Getting an artist’s professional-life story down on tape can sometimes be quick work; documenting the evolution of that artist’s creative process across that career always takes a hideously long amount of time. This is probably why most journalists don’t do craft/process interviews.
Even at its final, mammoth size in Study Group Magazine #1, my “Where It’s Done” feature on Craig Thompson omitted a lot of interesting/amusing comments and conversations that he and I had over the course of our marathon interview session and subsequent followups. I plan to periodically stitch together some of the deleted material from the raw tapes and share them here. – milo
CRAIG THOMPSON: I went to the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design [Wisconsin] for one semester because that was all I could afford. I paid for it out-of-pocket and then spent six months paying off my loans. I never ended up back in school. All you end up doing in your first semester is toothpick sculptures. I felt like I was in kindergarten. We also spent a lot of time in wood shop too, so it felt like we were in a white-trash high school. You’re in White-trash high-school wood shop or you’re in kindergarten; that’s art school. Appropriately, my favorite class and favorite instructor was English. I went to a community college for a year, where the art classes were my favorite; when I went to art school, English was where I thrived. I didn’t fit in either context.
MILO GEORGE: Did you work during your time in college?
THOMPSON: When I was at community college I got a job driving a delivery van for the Wausau Daily Herald newspaper, like dispatch for all the missed papers, for a year and a half; you’d drive out to deliver a paper to a house that didn’t get theirs and called in to complain. I used to draw these elaborate cartoons on the dispatch board and someone in the design department saw them and encouraged me to apply for a low-end ad-stylist job for the paper. So I applied and got promoted from low-end delivery-truck driver to doing graphic design at a newspaper. I was there for over a year full-time; at one point, I phased out my schooling and just became a worker. I think everything I learned about computers and graphic design, I got there. They were still doing paste-up back then — this is like 1994, ’95. It was cool to have daily deadlines too; it’s a great exercise for any cartoonist. You could walk downstairs into the gigantic pressroom with these massive presses running, it was all very tangible; if you made a mistake, you’d see how it turned out off the press. I still use all that information; it’s probably a little outdated.
GEORGE: So you’ve been drawing with final printing in mind from the beginning?
THOMPSON: Yeah. They had two presses: One was a small offset, small-run digital press — I made my first minicomic on that press. I wasn’t stealing copies; since I was an employee, I just had to pay for the materials. The only thing I did on the professional press was 2-Way Cartoon Machine. That’s actually my first minicomic is actually a flipbook, with myself on one side and Kurt Halsey on the other. He’s fairly well known in the indie painting world in Indiana. He went from being a cartoonist — he was the one of the people who convinced me to start drawing comics — to being a painter, but he has a cartoony style still.
I worked a bunch of shitty jobs in Milwaukee. I was there for another year, a full year after dropping out of art school. The biggest stepping-stone jobs I had back then were jobs animating laser-light shows for a children’s museum, Discovery World, and later drawing stuff for a small advertising agency.
For the museum, I was a one-man lackey for these two stuffy theater guys who ran the theater department at the museum. It was actually pretty cool; the actors were really good and they did a lot of things with Tesla coils and big gimmicks, semi-explosive things going off on stage. The museum acquired these lasers, and I got hired at seven bucks an hour to animate laser-light shows; they would give me a theme and a song, like, “Use ‘I Am The Walrus’ by the Beatles and the theme is ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ now run with that!” and I would have to create a storyboard, a narrative, and draw all the cells for the laser animation by myself. They were drawn with the mouse or a WACOM tablet, 20 plates or so per second, with a lot of loops. It took an insane amount of work and then they took all the credit for it; I think they’re still showing these laser shows that I did 20 years ago! That was a great best-worst job, because I was finally getting paid to make art, and at that point in my life, $7 an hour was amazing pay because I was doing telemarketing and working in bagel shops before that, but the museum job totally destroyed me; it was a lot of all-nighters and I didn’t get to see my friends.
Then I worked at an advertising agency. I had moved back home for three months before moving to Portland — my lease was up, my job was up and I was in no-man’s-land. I was 21 at that point, living with my parents and working in a small-town advertising agency, which was an awesome job. They had one copywriting guy who wrote slogans and jingles, two designers, two fancy-pants business people and a secretary — a really small agency. Probably the most fun job I’ve ever had; the energy was really funny, the stakes are so low because you’re just doing graphic design for small-town Wisconsin companies. That led to me eventually getting a job at Dark Horse.
I mentioned the children’s museum earlier as probably my best-worst job ever, but Dark Horse was definitely my best-worst job ever — I was in comics for the first time in my life, but so far away from actually making the kind of comics I wanted to do.
I lucked out; very early on, they singled me out as the designer for all the quirky, indie-style books, which made me so happy and I got to work with guys like Dave Land and Phil Amara. I remember the first time I got to talk to and work with Jay Stevens, on Land Of Nod, being a huge fanboy moment. I worked on Mike Allred’s Madman when it was still at Dark Horse — across the board, if they had a fun, quirky project, I was assigned to do the graphic design and that was the best part of the job, although still it was just graphic design. But I also had to do design for stuff like action figures for the character Ghost, very buxom, and “Aliens Versus the Vikings” when they put out books like that. [I thought Craig was joking or exaggerating but no, this really is a thing that exists.- milo] When I was working on projects like that, it was the worst thing in the world. Just in general — I was working on a computer all day long, making lunchboxes and logos when I wanted to be making comics, so it was both really exciting and yet super-frustrating but still a high point.
Anyone who’s been to Dark Horse knows it has a sort of dungeon-like quality; you have this perception that it’s going to be, ah …
GEORGE: You’re literally in Richardson’s fiefdom; it seems like there’s some Dark Horse department on almost every block of that town’s center –
THOMPSON: Yeah, but it’s very oppressive when you’re in there — or at least the design department was. It was like, “Shhh, no talking” like a library. Just working, no talking. I don’t know, maybe that’s how most of those jobs are. I visited LAIKA a few times; that place seems dynamic and fun but maybe, if you’re working there, it’s not. Maybe it’s oppressive there, too.
GEORGE: Was the design department upstairs when you were working there?
THOMPSON: Yeah, but I don’t think it was different from editorial, which wasn’t a playground either. There’s no windows in that area, everything’s very closed off. At least there are windows upstairs!
GEORGE: No windows, no wall clocks except one in the meeting room—
THOMPSON: There was a big clock right where I was working; I kept an eye on it.
GEORGE: Maybe they uninstalled the clocks recently; some corporate-productivity consultants come into an office and the first thing they do is get rid of the wall clocks, take them out of general-use areas like hallways. It’s the same theory behind why Las Vegas casinos never have clocks.
GEORGE: That people are more focused and can stay focused on whatever’s in front of them for much longer-than-normal amounts of time if they have no reminders or indicators in their field of vision that time is passing.
THOMPSON: Man — that Life is passing.
GEORGE: Did you pick up a lot of knowledge about production for comics there?
THOMPSON: I learned Photoshop coloring at Dark Horse, and I still use that method, basically. There’s so much that they teach you about production methods that are outdated because they haven’t necessarily shifted as the technology has gotten so much better in terms of what printers can output; they’re still outputting at a pretty low resolution, so most of what I learned about production that has been most valuable and still useful I’ve gotten from my friendship with Jordan Crane, who is one of my first buddies in comics. We used to nerd out on the phone a lot.
I learned how to trap at Dark Horse, which was handy recently. Actually, that was one of my interview questions. I was interviewed by a couple people there, but one of them was Cary Grazzini; I brought in all these samples of work I had done at the advertising agency and he asked “Did you trap this?” And I said yeah, not kind of knowing what he meant; it was nothing I had to worry about before. Then he asked “How did you trap it?” and I finally asked “What’s trapping?”
I was just in New York to give final approval on the Habibi cover and I said, “Wait, these are trapped! I didn’t prepare these to be trapped,” because it originally was going to be clothbound. We spent six months working on a clothbound design and then at the very last moment Pantheon said it was too expensive for clothbound, it has to be paperstock. They took the same files that were designed to be almost like a screenprint on cloth and, at the last minute, I pointed out that they weren’t trapped. I had completely designed for cloth, but now I’m OK with paper — the front cover was supposed to have a tip-in, which would’ve been glued and that would be something could peel off, and sometimes when you’re stamping gold foil on cloth it can look shitty. The cool thing about this is that it’s going to be very crisp. I’m 100% fine with it not being cloth, but I was really worried that it would have that look, like I was trying to make it look like cloth.