With the recent Beasts of Burden release in both single issues and this month's hardcover edition, writer Evan Dorkin and artist Jill Thompson have been showing a new side of themselves — fleas and all. Beasts of Burden profiles a canine (and feline) cast who luck into the unfortunate but exciting position of defending their little hamlet of Burden from various spookshows and supernatural scare-mongers Last week we spoke with wrriter Evan Dorkin, and this week we turn to his artistic collaborator Jill Thompson.
For Jill Thompson, this is the latest in a long line of challenging work that has jumped genres, audiences and styles. Thompson first broke onto the scene in 1987 illustrating the comic series The Elementals, just after she graduated from the American Academy of Art in Chicago. She followed that up with a short stint at First Comics before being discovered by DC's Karen Berger, who assigned her to two years of work on Wonder Woman. That work led to her next project, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, which proved a defining moment of her career. She was the series artist for issues #40 – 49, and returned to the characters years later in two standalone books. After Sandman, Thompson continued to work under the auspices of Vertigo on several other titles before establishing her first creator-owned series, Scary Godmother. That proved to be another defining moment, with Scary Godmother being the flagship character over the course of her career.
With the hardcover edition of Beasts of Burden in stores and an upcoming one-shot with the pet detectives teaming up with Hellboy on the way, we talked with Thompson for more on this story — and her story. Thompson has also provided us with several never-before-seen pieces of art, which will be available in her at Comic-Con International this year.
Nrama: This Hellboy/Beasts of Burden crossover is mind-blowing … but this isn’t your first jaunt with Hellboy — I remember an eight page short story you did with Hellboy a few years back. What’s it like drawing him, and such a supernatural creature with a coordinated look and style, into the world you developed with Beasts of Burden?
Thompson: Yup. I did a story in Hellboy: Weird Tales a few years ago. Also, I actually did a pinup I never gave to Mike, it was a Hellboy in front of that spooky house at the beginning of the Scooby Doo; the big house that all of the bats fly out of. I had painted that — just like the animation background painting — except there was this teeny, little, red speck of Hellboy right at the porch. Because he was so small, I didn't send it in. I thought if I do Hellboy he should be the most prominent thing in the pin-up, right?
Nrama: [laughs] If you do give it to him, do it at a con and take me with you so I can see his face.
Thompson: [laughs] It's going to be challenging but fun to draw him through a whole story. I'm going to want to keep a Mignola feel to things, even though I won't be drawing in Mike's style. There's a pacing and a mood and a flow that I think is necessary for Hellboy and lots of it is just Mike's storytelling style. It's Evan who's going to have a tougher time of it than me! Hellboy is man of few words and Evan is going to have to get our characters introduced to each other, into a caper and then split back up all in the course of a single comic. And, the story he's telling will have an impact on our Canine Cast! Not a tongue in cheek, throwaway story at all!
Nrama: Evan's described it as the unofficial fifth issue. Have you had any real conversations with Mike Mignola about drawing the Hellboy character, or is it more you and the editors and Evan?
Thompson: The only notes I've gotten from Mike is for me to play Hellboy straight; nothing cutesy. Which I had planned on doing anyway. I think he trusts me to do my version of his character.
Nrama: Evan told us how the idea of this project came about – but what can you tell us about what you first thought when the idea was presented to you?
Thompson: I'm afraid my thoughts are rather boring and along the lines of "Oh, that sounds cool! You want me to paint it? Even cooler! Giddyup boys, let's go!"
Nrama: Could you see other crossovers down the line? Maybe something from the DH line like … Aliens? Or something closer to home like Scary Godmother?
Thompson: Not really. I think Hellboy and the gang in Burden Hill are a good mash up. Mystery, the supernatural, talking dogs, a big devil looking guy, monster-y stuff … they just fit very nicely.
Nrama: What do you have planned next after the Hellboy/Beasts of Burden crossover?
Thompson: Well, I'm just now finishing another Little Endless Storybook - Delirium's Party. That will be out the beginning of next year.
I'd love to do some more Beasts of Burden miniseries. I also have two more Scary Godmother books that I'd like to paint; 40-pagers like the original books. Then I'm going to do a few little stories for [the DC Universe], something with James Robinson and Geoff Johns. Well, we talked about that at Emerald City Con. There are two full color books I've got pitched at DCU … don't know if they will get the greenlight. I hope so. I'm going to do a Night of the Living Dead storybook with Steve NIles for IDW — we are working that out. And then there is a wrestling book I've got that I'd like to do. And a new superhero thing as well. Those pitches need some more work and then I'll shop those around as well. They are more in need of serious "away from everything, quiet writing time" just to get things organized. They're nearly ready though. I simply haven't had much time to write versus all of the drawing and painting I've been doing. Oh, and I want to adapt The Nutcracker...but that's going to take some “quiet, away from everything" writing time, too!
Nrama: Although you did some work early on in your career for superhero titles like Wonder Woman, you’re primarily known for your supernatural stories like Sandman, Scary Godmother and Beasts of Burden. Is superhero work something you’ve actively avoided, or just something where a good project hasn’t come along?
Thompson: I very much enjoyed working on the superhero stuff in the beginning of my career. I'd love to do some more. I love all kinds of comics. It's more been the case of being busy working on all sorts of other stuff. And, I think that sometimes, because of the all-ages material that I've created, some people have forgotten that I can do superheroes as well. The two pitches I've got up at DCU are superheroes; one is a Wonder Woman graphic novel and the other is a Superman graphic novel. Both painted full-color things, taking place outside of continuity, for folks who understand the premise of the characters. Because the core DC characters are so perfectly iconic and easy to describe in one sentence. Classic. Something that won't be overwhelmed by all the convoluted continuity. I always like to tell stories that will be more timeless. Something a person could grab off the shelf in 10 years and it will not seem dated. That's one of the things I strive to create.
Nrama: I read that you were approached early on to do a Wonder Woman strip for Wednesday Comics but had to turn it down. I would have loved to see that.
If they came to you for a sequel, would you do it? If so, what character or characters would you like to have a stab at?
Thompson: I was approached at one point for the Wednesday Comics Wonder Woman strip, yes. But I was painting Beasts of Burden at the time. I knew there was no way I could paint both at the same time. I couldn't let Dark Horse down on this, so I had to let Wednesday Comics go. I still have a good story for Wonder Woman, though. I told Mark Chiarello to please keep me in mind if there was going to be another one. I'd love to be a part of it. It was such a fantastic project.
Nrama: Would you like to do more superhero work?
Thompson: It depends on the story. I'm not sure I have what it takes to draw a monthly comic anymore. The cash money would be fine, though! It's been a while since I penciled and inked. I've been painting comics for quite some time now and I think that's what folks look to me for. It is time consuming but the end result is well worth it. But, yes, I'd really enjoy doing something in that genre. I like the “what if” aspect of superhero comics. How people would react if they had super powers. It's really much more soap and drama than it is adventure. More of a study of human nature, right?
If someone was to publish new Badger stories that Mike Baron wrote, I'd go crazy to draw that on a regular basis. He's one of my favorite characters. I'd love to draw him again.
And, I've always loved Wolverine. But the Wolverine of current continuity is one I am totally uninterested in. Too much water under the bridge for me. Very confusing …
I guess if I can find a publisher for this superhero thang I want to do, that would be perfect!
Nrama: Like you, Evan is known as both a writer and artist in comics. As of late, Evan’s done a lot of writing for other artists — could you see yourself doing that at some point?
Thompson: I think so. I've dabbled in it a bit. Not much, but, I think I'd be good at it. Everyone I've worked with in that capacity has found it to be pretty easy to work with me as a writer. I suppose because I am an artist, I'd be very sensitive to the needs of a fellow artist.
And- There are some things that I'd like to write that need to have different art styles. I can do that, but maybe it would be better to hire other artists for certain stories. I'm a pretty good collaborator, so I think it would work out swell! Plus, it would be cool to see someone else's interpretation of something I'd only seen inside my head. Or maybe I'd just freak out and draw layouts for everyone!!
Nrama: I know one artist-turned-writer who does that.
Thompson: [laughs] I do like doing all the jobs. As hard as it is sometimes, I've always wanted to be a cartoonist. And to me that meant doing the whole shebang. Writing AND illustrating. I'm fortunate — I get to collaborate with other writers when I wasn’t to only handle the art chores, and I've got things that I've created to do everything on. Best of both worlds. Love it that way!
Nrama: Can you tell us how you first met Evan Dorkin, or became aware of his work?
Thompson: Wow! That was a long time ago, now that I think back. I think the first time I saw Evan was in the Artist's Alley at San Diego Comic Con back in 1990 or so? I think you should ask Evan! He might have a better memory about this. I can remember him wearing checked ska tennis shoes. Or wait, was that me? I had checked black and white pointy toed flat shoes. See-I can remember what I was wearing, but not what was going on. Crazy! I'm sure I talked to him at a party or something. There were good parties back in the day. But the most vivid memory I have of Evan was when he and Robbie Busch were driving back to New York from a convention in Detroit and stayed over at our house when I lived in Kent, Ohio. That's when Archie was a kitten and all the cats slept on the guest bed with Evan. He said he was up all night because Archie was asleep on his feet and he didn't want to move and wake him. I loved having all the comics folk over. That visit lead to me drawing Wonder Woman because Robbie was coloring Sandman at the time and he told me that the editor, Karen Berger, was looking for a new penciller for Wonder Woman and I should send in some samples. I did … and the rest is history. Or the beginning of my DC Comics history. But, as usual, I digress. I think I became aware of Evan's work after that meeting in San Diego. I had much more time to socialize and gather art and hang out with people than I do now. And of course, everyone handed out samples and Xeroxes and passed their books around. That's how we socially networked back in ye olde, non-Facebook and Twitter and interwebs days...
Nrama: Which of your characters do you think closest embodies your thinking and rationale right now?
Thompson: My thinking and rationale!? That's mighty deep! So many of my characters embody parts of my personality. I think the whole cast of Scary Godmother have a little bit of me in them. And, of course Scary Godmother herself. But, I don't think any of them are exact representations of me. I've never done an autobiographical comic. I'm not ready to open myself in that manner. I need to keep certain things private and personal. Maybe one day there are select bits I'll choose to share, but not right now. I prefer to work through fictional characters and stories and pepper things with my essence, or bits of my essence. Like a sprinkling or sugar or spice!
Nrama: What’s the first comic you ever read, and why do you think you picked that out?
Thompson: The first comic I read was an old Archie comic from the 1940's. There was a “moving sale” two houses down from our house when I was growing up. And when I mean “moving sale” it was one of those deals where they were going to jack up the house, put it on a truck and move it across town — and then replace the pretty houses with what? A parking lot! Lovely. So … they were selling everything! Now up until this time, my only exposure to comics had been the Sunday Funnies and Pocket Books collections of Peanuts strips. So when I went into the basement of the moving sale and saw a whole cardboard box filled with comics, I thought they were all the comics in the whole world. I don't remember if I paid for them or not. Maybe they gave them to me. But I do remember carrying that box down the alley to our house! Picking out that first Archie comic, opening it up and reading and reading and reading. It was one of the first issues, too, with Archie and Betty and Veronica sharing a soda with three straws. Many many Dan DeCarlo Betty and Veronicas, still on of my biggest influences! My brother and I read the covers off those things. Sorry, collector guys! I was pretty much hooked after that. My 'habit' took me from the basement to the 'spinner rack' at the drugstore. And, my Dad would bring me comics from the newsstand downtown on Fridays. At some point I read all of the Archie comics that I had and I had to resort to reading some of the 'scary comics' that my dad brought home when there were no new Archie comics. I believe I picked up X-Men 129 through 131 and I've been addicted ever since.
Then my dad found a comic shop! I remember when he took me to a shop called Rick's One Stop Comics for the first time. I walked into that place, filled with longboxes of back issues and racks with Independents and foreign comics as well as all the stuff from Marvel and DC! I pretty much spent all of my babysitting money there on back issues of X-Men! And it was there that Rick, the owner, clued me in to these things called comic conventions; where not only could you buy all sorts of comics and art prints, but also meet the artists and writers of comics! Started going to conventions at 13 years old. My dad took me to the first one, but after one afternoon of 'quality comic convention time' he dropped me off and waited in the car listening to the ball game while I wandered the convention floor for a few hours. Once was enough for him, I guess. Ha! But for me that was the beginning of my journey towards my career!
Nrama: How early did you start drawing? What kinds of things did you draw?
Thompson: Can't really remember a time where I was not drawing. One of the earliest things I can remember drawing was a poster for the movie Born Free, about the lioness that is raised by a couple and then has to be reintroduced into the wild. I think I was in first grade. My drawing won some kind of contest and my poster was put in the pet shop window on Madison Street. That was possibly the best of both worlds for me! A public display of my work and kittens and puppies and bunnies and goldfish ...
Nrama: What’s the last comic you read, and what do you think about it?
Thompson: I read Dar: A Super Girly Top Secret Diary by Erin Moen. She gave it to me at Heroes Con. She would show me her drawings when whe was a shy teenager and apparently I said enough encouraging things to her to keep her on the path to becoming a cartoonist! Or something like that. It was very good. Honest, well drawn, personal. I liked it very much!
Nrama: Are you doing the kind of comics work you thought you’d be doing when you started out?
Thompson: When I started out, I wanted to draw the X-Men. I thought at some point I'd be taking over for John Byrne. I'd be penciling and Terry Austin would ink me. Obviously that did not happen. Well, not on the X-Men anyway. Terry Austin did ink a Jonny Quest pin-up I did for Comico back in the 80's. I think I was just out of art school. Or- wait — I might have still been in art school!
I'm very happy with the comics work that I've done. I'm incredibly lucky to be able to draw comics for a living and even more fortunate to have created material that has not only been published but also turned into a children's play and two animated specials! I love what I do and I want to keep on doing it! Not many people get to do what they love for a living! I can only hope that I'll be able to keep enough work on my plate in the future! That's why I love and appreciate the fans of my work! Their interest makes it all possible! They are the ones whose actions keep publishers interested in publishing my work.