After finishing reading the e-mail it took me a few minutes to register what I just read. Craig Thompson is planning a trip to Jordan. The author of Good-bye, Chunky Rice (1999), Blankets (2003), Carnet de Voyage (2004) and Habibi (2011) will be in Amman.
More e-mails were sent; ice broken with one of the best graphic novelists in America and the world; amazing local artists got excited; and an unforgettable two day workshop was held at a cozy space located over a t-shirt shop.
Meeting Thompson was one of the best experiences I had; a sentiment the 17 local artists who participated in the workshop share with me.
Nawwar Jarrar; Salam Homoud; Sandra Dajani; Omar Momani; Linda Al Al; Ghadeer Jarrar; Ibraheem Awamleh; Maya Asad; Rana Mouallem; Diana Abadi; Tasneem Tamimi; Iona Fournier; Alexia de Tillesse; Basil Qa’dan; Reem Zeine & Farah Varouqa in addition to my friend Sami Al Nazer, the owner of WIDE:SCREEN the place where you can actually find great comic titles, are the amazing individuals with whom I spent two days at Mlabbas‘ Upstairs space with Craig Thompson.
So here goes!
Me: How does it to feel to win four Harvey Awards, two Eisner Awards, and two Ignatz Awards?
Craig Thompson: Well I feel lucky to make a living drawing comics. I cannot think of anything better than that. The awards are icing on the cake. I worked in comics for a decade before making a living. I am pretty grateful. I get to make art and make a living from it. The awards are icing on the cake, and in a way they are not that important.
Me: Who is Craig Thompson in his own words?
Craig: I grew up in a rural Wisconsin. I am from a very working class family. My father was a plumber and my mother was a housewife. It was a very religious household and that’s what people might know from Blankets. My attachment to comics was somehow related to that working class up and religious upbringing. It wasn’t really a literate household. There weren’t a lot of books in the house. The only book in the house was The Bible. Comics was our introduction to visual arts through the Sunday Funnies in the newspaper. It also taught me how to read because you look at the pictures first and slowly the comprehension of what is in the world balloon grows on you. I learned to read from Peanut comics before I read children’s book.
Me: How did growing up in a rural town influence your art and story in Blankets?
Craig: I lived away from Wisconsin for 15 years. I moved to the West Coast; lived in Portland, Oregon. When I was a little kid all I wanted was to get out of Wisconsin. It seemed like in the middle of nowhere. Now when I go back and visit it seems so beautiful to me. It is a very isolated experience. That’s from where my attachment to art came from. It was all about escapism and creating worlds outside of myself but as I got older art was more about connecting with reality and people. I certainly had nostalgia when I started Blankets: Nostalgia for an old relationship and a lot of longing for the place I came from in addition to winter.
In every one of my books water is a character. In my first book the ocean is a character; in Blankets it is snow and in Habibi it is water shortage.
Me: It was quite brave to share your life in the way you did in Blankets. Were you hesitant when you published it?
Craig: I wouldn’t say it was brave as much as it was naïve. I was quite young back then. I didn’t expect many people to see the book. My first book sold 2000 copies in about two years so that is as big as I saw my audience. I figured I would lose some of my readers along the way because it was a boring story about my life in a small town. It had an opposite effect and ended up having a lot of universal themes that people related to. I think it got past a hundred thousand domestically let alone internationally. I was worried nobody would relate to this little kid growing up in a small town in a very conservative Christian family. In fact I think there are themes in there that ended up being universal like family, coming of age and spirituality.
If I was self-aware when I’ve done the book I wouldn’t have done it.
Me: So what are you doing in Jordan?
Craig: I am being hosted by the American Embassy in Amman. We’ve done a bunch of workshops around graphic novels with the Holy Institute for the Deaf in Al Salt. Those are a bunch of children 5 to as old as 18; all deaf. For a lot of them comics is a totally new concept but at the end of the workshop they were churning out comics like it was nobody’s business.
Then we did Princess Basma Youth Resource Center here in Amman. They are all super talented artistically. All of them were fine artistically.
Me: You worked with kids who are now motivated and want to do comics. What is the next logical step to do after you leave?
Craig: In three days we put together a booklet with both groups. If you can do a book in three days you can do a book every month. You can do a book every month. That would be a great exercise because you would stay in shape creatively. If I don’t draw for a day, a week or a month I feel week. It is like a constant discipline.
Me: It took you seven years to produce Habibi!tell me about that.
Craig: That was too long. There was a sort of a block at first. It was mostly because of the success of Blankets. I toured for a year to promote and for almost nine months I didn’t have a home and also got distracted by the business of finally making a living from comics. Habibi started in modest intentions but grew into a bigger project than I anticipated. I spent two years writing it and four years drawing it. The last year involved production work. I was fighting for every element. I had already pre-sold the book for eight foreign publishers, who released it on the same day on September 8, a year ago. Being on this trip is the anniversary of the debut of Habibi.
Me: All the research that went into the Arabic language and calligraphy reflects so beautifully in your Habibi. Was it difficult?
CT: That was the primary visual fuel: The Arabic calligraphy to me is a form of comics. It is the perfect fusion of words and pictures; and the words themselves become these visually beautiful objects with musicality, rhythm and flow. The research was a pleasure but at a certain point it becomes procrastination; after a while it was time to stop researching and learning things to start collaging your own ideas.
Me: How did you not go crazy with all that work?
CT: Well,you do go crazy and I think that’s part of the point. Art making is similar to a long term a relationship. If you leave at the first sign of struggle you don’t learn anything about yourself and you don’t grow. The whole point of art and perhaps long term commitment is to draw a lot of elements out of your subconscious and a lot of darkness, confront them and work through these issues. You just have to stick with it otherwise you don’t grow.
This interview was published in Go Magazine‘s October issue. Don’t forget to keep a lookout for Part 2 of Blankets Over Amman: Graphic Novelist Craig Thompson in Jordan.
I wish to thank Miss Reem Abdulhadi, Cultural Affairs Assistant at the Embassy of the United States; Miss Karin M. Ehlert, public diplomacy officer at the Embassy of the United States, for bringing Craig to Jordan.; and thank Imad Shaw, Mlabbas founder and CEO, without whom we wouldn’t have had a lovely space.
The biggest thank you goes out to Craig Thompson :-})
To learn more about Craig Thompson and his work visit his lovely website: http://www.dootdootgarden.com/