Q & A with Craig Thompson plus artwork
Craig Thompson’s graphic novels are sumptuously and intricately illustrated and each of his works is very different to the last. He is perhaps most famous for the epic tale, Habibi, which is set in a timeless Middle East and tells the controversial story of one woman, Dodola’s, life. But another of his works to receive acclaim is a quieter, gentler story, Blankets, about growing up and falling in love in Wisconsin, that The Times named one of the 100 best Young Adult books of all time. In his newest change of pace, he has created a graphic novel for all ages, Space Dumplins.
Here he talks about creating a graphic novel that children and adults could enjoy together.
1. Can you tell us a little about Violet, the heroine of Space Dumplins?
Violet is the outgoing and adventurous hero. Roughly ten years old, yet skilled enough to steer a space ship with her father’s supervision. Her father is a working class roughneck named Garnett - a hue of red; her mother is an urban sophisticate fashion designer named Cerulean, a shade of blue; and Violet is literally a fusion of those colors and energies. If her parents represent blue states and red states or a chasm in the class divide, Violet represents the healing overlap.
2. And what of her two sidekicks, Elliot and Zacchaeus? Their gang like relationship is so beautifully done, and feels very classic, were there any particular influences on this aspect of the book?
Elliot is a chicken abandoned by his rooster father to live on a space station -- essentially an elite, gated community. He’s a privileged, sartorial, bookish intellectual… but also a lonely, neurotic epileptic.
Zacchaeus is the last living living Lumpkin. His home planet was eaten by the Space Whales, so he grew up an orphan on an interstellar garbage barge. He’s angry, impulsive, feisty, a bit of bully, because he was the runt of the litter.
Elliot and Zacchaeus are both characters I’ve drawn for a long time, nearly a decade, though they’ve never had a book to call their home. Then Violet came along and became the glue to the gang, the catalyst to friendship and adventure.
3. This is your first full colour work, certainly at book length, why the shift? And any nerves about making this move?
Color seems required to draw in younger audiences, like when Jeff Smith’s Bone series was colorized by Scholastic and suddenly invited a brand-new readership. Black and white is my preference aesthetically, leaving raw the hand-writing of the cartoonist. One frustration with color is that brushy linework often becomes a hindrance rather than an asset. The Hergé ligne claire approach tends to work best with color, rather than the calligraphic approach that I strive for. On the other hand, Dave Stewart’s colors brought a lot of depth, atmosphere and clarity to my dense pages.
4. It's billed as an 'all-ages' comic, was this your intention from the start?
Yes. I wanted to craft the book that my ten-year-old self dreamed of. My generation of “graphic novelists” have long labored to prove that “comics aren’t just for kids anymore”… to the neglect of that core readership.
When I was a child, cartoons were only on TV on Saturday morning, but comic books were readily available at the checkout lane of any grocery store or pharmacy. Now, kids have phones and tablets and the internet and CG and constant access to interactive entertainment. It’s a miracle that the modest, quiet medium of comics can still capture some of their attentions. I want to fan that flame, and keep comics alive for future generations.
At the same time, I wanted to include my existing readership, so I applied the Pixar-model of writing in layers, so that there was something for every age group.
5. How long was this one gestating, and can you identify what the initial impulse was? Do you tend to work first from a visual idea or impulse?
Near the completion of Habibi, I was restless to work on something more playful and humorous. After my friend’s eight-year-old daughter got her hands on and read Habibi, I realized it was time to make a book appropriate for younger readers.
The writing of Habibi took a full two years, whereas Space Dumplins was written very quickly and effortlessly; the first draft within a month, and I enjoyed that process completely. The drawing, on the other hand, was just as time-intensive as Habibi. It took a solid two years to realize.
Both books, Habibi and Space Dumplins, began with the characters, which were gifts given to me, born of their own accord in my unconscious sketchbook doodles. When they arrived in my sketchbooks, I felt an immediate parental attachment and got to work unraveling the stories that shaped them.
6. Although suitable for a younger audience, without some of the more explicit themes that ran into both Blankets and Habibi, it also feels very much of a piece with those previous books, and Goodbye, Chunky Rice, of course. Ideas of friendship and love, of coming of age, of loyalty and betrayal, and ecological concerns - are you conscious of these kind of themes recurring, or is that just what comes out?
Moreso the latter. If Goodbye, Chunky Rice is about the lonely journey to find oneself, Blankets is about learning to connect with another person for the first time, and Habibi is about healing trauma through long-term relationship, Dumplins is about family — on both a classic, nuclear scale, but more importantly on a global scale. Environment and environmental crisis has been a running theme through all the books, but Space Dumplins also focuses on energy crisis and social class divide. Beyond that, it’s a comedy, so I tried to fit a laugh in on every page.
7. Finally, as the first of two notable space operas coming out this Winter(!), any thoughts on what it is we all love about adventures in space?
Outer space adventures resemble deep sea adventures, because they’re unexplored frontiers ripe with mystery that resonate primordially with the source of where we come from: stardust or seawater or whatnot.
As a child from a poor, working class family, it was the “truck drivers in space” elements of Star Wars that I connected to the most. Han Solo is essentially a truck driver. Luke Skywalker is just a farm boy dreaming of escaping small town life. The mundane details of those movies: playing board games with Chewbacca in the “den” of the Millennium Falcon or “what does the soup Yoda cooks taste like?” always intrigued more than the epic battles. That’s why Space Dumplins is about friends and family and children who don’t brandish magic powers or weapons, but still manage to salvage some small part of their galaxy.