JILL THOMPSON ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
Jill Thompson is a very talented person. She quickly rose through the ranks of comic book pros while working with Neil Gaiman on Sandman. However, Jill set a new creative bar when she introduced her creator-owned property Scary Godmother to the market. It gave birth to a series of wonderful comics, as well as a stage play and two animated TV specials.
Jill has worked for a who’s who of publishers inside and outside the comics community. Her lovely watercolour washes have dazzled and impressed publishers, retailers and fans alike. The secret to Jill’s success is versatility and an unbridled imagination.
A gallery of Jill’s delicious art follows this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Jill Thompson: Drawing and writing comics, creating them, has been my career goal ever since I was a little girl. I cannot remember a time that I did not want to be a cartoonist. I suppose reading Peanuts by Charles Schulz as a child led me to the path I am on now. I remember telling my mom, “When I grow up, I’m going to draw Snoopy!” And she told me, “Well, someone already draws Snoopy, so you will have to make up your own comic characters.”
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
JT: In comics? I never took a comic book course at a school, there was no such thing when I went to my school…in fact a few of my instructors were less than enthusiastic about comics. So I suppose my teachers were all of my comic book influences – Charles Schultz, Dan deCarlo, Harry Lucey, Bob Montana, Bob Bolling, Sam Schwartz, John Buscema, Wendy Pini, John Byrne, P. Craig Russell, the Hernandez Brothers, Steve Rude, Paul Smith and, of course, Alex Toth, Jack Kirby, Joe Kubert, Will Eisner, Wally Wood…I did go to the American Academy of Art in Chicago. There I learned all the fundamentals of art, illustration, life drawing, painting, design, composition, advertising, photography, and I applied all of these necessary components to the sequential arts. I think if you understand how to read comics and you understand the language of comics then you are going to be able to apply your skills to the template that you already understand and build upon it.
JM: Who, in your opinion, are the pioneers of sequential art?
JT: I am by no means a comics historian and I’m thinking of all of these answers off the top of my head so it will be a really incomplete list! There’s no way I could cover all of the amazing talents that have influenced sequential story telling. I think my answer to the above questions covers many of the really influential modern masters, but you have to go back further to the Katzenjammer Kids, Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, Frank King’s Gasoline Alley – what amazing full page Sunday comics masterpieces they created! Oh, man!..Hal Foster, Milt Caniff, Chester Gould…. and Dale Messick‘s Brenda Starr – Reporter!!! [Messick] was such a pioneer and met with such resistance because she was a female creator! Jean Giraud/Moebius, Osamu Tezuka…so many people took what came before them and tweaked it into something unique and new!
JM: How do you define sequential art?
JT: I think sequential art is a perfect pairing of art and dialogue. They complement each other. Not so easy to define in words. You can’t just stick word balloons on a drawing and have it be sequential art. There has to be good storytelling. You need to be able to understand what is happening before you read the word balloons. It’s all about the storytelling. It’s not just a pinup with caption boxes. Everything that is put on the page should have great thought and care put into where it goes. Lettering and coloring as well. Nothing is an afterthought. Just because you have a computer and can use Photoshop does not mean you are a colorist. You need to know color theory and how to create a mood. You have to place lettering as if it was another character drawn into the story. You are orchestrating how a reader experiences your story and hopefully they are getting an emotional response or connection based on how you do that!
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining? Please elaborate.
JT: Limitless. The only thing that constrains you is your imagination. You can create worlds, go inside the mind of your characters, pace things exactly the way you wish your audience to experience them. I don’t find it to be artistically limiting in any way.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
JT: Keep getting better. Strive to be greater. Keep learning. It’s like being an improv performer. Listen to everything, read voraciously and absorb everything wherever you are; you will see that it finds its way onto your page. Work hard. Push yourself. Ask advice from professionals in the business and listen to their advice. Remember that you are telling a story – make sure that it entertains, informs, unnerves – whatever your goal. I like to entertain. I like to make a connection with my audience, I suppose… That is one of my goals.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
JT: It depends. If I am the writer and artist of the story, I do not write out a full script for myself. It is mostly a page outline and a plot for each page with dialogue. I don’t need to be detailed with art direction because I’m not describing the action for someone else. I know what I want to happen on the page or in the scene.
Then I sketch out a thumbnail of the page to work out the pacing and camera angles and stuff like that. Nothing very detailed, just scribbles really. And then I lay a few pages out in pencil on my paper so I will have a few at the ready.
Then in the morning before I paint, I tighten up each page and start painting. If I finish at a reasonable hour, I’ll sketch out another page to keep my stash full of pages that are ready to paint so I can hit the ground running. That is my ideal work groove.
JM: How many hours a day do you work? Are you uniformly productive on any given day or more productive on some days than others?
JT: A painted page takes me about ten to fourteen hours to complete once it is drawn out. I am not uniformly productive. I wish I were. Sometimes you cannot just sit down and paint for that many hours without life getting in the way. But when I am, I am very productive. I find that, as I am older I need a certain routine to get me into a rhythm. I like the rhythm.
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
JT: Freelance illustrating is always a struggle. It’s feast or famine. You find yourself taking every job that comes along… Because if you’ve ever had the famine part, you know you do not want to experience that again! And I think that there is a fear that one day you won’t be able to find work at all. But, I’ve never just wanted to be a cog in the wheel of comics machinery. I’ve always wanted to create something that I am known for. To do it all. I’m working to create my own market and audience and not be tied up in the assembly line comics process as much…I like to do all the jobs.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
JT: Probably working on Sandman with Neil Gaiman. It raised my visibility in the comics community. And next, when I created Scary Godmother – because that moved me into the sole creator category of comics creators. I wasn’t simply the artist on a book, I was a comics creator.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
JT: People. How they act and react; humor, legend, mythos, nature…other artists and artisans. My imagination. It’s filled with stories that I need to put down on paper before I die! Or before my eyesight fails!
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
JT: They are a new thing. My preferred method of storytelling takes place in a paper format because that’s what I grew up reading. I think of page turns and fold outs and double page spreads when I design my comics. But, now that things are meant to be read digitally, it’s a new structure that I will learn to adapt to. Or I won’t.
I want the reader to get my stories in whatever way they are most comfortable reading them. Ideally I think print and digital can coexist for some things. I could be wrong. You can read a printed-on-paper book or comic by candlelight if you lose power…there’s something comforting to me about a well-designed graphic novel or book. I like a slipcase or a laser cut fancy cover…it’s more than just the interior content. It’s special.
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
JT: Ha! Well, everyone would have health insurance! And the older creators who never benefitted financially from their creations, the way the big companies have, would be millionaires! Their legacies would be well known by mainstream media and their heirs would be set for life!
All creators would profit from their creations “in perpetuity throughout the universe in all known media and media yet unknown”. Can you tell I’ve had legal dealings? Ha!
That would be excellent.
I’d also love for the retailers that support our medium so fervently and lovingly to get more respect and money! The great ones work really hard to keep a diverse amount of product on their shelves and expand their customer base and our readership!
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
JT: I’d love to sit and watch Jaime Hernandez draw for hours on end. I’d love to go back in time and learn first-hand from Andrew Loomis. I’d love to watch Disney background painters create the background paintings for Bambi, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and the Tramp…or work for Hayao Miyazaki…the background paintings for his films are incredible!
I’d love to apprentice with a master potter, or a sculptor. Someone who sees art in an entirely different way than I do. I always think sequentially.
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
JT: I would love to expand, to create Scary Godmother products – dolls, Hallowe’en housewares, costumes, and decorations, clothing…I have a whole book of illustrations for it. I’m beginning work on it! Hopefully the first of many cool things will be coming very soon!
I’d also love to take on a few students. I have a comics course in my head that I have been working on for a while. I’d love to make that happen. I need more space. I can’t well work with a bunch out of a ten by fifteen foot room!
I want to make more Scary Godmother and Magic Trixie books and comics.
There are some horror tales I’d like to tell.
I’d like to do more stage adaptations of my work, as well. Film and TV, too. I think Scary Godmother would make a really cool mash-up of The Muppets and The Pee-wee Herman Show, but by way of Hallowe’en! To see a big Muppet-y Bug-a-boo the size of the Snuffaleupagus? So awesome!