gaiman has been calling here wondering if you were done with Wonder Woman? He wants you to draw this Sandman story that he’s got.’ I was a huge fan of Sandman.

“He went ‘I think you’re better suited for that book than for this one. Your art’s great, but the way you make people act, and the stuff you really like to do, is much better for that comic. I’m going to see if we can’t somehow get the last part of this contract switched over, or end it differently so we can get you over on that.’ We ended up doing a Wonder Woman/Deathstroke special that somehow played into finishing my contract for Wonder Woman, and then I jumped right into Sandman.”

Well into the fourth year of Sandman, author Neil Gaiman defined his own mythology with the godly characters The Endless and their fantasy world, imbuing the gods with relatable human qualities against a backdrop that combined mythology with modern literary techniques. He worked with a different artist every story arc, something only made possible by his thoughtfulness as a collaborator.

“Neil is one of the most excellent writers that an artist can work with,” Jill beams. “One of the first things he does when he starts on a book is ask you what you like to draw, and what you don’t like to draw. I said ‘I can draw anything. I enjoy drawing acting, the human figure, and I like to do facial expressions and silent things, like that subtle beat between two statements. The thing that I hate to draw is cars.’

            “He goes ‘All right, well there won’t be any cars.’ In a superhero comic, at some point if you do it right, they’ll hit somebody upside the head with a car or throw thing at them—which means you might have to draw the worst part, which is the underside of the car. I cheat it out all the time by making it black.

“I like drawing scenes and architecture, and I like drawing backgrounds, setting the stage, and doing establishing shots. I don’t want to scrimp on that, it’s just that I wanted to draw something that dealt more with human interaction. I was working on ‘The Parliament of Rooks,’ [Sandman #40] which was our tryout together, where he was going to see how I interpreted a script that he wrote and what he would have to write for me after that. It was an extremely easy process to work with him, and even less than halfway through it, he would fax me scripts—or sometimes it wouldn’t be a full script and I’d get a page a day because he was travelling and not able to finish an entire script. I would be done with what he’d given me and then fax him and go ‘I need more script.’ He would show up at a hotel after a signing and there’d be a fax from me already going ‘I need more pages.’ He would send me faxes back saying ‘This is exactly what I saw in my head when I was writing it.’ It was the highest compliment I could be paid.”

Jill’s storyline, “Brief Lives,” set the siblings Dream (the eponymous title character) and his sister Delirium on a road trip to find their brother, the black sheep Destruction. Delirium, a confused god who resembled a teenage girl with insane tendencies, was a perfect match for Thompson’s gestural and expressive art style.

“By the time I was drawing her, Neil had established that her look was based on Tori Amos,” Jill says. “That was easy to follow up on as far as the shape of her face and eyes. I really understood when he would write that character that she was so vulnerable. It was (pardon the pun) a dream to be able to work with that character because she was all about body language…

            “She was all about body language and Sandman was all about body language in the fact that he was so reserved. He was the perfect straight man for any comedy that there could be, because he was so uptight.”

            The first issue of “Brief Lives” was the first to carry the Vertigo imprint and ran from issues #41 to #49. It was originally intended to only be three issues, but Neil and Jill got carried away.

“When that was over, I did not want to stop drawing that comic, ever. I begged him to let me keep drawing it, and he said ‘No, we have other artists,’” Jill remembers, imitating Gaiman’s English accent. “I said ‘I don’t care about them, just do Sandman with me!’ It was the easiest job I’ve had in my entire life.

“I loved those characters. It was a chore to get things done at some point, because of certain deadlines, but I didn’t have to struggle to figure out what to draw. I’ve worked on comics where, no matter what the people have written on the script, you sit there and look at the paper and go ‘Oh, I don’t know where to go with this. How do I make this interesting?’ Sandman was not like that.”

Jill stuck with the Sandman cast for several other projects, including a series of one-shots for Vertigo starring Sandman characters. Ironically, the issue after “Brief Lives” wrapped was “Ramadan,” drawn by her mentor, P. Craig Russell.

            While in Niles, Ohio (where she had posed for Russell while dressed in absurd outfits) Jill met up with writer Will Pfeifer, then a student at the local university.  The absurdity of the town and university relationship led the two to create the mini-series Finals, a black comedy that deconstructs the college experience.

“I was a townie—I’m from Chicago but was living there a few years—and he was a student, and we’d always talk about the weird relationship between the town and the university, how they needed each other but both hated each other,” Jill remembers. “Not being a lifelong resident there, you can only take so much homecoming this-and-that, or fratboys coming over and peeing on your bushes because they’re loaded and think they own the town. It’s like anyone that lives near Wrigley Field: out of control Cubs fan come over there and are all drunk, and you see signs in front of peoples’ duplexes saying ‘Do not Urinate on my front lawn or in my gangway. We will call the police if we find you vomiting, urinating, or drinking, or having sex in my gangway.’ You know, it’s like ‘How rude!’ You should be able to electrify things around there so that if they’re peeing they’ll kill themselves.

Jill pauses awkwardly from her rant. “Anyways!”

“It’s a crazy tangent to get on while talking about Finals, but Will and I both lived in that college town for a while. He was a journalism student. We used to get together all the time and talk about comics. He was doing a mini-comic at the time called Silent Man, which I loved and contributed a cover to. I thought he was so super-talented. I was working on Sandman when I lived there, and he went to Rockford, Illinois to work at the Rockford Register-Star and I moved back home to Chicago.”
Jill and Will got back together in 1993, right after Jill had returned to the States from a Vertigo tour to learn of the shocking incidents with the cult in Waco, Texas, where dozens of cultists were burned to death while barricaded in their compound.

“We were talking about the way society was going,” Jill says. “We had talked at one time how, when he graduated senior projects were these enormous things that you’d see thesis papers that student would write that would be inches thick, and you know that professors in each class would have hundreds of students and many classes, and they don’t just have to teach the class but get all of these projects. I went ‘How do they ever read these things? You kill yourself for a grade, but does anyone actually look at it and what do you have to do to get someone interested enough to read it? What if there’s some really interesting information in there? What if you cured cancer and, because the professor has 700 of these, he flips through, gives it a grade but passes it on because he never reads it?’ We eventually came up with the idea of you having to do something that might almost kill you to stand out and graduate.

“He also said ‘You should see how people live to get this stuff done. You’re drinking pots of coffee and taking technically over the counter speed, anything you can get to stay awake and cram.’ That was not something I had done; I went to art school and while, yes, you stay awake at nights to get projects done, I don’t remember ever abusing myself to that extent.

            “We wound up sitting around a whole afternoon throwing ideas back and forth with one another, and came up with this great idea for Finals. The great thing about Will is that he went back to his apartment, and this is what he did when he wasn’t working his regular job, came up with a pitch that created characters around the fictional college town. Not only did he come up with these exceptional characters, but intertwined their stories together, but he also included every idea we talked about. There wasn’t an idea I said off-the-cuff that he didn’t include. He was able to make every single thing work. He’s so funny, and he’s so smart, and it was really a pleasure to work on things.”

            Finals is a 1999 dark comedy that looks at a group of college seniors, their final projects including everything from time machines and paradoxes to crazed cults and staged documentary film-making. Oh, and also the de-evolution of one student to becoming a savage. Thompson, because of her former hometown connection, considers it her most personal work.

“There’s so much of the university town in there,” she reflects. “Will’s dorm is in there, and buildings and places we used to go to. It has a lot of memories. Some of the cast are people that I know (not people from there).”

“The way I presented it is the only way that I’ve wanted to tell it—a story that I would enjoy, but just for kids,” Jill says of Scary Godmother, her first 100% Jill Thompson project. “In fact, there are very few comics for kids nowadays, but there should be more comics for kids. There should be comics that are just G rated.’ I don’t think G rated is a bad thing. Maybe what it’s become has been a pandering toy commercial. I think that any old black and white movie you find could be considered G rated, but they can make you cry, and people can die. There can be suspense and horror, and all kinds of stuff. It just isn’t done in a gratuitous and pornographic way. I think that’s perfectly fine. I want people who read my comics to laugh, to cry and to think. There wasn’t much out then that represented that, and I wanted to be one of the people who spends the time to make sure that we have another generation of comic book readers.”

Scary Godmother came about during the hard times of the post-bust 1990s comic book industry.

“Scary Godmother was one of those perfect storm situations,” Jill remembers. “It was right after the big comic implosion in the mid ‘90s. I had been happily jumping from story arc to story arc, because that’s how writers liked to work with artists. No one was exclusive to anything and people weren’t signing big contracts for projects. I think Sandman set the precedent where writers went ‘I want to work with so-and-so because I have a three issue story I think they would be perfect for, and I also want to work with this person and that person.’ I know some of my friends were like ‘I was offered a contract on this title permanently, but right now I’m having too much fun working on a lot of things.’ I was the same way and, because I had work, I knew what would come afterwards.

“Then the big bust happened, and it was scary. There weren’t as many titles, and comic book stores and publishers were going out of business. Anybody that had been offered a regular title called that editor and said ‘Is that offer still good?’ Everybody jumped on it. I finished what I was working on, and went to look for more work and couldn’t find any. There was a period of time where I was scrambling and doing advertising work, gaming cards, a pin-up here and there, but nothing really steady.

“So I had time to draw for fun, and it was also the time that my sister-in-law was pregnant and I was going to become an auntie for the first time. I loved the idea of becoming a godmother. I didn’t realize that godmother was a religious thing, and thought it was just a guardian, so if there was a terrible and horrible accident, you’d be in charge of taking care of the child. I thought that was an amazing honor. I was lobbying very hard to become the godmother of what would become my first niece, Hannah, but at the time I was still dressing in all black. I was never a Goth by any huge stretch of the imagination, but a redhead looks pretty good wearing all-black all the time, and I love a motorcycle jacket and have been wearing one of those since I was sixteen years old, and had this giant hair. I was thinking to myself, standing in the back of the Catholic Church, with my giant big shoes, and my black motorcycle jacket and big hair, that I was a scary godmother.

“Literally, when I said those two words together, the proverbial light bulb went off. I saw this picture in my head of a witch with little bat wings, a black tutu, and little black eyes. And she was teeny tiny, like a Tinkerbell. I immediately sketched her out, and once I sketched her, I said ‘Oh, cool, I’ll make a book for the baby when the baby’s born! I’ll paint it and staple the pages together, and it’ll be a Halloween book, and a personal picture book for the baby.’”

That little sketch of this Scary Godmother soon took on a life—and a world—of her own.

“When I started writing it, Scary Godmother had friends right away, and things started writing themselves. I went ‘This is the story, the things I haven’t had for so long. People have been telling me to do my own thing, well this is my own thing.’ I’d actually gotten more than just a sketch and I decided that, instead of making a book by hand for the baby, I’d try to get the real book made and went looking for a publisher. It was more difficult than I thought. I went outside the comic book community and it was very difficult to get seen if you were without an agent. I’m very impatient and did not want to go through this process all over again.”

Scary Godmother soon made the rounds of comic book publishers, as Jill was anxious to find a home for her pet project.

“I submitted it to pretty much everyone I’d worked for, but they didn’t know what to do with it. I got rejection letters and calls. Robb Horan from Sirius Entertainment had seen me at conventions and asked me what this thing was that I’d had around. I showed it to him, and he’s the only person who immediately said ‘I’ll publish that.’

“I was like ‘Really?’

 “‘Yeah, what do you want to do with it?’

“‘I really want it to be a hardcover book, like a children’s book, but also like a comic.’”
The first Scary Godmother story follows alittle girl, Hannah, on an adventurous Halloween spent with her conniving older cousin Jimmy, where she’s tricked into entering an apparently haunted house alone.

It just turns out that the monsters who live in this house, including Hannah’s Scary Godmother (who just happens to look like Jill Thompson, distinctive red hair and all), help Hannah turn the tables on her mean cousin.
Scary Godmother is a hybrid of a storybook and comic book, told in lavishly painted illustrations. Jill continued to make Scary Godmother in both storybook and comic book form, even picking up two computer-generated television Halloween specials and a stage play. During the development stages of the first special, Jill gained some valuable encouragement from a fellow Chicago-ian, painter Alex Ross.

“When I was working on the Scary Godmother cartoon, for some reason I was trying to sculpt maquettes for them,” Jill says. “They’d sent me maquettes and they weren’t right; I’m one of those people who will go ‘Okay, go off and do this thing, but if you ask me to be involved, I will give you as much involvement as you want.’ They had sent me this maquette, and I went ‘Hannah’s not right, and they’re off. The face looks goofy, and no one understands the planes of a face. It’s a really cartoony drawing, so it should be super easy.’

“Then Alex goes ‘Just sculpt it for them…It’s easy, you can do it. You went to the same school. I didn’t know how to sculpt until I sculpted that bust of my father [from Alex’s comic book Kingdom Come]. They needed something because the sculptor was having a problem, so I went out and got some clay and just sculpted it for them. Then they ended up using that one.’

            “‘So you just went out that first day, and got some clay, and sculpted it?’

            “‘Yeah, it was no big deal. You’ll be able to do it.’

            “Part of me was going ‘Thanks for believing that I can,’” Jill says. “I went out and got some stuff, and I ended up doing it. I sculpted it and got what I wanted—the hair did fall off in transit—but it gave them a better idea of what I was looking for. Of course, mine wasn’t realistic, but three-dimensional based on my own drawing. I loved that he believed I could do that, with no doubt in his mind. I guess he knows if there’s something he needs to do, he can probably do it himself. There’s no one else to interpret it and get it out for people to see, so he just does it, perfect every time.”

“I love watercolor. Now it’s much quicker for me, and is also a way for me to control everything. If I paint it, I control the mood and I don’t hand my pencils off to somebody else…Watercolor is a way for me to fully bring to you what I see in my head.”

Jill’s distinctive watercolor style is on show with Beasts of Burden, her latest collaboration with writer Evan Dorkin. Burden follows the adventures of a group of dogs (plus one cat) as they defend their hometown from supernatural menaces of all shapes and sizes. It marries the cuteness of Thompson’s watercolor animals with Dorkin’s often frightening and emotionally jarring scripts.

“I know that there are things in there that are brutal for him to write, and it’s not like it doesn’t affect him,” Jill says of Evan. “He’s written things and then gone ‘I have to go hug my daughter, because I wrote every parent’s fear into this issue.’

            “There have been times, while working on that book, specifically the story ‘A Dog and his Boy.’ I wept openly while illustrating that book. There was one scene that I asked to have extra pages to make longer, because I thought that it was so intense, and so much to me what the whole issue is about. I said ‘I need to make people cry, and I can. I just need a little more.’”

Beasts of Burden even enjoyed a one-shot with Mike Mignola’s monstrous monster fighter, Hellboy, further testimony to Dorkin’s thoughtfulness as a writer—tied into his background as a cartoonist.

“Evan understood that at the time, and he knows, because I mentioned that having taller dogs talking to smaller animals, you have to understand if you have lots of guys in the panel it gets a little tricky. Evan’s an artist, too, and I think all artists write what they can draw. I don’t think there’s anything Evan’s written for me that he wouldn’t be able to accomplish for himself.”

See more of Jill Thompson, as well as 50 other top creators in Leaping Tall Buildings: The Origins of American Comics, coming in May from powerHouse Books and available for pre-order now.