Talking Comics with Tim | Jill Thompson
The Monday before Halloween, as well as the Monday before the release of the Beasts of Burden/Hellboy one-shot (Set for release this Wednesday from Dark Horse), was the ideal time for an interview with writer/artist Jill Thompson. October has been busy for Dark Horse and Thompson, given that earlier in the month the publisher released the new hardcover Scary Godmother collection of the four “Eisner Award-winning, fully painted children’s books … (Scary Godmother, Revenge of Jimmy, The Mystery Date, and The Boo Flu)”. The prospect of new Scary Godmother was a great topic to cover with Thompson, as well as learning her thoughts on how she creates certain tales and how organic the creative process is for her. Thanks to Dark Horse’s Jim Gibbons for arranging this interview, and I offer a great deal of gratitude to Thompson for this discussion.
Tim O’Shea: How satisfying is it to have all of the fully-painted Scary Godmother stories repackaged into one book? You considered teaming with different publishers to collect the stories, but what factors motivated you to go with Dark Horse?
Jill Thompson: Well, the original books, published by Sirius Entertainment had been out of print for a long while and I was very anxious to find a way to get them back out to the reading public. Since there are two animated specials in seasonal rotation on the Cartoon Network I knew there were a great many new fans I could introduce or reintroduce to the original material. I’m so happy that the book is back in print and available at comic shops and bookstores and online.
I’ve been working with Dark Horse on the Beasts of Burden series and they are really great to work with. But my decision to work with them was due to their eagerness to publish and enthusiasm for the material. It feels good to be supported like that!
O’Shea: Johanna Draper Carlson recently reviewed the collected edition and had this to say: “My favorite touch is that, as with the original releases, the front endpaper has a bookplate designed into it, reading ‘This Book Belongs to’ with space for a name. It’s a lovely detail that encourages young readers to feel a sense of ownership over their book. Reading and re-reading Scary Godmother should become part of Halloween holiday traditions for every family.”
When creating the Scary Godmother character and stories was it your hope it would become, as Draper-Carlson views it, a Halloween classic?
Thompson: Of course! I knew I loved it and I hope everyone that reads what I write and illustrate will love it just as much as I do!
O’Shea: Secondly, was it your idea (in the initial books) to borrow a page from the classic Golden Book nameplate?
Thompson: Well, I designed each and every page of those original books, so they were all my ideas! I knew what I liked from books that I read when I was a kid and I wanted to have that same type of visual appeal. I thought it would be a nice place to personalize a book to a person when I sign it or better yet, get to sign a book that a kid might have put their own name in that space in crayon!
O’Shea: The blurbs endorsing Scary Godmother (on the back cover) are some of the most diverse collection of blurbs that I’ve seen. You’ve got Jeff Smith’s praise sandwiched in between Frank Miller and Mick Foley.
Thompson: I’ve actually illustrated two books that Mick Foley has written- Mick Foley’s Halloween Hijinx and Tales From Wrescal Lane.
O’Shea: I’m curious how did the Shane “Hurricane” Helms blurb find its way onto the back cover?
Thompson: The simple answer is, I asked him and he said yes! The longer version is that Shane is a comic fan and I’m a wrestling fan and I met him quite a few years ago and we became friends. I was really pleased that he sent me such a glowing review. I wanted the quotes to be from people who really meant what they say because it is so personal and important to me. Plus I wanted to show that people from all walks of life would like Scary Godmother!
O’Shea: Can you tell folks the back story on your dedication of the book to Isla-Sophia?
Thompson: Isla- Sophia is my youngest niece. Each of the original books were dedicated to different children… All my nieces are included and some of my godchildren. The first to my niece Hannah, the second to nieces Emma and Ellie, the third to niece Lucy, Liam and niece Abby and the fourth was to Kelsey, niece Sarah, niece Lynne and Gabe. Kinda funny that each book had the same number of children born as the volume of the book in the span of time it took me to make a book! And now that there’s a repackaging- I’m fortunate to have the fairly new, two years beautiful, Isla to dedicate it to.
O’Shea: I love the page in The Mystery Date when you reveal the aptly name “Monster Truck Rally”. I know that was developed long ago, but do you recall how you came up with that delightfully inspired story element?
Thompson: It just seemed natural. I love a play on words. I also like hot rods and old cars and I thought it would be a natural thing for there to be stuff like that on the fright side. The monsters go to the monster truck rally….it’s loud and colorful and so are they!
O’Shea: In the Boo Flu story, what was the hardest (or most enjoyable) rhyme for you to pull off?
Thompson: Well, I’m not going to say it was a cinch, but rhyming comes sort of easy to me. It’s really musical and all about timing, so I just kind of start out knowing what I want to show and then figure out if there’s a way to make it fit the ‘song’ I create. Sometimes it’s more a matter of moving paragraphs around to where they fit into the rhyme than it is trying to make them fit in a certain order. And some things didn’t fit in the story at all. So they are out there dangling waiting for another rhyme to put them in.
It helps that I used to be in an improv troupe and one of our performance games was to make up a song based on suggestions from the audience. Usually a blues number, but the premise is the same- fit the information into the tune without making it sound unnatural.
I’ve got one started for a new Scary Godmother storybook and I’m building on it a bit at a time. I should probably start writing it down, right?
O’Shea: Back in The Comics Journal 244 interview by Lynn Emmert, you said: “… when I sit down with comics, I always suspect I’m going to draw exactly the same thing, every single time. And I never do. Some things are… I guess I’d call it like Steve Rude and Jaime Hernandez influenced, where the lines are real rounded and smooth. But when I started drawing Scary Godmother, I never knew it was going to come out the way it did. And if people want me to draw like that for other projects I can’t do it, the characters don’t look like that.”
Thompson: I probably could draw that way, if I forced myself, but the Scary Godmother is the Scary Godmother and that style is right for that. I like that it’s unique to her stories.
I’ve drawn more realistically for superhero comics or the X-Files graphic novel Afterflight, manga style for Death: At Death’s Door, more cartoony for Finals and super cutiepie stuff for the Little Endless Storybook and other things that require such a style. It’s what I was taught to do at my art school. Because they train you to be the one to get whatever job is coming your way. A freelance survival kit of sorts or a freelance rules of play…
O’Shea: There is a plethora of artistic bonus material in the Scary Godmother collection, which was the one you most looked forward to getting to include?
Thompson: Believe it or not, there’s still lots of stuff that didn’t make it into the collection! I did so much art for the TV show and I’ve always wanted to share that with people, I’m happy there’s a way for some of it to get seen. Ideally many of the images could have been printed as double page spreads. The covers, the neighborhood scenes are all 13- 15 inches wide. We tried to get quality and quantity in there! Hopefully we’ll get to include more material in the next volume, Scary Godmother – The Comic Book Stories, which will collect all of the comics and miniseries I did. I’m glad some of the expression sheets I did were able to see the light of day. It was cool to see them blown up and plastered all over the walls at Mainframe (Entertainment [the animators]) so the animators could use them as they worked on the show.
O’Shea: When this Scary Godmother collection was announced you expressed an interest in doing some new stories as well. How soon can we look forward to seeing some of them?
Thompson: I have two stories that I would love to get published. One is definitely another 40-page storybook. The other one could be turned into a miniseries I think. I say that now, ha. But definitely two stories that I’ve had that I’d love to tell for you all.
O’Shea: When you embark on a new project and start drawing, can you describe how surprising or exciting it is to go in expecting to draw something that will look a certain way, but you end up with something that varies from your expectation. Is it frustrating for you when editors seek you out, wishing you to draw a non-Scary Godmother in a Scary Godmother style?
Thompson: Well, the script dictates what the style will be when it comes out of me. So it’s more organic of a process. Maybe that’s my initial collaboration with the writer. Just the emotional feeling that I get from the story has already influenced me even before I start doing the heavy lifting/storytelling part. And, not many people seek me out looking for a Scary Godmother style. Just design firms that want to use my Halloween images for party goods but don’t wish to actually license the material! When people seek me out now, they are either looking for me as creator to bring my writing and artistic sensibility to a certain character or story or they are looking for my painted style of art.
O’Shea: Anytime you draw an established character, you have an amazing way of staying loyal to the character’s original look, while still giving it a Thompson-esque vibe. In looking at some of the scenes from the Beasts of Burden/Hellboy one-shot I was astounded at how you make Hellboy visually gel so effectively with the Beasts of Burden cast. How many preliminary sketches and aborted attempts did you go through before getting a feel for Hellboy?
Thompson: I love Hellboy and I wanted to do him justice. It’s very intimidating to live up to the Mignola standard! He’s one of my favorite artists of all time! There is a mood that goes along with Hellboy that I wanted to retain more than anything. So I was looking to body language and demeanor as well as, let’s say, the accurate amount of fingers on the right hand of doom. I did many scribbles but I didn’t have time to do character studies of him. I just kept lots of reference around. I probably could have made things darker or used a more limited palette and spotted more blacks to keep it in more of a Hellboy flavor.
O’Shea: How important do you find is an editor like Scott Allie to making a one-shot like this a success for both creators and audience?
Thompson: Scott had to put up with lots of freelancer headaches! . He was patient and great and I owe him because I had a jumble of deadlines, too many things to paint that collided like a car on a railroad crossing. Just one of those unhappy accidents that one does not plan for. And soooo not enough time to do it all. But somehow it all worked out!
O’Shea: In terms of character dynamics and interaction, who among the Beasts of Burden cast did you most relish getting to have Hellboy play off of (and vice versa)?
Thompson: I think everyone was happy to see the Pugsly and Hellboy dynamic. Seeing how Pugs is such a smartass and Hellboy can be as well except with much less dialogue. He’s more of a put you in your place with a look, a few bon mots and then one huge punch.
O’Shea: For Hellboy fans who think this one-shot might not be their cup of tea, what can you say to convince them to check the story out?
Thompson: If they aren’t going to give it a try because they already have a preconceived notion against it, I’m not sure they’ll even be reading this! But, in the off chance they are and they are looking for that one thing that might convince them to plunk down their hard earned cash for it, I’ll say this: “You never know if you’ll like it, unless you try it!’
O’Shea: I’m sure as you attended cons over the past several months, you had your fair share of folks getting you to sign their copies of the Beasts of Burden: Animal Rites collection. Were there any fan reactions that really stuck in you rmind? Has word-of-mouth grown on the popularity of the characters since the collected release (versus when it was being sold as individual issues)?
Thompson: It’s always nice to hear that we made people cry…I know that sounds horrible, but I think you know what I mean. To get an emotional reaction out of the reader. I’ve cried at certain points while creating it and I hope that some of that emotion translates from me to the page and then to the reader.
In addition, I’ve had quite a few kids who love the book and even though it has some ‘adult language’ in it and violence. Parents can judge whether or not their kid can handle it- that being said, I like it when the little kids tell me who is the hero and who is the bad guy and that the hero is ‘gonna get that guy!’ I like that you can root for the gang. We’ve got a cuddly and interesting cast!
I’m happy each time I hear someone say their shop recommended it to them or their friend recommended it and they picked it up. Apparently that has been the case because our first run has been sold out and the book is back at the printers! I hope we have created something that might become a timeless classic that can be enjoyed years from now.
O’Shea: What’s the best storytelling lessons you’ve taken away from collaborating with Evan Dorkin?
Thompson: Wow! Put me on the spot whydoncha? Evan and I both write and illustrate, so I think we both brought different sensibilities to the table. It was how we decided to mix them together that made the collaboration.
O’Shea: How much tighter has the creative shorthand (communication between writer and artist) between you and Dorkin become on this new one-shot, compared to when you were working on Animal Rites?
Thompson: I’d say Evan had begun to trust my abilities a bit more. If anything, I’ve been trying to get him to write less. Just as far as art direction goes. His dialogue does so much to set the stage. I think he does lots of extra work that is unnecessary for me because I glean so much from the characters talking to each other. So that’s probably one thing I kept insisting on from him. I had to get used to drawing something that someone else had actually written. I’ve been used to writing my own stories and pacing them or adapting something that was prose and pacing it my way. I’m a bit spoiled in that regard, so it was a shift in gears to see a full script when I get these stories! It all worked out very nicely, don’t you think?
O’Shea: Is there anything we should discuss on the Dark Horse front that I neglected to ask you about?
Thompson: You mean upcoming projects? Well, next year, as I said before, we will be collecting the (Scary Godmother) comic book stories in one volume sometime early next year. I’d love to have more Dark Horse projects on my plate.