Born 1975 (Traverse City, Michigan)
American author, illustrator
"I want each book to be its own entity, with its own sound and texture, like Beck albums! I'm not going to become an 'autobiographical cartoonist' or anything."
For many people the emotional turmoil of life, with its ups and downs, is something to keep to themselves, or even to run away from. Not Craig Thompson. In his graphic novels, Thompson tackles big, emotionally charged topics such as the complications of growing up, missing friends, first love, family ties, and coming to terms with religious belief. His most celebrated work is the autobiographical Blankets, which tells the story of his teenage romance and coming to terms with his strict fundamentalist religious upbringing. His honest depictions of raw emotions quickly won fans, and his books have been honored with Harvey Awards, Eisner Awards, and Ignatz Awards.
Grows up in fundamentalist family
Born in 1975 in Traverse City, Michigan, Thompson was raised with his brother and sister in rural Marathon, Wisconsin. Devout Christians, Thompson's parents brought up their children according to strict ideas about family and faith. The Bible formed a firm foundation for his early life and learning. He was homeschooled for a year with materials from the Christian Liberty Academy, using the Bible as the main textbook. But even during his public school years, Thompson remembered reading the Bible for an hour each day. Generally, as a young boy, Thompson shunned ideas and books that did not accord with the Bible. Thompson shared with John Anderson in an interview for Mars Import that "I believed—as I was told—that it was the ONLY book one needed to read."
Goodbye, Chunky Rice (1999).
Carnet de Voyage (2004).
Thompson's upbringing in rural Wisconsin kept him isolated from much of the broader world, but it did bring his family closer together. Thompson related in several interviews that his family did not communicate well with one another. From an early age, Thompson turned to drawing to express his feelings and thoughts. And as he grew, he developed his own sense of the world, one that contrasted with his parents'. One of the most dramatic differences was his eventual abandonment of Christianity in favor of a more personal spiritual life. Thompson would eloquently and forth-rightly address his emotional and intellectual struggles in his books, but speaking with his parents remained difficult. Thompson made the difficulties clear to Anderson. Noting that his second book, Blankets, "did indeed spark the first real conversation post-faith with his parents," he said that "It was exhausting, and yet nourishing to finally get all those cards out on the table, in a family with stunted communication." He told Daniel Robert Epstein in an interview for Suicide Girls that his parents were at first "pretty upset," adding that they said his book "bared witness for the devil." Thompson related to Graphic Novelists (GN) that his parents have "an awkward blend of pride and shame in the success of the book."
Throughout his school years, Thompson pondered how to make a living through his art. While he had read comic strips from an early age and some of his close school friends had loved comic books, Thompson did not develop a strong interest in comics in his first (and only) year at community college. His first ideas for a career were as an artist or animator. But when he came across comics such as Mike Allred's Madman and Jeff Smith's Bone, he started to consider comics as a career. He began to draw a comic strip for his college newspaper and loved it. "It filled all my needs," Thompson told Karin L. Kross of Bookslut. "I was able to draw cartoons, to tell a story; but I also had total control, and I wasn't just a cog in some machine somewhere."
Although Thompson attended one semester of art school, he was ultimately "disappointed by the reality of art school," Thompson told GN. "I found my previous year of community college much more academically fulfilling." By 1997, Thompson had dropped out of college for financial reasons and committed himself to pursuing his art. He moved to Portland, Oregon, and took a variety of illustration and graphic art jobs to make ends meet while he worked on his comics. He completed a few minicomics and started many projects that he never finished before creating Goodbye, Chunky Rice, which would become his debut graphic novel.
Goodbye, Chunky Rice
Goodbye, Chunky Rice is a tale about two close friends from a small town and their emotional reaction to one's leaving to explore the wider world. (Writing the story coincided with Thompson's own move to the unknown of the big city, leaving behind close friends.) Chunky Rice is an adorable turtle who journeys out to sea, leaving his friend, the lovely mouse Dandel, behind. While the main story revolves around these friends, other characters round out the tale, offering varying perspectives on the loss of loved ones and being distant from friends. In Shotgun Review, Troy Brownfield called the book "an amazing creative feat," adding that "it's honestly accessible to all ages, and it works with a complex layering of themes and ideas. At times the air of wistfulness and the cute creatures (wonderfully depicted in Thompson's fanciful art) prod your memory of exceptional children's literature." Published in 1999, the novel won a Harvey Award and nominations for other top comics industry awards and has since gone into a sixth printing.
Despite the media attention and accolades Goodbye, Chunky Rice brought Thompson, he did not perceive himself to be limited to the comic style of his debut book. He did, however, conceive of another project that would explore deeply felt emotions. For his next book, Thompson told the story of his first love and his decision to abandon Christianity.
Thompson freely admits that Blankets is an autobiography. But he edited the truth a bit to make a compelling story. The character in Blankets, for example, has only one brother; Thompson has a brother and a sister. Thompson's coming-of-age story is full of life. He eloquently depicts the troubles of sharing a bedroom with his brother, the changing Midwest seasons, church camp, molestation, the strictness of his parents, falling in love with a girl from another town, and questioning his faith. The result was described by James Poniewozik of Time as "a bittersweet meditation on family, faith, loss and memory." The depth and detail Thompson poured into Blankets totaled nearly 600 pages, making it the longest comic book in history that was not originally published in installments over time.
Thomson drew and lettered each page with care over a three-and-a-half-year span. His work process resembled that used by writers of prose. First he worked out the story, then drew thumb-nail sketches of the entire book, then created the final inked pages. The entire book was drawn by hand in black ink on white vellum Bristol board. Thompson related his preference for black-and-white to Joseph Gallivan in the Portland Tribune. "I don't like color for comics, something about keeping it calligraphic," he noted. "Chris Ware (who appears in Raw magazine and drew Jimmy Corrigan for Pantheon Graphic Novels) said comics are drawings that are written. I can work in color, but black and white is instant; it's expressive like the writing experience. Color slows down both the creator and the reader."
The resulting book grabbed the attention of the comic book industry, as well as the general reading public. "Blankets is one of the top ten most significant works within the comic book medium ever," wrote David Hopkins in Fanboy Radio Newsletter. Library Journal hailed it as a "triumph." Blankets won three Harvey Awards, two Eisner Awards, and two Ignatz Awards, the top three awards in the comics industry.
In between graphic novels
While traveling in Europe for several months to promote Blankets and research his next project, an Arabian fairytale, Thompson kept a journal. His sketches and notes from his trip were published in Carnet de Voyage. The resulting book offers readers insight into Thompson's obsession with drawing: he draws everything that catches his eye, from pretty girls, to exotic food, to bustling markets, to snowy woodlands. He draws so much that his hand hurts at the end of each day. What Carnet de Voyage also does is provide a glimpse of Thompson as a maturing adult, the next logical step after his coming-of-age story in Blankets. Thompson, however, did not predict that his work would remain autobiographical. He related to Suicide Girls that "I definitely want to move on from myself as a writer and when you're younger you have to focus more on yourself. Hopefully 20 years from now I will be doing more broad work. The next project I want to do is something with a more social conscience."
Indeed, he described his project titled Habibi as his "world music" album, with an "ethnically diverse cast against more exotic/epic backdrops." He explained that inspiration for infusing this project with social and political relevancy came from his neighbor, Joe Sacco (1960–; see entry), creator of such works as Palestine and War's End: Profiles from Bosnia. Thompson told GN that his next project, after Habibi, would be geared toward younger readers because "suddenly the medium isn't for them anymore, and we need to start converting the future generations!"
Varying Artistic Styles
Craig Thompson's artistic ability has enabled him to express himself in a number of different styles. Although he described himself to GN as "a simple brush-and-ink guy" who "drew both Chunky Rice and Blankets with the same variety of cheap water color brush," Thompson coaxed very different looks from his brush for his various projects. About how he decided what approach to take on a particular project, Thompson explained to GN that "the content informs the drawing style."
Drawing inspiration from the Muppets, Thompson's cute, cartoony style for Goodbye, Chunky Rice lent an innocence to his characters. His characters' big eyes and rounded features gave them a look of tenderness that exaggerated their emotions. After Goodbye, Chunky Rice, Thompson related his desire for artistic change to Epstein: "I was sick of cutesy little cartoon animals and the real slick brush line I was using. So right away I knew I was going to break away from both of those conventions and have a loose expressive brush line and work with humans." For Blankets, Thompson drew humans more realistically, depicting himself as an awkward, gangly teen, his father as a burly, gruff man, and his love, Raina, as an angelic beauty. For his ongoing work on Habibi, Thompson told GN that he had been "fueling up on Islamic art and architecture and calligraphy and geometric design, and I need that to be present in the pages." In his future work, he said that he would continue to explore new artistic styles.
Each publication of his new work revealed more depth to Thompson's storytelling and artistic talent. As his friend Hillevi remarks of Thompson in Carnet de Voyage: "You have so many layers that you can peel away a few, and everyone's so shocked or impressed that you're baring your soul, while to you it's nothing, because you know you've twenty more layers to go." With so much more to reveal, Thompson seemed poised for a long career in comics.
For More Information
Library Journal (January 2004): p. 48; (March 15, 2005): p. 67.
Poniewozik, James. "Blankets." Time (August 25, 2003): p. 57.
Anderson, John. "Craig Thompson: The Mars Import Interview." Mars Import. http://www.marsimport.com/feature.php?ID=4&type=1 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Brownfield, Troy. "Comics Convention: An Instant Classic: Goodbye Chunky Rice." Shotgun Reviews.http://www.shotgunreviews.com/comics/chunky.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Collins, Sean. "Carnet de Voyage." Comic Book Galaxy.http://www.comicbookgalaxy.com/072604_sc_review.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Doane, Alan David. "Blankets." Comic Book Galaxy.http://www.comicbookgalaxy.com/blankets_review.html (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Doot Doot Garden: The Artwork of Craig Thompson.http://www.dootdootgarden.com (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Heneley, Rebecca. "Blankets." Sequential Tart. http://www.sequentialtart.com/reports.php?ID=3557&issue=2004-11-01 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Hopkins, David. "Blankets: It Is Just Good." Fanboy Radio Newsletter. Vol. 1, No. 1, October 2003. Available online at: http://www.fanboyradio.com/newsletters/FBR1.pdf (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Kross, Karin L. "An Interview with Craig Thompson." Bookslut.http://www.bookslut.com/features/2004_02_001502.php (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Peckham, Matthew. "Sequential Art: Carnet de Voyage." SF Site.http://www.sfsite.com/columns/matt015.htm (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Smith, Zack. "The Friday Review: Goodbye Chunky Rice." Ninth Art.http://www.ninthart.com/display.php?article=515 (accessed on May 3, 2006).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through e-mail correspondence with Craig Thompson in December of 2005.