Excerpts from “Where It’s Done: Craig Thompson’s Drawing Board.”
Excerpts From “Where It’s Done: Craig Thompson’s Drawing Board,”
by Milo George, Study Group Magazine #1
Chunky Rice came out in the summer of ’99, Blankets came out the summer of 2003, so with Habibi it will be eight years between releases. It took me six years of work; somehow there was two years lost there. Habibi is about 100 pages longer than Blankets, so it’s not significantly longer, but took me a lot longer than Blankets —which is ironic, because during Blankets I had to do freelance work to pay the bills. OnHabibi, for most of it I didn’t. There was a self-consciousness at play: even though it was my fourth book, it felt like my sophomore effort, so there was a lot of insecurity and awareness of my audience and all these expectations. That pressure didn’t actually exist at all with Blankets, because that was created in a vacuum, like I didn’t think anybody would actually see the book. There was also emotional fallout from Blankets, from people in it who were upset by it, and that paralyzed me in different ways. That I didn’t have other projects going certainly is not the way to work, it’s unhealthy to not have something else to do. I also don’t want to take seven years, eight years to do a book again. David B. told me that he always juggles at least two projects simultaneously because then you never get bored; it’s like the Coen Brothers method.
I gave myself a challenge: I turn 36 very soon, and I want to do four new books by the time I’m 40. That’s a pretty big challenge, considering it took me years to finish this last one! I’ve started on three of them, but haven’t much time to do a lot yet. I really like this notion of switching on and off between them, and they’re all completely different genres, if they’re genres at all. They’re all completely disparate projects. I think I had that naturally with Blankets because I was doing children’s comics for Nickelodeon at the time so I was always doing different styles and different work. It was a joy to switch modes, so I when I got burned out on Blankets, I had kids comics to do, and when I got burned out on kids comics I had Blankets. With Habibi, it was monotonous and monogamous, just one project. It became drudgery at times. So, I’m excited to have three very different projects that will work with different ideas in comics: one’s going to be very loose and expressionistic, one is going to be cartoony and the other will be something more fundamentally experimental. It will be cool to have those three compartments. I think a 200-page graphic novel is the ideal size, but that was my attitude with Habibi when I got started on it, too. It’s such a pretty size and it seems like a reasonable size for the artist and the audience. Two of these projects could be under that, and the other might go over. I am manga-influenced in the sense that I like to go off on tangents or let things breathe; I don’t condense things too much.
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Finishing A Project, Starting The Next
I used to start projects that would stall out all the time when I was doing minicomics; I would get 10 or 20 pages into what might have been my first book if I had had the follow-through. The biggest thing I’ve ever done in my entire career is finish something, and that was Chunky Rice. Then everything else sort of falls into place to some extent. I had a similar experience with Blankets; just finishing it was so important that it took on a life of its own.
On Habibi, I must’ve run into that wall a hundred times; even upon finishing it in September, I thought “Well, I should probably just burn all this.” When you actually finish, the best thing you can do is get it out of your hands before you can destroy it, and let it take a life of its own. All through the process, I keep reminding myself that finishing is the most important thing — probably more important than the project itself. I keep mentioning Chester Brown, but if you look at a project like Underwater or theGospels, both of those would be amazing books if they were ever completed. Those are projects that helped convince me to make graphic novels or novellas instead of serials; I was a huge fan of Yummy Fur, but reading stuff like that in pamphlet form didn’t quite make sense to me.
Habibi has nine chapters, three acts. Once I got to the last three chapters, I had no idea what was going to happen; I didn’t know how to end the book. So I had to stop; for seven months, I didn’t draw anything, I just went over the thumbnails. It’s very weird to have 450-something pages drawn and not know what to do or even if I could salvage it. I wrote many variations on those final chapters and they all communicated something completely different. I’ve never been an artist that starts with an ending; that’s the last thing I know. In some ways, I did have to choose an ending — you can do anything in comics; it’s a choose-your-own adventure — and since my books generally are not built around a plot, there’s not usually something in the early chapters that suggests the ending to me. Blankets has a sort of French ending, which are the kind of endings I like, but not too French. I guess what I’m aiming for is an American take on the French ending, one that doesn’t leave you totally stranded as an audience member thinking “What? What just happened?”
I realize now why it takes a while to get the next project going. I didn’t really start anything on Habibi until the fall of 2004. I finished Blankets in the spring of 2003 and it came out in the summer of 2003. But finishing Blankets was a complete financial meltdown; everything in my whole life was crumbling to pieces — in more ways than one, but especially financially — so I lined up at least a solid six months of nonstop work for other people after Blankets just to pay the bills. The other distraction was starting to tour with Blankets, and that was very time-consuming. It became most consuming once I left the country in February or March of 2004. I came back to Portland near the end of that summer and found an apartment for myself around September 2004, and that’s when I sat down and started Habibi.
I’m in that place again; I finished Habibi in September of last year, and then since then I’ve been working on some redraws and edits, and all the design work and production work — every element of a book’s production I do and send to press — so getting everything press-ready and handling press headaches is very time-consuming. But once that that was out the door and off to press, there was this vulnerable point where I started taking on outside projects. Most of these new projects don’t pay, it’s just charity work on some level or another — I have no regrets about filling up several months of my time with work that’s not going to pay — it’s the opposite of Blankets — because I was just feeling generous. More than anything, I want to sit down and work on my new books; I have three books milling about in my head, but I haven’t had a moment to really think or work on new stuff — and it’s going to get worse, obviously, once Habibi comes out! I’ll be touring and I know there will be like six months where I won’t be able to sit at a drawing board. I think Joe Sacco said that doing the book is great but once you’re finished with that it’s like dental work, and it’s true; it’s so time-consuming and still part of the process but for a while you still don’t feel like an artist anymore.
Read the rest of this 20 page interview in Study Group Magazine #1.